Council: A Powerful Practice for Nourishing Community
At the heart of Sunrise Waldorf School is a strong sense of community. One tool that keeps us connected is Council where people come together with the intention of speaking and listening with their hearts. Faculty and staff practice it throughout the year to share experiences and hear each other’s perspectives. Teachers use it in the classroom to equip students with valuable life skills including compassionate listening, and conflict resolution.
What Is It? “Council is an ancient way of being together. It comes from people who lived close to the earth and the cycles of life. We told our stories in circle, we grieved in circle, and we made plans and decisions in circle," said Lori Austein, a Council trainer and facilitator who first brought the practice to SWS in 2006. Council is essentially a sharing circle. While circles like this have been used by many cultures for thousands of years, including First Nations cultures in BC and beyond, the processes we use at SWS follow a methodology developed by Joan Halifax, Jack Zimmerman, and Gigi Coyle of the Ojai Foundation. How Did Council Come to SWS? In 2006, a teacher at the school (Kate Pentland) invited Lori to offer Council to the Class 5 students. Lori explained that other teachers noticed the “positive class interactions, and added depth in support of the Waldorf curriculum” Council provided. As a result, they invited Lori to hold Council in their classrooms too. In 2019, Lori and Joe Provisor, Founding Director of the Council in Schools program, offered Council training to faculty, staff, and parents. Lori continues to hold Council for faculty and staff, and refresh their training annually. What Happens in Council? In Council, a group of people come together by sitting in a circle. (Although we have also met using Zoom when necessary.) A lit candle, and a choice of talking pieces form a centrepiece. The group chooses one or two facilitators to help ensure the process runs smoothly. In a classroom, the teacher usually facilitates. The facilitator usually begins the Council by asking a question. The theme is chosen to address a particular situation or experience that is alive for the group at that time. The facilitator may mention something specific, or raise the topic in a more general way to highlight our common humanity. All Council participants are asked to speak and listen with open hearts. Participants pass a “talking piece” (sometimes a “talking stick” is also used) to one another. The person holding the talking piece is given the opportunity to speak, but may choose not to. All others in the circle must listen when the person holding the piece is speaking. You may notice that the use of the “talking piece” or “talking stick” is a tradition used in many First Nations cultures. The Council methods were inspired by and developed in collaboration with some First Nations elders living in the United States. 1 How is Council Used in the Classroom? Class 2 co-teacher, Pepper Couelle-Sterling, holds Council weekly for the children in her class. Ms. Pepper varies the format from week to week, to keep the practice fresh. One week she may share a story with the children and ask them to reflect on it, another week she may ask the children to relate their own experiences. In addition, she introduces a new theme every month. Ms. Pepper also uses Council to address conflicts that may arise in class. She said, “If there’s some infighting and social struggles, I might do a Council on words that hurt and words that heal.” What Are the Benefits to Students? Lori shared, “Council helps students to understand and connect with each other. When students feel seen and heard, their nervous systems are ready to engage in learning, and they do better in school. Children who experience healthy relationships in school have greater resilience, and the capacity to overcome difficult circumstances.” Ms. Pepper said, “The biggest benefit in the class is that children learn to listen with their hearts, and to listen to others without interrupting.” She added, “They learn by reflecting on experience.” The BC Board of Education has recognized the importance of social and emotional education, and has created a set of Core Competencies that schools are expected to teach. Council is one tool we use to fulfill these expectations. What Are the Benefits to Faculty and Staff? Lori explained, “When members feel connected to one another in a meaningful way, they are happier at work, and more productive. It is easier to ask for support when you have a relationship built on respect and authenticity.” Ms. Pepper is grateful for the practice of Council at SWS. She said, “It’s a great opportunity to reflect, examine issues, or feel heard.” She went on to say, “It contributes to the culture of listening with your heart, and being open to other ideas.” Where Can I Learn More? If you would like to learn more about Council, this video on Council in schools is a good place to begin. You can also find more resources here. Reference
Zimmerman J, Coyle G, Hotchkiss M, Berg L, Provisor J, Long, LR. The practice of council: A history. Ways of Council. Accessed January 24, 2022. Retrieved from https://waysofcouncil.net/council-histories/