Walking Our Talk — Cultivating Authentic Connections
“Teaching and learning is a dynamic relational human exchange.”
As one of the anchors of The Elephant in the (Class)room — our vision for reimagining American public education — we’ve been grounding ourselves internally and externally in nurturing the kinds of meaningful relationships that make our work transformative. As an organization, this has meant learning how to be together authentically as human beings — as colleagues, in teams, and in partnership with educators in the districts and schools we serve.
New Teacher Center (NTC) has long been a fully remote work organization with staff distributed north to south and coast to coast serving partners across the country. However, in the many long months between March 2020 and August 2022, we, like the rest of the nation, experienced a profound disruption with the pandemic, the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder, and the ongoing political and cultural fallout that followed.
By summer 2022, while we were back to traveling to many of our partner sites, it had been years since NTC colleagues had been able to connect in-person. In the intervening time, NTC had seen significant staff changes as part of and in addition to an organizational push to diversify from a majority white organization to a staffing profile that better reflects our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. So, when 12 NTC staff volunteers met in Chicago in August as the pilot cohort of a new in-person internal learning experience, many were either new to the organization or had never met more than a handful of their colleagues face-to-face. The need to connect and reconnect was acute.
As an education organization committed to social justice, examining how we operate and interact internally across lines of difference is critical to our mission. The Cultivating Authentic Connections Intensive, or CACI as it is fondly known org-wide, was designed to help bring our organization together in spirit and in person, bridging so much change and pain, so much time apart, so much urgency, and so much opportunity. It provides a healing moment both individually and collectively. And it serves as a catalyst for building the relational culture we support our partners to prioritize as essential — only then can we create the conditions for the learning environments our teachers and students deserve.
“The Cultivating Authentic Connections Intensive, or CACI as it is fondly known org-wide, was designed to help bring our organization together in spirit and in person, bridging so much change and pain, so much time apart, so much urgency, and so much opportunity.”
Since that August pilot, five additional NTC CACI cohorts have flown to cities around the country to be in community with each other for two and half days to share stories, explore individual and group identity, and take a deep dive into understanding bias. Together, we practice identifying and interrupting it in our interactions with each other, as individuals, and within teams and management structures.
Not only does the CACI experience deepen connections across the organization, it provides us with language and tools for remembering that in our interactions with others, in our jobs and in our personal lives, we need to constantly be on guard for the unconscious bias that inevitably creeps into our discourse, dynamics, and decision-making. This is the work, the internal work, that will generate the deep sense of belonging so critical to our collective commitment to creating the learning experiences we want for our students.
It starts with our stories
One of the first things CACI facilitators do is send participants out the door for a walk and talk with a partner using a structured storytelling and listening protocol. Each person has a set amount of time to share their origin story while their partner listens. No response, no feedback, just listening. After partners take turns, they talk about the experience of telling and hearing each other’s stories — and how they are changed by it — before coming back to the group.
On a walk with his NTC story partner, Joshua Martinez, advisor for Professional Learning Systems, talked about his challenges of identity formation growing up in a mixed-race family and being on the periphery of two dominant culture groups — a working-class Latino culture of East Los Angeles and a middle-class white/Irish culture in the suburbs of Los Angeles County.
Being on the borders of race and class from a very early age caused him to develop a strong socio-political lens about the ways identity impacts how one navigates unjust social systems.
“[My colleague] and I come from completely different parts of the country,” he said, “and we grew up in completely different contexts, and there we were just walking along Michigan Avenue talking. Being able to talk to somebody about our life journey was really, really impactful. To build relational trust, you have to know each others’ stories.”
Being new to NTC, Joshua said, the experience signaled to him what the organization values. “You entered CACI on that first day one way, and then after the storytelling you entered in a different way. To be listened to is a gift. In organizations, we often think about time in terms of productivity and efficiency,” he said. In prioritizing time for storytelling at CACI, “we’re consciously and purposefully trying to embody what we want to see in our work … to humanize the process of teaching and learning … to transform educational spaces.”
In her story, Jennifer Giron, senior director of People and Culture, shared how colorism impacted her childhood and adult life. These experiences have fueled her passion for cultivating self-love and joy among Black women and girls.“It was very emotional … to tell your life story to a partner … the level of vulnerability I was able to have with my partner,” Jennifer said.
