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Retreat, Review, Recharge!

Retreats can be the perfect way to re-energize faculty, flesh out new programs, and help people get to know one another better. While getting away is a treat, some creative activities also can make an in-house retreat productive and fun. Included: Examples of faculty retreats.

Whether you are looking to set the tone for the term or give teachers a much-earned respite during the year, faculty retreats not only can improve teaching techniques, but build staff morale and cohesiveness as well.

The benefits from faculty retreats are "immense," according to Alisa Berger, principal of a New York City middle school that holds an annual spring retreat. "There is team building, getting everyone on the same page -- and creating a focus and direction for the next year. It's a time to really reflect on the last year and think about where we have been, make sure we are still on the right path, and see if that path is heading in the direction we now want to go."

REFLECTION AND RELAXATION

A chance to explore new teaching strategies or curriculum in a less formal setting is among the pluses of retreats. Teachers from Valley View School, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school in South Phoenix, Arizona, attended a weeklong program at an Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound camp in Prescott, Arizona. Valley View, which has a high population of students who speak limited English, has been labeled a school in need of improvement. During the stay in the woods, teachers were focused on developing a meaningful and relevant approach to literacy, teacher Lise Spangenthal told Education World.

"Most of the workshop was framed around literacy, using the book Strategies That Work by Stephanie Harvey," Spangenthal said. "We actually participated in the activities ourselves, which included an 'expedition' into historical Prescott. We also took part in team building activities and had literacy circles where we selected pieces of kid fiction and met for discussion groups."

The 30 faculty members slept in bunk beds, used common bathrooms, and ate in the dining hall, just like younger campers. "I never participated in this type of retreat before," said Spangenthal. "I do feel in many ways we all benefited from spending the time together, though it was hard giving up a week of my fall break and spending it away from my family."

Faculty from Mott Hall II concentrated on creating new ways to meet the needs of middle schoolers at a recent fall retreat. "We did readings and had conversations throughout the retreat about what was best for our students," Berger, the principal, said.

Because the school's 14 faculty members regularly interact, team-building skills were not stressed. Socializing after the day's work was done, however, was popular. "Dinner lasted for three hours because people really enjoyed interacting with each other in such a relaxed way," Berger said. "There was no after-dinner event, but we did hang out playing pool and singing karaoke for hours."

Annual retreats for the faculty of the Epstein School in Atlanta, Georgia, over the past six years have focused on teambuilding, the arts, and fun.

"The purpose of teacher retreats is to create a separate experience that enhances positive school climate, develop collegiality, take the teachers out of the building, and provide a new learning experiences for a day," Myrna Rubel, principal of the middle school division, told Education World.

Activities have included maneuvering through a low-ropes course to build teamwork skills; entertainment, such as speakers who interacted with faculty and presented strategies for teaching language arts; discussions on goal setting and human behavior in organizations; book dramatizations; and an artist-in-residence for a day who outlined integrating the arts into the school program.

MINI-RETREATS HELP, TOO

Even a retreat to a different part of the school building -- or special program -- can do a lot to re-energize staff.

Sleet and snow forced the cancellation of this year's Epstein School's "mystery bus trip" retreat, so teachers participated in a mystery team-building game in school.

The 90-minute game involved solving the murder of a chef. Each teacher was assigned a role and came dressed in character and ready to play. "We had great fun," Rubel said. "Getting out of character and taking on another role makes it easy to have people work together who normally don't have much in common."

Concerned that teachers had been putting in long hours because of new requirements, the principal of Raymond Park Middle School in Indianapolis, Indiana, set up a room in the school for chair massages one day, said teacher Deborah Bova. (No disrobing was involved.) The lights were low and soft music was playing.

"It was wonderful -- such a reliever of stress," Bova told Education World. "I don't know if this would encourage teaming, but it certainly would help relieve the stress levels prior to tackling the toothy issues of building consensus within any group -- small or large."

At another faculty meeting, after the release of student test scores, administrators recognized teachers' efforts by waiting on them at candle-lit tables. Teachers relaxed and ate shrimp cocktail, cheese, strawberries dipped in chocolate, and toasted their success with non-alcoholic wine.

So no matter how far teachers get to 'retreat,' it is still a well-received break.

"Aside from [all the other] benefits, teachers love the day 'away' and return with renewed enthusiasm for the school program," said Rubel.


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