In 1999, I was named academic dean at an independent school that had committed itself to a grand strategic vision around the evolution of its curriculum and pedagogical practices. I became the point person for managing this evolution, and fortunately we had a brilliant and extremely collegial leadership team engaged in putting this work into practice. But in the end division heads, the chief diversity officer, tech folks, and of course the school head had their own worlds to manage, and so I was the only person focusing full-time on the big strategic picture and grappling with the structural and human resource challenges of putting it into practice.
This was sometimes very lonely and isolating work, even in the best of places, and so my discovery of a few listservs and later Nings provided me with not just access to others’ ideas and resources but also with a virtual community of people engaged with the same challenges that energized and sometimes vexed me.
But what really mattered was building the human, flesh-and-blood connections. I was always thrilled to meet a listserv colleague or an “email buddy” at a conference, but best of all were the events like the conferences designed and led by the late David Mallery, who several times a year assembled “just right”-sized groups of peers for a couple of days of learning and a ton of personal and professional interaction.
In 2014, the Independent Curriculum Group offered our first Academic Leaders Retreat, and I will say that I tried hard to channel the incomparable David Mallery—who was among other things a compulsive extrovert who remembered and cared about everyone he ever met—as we worked to balance formal learning, social time, and opportunities for participants to bring forward their own ideas and questions. With the help of guru extraordinaire Jonathan Martin, I felt as though we succeeded in creating in each of our Academic Leaders Retreats unanxious, mutually supportive, and energized short-term microcultures of which even David would have been proud. On those few days I would even feel a bit like an extrovert myself, as the events invited everyone involved to a new level of professional and even interpersonal accessibility and engagement.
In designing the new model of Academic Leaders Retreat we are offering this year with our dear friends and colleagues at One Schoolhouse, we’ve tried not just to preserve but to intensify the personal and professional immersion experience of past retreats. The time span is shorter but the “contact hours” are the same, and we’ve traded the expense of a residential retreat-center setting for more flexible and affordable venues. We’ve even added learning sessions with our One Schoolhouse colleagues while maintaining the unconference sessions that were often cited as retreat highlights.
I left David Mallery’s workshops with whatever I might have learned about doing my work more effectively, but the more important takeaway was always that I was not alone in my concerns, my ideas, my struggles, and my joys. But inevitably most important were the person-to-person connections—lifelong colleagues whom I might never see again in person but on whose friendship and support I could always draw.
With three ICG-One Schoolhouse Academic Leaders Retreats to choose from the first months of 2018, I like to think of all the new relationships that can be forged and all the brilliant ideas to be shared and discussed—and all of the students whose lives will be forever changed because of insights and maybe even the courage to try something new gained at an ALR.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)