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Close to three months into a crisis, things can start to feel surreal. Questions like, “Will we ever return to normal?”, “What will normal mean?”, and “When will this end?” are all common refrains (and fair questions to ask). 

As areas continue to reopen in a staggered and seemingly unsure method, it is appropriate for us to feel tugs on our sense of community and wonder how we will keep connected and in what ways. Over the course of the past few months, we have worked to continue focusing on community through a number of practices. Here are three that have been valuable additions to our practice, and will likely continue in some fashion or another, into the future.

Meet Often

We have a very close-knit team in our curriculum department. We interact with each other every day -- greetings, personal and professional conversations, and problem-solving opportunities. These are all necessary parts of creating a positive work community. 

When we were in the office we held monthly department meetings, complete with announcements, program updates and learning sessions. During our extended closure, it became clear early on that monthly meetings would not be enough. It also became clear that though our distance-learning sessions were key parts of our meetings, we needed to shift first to virtual community continuity. Our learning sessions took on a different form, often with opportunity for program and department conversation built in. 

Over the last few months, we have been meeting weekly as a department, often alternating program updates to keep everyone aware of the work happening. Conversation focused learning. Upon return, I envision more frequent opportunities to come together, possibly meeting bimonthly as the opportunities for regular conversation across the group prove important and needed.

Celebrate Events

We have always had a history of celebrating events within the department, something that my predecessor began decades earlier. Birthdays, welcoming a new child, engagements and weddings are balanced with providing support when staff members need it. 

While away, we have held surprise Zoom gatherings to celebrate, and sent handwritten birthday cards to recipients. These mailed birthday cards have been a great addition and are an excellent way to stay connected to our staff. We have also provided small gifts too  -- currently coffee gift cards -- as a way to show we are all in this together (and looking forward to paths ahead).

Play Together

Communities are built on boundaries, and it is important to be both who you are with those you work with, and also keep some separation between personal and professional. To push the boundaries a bit, during a time when we all needed to feel even more connected, we began a twice-monthly game gathering. 

Members of our department select games and on Fridays, late in the afternoon, we play together. So far we have played Scattergories, Five Second Rule and we have an upcoming Taboo game planned. 

These game gatherings are informal. Holding them on Fridays lets us celebrate the successful completion of a week, plus recognize that we’re all working towards finding elements of normalcy in a very bizarre situation. Prizes are awarded and the winner gets to host the next game gathering.

These three practices are just a few examples of what we are doing to stay connected. While never easy, community hinges on connections to other community members. Playing together, celebrating (and supporting) and meeting often has helped our department staffers maintain relationships, and in some cases, even build  stronger relationships than existed only a few months before.

Fred Ende is the director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam|Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.

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