Visioning Retreats as a Strategy for Leadership Development and Site Development
How does a long-established writing project site like ours continually reinvent itself so that its spiral of programs and teacher-leaders widens rather than narrows?
—Jane Frick, Director, Prairie Lands Writing Project
I knew that it would be impossible for me to single-handedly…carry out the work of the Live Oak Writing Project; the retreat was the answer to that dilemma.
—Elaine White, Director, Live Oak Writing Project
Over the past several years, National Writing Project sites at various stages of development have found visioning retreats to be an effective strategy for bringing together directors and teacher-leaders to take stock of where the site has been and how they hope to see it grow in the future. In particular, sites have found visioning retreats to be a valuable means of developing a collaborative vision and collective commitment to extending the work of the site. In a variety of contexts, visioning retreats have provided an impetus to site development for
- sites in their early years to develop a full array of continuity and inservice programs beyond the summer invitational institute
- sites undergoing a leadership transition or reorganization to focus and clarify their mission
- mature sites to reinvigorate site leadership and refocus the work of the site.
What Is a Visioning Retreat?
At any level of site development, visioning retreats accomplish similar goals and share a fundamental dynamic. As we have come to understand, a visioning retreat is a gathering of interested site leaders—including director/s, co-director/s, and teacher leaders—for the purpose of taking stock of the current work of the site and, in view of that, envisioning the road to future growth and development. In general, the primary purposes of a visioning retreat include the following:
- engaging a group of leaders in collaborating to create a “big picture” of the site
- identifying new program opportunities, resources, and site leaders
- developing a strategic plan.
A visioning retreat is an event designed as the beginning of a deliberate process, one that includes planning, facilitation, and follow-up. While sites at various stages of development motivated by a variety of goals and purposes have benefited from visioning retreats, the rhythm of their work has been remarkably similar.
The impulse to host a visioning retreat often begins with a site director’s sense that there is pressing work to be done. Whether the goal is to build leadership, to develop continuity and inservice programs, or to rebuild and reorganize the site after a leadership transition, a visioning retreat provides the time, place, and focus to move forward.
Beyond having a particular focus and purpose for coming together, planning principles for a visioning retreat generally include attention to the following:
- inclusion and diversity of participants
- sufficient time and an inviting space within which to work
- an agenda that follows familiar writing project rhythms of reading, writing, reflection, and sharing.
As Prairie Lands Writing Project co-director Tom Pankiewicz reminds us, site leaders should never underestimate the power of the invitation or the willingness of teacher-consultants to invest their energies in the work of their sites. For his site, “The importance of the invitation became clear at the 2003 visioning retreat. Teacher-consultants felt honored to be asked to participate and to share their dreams for the future of the writing project.” And beyond noting that “rarely has any invitation been declined,” Tom emphasizes that PLWP has grown as a direct result of the invitation to teacher-consultants, who “have become active in the writing project through this direct invitation to participate in a leadership role.”
The visioning retreat itself follows a familiar pattern of coming together, looking back, and looking forward. Participants begin by taking stock, that is, by examining and describing the work of the site at that moment in time. Sites have found a variety of prewriting activities and writing prompts, including the following, to be effective in helping the leadership pose critical questions and clarify issues central to their work:
- What have been our greatest successes?
- What challenges do we face?
- Where are there opportunities to extend our work?
- Who will lead?
- How will we organize ourselves?
- How will we support each other in leading the work?
- How will we adapt to challenges and changes?
- How will we monitor and evaluate progress towards our goals?
The event itself, as Elaine White recognized in planning the Live Oak Writing Project’s first visioning retreat, can serve as a model of shared leadership: “I wanted the retreat to demonstrate the leadership style that I envisioned: shared governance—teachers teaching teachers. I wanted to empower teacher-consultants to develop into teacher-leaders. As soon as I knew who would attend, I asked for help in preparing and conducting the retreat.”
Strategic Planning and Follow-up
While a visioning retreat may accomplish the immediate goal of bringing site leaders together to develop a shared vision for the future of their work, it is important to understand the retreat itself as merely the first step in a process. The key to its impact is in the follow-up. Once site leaders have developed a vision and framed a strategic plan, the work that remains is that of empowering and supporting teacher-leaders to implement program ideas and of monitoring progress through regular check-ins and follow-up meetings.
An important outcome of the Prairie Lands visioning retreat was the development of a “Strategic Plan: Project Implementation Status” chart which listed “each project, its completion status, and the teacher-consultant leadership team responsible for its implementation.” In addition, as Jane Frick explains, PLWP outlined a plan for monitoring the site’s progress toward achieving its goals: “We then published the chart in our newsletter and on our listserv, soliciting additional teacher-consultants to join one or more of our project leadership teams, and at our Advisory Board meetings in October, December, and the following summer, we distributed an updated version of the chart, a visual reminder of our strategic program goals and whether we had achieved them.”
Not only did the Prairie Lands site leadership produce a vision for the future development of the site, they also outlined a plan for implementation, assigned responsibilities, and developed a system to support site leaders and to monitor and record progress toward the accomplishment of site goals.
Regardless of a site’s age and stage of development, a visioning retreat that engages and inspires site leaders can be an effective “jump start” to the next level of program development. When Live Oak Writing Project director Elaine White faced the inevitable challenge confronting young sites as they seek to extend their work beyond the summer invitational institute, she recalled her own earlier experience in a visioning retreat hosted by the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute. Elaine recognized in that model a valuable strategy for enlisting the energies of teachers and moving her own site forward: “Teachers were enlisted into the work of the institute and then were given the freedom to collaborate in planning the work and developing programs that tapped into the participants’ interests and experiences.”
For Elaine and her colleagues at LOWP, a visioning retreat seemed the perfect vehicle to “jump start” the next level of site work. And Prairie Lands found similar inspiration and momentum for extending the work of their mature site—from the active participation of teacher-leaders on the site’s advisory board to leadership roles in new programs that emerged from their visioning retreat. As PLWP co-director Tom Pankiewicz notes, “Each initiative found its leaders among the teachers at that meeting.”