Skip to main content
BlogLeadership Insights

“Holding environments” can be truly electric!

By July 14, 2009June 16th, 20162 Comments

Last week, I co-facilitated a series of Balanced Leadership sessions for school leaders here at our offices in Denver. As is our practice, we provided participants with opportunities to speak freely with one another, sharing challenges and concerns. I was struck by the fact that despite coming from all over the country (and even the Bahamas) many participants shared a common concern: a perceived disconnect between their schools and districts in which they operate.

At first, school leaders (whom I imagine are normally outspoken back at home) were reticent to engage in a discussion of this issue. But when we engaged them in a “holding environment” activity, called the World Café, which provided a forum for groups to engage in meaningful conversations, an enthusiasm for sharing and deeper discussion began to evolve among the group.

In our work with leaders, we often preach the power of creating a “holding environment” in schools, a figurative “safe place” where all staff members can share concerns, talk about what is going on in the organization, offer strategies, debate, clarify assumptions, or simply dream about initiatives, without fear of repercussion or verbal assault by others who might embrace an opposing point of view.

Too often, school leaders fail to create these “holding environments.” Mistrust and fear prevent teachers and other stakeholders from acting as true professionals, sharing ideas, and committing to a common purpose. But when then “safe zones” exist, they can be truly electric, tapping the power and collective wisdom of everyone in the school.

As you head back to your buildings in a few weeks, ask yourself: does my school have a “holding environment”? Do people in my building believe they can speak freely, even contradicting school administrators, if necessary? Are our faculty meetings a “safe place” to share ideas, challenge assumptions, and grow together as professionals?

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Learner says:

    Holding enviornments seem to be very situational based on the make up of the group. I would suggest that one person within a group can make a holding environment a place where not one is willing to share. When you go into a meeting where line and staff charts still exist the holding environment can go away based on the relationship between the supervision process.
    In my opinion Holding Environments are the only way that schools or districts can make progress. We must all be open to input that can help us move to the next level.

  • Esther says:

    Without the ability to speak freely, somewhere, sometime and somehow in a school, it is sure that intellectual activity will suffer a slow and painful death.
    How are we going to teach children to think critically, when we aren’t allowed to think and question what we are doing and why?

Leave a Reply