In the Circle: It’s Never Too Late

The other day I was asked about a situation that an advisor and her group of 10th graders had been struggling with all year.
While the advisor was relatively new to the school, the students had been there for years and were familiar with the expectation of weekly circles. Yet whenever it was time for circle, students pushed back, insisting on doing their homework instead.  As one student argued: “Colleges only look at our core classes, so we have to work on getting our GPA up instead.”

Since the advisor will loop with the students into next year (that is, work with the same students again in the new year), the end of the school year was as good a time as any to address the situation. The advisor acknowledged she’d let things slide for too long. She felt she was losing the group – and that the group was “losing each other.” The cohesion, support, and belonging that advisory was supposed to promote were sorely missing, as were some of the school’s core values of collaboration, persistence and responsibility for community.
I’ve found in situations like these, teachers often give up, concluding that “this stuff doesn’t work.” But this advisor wanted to keep trying. While she hadn’t been trained as a circle keeper, she had participated in an introduction to circles workshop a few months back.  She had experienced the power of circle and was interested in continued training and coaching. She was still very much bought in, and truly wanted circle to work with her students.
So she reached out for support, and the school counselor, who’d known these 10th graders for years, stepped up. The two agreed that he would facilitate a circle with the group, with the aim of getting every participant, including the advisor, to take ownership for how they show up to advisory.
In this circle, the counselor later told me, students actively participated, and shared a range of thoughts and feelings, in and out of turn. Some admitted to having been disrespectful, and some took ownership for their lack of participation in circle. One student pushed back on circles quite forcefully, arguing that academics were more important than advisory. She was a powerful and persuasive voice in the room. But the circle had made space for other voices as well, perhaps not as powerful or as persuasive just yet, but it was clear they were part of the group as well. 
As he closed out the circle, the counselor took ownership for his own choices: “Should this circle have happened earlier in the year? Absolutely. And I take responsibility for that. But I’m here now, and as my mother used to say: ‘It’s never too late to do what you should have done in the first place.’”
When the counselor touched base with some students after the circle, they told him that this had been the first time all year they’d felt like they were in community. It appeared they’d missed being in circle. They said they saw the counselor as having power over the student who had been so strongly resisting and pushing back on circle.  As a result he’d been able to keep her in check, they felt.  In response, the counselor tried to explain that circles are about keeping structure and creating a space for all to be heard. They’re not about elevating some or for that matter shutting anyone down.
I met with the counselor and the advisor at this point in the process. We explored how the group had gotten to where it was now, and what next steps could make sense. We recognized that beyond merely addressing behavior, we were actually going for a mindset shift. And with only a few weeks left in the year, this would be a longer-term project extending into next school year. 
We talked about the idea of “power with” instead of “power over” and how we could put the onus back on the students, who’d been at the school longer and were more familiar with the way things were done in advisory. This was their circle—a circle they appeared to still be interested in.  What role, then, were they willing play? That’s not to say that the advisor didn’t have an important role to play, but the goal was to shift responsibility to the whole advisory community, collectively. 
In addition to addressing the notion of responsibility for community, we also wanted to make sure to include some fun before the end of the year. Pushing students, or adults for that matter, too hard at this time of year had the potential to backfire. Everyone was tired. And besides, having fun together allows us to keep coming back to community, even when the going gets tough.  Some of the ideas we discussed for wrapping up the year are included in this TeachableMoment post.
Ultimately the counselor facilitated a second circle with the advisor and her advisees. Things got off to a rocky start, he emailed me later. Having set up a circle of chairs around a center piece ahead of time, the counselor stood at the door welcoming students and getting a sense of where they were at as they entered the classroom. He also handed out playing cards to students as they showed up to advisory. The cards indicated who would be partnered with whom for a back-to-back opening activity. 
Some students trickled in late. One was reluctant to participate but a quick back and forth at the door helped him come around before entering the space. The student who’d been pushing back the hardest showed up last. She was caught off guard by the counselor’s presence at the door and the circle already set up inside. She muttered something under her breath along the lines of “not this again” and “you’ve got to be … kidding me.”  She told the counselor she was not doing “this.” She had homework to do. 
He maintained that they were doing a circle in advisory today. She resisted, with the whole group watching to see what would happen next. She was given the choice to participate in the circle or go to the admin office. She opted for the latter as the counselor got started with the circle. 
Everyone still in the room seemed to enjoy the interactive and fun nature of the opening activity. A talking piece was sent around for reflections and to relate the activity to advisory. Students made connections between the collaborative nature of the activity and how it had focused on communication – two things that had been missing in advisory all year. 
Next the counselor handed out pieces of paper, three different colors for three different prompts:

1. What is one thing you contributed to advisory this year?
2. What is a challenge you faced in advisory this year?
3. What is one thing you could have done differently in advisory this year?

Participants were asked to write down their answers and place their papers in the center piece. The advisor wrote her responses, like everyone else, and placed them one under the other by where she was sitting so that everyone knew they were hers. She took very specific and public ownership, and in that way, led by example. Her responses read:

1. I sought help from others on our staff and never stopped trying to make this community work.
2. Getting student engagement with advisory despite resistance, keeping calm during tough times.
3. I could have started building community engagement earlier.

The talking piece was sent around for reflections. Students shared some of the challenges they faced in advisory, like “staying away from the phone,” “listening,” and simply “trying to stay engaged in circles.”
Participants reflected on wanting, and having missed, a calm place in the hectic school day. One person shared that it had been difficult “not having a break from chaos,” because “advisory should be a place where it’s not chaotic.” Another shared that because of what had happened over the year, she hated coming to advisory and always had a headache. 
As the circle continued, students also underscored that they wanted to “stand up for advisory” and “try to fix things.” Things they could have done differently included “more collaboration,” “being more open- minded,” as well as showing more “kindness” and “positivity.” The energy in the room shifted as people became more open.
To close the circle, participants were invited to look at the values cards in the center of their circle. What was a value that they would want to bring into advisory next year and why? After sharing their value, participants were invited to write their name on the card, then place it back in the center piece as a commitment to next year. 
It was a very generous closing in which students and their advisor expressed their hopes for an improved advisory next year. The one thorn: the student who had been pushing back on advisory wasn’t there to contribute to or hear from her peers. More work would be needed to bring her back.
The last student to choose a value card was undecided at first. Most of the values had already been taken. He finally got up out of his seat and picked up “love.” He summarized what others had said, and then closed the circle by saying how it all goes back to love. Love is what connects all the other values in circle and it’s an important value that we’ll need for next year.