The Same ‘What,’ a Different ‘How’: An Interview about Staff Onboarding

“It was very much Brilla,” 6th Grade ELA teacher Mr. Tim McGovern described virtual staff onboarding. Like so many other events this year, onboarding was held remotely. What did he mean by “very much Brilla”?  He explained: “Joyful, person-centered, and, at the same time, intense.” He continued, “I was a bit skeptical about how onboarding would go virtually. While Zoom can never make up for interpersonal interactions, I was pleasantly surprised by how formative, fun, helpful, and community-oriented the experience was.”

Mr. McGovern and his coworkers at Brilla College Prep Middle film a fun video to welcome scholars to the new school year.

Each year, while scholars enjoy the last weeks of their summer, staff come to school to participate in onboarding. The weeks are packed: staff spend time internalizing Brilla’s mission statement, honing their skills, and building relationships. Chief of Schools Mrs. Kelsey LaVigne always begins onboarding by asking staff to reflect on a question: “Why are you here?” Normally Mrs. LaVigne continues: “Why are you here: in the Bronx, with this team, on this steamy August morning?” This year was different, though. “Why are you here: Zooming in from your front porch, kitchen table, or living room sofa, committing to our families and scholars during what we know will be a year unlike any other?” she asked.

Mr. McGovern with his wife, Mrs. Lena McGovern, 1st Grade Teacher at Brilla Veritas Elementary

Mr. McGovern pondered that question.  He first recalled how he ended up at Brilla. An avid reader and fascinated by ancient languages, he majored in Classics and Literary Studies at Middlebury College. During college, he spent summers working at a camp. It was then that he realized he could combine his love for learning and working with children by becoming a teacher. After college, he taught at another charter school in the Bronx. While he learned a lot that year, he lacked the autonomy and support he needed to develop as a teacher. “My girlfriend at the time (who now is my wife), Mrs. Lena McGovern, was working at Brilla and loved it. The more she told me about Brilla, the more I wanted to work there.” Sure enough, in Spring 2019, Mr. McGovern applied for an ELA position at Brilla College Prep Middle School. “I knew from my first day of onboarding last year that I made the right decision to come to Brilla,” he shared. “Brilla is different. As a teacher, if you have an idea, you can run with it. Your colleagues and administration will support you. You can really make an impact here.”

Why is Mr. McGovern still at Brilla? His answer: the mission and the people. “I think the urgency of Brilla’s mission comes across especially now in light of the pandemic and the racial injustice around us,” he told me. While unpacking Brilla’s mission statement, staff grappled with what it means that Brilla Public Charter Schools are schools in the classical tradition. Mr. McGovern shared, “The term ‘classical education’ can feel amorphous sometimes. Everyone has their own idea of it. I am grateful that the sessions on Brilla Classical were really clear. A Brilla Classical education is about cultivating wisdom and virtue.” He learned that classical education can be culturally responsive. Because classical education is about acquiring wisdom and virtue and wisdom and virtue are enduring truths, the study of all sorts of cultures belong in a classical education.

While much of the year remains uncertain, onboarding enabled Mr. McGovern to feel prepared for the challenges ahead. “Ms. Santos and Ms. Thomas facilitated a really impactful session on trauma. Their session reminded me that I work with experts and can continue to learn so much from them.” Mr. McGovern told me he was grateful for the creative ways Brilla’s leadership teams facilitated connection in the remote world. He particularly appreciated his Brilla Bunch, a group of 8-10 staff members (representing different expertise, role, seniority, and campus) who met on Zoom twice weekly. Using a daily guide for each conversation, Brilla Bunches gave staff the opportunity to build cross-functional relationships.

A Brilla Bunch poses for a photo showing their school spirit

As for his favorite event of onboarding, Mr. McGovern responded without hesitation: the chant competition. Throughout the course of onboarding, grade-level teams write and choreograph a chant incorporating key elements from Brilla’s mission. The finalists from each campus go on to compete at a Network-wide event which concludes onboarding. This year, all 215 Brilla staff attended a Zoom call to watch the finalists and find out who would be named the winner. Staff’s energy and joy were palpable through the screen: smiles abounded and the chat filled up with enthusiastic words. Even though Mr. McGovern’s 6th grade team didn’t take home the winning prize, he was thrilled with the event. “The chant competition concluded a really incredible year of onboarding. I logged off of Zoom that afternoon thinking how excited I am to see my scholars again.” Indeed, onboarding set the tone for the school year ahead: while the way we do things may look very different this year, we are still very much Brilla.

The Kindergarten Team at Brilla Pax took home the winning prize at the chant competition.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Danielle Schirripa is Special Projects Manager for the Brilla School Network. In her role, she assists the Executive Director in external communication and fundraising for Brilla. She studied Mathematics and Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Originally from Boston, MA, she enjoys spending time at the beach and watching the Red Sox. 

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