Available November 21, 2023
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If you had the opportunity to step away from your day-to-day life for six weeks, what would you do with that time? Where would you go? And what lessons would you bring back with you, when the time came to return to your daily routine? School leader Briel Schmitz reflects on her sabbatical journey along the Camino de Santiago in Europe, and how taking that time away from work has influenced her whole school community.
Briel talks with host Tim Fish about the unique experience they share: Each of them embarked upon a sabbatical to walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in the fall of 2023. Although they didn’t take the journey together, they definitely walked the same path, as Tim says. Both returned with new thoughts on lifelong learning, productive struggle, and leadership that will inform their outlook on education going forward.
Delving into the preparation for her sabbatical, Briel outlines the steps that she took with her board to navigate the conversation and negotiate a six-week journey as part of her contract. She discusses how she prepared the school community for her absence, outlining the choices made around timing, staff coverage, communication, and transparency. Briel highlights a staff retreat, where everyone was able to bring questions and concerns to the group, as key to the process.
Reflecting that the experience is still fresh, and there will certainly be long-term realizations and discoveries to be made, Briel shares that she has seen growth in her staff as a result of her absence. Having the opportunity to step up and contribute to the school community in new ways allowed staff members to grow and try different things they may not have attempted otherwise. She particularly notes the shift this growth has encouraged her to make in her own leadership practice, leaning into gratitude for all the staff has done in her absence and making a special effort to notice and praise each individual effort.
Her own growth through the sabbatical experience, Briel says, has centered around gaining a newfound perspective on herself as a learner. Accustomed to navigating the world as a confident and seasoned mid-career school leader, she had to adjust to walking the Camino as a complete beginner, uncertain whether she’d reach her goal. Understanding what it’s like to take the risks we ask of students each day, growing and learning along the path, and enduring discomfort to eventually achieve the desired result all resonated with both Briel and Tim during their Camino journeys. They also share reflections on the lessons of simplicity and community gained on the 500-mile walk, and how those ideas can both inform and transform the way we plan for the future of our schools.
Some of the key questions Tim and Briel explore in this episode include:
- What led to the decision to take a sabbatical? How did that conversation unfold with the board and school staff?
- What were the key components of the preparation you did as a school community to allow for this sabbatical journey? What did you all learn as part of this process?
- How did the journey on the Camino inform your understanding of yourself as a leader and a community member? How has it changed your leadership practice?
- “I think you have to say what you need and want. And if you don't say what you need and want, then you're not going to get that back. So that's the first thing. And the next thing is that when a person like myself, who has a big personality in an organization, has been here for a long time, leaves, it allows everyone else the opportunity to grow into a space that they couldn't before.” (14:36)
- “I was thinking about what it felt like to be a beginner. What it felt like to be doing something that was difficult, what it felt like to maybe not be the best person at this, because I'm at a point in my career where I've had some success and I know what it feels like to be good at things, and I know the things I'm good at. And to really put myself in a position where I wasn't the best at this. What do I do in that moment? How do I respond to that?” (24:32)
- “I think it takes a lot of energy to say no. It's fun to say yes, in the sense of you're building something, you're creating something, it's something new, and saying yes is important, but I think our schools may benefit from some clarity that allows it to be more possible to say no. Like that's not actually a part of what we do, and that it gives you more time and space to do the things that you're saying yes to.” (35:01)
- Discover more about Spruce Street School.
- Listen to Briel’s interview on the NAIS Member Voices Podcast.
- Learn about the Camino de Santiago.
- Read the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, referenced in this episode.
- Read the full transcript here.
- Episode 42: Seven Lessons for School Leadership
- Episode 38: Strategic Accountability in Education
- Episode 25: Developing Independent School Leaders for the Future
- Episode 20: The Future of Schools as Desirable Workplaces
- Episode 13: Giving Away Power for More Authentic Leadership
About Our Guest
Briel Schmitz has been head of Spruce Street School (WA) since 2002. She has 10 years of experience as a classroom teacher, both as a bilingual first-grade teacher in the Houston public schools (through Teach For America) and as a multi-age early elementary teacher in Seattle. She is passionate about working with new teachers and women in leadership. She designed and ran a beginning teaching program from 1996-2002, coaches and mentors the interns at Spruce Street School, and worked with NWAIS to establish Pathways to Leadership, a cohort for women interested in becoming heads of school. Briel studied education policy as an undergraduate at Brown University and holds a master’s degree in administration and policy analysis from Stanford University. She has served as a board member and chair for the Northwest Association of Independent Schools and the Washington Federation of Independent Schools. In her free time, Briel enjoys reading and traveling with her husband.