In this episode I interview middle school teacher Will Gibbs. Will was a participant in the North Carolina Outward Bound Educator’s Initiative in 2009-2010. Now, six years later he has completely changed how he teaches his students with a focus on a caring classroom. The results are impressive. What he does in the classroom can be done in nearly any context with teams including adults or younger kids.
What You’ll Learn
- How and why Will Gibbs spends 7 days on building community before starting the curriculum.
- How to build trust and community amongst students and team members.
- The value of a virtual campfire
- How to get students to not commit one of your pet peeves
About Will Gibbs
Will began teaching at the ripe old age of 22. He started in a computer lab as a technology teacher at Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, moving into the history department shortly thereafter. He is now in his 11th year at The Episcopal Academy outside of Philadelphia, PA. There, he is the Middle School History Department Chair, a classroom teacher, and coaches soccer, squash, and lacrosse… along with dozens of other roles taken on by Independent School teachers. Will is a 2009-10 participant in the Educator’s Initiative with North Carolina Outward Bound. Upon finishing the program, Will has redesigned his entire pedagogy and is continually searching to improve and push the boundaries.
Resources Mentioned in the Episode
- North Carolina Outward Bound Educator’s Initiative
- The Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, PA
- Padlet collaboration tool
- Book The Caring Classroom by Laurie Frank
- Will Gibbs Twitter handle: @mrgibbs34
- Will Gibbs Email: wfgibbs at episcopalacademy dot org
The Weekly Challenge
This week, follow Will’s advice and make one change to begin developing a sense of community and trust within your classroom or team. How did it go? What were the results? Share in the comment section below or send me an email.
Feel like reading instead of listening? Download the free PDF Transcript or read it below. Enjoy!
Transcript for Episode #29: How One Teacher Builds Trust In His Classroom
Amy Climer: Hi everyone! Welcome to the Deliberate Creative Podcast Episode 29. In today’s episode, I interviewed Will Gibbs who is a middle school teacher in Pennsylvania. He talks about some unique ways that he builds trusts and creates community in his classroom. This episode is a continuation from last week’s episode about how to build trust in a team. I happen to meet Will this past weekend and I thought, “oh! This is perfect for the podcast.” Will is also connected to Episode 12. Episode 12 you might remember was an interview of some participants of mine on a North Carolina Outward Bound Educators’ Course. Well those participants, who are all teachers, all K-12 grade teachers. They’re a part of a year long program through Outward Bound that is teaching them how to bring the Outward Bound philosophies and principles into their classroom. Well that group met this last weekend in Virginia. It’s now been 4 – 5 months since their course and the purpose of this retreat was to talk about how are things are going, what success they had, what challenges they are having, and to help them continue incorporating the philosophies and experiential education into their classroom. Well I attended the retreat. I was there to give a Creative Problem Solving Workshop. On Saturday morning Will was also there. Will was a former student of the Educator program. He was a participant in 2009-2010. He was talking about what he has done in his classroom, the changes that he has made in the last six years, and the impact they have on the students. So on Saturday morning he was presenting and I am sitting in the audience and am getting really enthralled! I am kind of leaning forward sitting on the edge of my seat. He was sharing some amazing stories. One of the things you’ll hear him talk about is how he takes seven days at the very beginning of the semester and he sets these aside to build a sense of community and to create some norms for the rest of the school year. This is very atypical. Most teachers wouldn’t do this. Most teachers jump right into curriculum. He really incorporates the philosophy of Go Slow To Go Fast that I mentioned last week. Anyway, at the lunch break I grabbed Will and I said “Will, can I interview you for a podcast?” I told him about the Deliberate Creative Podcast and he said “sure!”. So we found a quiet spot in a lodge that we were staying in and we talked for about 15 minutes and so you’re going to hear that conversation now. I think you will really enjoy it. If you are not a classroom teacher, that’s okay. What he is doing applies to any context where you have a team trying to develop some trust and create some community with each other. Of course the whole point in developing trust is to be more effective, to be more creative. I talked about that last week in Episode 28. So if you haven’t listen to that one definitely go listen to it after you listen to this one. Alright! So here’s Will.
