My American Experience – part 3: Let the learning begin

It all begins

The conference started for me on Thursday at 4pm. I joined the other Emerging Leader Scholarship winners and we all introduced ourselves and talked a bit about our background and what we hoped to achieve from the conference and what we could contribute. Aside from the conference staff we were also introduced to two mentors. These were previous scholarship winners who had volunteered to come back and guide us through the process. It was nice to be able to ask questions of someone who had experienced the conference in this way before.

Group dynamic

The group was a nice mix of both men and women. As I glanced around the room the main thing that came to mind was “will they understand my accent?” I wondered how I would come across and whether what I had to say would be relevant given that my experience was so different to everyone else’s.

Glancing around again I noted that I was the only person of colour in the room. Would this make any difference? I must say in my professional life so far it never has but I was in a different country.

As we started interacting all these questions faded away. Nobody seemed phased by my accent (not that they showed anyway). It was far from the distraction o thought it was going to be. Similarly, being the only black person in the room made no difference at all (it’s just part of life and happens often). There was absolutely nothing to worry about. When someone has an issue with your race you know about it – you hear it, you feel it. It was a great relief to let these worries fade away and really get into enjoying and embracing the experience.

Discussions

We had previously been asked to suggest topics that we thought might be interesting discussion points for our workshop. I had duly suggested two topics: Coping with school meal debt and Strategies for sustainability. At the time I’d suggested them I had no idea that I would have to lead the discussion on my topic. Slight panic started to set in but I brushed it aside. Panicking wouldn’t help, I just had to get on with it.

We separated into four groups and I was pleased to see that my suggestion about how to deal with school meal debt had also been suggested by someone else, Tim. This meant that we were down to lead the session together. What a huge relief! Tim and I led the way with the discussions. At first I attempted to fade into the background by volunteering to be the scribe however, my cunning plan failed. I had suggested this topic because it’s relevant to me and I feel passionate about. For that fact alone I had a lot to say. It was a great way to start the evening. Sharing our strategies and hearing about the varying levels of debt in different school districts was fascinating. After a few minutes we then fed back to the other three groups so that everyone could benefit from our discussions.

The session I joined for discussion 2 was about Opening and Operating a School Based Health Center [sic]. I was interested to hear about how schools went about introducing this type of shared service and how it benefited their school community. Alison, who was leading this discussion was very interested in gleaning ideas and tips to take back with her to inform plans in her own district in Mississippi. It proved to be a fruitful discussion.

The next session I joined was entitled How to deal with unfunded mandates. It was led my new friend Tim who I’d already led the first session with. It was interesting to hear that the same frustrations were being experienced in both countries. I shared my experiences about unfunded pay rises and how U.K. schools had been affected by this. Others talked about the obligation to provide sanitary products in their schools and having to find the funding for it.

After feeding back on what we’d talked about we split for the final time into four groups. This was one I had to lead alone, having suggested sustainability as a topic. I found this discussion the most useful. Not least because I’m currently working on formulating a Sustainability Plan in my own school. I was fascinated by some of the innovative ways that schools approached sustainability and how they embedded Ito into the curriculum. My colleagues were astounded when I explained about the intricacies of PFI and how that meant we didn’t own our school buildings, therefore facing more barriers to implementing some of the strategies they suggested. It was great discussion with lots of ideas flowing.

Rounding it up

We rounded up the evening with a welcome dinner. All the recipients sat down with the two mentors as well as the ASBO International staff. We were provided with a lovely meal and topped up with wine as we chatted and got to know each other better. We’d started the evening as strangers but by the end we’d shared experiences and swapped many stories. A lovely way to end our first evening and an even better way to start the conference. As I left and went across the street to my hotel room I was pleased to see that I wasn’t the only one staying at that particular hotel. I was buzzing from the new experiences running through my head and full of anticipation for what the next 4 days held.

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