I've just returned from three magical days in Akaroa on Banks Penninsula with around 80 of our team at CORE Education where we've been 'on retreat'. I know that it's been 'trendy' lately to avoid calling these sorts of events 'retreats' with words like 'advance' being mooted instead, but I like the concept of a retreat – a time to draw apart, separate ourselves and reflect, share, dream etc. For CORE it was important as we are a distributed company, with staff in all parts of New Zealand, and this represents the only time we have to get to 'see' each other and establish relationships in the physical, not simply online.
Our retreat programme included a significant focus on exploring and understanding what it means to be a bi-cultural organisation, and how our work and mission contributes to the current MoE strategic direction, including Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success: The Māori Education Strategy. We visited the Marae at Onuku, shared together in teams, contributed actions to the strategic plan – and generally had a great deal of fun and laughter throughout.
So what made the retreat valuable? Here are some reflections as I think back on the past three days;
It was a team event – we often talk about such things, but to experience it in such practical ways is where the proof exists. This retreat was different from past ones in that the exec of the company played almost no part at all in the planning of it. With the earthquakes in CHCH there was doubt over whether we'd be able to proceed with it. Then a group of senior staff in the organistion stepped up and took over all responsibility – planning the programme and the logistics of venue, food, accommodation etc. in a completely open and particiatory manner. Another team organised the social events, our Kaihatu Maori led us expertly through key parts of the programme, while yet others contributed workshops and coordinated discussions. It was a real team event in every sense of the actions, not just words.
It was a 'retreat' – in other words, we allowed ourselves the time to take time out and to focus on the things that matter, to withdraw and avoid the distractions of what we'd left behind for three days in our busy worlds in other parts of New Zealand. For the three days of the retreat we were 'off grid', as our venue was a bit off the beaten path and we didn't go to the trouble of getting it all wired up (although some of my colleagues managed to keep tweeting via their mobiles 🙂
It was immersive – for the full three days we lived, ate, slept, played and worked together. There was no hiving off to go home and take care of famiies in between sessins, or separating off into groups to have meals or catch up on meetings etc. Our focus meant that we were completely immersed in what was happening, and with each other for the whole time. This was important as it allowed the flow of ideas and the development of relationships to fully blossom and develop.
It was participatory – the entire programme was designed to involve people at all stages, it was active, not passive. CORE has a stunning team of talented people, many of who spend their working time facilitating groups and leading professional development. So rather than have them seated simply listening to a speaker, sessions were designed to be participatory, exemplifying the facilitation strategies and approaches we believe are effective.
It tackled the 'hard issues' – often we avoid the difficult issues in team meetings like this. Exploring things like statements of intent, budgets, government strategies etc. can sound the death knell for many groups, and so they get avoided or abdicated to key staff members. At our retreat we 'opened the books' on everything, and allowed everyone to take ownership of what the issues are and how they impact us – the result, a heightened sense of awareness, and contribution of some great ideas on how to work through the issues.
I'm sure as I take more time to reflect on things this list will grow – but I wanted to commit at least these thoughts to writing at this stage, as I see lots of things here that are relevant to the work and thinking I am doing in other spheres regarding how we can bring about transformation in our education system, resulting in deep, lasting and sustainable change. I fear that a lot of our efforts become diluted and ineffective because we are endeavouring to do so in a rush, with a hundred other things on the go, and don't feel we can afford the luxury of simply taking time out to think, to reflect and to plan.