One of the best things we do at SLA is get together. This is partially faculty meetings and the side conversations that take place there. It is in the happy hours and birthday celebrations, but it’s also more than that. Those gatherings are about the faculty. The best moments of getting together are around being a school.
In the schools we need, people get together.
It starts in ninth grade. About a month into the school year, a few dedicated parents of upperclassmen staff a bank of phones in the main office. They are calling other parents – the parents of the newest class of students. They are calling to invite them to the annual Back-to-School night. SLA has a BTS night as every school across Philadelphia does to welcome new students and parents and introduce them to the school, the adults and the building.
SLA’s night is different. While those parents are on the phone, they’re not only offering an invitation, they’re making a request, “Bring something to eat.” SLA’s BTS is also a potluck where each new ninth-grade family is invited to bring a dish, something pivotal to the family if possible. Things are better with food.
Our first year of the tradition, Chris was worried we wouldn’t have enough food. A few hundred people would gather in our cafeteria and all we’d have to offer is a cheese platter.
As families started to arrive that first year, so did the food. Everyone who was hungry ate that night (including the students who’d hung around after extracurriculars).
It’s not just the eating, it’s the cementing of community as well. Parents and students sit with the students’ advisers. These are the teachers in the building responsible for groups of 20 students as their crying shoulders, their advocates, their kicks in the butt for their four years of high school. Parents, students, advisers – they all sit together, share a meal in the din of noise in a high school cafe-gym-atorium and begin the get together that will be these students’ tenure in high school.
While they eat, those teachers who work with ninth-grade students circulate, introduce themselves and answer brief questions about what the upcoming year will hold.
Later in the evening, there are formal talks, people introducing themselves through a microphone, but this is not, nor should it be, about speeches. This is about getting together, talking, listening, and welcoming into a community.
Four years later, with many events and meetings in between them, this gathering finds its bookend. The obvious guess would be graduation. That would be wrong. Graduation ceremonies are for the students and their families. Everyone, dressed in their finest, gathers to recognize what may be the students’ proudest achievement to that point. We get together for graduation because we honor what these students have accomplished and the new journey they are beginning.
No, the bookend comes after graduation. The faculty gather together, walk a few blocks to a local restaurant and, weather permitting, sit under the sky alongside their colleagues who each knew these students for at least a semester, and close the chapter on the work of the last four years.
For teachers, this is as much a get together of grieving as it is of celebration. Many will never know where these students end up or what they do with their learning of the last four years. The teachers have done their job and they are now to prepare for the next class, the next back-to-school night and all the students in between. They share food, drink and memories. Some pass the hastily scribbled cards for students for whom they played a key role in the last few years.
These get togethers are as important to the teachers as they are to the students they will meet in the coming Fall. It is a reminder that they have done what they were charged to do, and that it is more than a job. It is also a reminder that time will march on and that this is not a profession for martyrs, but for practitioners.
Getting together, being together, is important in the life of a school. This is different from meeting or happy hour. It is a kind of formative and summative reflection for a community that plants a mile marker for the organization. “We are here, now, together, and we will acknowledge it and remember where we’ve been.” Without taking the time to get together, no group can go anywhere together.