Rising with Resilience:
ISLA Leadership Retreat 2020 Recap
noun- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
If there was any one word that could capture the spirit of our Islamic school educators amidst all of the chaos and crisis created by Covid-19, it was “Resilience.”
The challenges of 2020 gave all of us the opportunity to prove that necessity is the mother of invention. The pandemic created multilayered problems that caused Islamic organizations and schools to rethink their “normal” and reinvent how they would go about delivering their core programs and services– or enhance them to meet the new needs of their constituents.
The work that the Islamic Schools League of America (ISLA; www.theisla.org) does is no different. With the new set of challenges presented by Covid-19, ISLA had to rethink how they deliver on an annual tradition, the ISLA Leadership Retreat, designed to provide professional and spiritual development to full-time Islamic school leaders across the nation.
This year’s 9th annual ISLA Leadership Retreat was planned to take place right before the presidential elections in the last weeks of October 2020 at the Diyanet Center of America (https://diyanetamerica.org), only a 30-minutes drive from Washington, D.C. The ISLA’s executive director had visited the location, planned out the lodging and conference logistics, and was working with the program committee to integrate elements of nature-based excursions, team-building activities, and a “field trip” to the Capitol and the Nation’s Mosque in the heart of the city. The theme of the retreat would be related to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in Islamic schools
Yet, in March 2020 when WHO officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic, ISLA indefinitely postponed the event. They refocused their energies on providing immediate support to Islamic school leaders and teachers to help them transition to remote and hybrid learning, fundraising during a pandemic, accessing federal emergency funding, and exploring their own role and responsibility around racism in the United States and within our Islamic institutions.
There was little time to reconsider the ISLA Leadership Retreat, which has been a tradition for nine years. However, as things started to quiet down (relatively speaking) by November, the organization reconvened its program committee and explored how it could create an event that could help Islamic school educators reflect on, appreciate and celebrate the challenges they faced and overcame in this historic year.
If there was any one word that could capture the spirit of our Islamic school educators amidst all of the chaos and crisis created by Covid-19, it was “Resilience.” In spite of everything else happening in the world, Islamic school teachers and leaders showed up every day to provide young people with consistency, community, and social and emotional support to help them navigate through these difficult times. For several months at the start of the new academic year, administrators participated in weekly meetings hosted by ISLA to connect and learn from one another, and teachers attended weekly “Teach with Tech” workshops. Their persistent efforts to meet the needs of their students were remarkable, even as many struggled with personal health concerns and anxieties experienced by the broader public.
While typically the ISLA Leadership Retreat takes place in a natural setting, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and occurs over an entire weekend with physical activities and team-building opportunities, there was no such option for the ISLA Leadership Retreat 2020; it had to be virtual. Given the “Zoom fatigue” that everyone was experiencing, ISLA decided to host a 2-hour event in place of its traditional retreat that would be upbeat and fun.
Over 75 participants attended the virtual retreat. The program theme was “Rising with Resilience.” Towards this end, educators were requested to send in a brief video to reflect on what helped them remain resilient in 2020. These videos were compiled into a “video hug,” that weaved together the participants’ segments into an uplifting and inspirational testimony of their collective resolve (https://tinyurl.com/isla-resilience).
Additionally, the retreat included raffles and giveaways with gift cards to their vendor of choice, a gift card to all participants to The ISLA Bookstore (www.theislabookstore.org), courtesy of partnering organization, Al-Furqaan Foundation, and some free professional development workshops for winning schools.
While the virtual event was only two hours long, the program included a variety of interactive activities. It began with a beautiful recitation of Surah Duha (Chap. 93), connected to the theme of “rising with resilience” by IANT Quranic Academy’s (www.myiqa.org) Shaykh Muhammad Khan. Participants were guided through a mindfulness practice led by Wadud Hassan, founder of Define 360 (www.define360.online), reflecting upon some of Allah’s names and attributes. Kathy Jamil, former ISLA board chair and founding principal of Universal School in Buffalo, N.Y., and current educational consultant (http://litconsulting.org), led a breakout session highlighting the importance of leading with clarity. ISLA executive director Shaza Khan concluded the event by sharing ISLA’s growth over the past year and upcoming programs and services that will help to support Islamic schools in 2021.
The event was remarkably close in spirit to the physical event, despite the many constraints of being held virtually and for such a short duration. There was a feeling of community, excitement, and celebration, with moments for reflection and connection to God and the sunnah of the Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). Due to it being held online, many educators were able to participate in the ISLA Retreat for the first time.
One retreat participant reflected, “I almost didn’t join because I am really tired of virtual experiences, but I’m glad I did!” And another summarized sentiments culminating from a year-long endeavor to collaborate with Islamic school colleagues across the country, “Truly a new experience. This pandemic made us find other ways to have this retreat, not miss it, and see all the people we have been meeting during the yearly retreats. Jazakum Allah Khairan for all you do for the Islamic education.”