Circle work: Being together as a relation.
My writing today is about being together in circle. I have been asked by the BCPVPA to come speak with new administrators about how to approach leadership with a wholistic view. This got me thinking about what I personally do in my spaces that encourages relationality. Relationality for me, is kinship. Kinship is a reminder that we are all connected. From my perspective the foundation of our work in education is relationships. We cannot learn and grow from each other without having a relationship with each other. Nurturing and supporting this is a practice that you can work on daily. How I approach this practice in my educational spaces, is always opening and closing our work together with a circle. This is work that I do with my classes in higher education, also while I was an administrator with my teaching team and as a K-12 classroom teacher with my students. Sitting in circle together changes how we are in relation to each other; this work is a practice in anti-colonial education. It shifts the power relations that are steeped in colonial hierarchy and changes the structure to allow for all members of the circle to have a voice and actively listen to each other. This connection shifts the relationship and allows for all members of the circle to be honoured and heard. I am going to unpack how I see this practice of circle work transforming your learning community, your staff community and your classroom.
Something that I was well aware of when working in the K-12 system is that administrators have the ability to build a culture of care in their schools. This led me to thinking about how I could approach the work, in a way that would honour those who were a part of the school team. I knew from teaching that when I had students in a circle with each other, the energy in the room always shifted. Circles allowed for the students to remember that we are all connected. This connection is what centers and grounds the relationship we have with each other, it gives us a deeper understanding of what it means to care for each other. In circle facing each other, with no one in-front or behind, creates a space of honouring and it removes the colonial hierarchy of control and power. It also takes away technology and cellphones that people bring into meetings together. When we are not distracted by devices and the outside world, we are able to focus on what is happening in the room around us, allowing us to be fully present in the work. As educators the importance of hearing the voices of those around us is a key piece in learning about how to shift our lens to an anti-colonial and anti- racism view. When opening the circle, it is always respectful to remind people that they always have a choice to speak or not to speak. They are encouraged to share but also know it is okay not to share. Creating the space for people to be open with each other, share their human experiences through their story, is how we create a community of care. Know that this community of care happens when this work is consistent. Getting to know each other and listening to each other takes time, so this needs to be a practice. Practising circles each time you do work together creates an anti-colonial space and a strong community.
Witnessing is a critical piece of circle work. In community when leaders are raised, they are taught to listen more and talk less. They need to be able to hear and understand the needs of the community. In many Indigenous communities’ leaders are held in high regard because of their generosity, their service to community, their integrity and honesty. This comes from watching and participating in community as a witness to the work. From my teachings, when you are asked to witness the work, you are being asked to be the teller of the story of what happened. This means that you are responsible for sharing with others what you have witnessed and be able to pass the story on to those who were not there. This is a big responsibility and it means that you need to be fully engaged with what is happening. In circle work it is very similar, you need to be fully present with each other, taking responsibility to be fully engaged in the conversations. This means showing up as your full self, being present, setting aside the million other things going on and committing to being together in the moment. Actively listening to others helps us as people and leaders to not project our own thinking, feelings, and opinions onto others. By listening to people’s stories, we might have the opportunity to better understand their experiences from their view point. Allowing the group to really see, hear, and know someone else. From the book Circle Works: Transforming Eurocentric Consciousness. Fyre Graveline (1998) helps us define what being a witness is;
When we see silence only as produced through an exercise in domination, we are missing the significance of silence to voice. Aboriginal people are taught to respect silence as a pedagogical tool. In circle, we listen “as witnesses”, respectfully, to the experience of others. (p. 145)
Being a witness to others honours our lived experiences and allows for us to see each other as whole people. This work builds bonds with people, it also creates the working space to practice anti-racism. This opportunity for people to speak their truth without anyone else interrupting, creates the space for deep listening to happen. Listening to listen, listening to witness, not listening to talk or respond. This is an entry point for people to find their voice and allow them the space to take up space and speak up and back. Giving people the opportunity to be open, share their voice, their story and a piece of who they are as humans. When we hear the stories of others, from their voice, it allows us to be connected in their story. This allows for circles as a tool to contribute to anti-racism work. Graveline’s (1998) research shows this with reflections from her research participants;
Not until last week have, I come to total grips with the fact that the incident two years ago was not a personal attack on me, but indeed a direct product of oppression. I only fully realised this after hearing a class full of students sharing their experiences of oppression last week. It hit me, if I experienced the oppression on a daily basis even half as strong as some of the students said they did, then I would most likely express anger and frustration and not so appropriate ways. (Ken, Jan 29, p.145)
Ken had the opportunity to really listen and hear the lived experience with oppression. By actively listening to the harms of this, he was able to see the devastating impacts of racism and oppression. By creating spaces in your community for people to really speak to be heard, will help create that community of care to address racism within the spaces you are in. Those who are privileged that always have the space to talk rarely realise that talking is a privilege. Not everyone has this privilege of being able to speak. So, giving people the opportunity to speak gives all of those in your spaces a voice. The advice I was given from many elders, is Creator gave us two ears and one mouth, so that we would listen more and talk less. This is your opportunity to listen and learn.
Some might argue that circle work is time consuming and just not feasible in the high paced, time centered world of education. My personal experience with this work is that is it has transformative effects on each learning community I have been in. This by far outweighs the consumption of time.
TIME: is a colonial thing. A linear, western concept that controls all of our spaces. It is something that is commodified and consumed. Like almost everything else in our system today. In community, things take the time they need. That means once you step into the work, you are there until the work is done. This concept of time and the pressure of time is what challenges all of us in the education system. There is no quick fix, quick method, or fast tracking to building community. This takes the time, it takes.
Facilitating and leading groups through circles will take practice but the outcome will be priceless. As you get to know your team, you will be able to feel their energy and know how they are doing and if they aren’t doing well. This kind of connection is essential in this moment coming out of a worldwide pandemic and isolation. Circle work will support you as a leader. Knowing your group as kin, will allow for the relationality of your team to come to this work with a different and deeper understanding of care for each other. This comes from actively listening, witnessing, and honouring each other. Rather than actively talking, trying to fix problems, or come up with solutions to the issues of the day.
The things you need to keep in mind when doing this work.
· Opening up the circle by reminding people to step into the circle with an open heart and open mind. If you have late arrivals, they are asked to sit and listen.
· Acknowledging that each person has the opportunity to speak if they want to, or not speak.
· When you are speaking in the group, speak from the heart and listen respectfully, when it is not your turn, listen.
· Make sure everyone in the group has a chance to share.
· Everyone in the group stays until the work is done.
Being together in circle creates a different way of being together. We are asking each other to fully see us as a relation or kin. When circles are a part of our practice, we are creating relationships within the learning community. It allows for people to talk about topics at a deeper level and connect in a way that would not be possible if we were all sitting in a colonial staff meeting that doesn’t encourage relationality but instead prioritises time efficiency, hierarchy, and quick fixes.
This circles back to the beginning of this post; it is about relationships. Everything we do in education is always about relationships.
Graveline, F. J. (1998). Circle works: Transforming eurocentric consciousness. Halifax, N.S: Fernwood.