Celebrating Teaching and Learning through the Ideas Café at Palmer Trinity School

by Adrianna Palumbo Truby
As the Academic Dean at Palmer Trinity School, a 6th-12th-grade school in Miami, Florida, my work centers primarily on teacher professional development and curriculum design. In this role, it is essential to foster authentic interest from my colleagues and help them gain agency in the implementation of both their craft and pedagogy.

I attended the gcLi Leadership Lab two summers ago, and this experience left a profound mark on how I approach my work. Although I was one of a few people in attendance who works more closely with adult leaders than with student leaders, there is no doubt that I regularly apply the lessons that I learned there.
Specifically, I draw these lessons as we are establishing our own Center for Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Palmer Trinity School. The pervasive ethos of the gcli informs much of the vision and purpose of our Center. For example, last year I met with teachers from another school to learn about their Center for Teaching and Learning, and I came across a little gem of an idea that I seized upon: the benefits of creating an internal newsletter designed solely for teaching faculty. I immediately drew a connection between the purpose of that publication and the ways in which it would assist in cultivating leadership in my colleagues.

I quickly committed to writing such a newsletter this year, and envisioned it serving three goals:
  1. Celebrate the positive work our teachers are doing in class on a daily basis.
  2. Provide an impetus for conversations among teachers.
  3. Ensure that I visit classrooms on a consistent and frequent basis.
As a result, I will personally grow more familiar with the expertise and the needs on campus with the goal of better facilitating fruitful partnerships across our school.

The inaugural edition this fall highlighted two teachers who focus specifically on developing students’ visual literacy. In their interviews, we spent a good deal of time talking about the ways in which they effectively facilitate such instruction, the far-reaching benefits of cultivating the skill of observation, and the natural connections such skills play in other disciplines. Interestingly, we had a lot of conversation about the benefits of visual literacy in the study of mathematics and science as it pertains to interpreting graphs and other forms of data. The teachers explained that all images of data tell a story and if we teach students how to read the “story,” we teach them how to read the data with ease.

Truthfully, I was a bit anxious before I shared the first edition. I imagined this plan easily backfiring. Would colleagues wonder if I was playing favorites? Would they think I was honoring one discipline over others? Would I grow too busy or distracted and let the newsletter fall to the side and appear uncommitted to the task? Would people even read it?

As it turns out, my anxiety was misplaced. I was thrilled with its reception! The Art teachers applauded the attention that the article paid to the value of observation. Both English and Humanities teachers recounted the ways in which they will utilize the linked videos. Two math teachers acknowledged that they never thought about visual literacy playing such an important role in mathematics instruction. They were excited to experiment with a new approach!

I was so pleased when a colleague asked if we could highlight some of his plans in the next newsletter. He is currently teaching the causes and effects of the Red Tide epidemic, a most serious and timely concern to us in South Florida. He hopes the newsletter can inspire teachers of other disciplines to teach civic engagement, persuasive writing, and economics in and around this Red Tide unit.

Ironically, last month, I fretted over the publication of this newsletter, and this month, my calendar is filled with interviewees and fellow teachers who want to continue the conversations. Together, we are recognizing the range of leadership on campus and creating venues for colleagues to collaborate and explore topics together.

My second newsletter highlights our AP Calculus BC teacher. This particular member of the math department continues to achieve extraordinary success, with nearly all students earning 5s. I regret that I had already anticipated the narrative before we ever sat for the interview: How does she meet with such success and in what ways have these successes carried over to her other courses?

To my great surprise – and chagrin – my colleague wanted to talk about an entirely different topic. She wanted to focus on teaching students about systems. She explained that she bases instruction in all of her courses on teaching students how to create systems for themselves that work to their greatest advantage. We enjoyed an engaging conversation essentially about teaching students metacognition in ways that they can practice and value. Again, I found myself talking with a colleague who centers her instruction on one methodology that naturally crosses disciplines and benefits students’ long-term success.

Further, our initial interaction during that interview prompted me to draw on the listening strategies we practiced at the gcLi Leadership Lab. I quickly recognized that in my preconceived notion of how the interview would take place, I was limiting the potential of my colleague. I immediately took stock of my manner of participation in the interview and shifted my focus to listening with the sole purpose of understanding rather than directing. Once I made that singular change, I saw that my colleague began to share her ideas freely and with confidence. Of course, we were both focused on developing leaders: she was leading her students through self-reflection toward growth mindsets, and I was creating a venue to showcase her expertise. By the end of the interview, we were both in a better place to ask the broader, essential questions that will help us move the discussion forward with other colleagues. To our mutual delight, we both gained from the experience.

The benefits of Palmer Trinity’s faculty newsletter, Ideas Café, are already revealing themselves in both tangible and intangible ways. The teachers who are highlighted feel validated in knowing that others see merit in their efforts and expertise. And the interview and subsequent conversations allow us an opportunity to engage in discussion that honors our professionalism. We delve into the “why” and “how” of what we teach. Finally, in writing about these teachers, I become better acquainted with the invaluable, dynamic resources that are available to share with others. Connections are being forged and community strengthened.

The Ideas Café is one step toward establishing our Center for Excellence in Teaching. We believe our Center will stand as a beacon on a hill to inspire all its constituents to strive daily for excellence, and I look forward to meeting with the next teachers who will share their stories with me.
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