Mr. Ali Spends A Week at the gcLi Leadership Lab

Joe Ali, Middle School Teacher, spent a week over the summer at the gcLi Leadership Lab and he shares his firsthand perspective and takeaways.
Stop, Listen, and Learn. These three simple actions are often forgotten as we seek to constantly improve and grow professionally and personally.

Similar to many professionals in their twenties, I have always been a futuristic thinker. Yes, I am one of those millennials whose default setting is to want more and want it NOW. The same goes for our students. We are all often so goal-oriented that the minutiae gets lost in the big picture. When an idea or program is presented, the first step is to put it into action. This leaves little time to plan and fully understand the cause behind an idea or program. Not surprisingly, in the fury that accompanies the typical school day, it is easy to be goal-oriented as opposed to process-oriented. To Stop, Listen, and Learn.

At Calvert School in Baltimore, I have found a passion for enhancing our leadership program by implementing exciting opportunities for our students. The support I receive from the school has allowed me to keep pushing forward. I want to help grow the program; I want to branch out and have a hand in all of the interesting new endeavors our students are doing. I want action, and I am driven by the energy around ideating and creating. Too much so, some might say!

Then I went to the gcLi Leadership Lab.

At the gcLi Leadership Lab, I arrived with a handful of questions and a distinct goal of learning how to better teach leadership. By the end of my first session, I realized that I wasn’t going to get concrete answers. Instead, I was challenged to take a step back and reflect upon the work I had already done at Calvert. This was a powerful pause for me. I’ll never forget Dr. Ted Fish, gcLi Executive Director, prefacing the first session by letting us know that we were going to be frustrated during our time at the lab, which simply meant that our minds were processing all the information. We were urged to seek discomfort, and that’s how I prepared myself for the rest of the week.

On the first night, all of the participants formed a large circle and took 30 seconds to introduce themselves. This idea of thin-slicing challenges the participants to share their story in a succinct and effective way. This activity is done the first night because each person gets to choose who they want to work with for the following week. I was open to working with anyone, but as I heard more and more, I kept coming back to a few individuals I had met in the first hours who shared the same enthusiasm, passion, and desire to dig deep.

Luckily enough, the next morning, I was partnered with a colleague I was drawn to during thin-slicing. We immediately hit it off. As the sessions, discussions, questions, and feedback became tougher, I found comfort in the feedback that my partner, Eileen, shared with me each day. There was no hesitancy between us as we knew that the feedback we were giving one another was a gift, as Jeremy LaCasse, gcLi Dean of Faculty implored. In the shadow of Pike’s Peak, this week became a platform where I wanted to share my ideas for the future and receive feedback about how I can thoughtfully grow myself and my school in the years ahead.

It wasn’t until the third day of Leadership Lab that true clarity came to the forefront about how I can best help and enhance the programs at Calvert. This is where my partner stepped in and helped me understand the idea of Stop, Listen, and Learn. What was I trying to achieve with having my hand in so many things at once? I couldn’t really put a finger on it, and then, my partner, during a feedback session challenged me head-on. Was there any real purpose behind what I was doing? She drew this picture, which, very simply, helped distill my thoughts and goals.

I came to the realization that too many of my pursuits in the past had no common goal. They were scattered ideas with no shared purpose to tie them together . They were just new accomplishments and check marks.

Stop, Listen, and Learn, reminds us all that we should value the role of process, collaboration, and reflection. Ultimately, it will lead to programs that will endure – that will change school culture, not simply put feathers in our cap. This is a concept all of us – as educators, human beings, leadership practitioners – can build into our own lives to make us better teachers.

Bringing "Stop, Listen, and Learn" Back to Calvert School:

One new opportunity that will begin this fall is co-teaching a sixth grade Leadership course with our Director of Student Life, and fellow gcLi alumnus Jay Parker. Within this class, we are launching a new Peer Education partnership where sixth grade students will be teaching socioemotional lessons to second and third graders throughout the year. The opportunity to empower three grades through this course is an immense challenge, but the possibility of impacting almost two hundred students is a testament to our school embracing a culture of leadership. The gcLi lessons will remind us that success will depend on both our ability to build reflection into the Peer Education program and to inspire our students to Stop, Listen, and Learn as they grow into role models for our lower schoolers.

As I Stopped, Listened, and Learned at Leadership Lab, I found myself not only grateful for this new experience, but also for the colleagues and mentors at Calvert School who have invested in me the past four years. I am beyond fortunate to work at a school that is full of love, care, and laughs. I owe it to all of these wonderful educators and to our students to not only embrace process and reflection personally, but to model it. Whether I am seeking out new professional development opportunities, putting the final touches on my masters degree, or serving as a committee member for our newly launched Institute for Leadership & Purpose at Calvert School -the takeaways from the Leadership Lab will echo in my brain daily.

This article was originally published on the gcLi blog.

Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.