ISLA Leadership Retreat 2019 Recap:
Where Professional Development, Self-Care and Spiritual Growth Meet
Note: A version of this article will appear in the Islamic Horizons March/April 2020 issue.
Over the weekend of December 6-8, 2019, approximately seventy-five Islamic school administrators and educators from across the nation gathered in Parrish, Florida to participate in the 8th Annual ISLA Leadership Retreat. These participants represented thirty Islamic schools from seventeen different states, which collectively educate over 7,000 students in Pre-K through 12th grade. Through interactive workshops, reflection activities, micro-practices and networking, this year’s participants explored the theme of “Mindful Leadership: Cultivating Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide.”
The 2019 theme was a continuation of the 2018 ISLA Leadership Retreat, entitled “Beyond Academics: The Unspoken Challenges Facing Students Today.” From exploring the rising tide of mental health issues in teens to preventing bullying and suicide to developing crisis response plans, the 2018 retreat hit on many heavy topics.
The 2018 retreat’s Resident Scholar, Dr. Madiha Tahseen, a psychologist and researcher at The Family & Youth Institute, provided tools for how to handle many of these issues successfully with children and adolescents. Yet, participants felt the issues required even more time and requested that the 2019 retreat focus on more methods for supporting the positive development of Muslim youth, especially considering the multi-faceted challenges they are facing in today’s fast-paced and distracting world.
In this vein, a theme focused on mindful leadership and social-emotional learning was chosen for 2019. The 2019 Resident Scholar was Wadud Hassan, a nationally renowned mindfulness and character coach and founder of Define360. Accompanied by co-instructor Susan Labadi, a national leader in Islamic education, the duo led three interactive workshops on mindfulness and emotional intelligence.
Specifically, they uncovered “The Why and How of Mindfulness,” establishing a scientific explanation for the many ways in which mindfulness has been proven to positively affect individuals’ ability to deal with stressful situations. They also provided information on “Emotional Self-awareness and Strategies for Successful Self-regulation”, which included tools that both professionals and students could use in their daily life. Finally, their culminating presentation highlighted the many ways in which the Prophet Muhammad integrated mindfulness in his own life and spiritual practice, as participants were encouraged to develop their own philosophy of “Mindful Leadership.”
Importantly, participants had ample opportunities to practice mindfulness techniques throughout the weekend. During one poignant moment, participants all stepped outside of the conference hall and performed a mindfulness practice known as “The Body Scan.” Br. Wadud asked the participants to sit in a circle on the ground, close their eyes, and focus internally on different parts of their body, paying special attention to the way they were breathing and the smells and sensations affiliated with being in nature. It was a powerful moment in which participants collectively focused on their individual selves, while gaining a sense of unity through the mere act of performing the body scan in unison.
Many other opportunities were integrated into the retreat to facilitate collaboration, networking and brotherly and sisterly bonding. On both Friday and Saturday of the retreat, for example, participants were given the choice of participating in an outdoor activity, including canoeing, archery or tai chi. Led by ISLA board member Dr. Fawzia Tung, participants who engaged in tai chi were guided on how to engage in flowing movement that helps develop focus and harmonizes the mind and body together. Those who chose to try out archery, worked on hand-eye coordination and some light-hearted fun.
For the remaining participants who chose canoeing, this required them to step outside of their own comfort zones, as it was the first time many canoed. By doing so, they were able to experience something new, gaining a sense of accomplishment and pride. Importantly, the ISLA Retreat purposefully integrates such opportunities into the program in order to facilitate new experiences for personal growth and reflection. Furthermore, these activities allow participants to physically remove themselves from the distractions of daily life and immerse themselves in the tranquility that often nature alone can provide.
In addition to the workshops led by the Resident Scholar and the outdoor activities, there were other school leaders who facilitated workshops. Jelena Naim, principal of Al-Falah Academy in Atlanta, Georgia lead an interactive session that allowed participants to reflect on social emotional learning in their schools to help participants learn best practices from one another.
In another workshop, Imam Jihad Saafir, director of Islah Academy in South Los Angeles, California, led participants through an approach to social emotional learning grounded in restorative justice, known as Talking Circles. Imam Jihad had participants engage in a mock Talking Circle to demonstrate the healing potential of this approach, in contrast to punitive disciplinary approaches.
Rasha El-Haggan, a board member of ISLA and a Dean of Academics at a prestigious private school in Maryland, talked about how to effectively create change in one’s school setting. She shared research on the phases of development that schools move through and the impact of that on stakeholders’ responses to change. She encouraged participants to identify where their schools fell on the spectrum in order to help them formulate how they might bring new ideas back to their schools, bearing the new information in mind.
At the conclusion of the retreat, participants were guided through an action planning session. The session gave participants the opportunity to work with colleagues on implementing actual initiatives or ideas in their schools related to mindful leadership and social emotional learning. They considered their schools’ current resources, strengths, and weaknesses in order to have a more realistic approach to implementation. Then they developed specific, time-bound goals that they could use to measure progress throughout the year. Furthermore, participants were invited to participate in a webinar with their 2019 Retreat cohort in a few months to check in on how their action plans were coming together.
While the weekend was full of informative workshops and engaging outdoor activities, participants also spent the weekend getting to know one another through fun activities like bonfire discussions and staying overnight in cabins at the retreat center. The rustic environment forced participants to leave behind modern comforts in exchange for the opportunity to connect with one another and engross themselves in nature and the theme of mindfulness and social emotional learning.
As a central program offered by the Islamic Schools League of America, the ISLA Leadership Retreat is a unique professional development opportunity that integrates both research-based practices that work with opportunities for spiritual and personal growth. As a professional organization dedicated to providing God-centered leadership, ISLA views the Leadership Retreats as an essential program for Islamic school professionals. The next ISLA Leadership Retreat is expected to take place in October 2020 at the Diyanet Center of America in Maryland. More information can be found at www.theisla.org/retreat.