Amy Climer: Welcome Will! Thank you so much for being on the Deliberate Creative Podcast.
Will Gibbs: Thank you so much for having me.
Amy Climer: To start out, just tell us a little about yourself. Who are you? What do you do?
Will Gibbs: I am a middle school history teacher from outside of Philadelphia in the suburbs of Philadelphia at an independent pre-k – 12 school where I teach 8th Grade History.
Amy Climer: You know, I just listened to your presentation and you were talking about how you build trust and community in the classroom. I wonder how you could explain that for podcast listeners, because I think a lot of what you do in the classroom would be relevant to other contexts as well.
Will Gibbs: Absolutely. So I invest a lot of time on the beginning of the year in the hopes that we won’t have to visit and revisit things as the year goes on. So I take about 6 or 7 days, sometimes 5, sometimes 8, in the beginning of the year to set up the caring classroom or a classroom culture or a culture of trust and the idea that we are all in this together. That it is not me mandating rules and expectations for them, but we are in this together. On the very first day we do a low rope course and I use a colleague to set up some problem solving, team building activities. We kind of a mix it up every class and every year so that they don’t talk to one another and they don’t kind of figure out the trick in there. So we do that on day one, we do a team building thing like a 40 minute team building thing, and then I wish we could then debrief but we can’t. So the next day we spend day two sitting on the floor around candles with a virtual fireplace on the television and we talk about what went well during the team building exercise. We talk about what didn’t go well, we talked about who stepped up, and give props to those people. One of the prompts that I use that I got from Outward Bound or my year with Outward Bound Educators Initiative is “Issues, Things, and Ownership.” What generally happens is it’s a lot of things in the beginning and it is touchy/feely I’d like to thank my friend because she helped me. But then hopefully a couple people starts taking ownership about a lot of things that they did or didn’t do, or have issues and vocalize these issues on some things that happened or didn’t happen that they are reflecting on. You know we create the safe venue to talk, then we say that it is a safe place. If there is kind of one thing that I got worried about is that we had tears over the years, as we do, because we continue to do this campfire a year. You know it gets intense sometimes when you are debriefing stuff like that, so I always have a finger on the pulse. But I sit back and let them talk about it and talk through it. As the year goes on we actually referenced that in group work where I’ll say, “and don’t just get up on the balance beam. You know like what you did on the very first day when everything fell apart. Make a plan and pick a leader and set some guidelines and goals.” So those are the first two days. Day 3, we then sit down and I talk about perception versus reality. I use a website called Padlet which is essentially a digital version of putting a sticky note on a board. So let’s say the kid virtually put the sticky note. It is anonymous. I ask, “What are the perceptions that you have about coming into this class” and we talk about which one of those are perceptions, and which ones are reality. I try to eliminate all the perceptions and get them to just go into the year with an open mind. I do talk a little bit about my pet peeves, which used to be called deadly sins, which are after teaching middle school kids for 15 years, it’s really the only chunk of things that tend to go wrong over the course of the year. Go wrong might not be the best choice of words, but that tend to impede the classroom culture. So I talk through those. They are things like late to class, cheating, showing poor character to classroom, spreading negativity, misuse of laptops during in class. They rank those using Google forms. They vote on what’s the most devastating and what’s the least devastating and everything in between. So statistically we put that up. Then the kids then day 3 into day 4 write if then statements. “So if you are late to class…” it’s not necessarily a punishment. But it is the expectation. “Then you…” and most of the time you just “enter quietly and then sit down.” Because late to class is what they always list as least devastating. So it is not necessarily like this is the punishment and if you break this law this is your punishment. It is more of the expectations and they come up with really creative ones. I referenced this morning my favorite one with the laptop is that they are allowed to secretly take out their phones and snapshot a picture of somebody who is playing a game in class and then they get an extra credit added to their grades. We talk about “snitches get stitches,” yet in this case snitches get extra credit points which they certainly love. But then we collaborate and honor “if, then” statements and we work in groups to get that list smaller and smaller until we have seven of them that we all agreed upon. We print them out. We sign them like the constitution and hang it on the wall. We start our year. We still revisit the virtual campfires on regularly scheduled times throughout the year like the natural breaks and starts and stops in the natural school year. But also after we do any kind of group projects or something like that we always stop and take a day. Sometimes they last 40 minutes, sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 20. They end when it ends. It creates this trusting culture where we are all in this together. I give them ownership over a lot of stuff. I give them independence in a lot of stuff and the 12 and 13 year old mind appreciates that really because there’s not a lot of other people in the middle school that are creating that atmosphere for them so it helps.
