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Retreat to advance

6 min read


SmartBlog on Education will highlight summer learning and enrichment for educators during June. In this blog post, educator Jim Dillon shares the benefits of a retreat and challenges educators to have some fun this summer.

All educators agree upon one thing: They don’t have enough time to do their job the way they want to. They are always running out of time and automatically assume that any downtime is a waste of time. There is always a new program to implement, curriculum to learn, a policy to put in place and a system to establish. As soon as one initiative is up and underway there is a new one lurking around the corner ready to take its place. No wonder veteran educators have difficulty getting enthused over new things that are supposed to dramatically increase student achievement or solve a chronic problem. In many ways, these veterans are right to wait out the “new,” however, this initiative fatigue only provides false support to the idea that meaningful change is just a fantasy. Most often the frenzied attempts to change only make it more difficult to re-imagine schools or education from the status quo.

Summer too often becomes the perfect time for packing in professional development workshops, trainings, thereby, feeding the initiative machinery by filling up this downtime. No wonder many educators, therefore, seize the summer time to do anything but think, read or reflect upon anything remotely connected to their jobs.

I would like to propose an alternative approach to the summer: Embrace downtime by going on a retreat. A retreat is designed to renew and replenish a person’s heart and mind. Educators can retreat alone or together; they can do it formally or informally. A retreat is an affirmation of the concept that true change comes from people not programs and that the best use of an educator’s time might be taking time off.

Here are some guidelines for making a meaningful retreat:

Take “change” off the table. Remove the expectation that anything has to change in September. We only decrease our learning when we are fearful of not learning or feel like we have to learn to perform. We have become so accustomed to learning with something always hanging over our heads that we forget what it feels like to learn for its own sake. We need to remember how good it feels to learn without someone trying to get us to learn.

Believe in seeds. Ideas are like seeds. They are powerful and will grow in us if we let them.  Too often we take an idea and immediately try to translate it into something practical and doable. The form we try to give the idea is based on how we saw the world before we have entertained a new idea.

Follow your heart and mind. Let yourself become intrigued with a question or new way of looking at the world. Don’t rush through a paragraph or sentence that you read. Follow your curiosity down an unfamiliar path and don’t worry about getting lost — trust that you will find a way home — you will.

Let yourself get lost for a while in an unfamiliar place. Uncertainty and doubt are considered villains in a world where time can’t be wasted. They are too often also viewed as signs of weakness. We create a closed system of thinking when we think we know it all. These systems are often efficient and get the job done but too often overlook or ignore many important ideas or experiences that ultimately would expand our vision.

Let the dots connect themselves. One of my favorite Steve Jobs sayings is that we can only connect the dots in retrospect not in the present. Many times experiences that seem unrelated in the moment come together over the years in unexpected ways. Too often we miss opportunities because we reject experiences that don’t seem to have relevance to the task at hand. “Collect the dots” and trust that they will connect themselves over time.

Have fun playing around. Fun and play should be false anathemas when it comes to education. We only lend credence to this when we ourselves forget to play with ideas or fail to let them excite us. Students learn more from our spark of passion and enthusiasm for what we are teaching than merely from its content.

Tell your students about “How I spent my summer vacation.” We forget to let our students know that we are still learning. One of the best ways to get student cooperation and participation is to tell them you need their help in trying out something you learned. Share your learning journey; tell them how you let yourself get confused or how you questioned a firmly held belief.

Believe that you are the change. When you let yourself retreat in order to move forward, you are telling yourself that you make the difference in your students lives more than a program, curriculum or any initiative. Education should be a shared experience of learning with the educator and the student playing different roles governed by the recognition and respect for each other’s desire to learn and grow. In short, the best way to teach is to learn together.

A retreat can allow an educator to move forward in ways that cannot be predicted or managed. That is a good thing! It can inject new ideas and life into a job that sadly can often become just a job. Educators owe to themselves and their students to find the time for their own learning. Dare I say it? Have some fun this summer!

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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