It all started last week when my daughter returned home from robotics practice frustrated and in tears. During the 15 minutes it took to drive home she didn't stop talking, not once. It was a solid stream of what wasn't working between the 66 students, 1 coach and 15 mentors on her high school robotics team. After listening for about an hour I was at my limit and started to walk away when she said,"Mom, I think we need what you do. Will you come help us? "
My first reaction was, no, they don't need my help. They won't want to take the time. They will figure it out. Then, after thinking about it all evening, I wrote her coach an email. I offered to facilitate a circle process to bring the students in the same room and create a safe space for them to have a dialogue. Within 10 minutes of sending that email, a reply came back from the coach saying, "When can you be here? I'll do anything to make this a team again.”
Five days later on Saturday morning at 9:00 am with a tiny R2D2 robot in my pocket to use as a talking stick and 5 boxes of granola bars in hand, I walked into the school. Twenty of the team “leads” were expected to join in. All they had been told was that Chloe's mom was coming to do a restorative justice meeting. I gathered the chairs in a circle, put the granola bars in the middle and passed out the colorful 3x5 cards I had brought for them to write on. The students started coming in, tentative and noticeably quiet. All I could think about was, we only have 1 hour. How can we possibly make anything happen, especially if no one talks?
As we all sat on our cold, hard, metal stools, I began with letting them know we were there to explore how we can work better together on the robotics team. I asked for their support in maintaining a safe and respectful place for everyone to share. I let them know they could leave the circle at any time. As more students trickled in, we expanded our circle, added stools and invited them in. What unfolded during that short one hour while we passed the tiny little robot from hand to hand was nothing short of beautiful. Each question, each voice revealed more honesty, openness, vulnerability and creativity. Their truth came tumbling out as they heard their teammates share and as they observed the listening space we had created. Reflecting only when I had lost the thread or was unclear about what was said, the circle served a deep need for being heard and understood.
Themes began to emerge almost immediately with the question of “Bring to mind a time when you were on a team that worked well together, what was one thing that made it work?" They stated almost as a matter of fact; "We supported each other; we shared goals; we cooperated with each other; we were open; we had fun and we played; we adjusted to other people’s needs and everyone mattered.” The students started to see these were the things that were missing. They realized they weren't alone in what they wanted for their team. By the time we reached the final questions of “What is your commitment to the team?" and "What ideas do you have for going forward?" there was laughter, nodding, eye contact, openness and acknowledgement that maybe they had been a part of some of the difficulties.
This circle won't fix all of the problems the students are having on their team, but it does offer them possibility. Through hearing what they have in common, they have choice in how they move forward as a team. They have new eyes in how they see each other. This experience also woke me up to how I want to use my skills to support this community that I too am a part of. As we ended our circle, one of the students said with tenderness, "I liked you guys before, but now I don't know why but, I like you a whole lot more.”
Leaving the building I got one of the best gifts I could imagine, a kiss on the cheek and hug from my own daughter saying, "See you later mom...and thanks.