Connecting Through Circles

Educators Ronett Jacobs ’98 and Heather Sattler ’96 have met in person only once, yet witnessing them in a conversation over Zoom, one would think they’d been colleagues for decades.

Brought together when they enrolled in Alverno’s new online EdD program, which launched its first cohort in January, these two educators and Alverno alums felt an instant connection that led to a professional partnership around using circles to facilitate sharing, listening and healing.

“What we both share, Heather and I, is the idea of global perspective,” says Jacobs (above, left). “Not only are we sisters in the EdD cohort, but we are merging our passions in this new way.

 The Institute of Circlework describes Circlework as a powerful and effective tool for awakening global consciousness. Grounded in indigenous traditions, which have long revered the circle as a powerful healing agent and the foundation for community, Circlework is now used by leaders in many different fields of work to create interconnectedness and provide participants with the opportunity to be heard. It is particularly useful in educational settings where it can help balance the power dynamic between teachers and students.

Long before she had heard of Circlework, Jacobs was using community circles in her third- and fourth-grade classrooms in Franklin. “When I left Franklin, my classroom community consisted of 60 students in one space, and the only way we fit all those bodies so that everyone was seen and heard was to be in a circle,” she says.

After working as an instructional coach for teachers, she came to Alverno two years ago as the coordinator for the Teach for America partnership. This past year, Jacobs also began working with Alverno’s cohort in the Leadership Advancing Character and Culture in Schools (LACCS) program. Circlework is integrated into the LACCS program to teach teachers, and educational leaders learn how to use circles with their faculty and in their classrooms.

When COVID-19 hit, it made perfect sense to Jacobs to ask Sattler (above, right) to lead Restorative Circles for LACCS participants, who, like educators around the world, have been thrown into online teaching.

“We asked Heather to bring her students who have worked on Circlework to help leaders in LACCS to heal by creating space,” Jacobs says. “We want them to be better equipped when they go back into the schools.”

In 2011, Sattler began facilitating the creation of a whole-school model of student-led Restorative Practices at the Alliance School, a small, K-12 charter school of the Milwaukee Public School system. The school opened in 2005 with the goal of providing a safe and accepting environment for all students.

Sattler believes that the circle is the heart of Restorative Practice because sitting in circle cultivates a connected way of being. Everyone in the school learns and practices Circlework. The juniors lead the circles in the school and local community. The advanced class mentors them and teaches people from the local, national and international communities. They have traveled with Sattler to lead sessions around the country. They’ve led circles at higher education institutions, including Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Harvard University, as well as schools and other organizations within Milwaukee.

“My students are powerful teachers,” Sattler says. “My work is supporting young people to be fully in their power.”

Sattler never imagined holding online circles, which didn’t seem to align with the interconnectedness that usually takes place. Due to the pandemic, however, that’s what Sattler has done, most recently with a group of more than 200 people from Georgetown University’s Center for Poverty and Inequality.

“I was in quarantine for one day and said ‘we’re going to do virtual circles,’” she says. “My students do the facilitation, and I support them.”

Both Jacobs and Sattler appreciate that Alverno has created a space for them to lead this work as part of the EdD program.

“Being at Alverno amid COVID-19 gives me all of those opportunities for strengthening my ability to be a fearless, courage and flexible practitioner,” Jacobs says. “The Alverno way of thinking and doing things, the idea of connectedness and global perspective, that doesn’t always happen in other places.”

Sattler agrees, saying she was skeptical of completing a doctoral program online. Her familiarity with Alverno as an undergrad propelled her to take the leap.

“It’s powerful that we are in this program right now,” she says. “It’s harmful when we separate ourselves. The circles remind us of the truth that we are meant to be deeply connected to ourselves and each other. Sharing our stories can be healing for us and be an offering for others.”

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