Story 19 of 20: Continuous Learning: An Umoja Core Value

We're almost at the end of our series of 20 stories in celebration of 20 years at Umoja. For Story #19, we are proud to share with you one of the most exciting new developments at Umoja in recent years. Over two decades, Umoja has established ourselves as a premier provider of Social and Emotional Learning, Restorative Justice, and College and Career Readiness programming in Chicago high schools. Now, the demand for our best practices and high-impact curriculum has grown far beyond our 13 core partner schools. In fact, this last year, the staff on Umoja's Professional Learning Team have provided professional development and curriculum to 1000+ educators from 130+ schools across Chicago, the suburbs, and the Midwest! For Story #19, we'd like to share with you what this Professional Learning looks like in Elmwood Park, a village just west of the city...

Continuous learning is an Umoja core value—a commitment deeply embodied by a dedicated group of educators in the Elmwood Park school district. In a yearlong partnership with Umoja’s Professional Learning Team, educators representing five schools across the Elmwood Park district gathered to learn principles of Restorative Justice and Social and Emotional Literacy. As one participant reflected at the end of the year: “I appreciated being able to have a safe space. I feel we’ve created a great community where everybody is respected and their opinions matter, and I never feel like this in groups.” What this teacher and many others found remarkable was the adult learning community that strengthened bonds between colleagues who don’t have regular opportunities to connect. From pre-K to 12th grade, educators were able to unite in a shared purpose of building meaningful relationships with their students and empowering students to problem solve in times of conflict or harm. Through the safety net of this adult community of learners, educators reported ways they were practicing more proactive, assets-based approaches with students.

One skillful elementary teacher described how she has begun asking students questions rather than giving them directives when they experience conflict with other students. For example, in response to a student who was complaining about another student in his group, the teacher asked him, "What do you think we could do to solve that problem?" Her open and curious response surprised the student into taking action on his own behalf and, with his teacher’s skillful support, the small group returned to productive work time. By using one small but critical restorative practice, this teacher turns the elementary past-time of tattling into learning moments.

A high school-based teacher shared that his efforts to become a more empathetic listener have resulted in visible changes in his relationships with students. When a student confided in him her concern about choices she made over the weekend, he was able to practice skills he learned through his learning with Umoja to create a safe space where this student could talk about what happened. Upon reflection, the teacher recognized how easy it could have been to judge his student’s choices and give a lecture. Instead, he prioritized their relationship and the student’s need for support and connected the student to a colleague who could help the student with next steps. 

Teachers are able to create safe space for students when they experience that feeling of safety within their own adult community. On the issue of safety and acceptance, one participant exclaimed: “I can share my ideas and not go home with the worry that I said something stupid!” All educators feel this need to learn and grow—like their students—in a supportive environment. With Umoja’s Professional Learning Team, schools, districts, and community-based organizations are supported to establish a collective vision about the change they want to see in their culture. Through a model we call a “Community of Practice,” groups of adult learners engage in workshops which teach foundations of Restorative Justice and SEL, facilitating community building circles, becoming a self-aware practitioner, and facilitating conversations to repair harm. Interspersed among these skills and content workshops, the Community of Practice meets to discuss their ongoing successes and challenges and support each other’s evolving mindsets. It’s this ‘special sauce’ of learning and relationship building that makes the Professional Learning Team’s Community of Practice model so impactful. As one Elmwood Park educator exclaimed:  “We can lean on each other a lot, and across the district, we are thinking the same way…we have the same mindset, the same goals to help kids…I’m starting to feel like [the vision] is pulling together.”

Much appreciation to this group of dedicated educators who reminds us that schools are places of learning, not only for students but also for the adults who serve them.