Amy Climer: So as I was listening I was thinking about those idea of snitches taking these photos and am kind of imagine what would people think if they’re listening to this. Then I wonder if they’re thinking “oh my gosh I can’t believe you are rewarding that,” but it’s all about context.
Will Gibbs: Right.
Amy Climer: Like you have set up this whole culture of helping kids respect and trust each other. They have these conversations so then when something like that happens and someone is on their phone and someone else takes a photo of it, it can be pretty lighthearted and fun and almost just positively reinforce the whole dynamic. Is that what happens?
Will Gibbs: Yeah and really it is preventative more than it is anything else. I lay out the pet peeves or the deadly sins. They are so basic and am not asking a lot. All I’m asking them to do is not play games during class. You know, or have their iMessages open and do whatever it is in the world they’re doing that we called “laptop misuse.” But the way my classroom is set up, you always kind of have somebody looking over your shoulder and it’s a really competitive school, so academically rigorous and every point counts in their world, even though it doesn’t. But in their perception of that it does, so that is a driving force that I’ve kind of use to help where they create a role. But I set up scenario where again it is more preventative than punitive, which is a good law. A good kind of law is preventative just as much as it is punitive. But the kids love it. When you know they love it, only happens I mean we are 15 weeks into the year, but I’ve got I think three. As I emailed it to the kid that got caught and you know I can only say, “what if I show it to your parents that are paying 30 thousand dollars a year for you to go to school and you are playing games during your class ?” It’s a good preventative tool and lighthearted is a good way to put it to. When the kids catch them and when they have caught somebody this year it puts a smile on their face
Amy Climer: Yeah
Will Gibbs: It goes from ear to ear for sure.
Amy Climer: That’s cool it’s kind of like “oh shoot okay yeah I did it.”
Will Gibbs: And you can’t argue it.
Amy Climer: Right
Will Gibbs: You can’t. There is nothing you can say. I mean it’s like big brother is watching.
Amy Climer: Yeah well you know in previous episodes I’ve talked about accountability within teams and how it’s such an important piece and if we only rely on the team leader or the boss to keep the team accountable, it is actually a pretty dysfunctional team. So if the classroom is only relying on you to keep the rules in place that’s not going to be functional, very trusting or definitely not going to be a community. I think you have created a very creative way to that in a fun way. So that’s awesome. What do you see as the impact of doing this You are basically taking 5 to 7 days in the beginning of the year? You are not doing any curriculum in the traditional sense and am sure every other teacher is, and what impact do you see by doing that in the beginning?
Will Gibbs: I mean the one thing I always say because you know there’s three different teachers that teach each six sections of each class and we all try to be in the same place, but we are obviously not. The kids will get anxious if they hear well, this teacher is doing this and this teacher is doing this. My refrain, especially in the beginning of the year, is “we are always exactly where we need to be.” And if it was a race? Then we would win. We’d be trying to win if it was a race. And we’d be going as fast as we can, but it is not a race. And they appreciate that because a lot of their other classes feel like a race. Sometimes a rat race if you want it to be even more specific. So taking that time and not just a day and not just two days and not just three, but as that anxiety builds now, they are almost ready to dive in by day five or six. When you first assign homework, you are not assigning homework on the first day of school. It’s the seventh day of school. Then they are hearing that they only have home works a couple of times a week and then the visual relief that washes over them when somebody is standing in front of the room saying, “I understand that you guys are overworked and I don’t want to add to your plate. There are other ways that we can get from point A to point B without beating you over the head with read, take notes, read, take notes, read, take notes, read, take notes you know. But we have to do note taking, that it is part of the curriculum, so we are going to do note taking, but I get it you know.”