“I came away feeling like I had a much greater understanding of the weight that many of our staff carry.” Jennifer, too, reflected on the connecting power of sharing stories with our colleagues and in our broader work with students. “I’m convinced,” she said, “that we have much more in common than we think if we peel back those layers and really start to learn about people’s identities and stories.”
For NTC veteran Shelley Winterberg, director of Programs, the storytelling experience was also powerful. “My dad did shift work at the steel mill while we were growing up. My mom worked hard to climb the corporate ladder in a male-dominated field, and I always admired her drive and determination.
As a first-generation college student, it was through seeing my parents’ work ethic and drive as well as listening to them share about the importance of education that made me so proud to graduate with both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. It was a dream of mine but also a dream of theirs as well.”
Shelley echoed the sentiments of other participants who found the storytelling exercise a meaningful opportunity to connect around similarities but also understand and appreciate differences. “We were walking down the street sharing stories and connecting the dots. On the surface, I wouldn’t have thought that our journeys had many cross-over spots, but we had so many similarities as well as different twists and turns that brought us to the same place.”
Exploring unconscious bias
Joshua, Jennifer, and Shelley all agreed that the storytelling component of CACI was key to building the relational trust, perspective, and psychological safety necessary to discuss bias together — what it is, how it works, and how to interrupt it.
Explicating the role of the brain in bias gave participants language to understand how the brain reacts to stimuli and the very real active perceptions that can result. It also laid the groundwork for self-reflection and awareness building about when our interactions are dominated by survival or emotionally based dynamics and when we need to pause to activate our thinking brain.
Participants examined case studies to analyze concrete examples of how bias creeps into our everyday interactions with one another. Because our brains are always trying to categorize our experiences, this can involve, as Jennifer characterized it, “putting each other into these buckets.” She continued: “I think one of my biggest learnings is being able to create that space when you engage with someone [to consider] that you may have a perception at work and where you think, ‘maybe I’m being biased here.’”
Shelley said she’s taken the lessons from the bias scenarios into nearly every space she enters now, asking: How can we unpack this differently? Whose point of view or perceptions are dominating and whose are not being considered? Because we are moving so fast, what assumptions are we making?
Joshua commented on how organizations tend to operate with a perceived urgency, which can often lead us to make snap decisions or poor choices based on an unexamined bias that can cause real harm. Like Jennifer and Shelley, he appreciated CACI’s emphasis on specific strategies for slowing down — the power of the pause — to recognize if bias is at work and the language for talking it through.
The magic of CACI is the opportunity it provides to get to know our colleagues in meaningful ways as well as tools to support staff in remaining aware and intentional in relational spaces with each other. Jennifer summed it up this way: “This isn’t easy. We are hardwired for bias. In my role, I’m always thinking about how we reframe bias, name bias, confront it in a way that’s not going to be triggering and stimulate our ‘lizard’ brains. All this wonderful vocabulary came out of this that helps us talk about it. We are always on the clock, we have an agenda, we need to get through this or that content … and those kinds of parameters make it very hard to have those human moments.” And it’s those human moments, according to Joshua, that he’s come to realize are NTC’s north star.
“The magic of CACI is the opportunity it provides to get to know our colleagues in meaningful ways as well as tools to support staff in remaining aware and intentional in relational spaces with each other.”
Feedback data from the 100+ staff who have participated in CACI thus far — which includes NTC’s CEO and senior leadership — indicated high levels of satisfaction with the experience. Ninety-five percent of participants reported feeling psychologically safe to share in large and small groups during CACI, and 100% said that the in-person experience helped them build additional skills to effectively manage people, teams, and/or projects. Impacts are also likely reflected in our annual culture and engagement survey, in which 95% responded that NTC has an explicit commitment to diversity, anti-bias, anti-racism, and social justice.
The brainchild of NTC’s brilliant internal learning team, CACI is not a technical solution. It’s a bold and thoughtful undertaking that sets in motion an ongoing transformational experience for our most precious resource, the people who make up the NTC family. And we are eager for more. As one staff member put it: “CACI has been an integral part of fostering an inclusive culture here at NTC, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this powerful culture work led by the amazing Internal Learning team next year.”