Getting to the Heart of the Matter: A Group Level Understanding in Action

By Carla Adivi

[This article is the third in a four-part series featuring recent graduates of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). MTEI is a two-year journey of discovery, helping educational leaders transform their educational communities into places where teachers learn together, exploring both Jewish content and how to enrich learning for students.]

What happens when you put four attorneys, three therapists, two clergy, one graphic designer, and a recent college graduate in a room for seven hours? You get a rich opportunity to implement some of the skills and foundational principles that are at the heart of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI).

During our recent annual retreat, the twelve-member education Board of the JEWELS home-based Jewish and Hebrew education program of Valley Outreach Synagogue (VOS) in Calabasas, California, gathered to celebrate successes, identify challenges, establish and prioritize short and long term goals, and create an action plan for the future. The structure that allowed for this process of authentic reflection and visioning is called Group Level Understanding, or GLU.

GLU is a qualitative and participatory large group protocol in which relevant data is collaboratively generated and interactively evaluated. It makes the needs, challenges, and assets of a group visible while leveling the playing field for all, resulting in the creation of a responsive curriculum. On a recent Sunday, I co-facilitated the seven step GLU process with support from Laurie Eisenberg, VOS VP of Education.

The first step was “Climate Setting” and trust building. This Board spent a considerable amount of time over the past several years creating an intentional relational community to support Jewish education, and therefore established a high level of trust, and were comfortable taking risks and sharing vulnerabilities. Consistent with MTEI’s principle of “Jewish learning at the core,” our Chaplain, Jennifer Eves Nye, launched the session with inspiring words of wisdom based on Torah text. I then gave a detailed overview of the GLU process since it was new to all.

A week prior to our retreat, we began the step of “Generating” in hopes of revealing covert issues, hidden agendas, and the Board’s assets and vision. Via e-mail Laurie asked each member to assess themselves by completing fourteen prompts regarding their experience as a Board, as opposed to their experience with our education program. The prompts were a balance between strengths and weaknesses, both positive and negative, i.e.: we are most proud about…; mistakes we tend to repeat include…; the best part of being on the Board is…; our biggest regret is…. Others were both specific and broad: in order to be more effective we should…; our biggest hopes and dreams are…. Some were serious, others silly: draw a bumper sticker that represents the JEWELS Board. Participants were asked to put their responses on numbered post-it notes corresponding to each prompt.

Next, all in silence, we put our post-it notes on fourteen flip chart pages and spent a few minutes “Appreciating” each other’s responses. With markers, we performed a “gallery walk,” circling the room, reviewing each response, and checking off or writing comments on statements we agreed with or which sparked further thought. We then spent a few minutes individually “Reflecting” about the data as a whole, noting our initial reactions or observations.

The next phase of the process represented the ‘U’ in GLU, gathering in small groups to analyze the data for “Understanding” the key themes across a set of charts. A substantial amount of time was dedicated to this step, as it revealed the heart of the matter during these small, but intensive, break-out sessions.

We then reconvened as a large group to begin clarifying and “Selecting” the most important ideas, distilling and prioritizing themes from the prior step. Some of the most significant outcomes included short and long-term imperatives:

  • Guiding Principles:
    • Ensure Jewish values are at the core of our decision-making process;
    • Clarify the JEWELS mission and goals to help define what we do and don’t do;
  • Healthy Relationships:
    • Foster healthy relationships within our Board by holding ourselves and others accountable and letting go of relationships that don’t serve us despite discomfort;
  • Cultivating Leadership:
    • Identify a pool of volunteers from which the Board can draw in order to develop potential new Board members.

Issues identified that did not fit into any of the general themes were “parked” on a separate list and included: creating Board member criteria/expectations; and, increasing child-clergy and parent-clergy interactions.

The concluding step of the GLU addressed the concern of taking on the multitude of pressing issues identified during the process, which could seem overwhelming. This step guided the group to determine a course of “Action” based on identified priorities in order to be informed of future programs, interventions, and developments. Our group agreed to revisit each of the outcomes during Board meetings throughout the coming year.

Following the retreat, I asked participants to answer a prompt and personally reflect on their GLU experience. Their responses were a testament to the power of achieving the goals of this process:

What is alive for me right now regarding the JEWELS Board is…

  • How wonderfully committed each and every person strives to improve how we operate as a Board to make us more effective. (Michael M.)
  • How we are not afraid to tackle the difficult issues that we may encounter as a leadership Board and/or within ourselves. (Laurie E.)

As a result of engaging in the GLU, each Board member is now fully invested in this process and committed to following up with our plan throughout the coming year. The GLU brought tangibly to life one of the core principles of MTEI, which I want to hold tight: there is an impact of learning collaboratively that brings both depth and connection.

Carla Adivi is Director of Lifelong Learning at Valley Outreach Synagogue & Center for Jewish Life in Calabasas, CA and is a recent graduate of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI).