The Good, The Bad, The Honest Truth: What does a culture of learning mean for all of us?

The RobersonsAbout a year ago, Blossom Philadelphia began a strategic planning process that involved taking a long, hard look at where the organization is now, and where it wants to be in the future. This included talking with the individuals Blossom Philadelphia serves and their families, direct support staff, administrators, board members, and people from the broader community. After many months of really listening to and thinking about what was said, Blossom Philadelphia made a number of important decisions, a couple of which particularly resonated for me. One was Blossom Philadelphia’s explicit commitment to continue serving people with the most complex needs, and the other was a commitment to establish a “culture of learning” throughout the organization.

What does culture of learning mean? I’m guessing different people would define it differently, but to me it means an openness to new ideas and experiences, a willingness to take risks and get outside our comfort zones. It means seeing change as an ongoing process rather than a fixed endpoint, and something that rarely can be checked off as simply good or bad, success or failure. And a culture of learning? I think that means creating an environment that encourages people to support one another in this process—in part by making it safe to ask probing questions, speak out honestly, and admit to mistakes. It means exploring together why something went well, or not so well, and then using that information to make thoughtful choices about next steps.

This ideal is hard to achieve, especially when there are so many competing priorities and pressures for our time.  But if my daughter, who needs 24/7 care, is going to have the supports necessary to ensure her safety and well-being, and help her have a valued role in the community, it will take people within and outside of Blossom Philadelphia who are willing to engage in this kind of learning.  Here’s an example of what I mean:

A few years ago when Katie was still in school, she had the opportunity to go once a week to a local pet supply store where she’d play with the cats who were waiting to be adopted. She adores animals, so she was delighted with this arrangement, and the store manager was genuinely glad to have someone help socialize the cats. Everyone involved agreed it was a positive experience. Consider, though, how much learning went into making it a success:

  1. First, people had to figure out what Katie’s interests were, since she couldn’t easily articulate them. We, her parents, contributed to that understanding, as well as the school staff who had known Katie over a period of time. It involved a lot of observation, and listening to her—even when she wasn’t using words.
  2. The school had to build a relationship with the store manager, and help him understand what, specifically, it would mean to have Katie there each week. He was open to the idea—but if he hadn’t been, there might have been the need for more relationship building and education before the arrangement would work. It also wasn’t necessary in this case to raise awareness or teach the other store employees new skills, but again, I can imagine circumstances where it might be.
  3. The school needed to find a staff person who could manage the complexities of bringing Katie into the community. Among other things, this involved her working independently outside the school building, establishing a good working relationship with the manager, dealing with unexpected situations as they arose, and facilitating positive interactions between Katie and the people she met at the store.
  4. The school needed to choose the right employee for the job, figure out transportation, and make sure this staff person’s other responsibilities were dealt with when she was out of the building.
  5. Katie had to be willing to try to learn the skills that were expected of her in this particular setting.

Thankfully everything went well, but any one of those pieces of the puzzle—and many more I haven’t listed—could have entailed a new hurdle that involved more learning on someone’s, or many people’s, part.

It sounds like a lot, and it is, but I believe establishing a culture of learning has the potential to benefit everyone involved.  New challenges become opportunities for better understanding ourselves and each other, and by doing the hard work together, we strengthen the connections between us that are at the heart of growing, thriving, enduring communities.

This is my last post for this blog series. Thank you for reading it! If you’re interested in learning more about my experiences raising a child with special needs, I have a book of poetry, Moment of Departure, available on Amazon.

This post is part of a series that originally appeared on the Blossom Philadelphia (formerly United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia & Vicinity) website.

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