For 25 years, New Teacher Center has focused on getting better at what we do. Our reputation is built on giving educators access to career-shaping coaches and mentors — high-trust relationships that lead to deep, personal, affirming, and reflective learning experiences. The goal is that teachers can, in turn, model these same practices and ways of being in their classrooms with their students.
In late October, 130+ NTCers came together in New Orleans for our annual retreat. Designed around the theme, “Building Belonging: Our People. Our Work. Our Impact.,” this time together was precious and powerful. It provided opportunities to connect and interact with colleagues in ways that allowed us to grow. NTC’s internal learning team carefully crafted an experience that offered affirmation and new understanding, seeding the resilience and stamina we need for the long-game, deeply human work of fighting for educational justice. We were silly, we played, and some of us danced. We also spent time trying to get clear about what “walking the talk” means in a leading-edge professional learning organization.
After allowing the learnings to settle, we spoke with NTC’s Senior Director of Internal Learning, Tavon Lawrence, about our convening.
How does fostering belonging — the retreat theme — shift from a core value on a poster to a tangible experience for a staff member?
We spent a lot of time during our retreat talking about adrienne maree brown’s work. She says “… we each have important pieces of the whole, so I concentrate my work on the generation of vision, the strengthening of the muscle of looking forward together.” In order to do the work we’ve committed to as a collective at NTC, we’ve got to know ourselves, which has been the focus of past retreats, and we’ve got to know each other, the focus of this year’s retreat.
One of our goals in 2023 was to create windows and mirrors into each other’s work, allowing staff to build a better understanding of the contributions of their peers to the functioning whole of our organization, leading to more empathy, understanding, and collaboration.
Jumping off from Atul Gawande’s Cowboys and Pit Crews, we focused on creating spaces that allowed staff to build community with others in similar and also very different roles across the organization. Understanding how each individual contributes to the organization helps generate connections across departments and workstreams. More structured activities like our Culture of We Recognition allowed NTCers to do research about a colleague and present them with a certificate connected to their work and their impact.
We’ve also long heard that staff want more opportunities to learn from each other so our Knowledge Building Sessions allowed our colleagues to showcase their expertise through professional learning and knowledge sharing activities. We know that when we build connections with other experts in the organization we can put our brains together for maximum impact.
In our Building Organizational Trust session teams worked together to understand how to build strong and healthy interdependent relationships and to think about bringing diverse staff into workstreams to create truly collaborative efforts across the organization.
“Wish we had more time for the application of the trust portion. We will have to follow up with this in our team meetings.”
NTC Honors brought the entire organization together to help recognize, celebrate, and acknowledge the contributions of people in the organization. We spent time celebrating the accomplishments of teams, individuals, and NTC as a whole.
Finally, on a less serious note, I think I can speak for most everyone when I say the Building Connection Goosechase, where staff in randomly chosen groups competed to complete goofy missions, was just plain fun.
“Community building, time with colleagues — there was such a nice balance of connectedness and learning.”
How did you ensure the design of the retreat experience was human-centered and in alignment with NTC’s core values?
We started by asking ourselves: “How can we approach the design of this experience in a way that ensures we (1) respond to feedback that we’ve heard from past gatherings, (2) communicate the innate value of every individual in the organization regardless of the type of work they do, and (3) elevate the brilliance within our organization?”
“The feedback from last year was definitely incorporated in terms of more breaks and down time. That was really nice to be able to process learning.”
The team really took a liberatory design approach to the work, bringing multiple stakeholders from across the organization to the table for new ideas and feedback about their past experiences. Throughout the planning process, the team continued to seek input from others and was never afraid to pivot or make changes as needed.
“I felt the intention from the facilitators to create a safe, welcoming, and held space for the participants. It was warm, encouraging, and created opportunities for connection.”
What perspectives did the student panel bring to the retreat?
Organizations that work in service of students and communities often do that work absent of student and community voices. Student perspectives were a critical part of our Equity Commission that shaped the concept and content of The Elephant in the (Class)room, NTC’s vision for teaching and learning experiences. And we continued it with a Student Advisory Panel to think through our innovations within our service offerings. The student panel gave us the opportunity to hear from the experts themselves. Their insider perspectives and firsthand experience and knowledge of what’s happening today in our educational system helps us to chart our course in ways that ensure we are not doing additional harm.
We also have to remember that some of our staff in finance, payroll, technology, etc. haven’t set foot in a school since they were students themselves. Being in the same space as students ensures that our employees can see why we do the work we do each and every day.
NTC partners with districts to build resilient and enabling environments where educators and students thrive. How does our annual retreat support this work?
There is an old saying based on biblical scripture that’s essentially about taking care of your own house before you try to care for someone else’s. Keeping this top of mind, it is important that the culture of our organization promotes the conditions required for our employees to thrive.
One of the things we ask of students, of teachers, and of our coaches and mentors is to continuously take a learner’s stance. How can you ensure you are always learning and doing the work of getting better? Our annual retreat is just one small part of of what we do ensure we as an organization are taking a learner’s stance
Our challenge now is to implement what we learned from retreat within our sphere of influence, our individual work, and within and across teams, with the goal of having impact on the entire organization. For our part, the Internal Learning team will continue to create throughlines from retreat to small- and large-group staff convenings and culture-building work we are planning throughout the year. We are committed to provide internal learning experiences where innovation happens, where we are challenged to do better, and where we can take our work to the next level.
Over the past year, it has been a rewarding journey as I assumed the CEO role at the New Teacher Center (NTC). As a lifetime educator, NTC’s mission to disrupt the predictability of educational inequities through accelerating educator effectiveness spoke to me and my story. I want to share a few insights and reflections from my first year at the helm of this dynamic organization.