Thornapple Kellogg Middle School Principal Brian Balding was in the hot seat. To fellow educators Tracy Horodyski and Ingrid Fournier, he explained his challenge in reaching out to chronically absent students, including two who were absent about 70 of 100 days of school.
“It’s all due to some level of anxiety,” Balding said. “How do I get them to school when they are so anxious?”
The “hot-seat protocol” is part of the structure of Mastermind, a group of West Michigan teachers, principals, social workers and other educators who have met monthly at Van Andel Education Institute this school year, working together to overcome challenges common to many of them.
Founded by 2017-2018 Michigan Teacher of the Year Luke Wilcox, 2016-17 MTOY Horodyski and Pete Grostic, an education consultant and former Kentwood Public Schools teacher, the goal of Mastermind is to create great instructional practices, empower teachers and engage students in new ways. Common practice among entrepreneurs, a mastermind group is designed to help people navigate through challenges using the collective intelligence of others.
Working in small groups, educators present new challenges they are dealing with and pick the brains of colleagues considered leaders in the field. They follow up on advice over the next month and report their progress at the next meeting.
Topics have included teacher burnout and raising staff morale; achieving work/life balance; how to use mindfulness; taking on leadership roles and still being a great teacher; working with students who have mental health and social/emotional difficulties; and how to change the public perception to be more supportive of teachers.
Regarding Balding’s situation, Fournier, a Spanish teacher at Forest Hills Central Woodlands 5/6 School, and Horodyski, a Kenowa Hills instructional coach, asked “clarifying questions” such as “What are you currently doing?” Balding said he’s gotten counselors involved and gone as far as to help bring a student inside in the morning.
Teachers offered advice: Fournier suggested hosting Restorative Circles as a way to discuss anxiety, and perhaps starting a mentor program for students to pair up with other students. Horodyski recommended once-a-week meetings led by Balding to talk about issues affecting students, adding it’s a practice that’s proven effective in Kenowa Hills. Balding took their advice to heart.
Working to Master the Craft
Districts represented at the sessions include Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Spring Lake, Forest Hills, Northview, Rockford, East Grand Rapids, Kelloggsville, Kenowa Hills and Allendale public schools.
Educators say Mastermind creates collaborations spanning schools and districts, linking leaders to benefit students and teachers. Between meetings, they correspond over social media, continuously working to lift each other up.
Mastermind’s 17 educators were invited specifically by the program’s founders.
“We were looking for positive, solution-seeking educators who have leadership potential,” Grostic said. “It’s (professionals) around the field of education wrestling with big issues.”
Brooke Davis, a social worker for Kelloggsville Public Schools alternative high school, 54th Street Academy and at Alpine and Zinser Elementary schools, in Kenowa Hills, said the group has provided inspiration and helped her grow as a professional. She updated teachers on her challenge over the past month: reducing stress she puts on herself by overworking.
“I love this group because it challenges me to be different; it challenges me to think differently,” Davis said. “It’s such a higher level of thinking. We really look forward to solving problems and taking that next step.”
For Wilcox, Mastermind is similar to his work with Rising Teacher Leaders at East Kentwood High School, but on a larger scale. Rising Teacher Leaders is a schoolwide teacher support system that sees a new cohort of teachers each year receiving mentorship from the previous ones.
“I’ve seen the potential of group leadership in Kentwood,” Wilcox said. “Ultimately the goal of Mastermind is to positively influence students in a larger arena.” His partnership with Van Andel Education Institute is helping facilitate the collaboration.
Empowered Teachers Empower Teachers
In the hot seat, Fournier said her challenge is uplifting teachers and the profession, which she sees as needed in all buildings and schools.
“It is just getting harder and harder, and they look so tired,” she said. “How do we get this teaching profession back on track? We are getting beaten down. How do we change the dialogue? How do we rise up again?”
She related teaching to a formerly robust, healthy person who is now emaciated and carrying weight on her back. She described 20 years ago when there was enough staff at schools to carry the workload.
“We were there. I felt it. It was glorious. We were happy,” she said. “That’s not happening anymore. We weren’t doing two sets of standardized testing.”
Horodyski responded with a big “Who-eee!” and the questions and ideas started flowing.
If anyone’s ready to empower teaching, it’s these Masterminds.