Amy Climer: Maybe not every day.
Will Gibbs: Right. Not every day and sometimes our homework will be a current event homework where they will just read an article. That’s one of the nice things about teaching civics there’s always something, and teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict, and developing nations, and India when you can always find something. Every day you can just read a one page article and discuss it. We have a learning management system where they can just discuss it online or we can discuss it the next day in class. But even then, I just want them thinking that homework should not be a vehicle to get a teacher from point A to point B in their curriculum. The worst threat that you can make is “If you guys don’t tighten up you’re going to have an extra homework tonight.” I feel like homework should be meaningful. That is something that I try to talk to my department about or my colleagues about is the concept of meaningful homework and thinking. All you want them to do is think and write, is read, think, write, or think and write, or create something. But read, take notes, read, take notes, read, take notes, is a recipe for apathy.
Amy Climer: That’s great I love that recipe for apathy.
Will Gibbs: I just made that up right.
Amy Climer: You got to use that again. That was awesome! Cool! Will, thank you so much for sharing. I think listeners will get a lot insights, not just for classroom settings because I know that there are some teachers listening, but not everyone. I think that there’s a lot of applications too if you have a team in a business setting and taking the time to develop some guidelines and give them time to digest and so thank you so much for sharing.
Will Gibbs: Thank you for having me.
Amy Climer: I hope that you enjoyed that conversation with Will. I definitely got a lot out of listening to him and I really appreciated his whole philosophy of go slow to go fast, take the time at the beginning to develop this community, to talk about the norms, to explain the expectations and to develop shared expectations amongst the group. Then use that as the foundation to have a really amazing year and dive into the curriculum. One thing Will didn’t talk about that he is doing in his classroom is really incorporating some incredible experiential methods. Some of you may have heard of Google’s 20% rule, where one day a week employees have an opportunity to work on any project that they want. He does that with his students where he gives them set asides time for them to work on anything that they want. I think there are some parameters, but it’s pretty open and the end result are just really impressive. So if this is something that you are interested in I encourage you to reach out to Will. You can find his Twitter handle and his email address on the show notes which is ClimerConsulting.com/029. His Twitter handle is @MrGibbs34, so go Tweet him. If you want to connect with him I am sure he’d be happy to talk with you about some ideas. He really got his start with experiential education through the North Carolina Outward Bound Educator’s initiative and if you are interested with that you can go to the ncobs.org website and I’ll also put that in the show notes.
So every week I do a weekly challenge for you to help you think about how to incorporate some of the philosophies and concepts from the episode into your life. So this week your challenge is to follow Will’s advice. What is one change you can make similar to what Will did to begin a sense of community and trust either within your classroom or with the team that you are working with? Maybe it is taking some time in talking about pet peeves that everyone has and create some “if…, then…” statements or setting aside some time at the beginning of a semester of a course, depending on what the timeline is, of the teams that you work with. Think about how you can incorporate some of those things that Will mentioned into your life.
I hope you had a wonderful week and if you haven’t yet, please subscribe to the Deliberate creative podcast on iTunes while you are on iTunes you can also write a review. It takes just a few minutes and it makes a big difference it helps other people find the podcast and helps the podcast rank higher and I love reading them! I will share some new reviews I just got on the next episode, but for now I hope you all have a wonderful week and I’ll see you all next time. Bye!
Note: The links on this page may be affiliate links. That means I get a small commission of your sale, at no cost to you. However, I only share links to products that I or my guests believe in. Enjoy them!