Communities Without Limits

I understand some of what people are talking about when they refer to feeling alone in a community of teachers. Whenever we swim against the intellectual current, we get resistance. Some of this resistance comes from the context (like the current) we are in. It pushes and pulls us in certain directions. Some of the resistance is interpersonal — it’s all those other fish staring at us (fishily!) as they swim by with ease in the other direction. The mental effort of resisting the current of ideas and the social effort of doing this on our own is exhausting and sometimes even maddening.

In my own professional practice, I experienced this kind of moment when I questioned the reasoning behind my school’s focus on critical pathways – essentially an approach that says if you focus on a specific expectation and teach explicitly to it over a six week period, then you would see an improvement in student understanding and achievement (as measured in a standardized setting). I wondered what the value of this kind of approach was in terms of learning and teaching. They didn’t understand my difficulty; if a strategy resulted in higher grades, then it must be a good thing, right?

The word community can be used to denote certain discrete contexts within education. There are educators who adhere to certain ‘schools,’ ‘issues,’ or ‘authorities’ for teaching and learning. There is, in the current context, a large group of teachers who is comfortable with the way things are in terms of assessment: they run classrooms with the traditional tasks and exams and grading of the kind we all remember from our own school experience. There are also groups of educators who are looking to transform these practices: teachers who are moving towards feedback and conferencing instead of traditional methodologies. Another group of teachers feels uneasy around both groups; they disagree with the pedagogy of the first and feel limited by the focus of the second.

When you start to find your legs in your own practice, you will discover that many of your peers will insist that you locate yourself in terms of a community of practice; to be blunt, they want you to pick the side or team that you are on. I think this desire for clarity and definitiveness is a result of our obsession with grades and scoring and objectivity. We seem to feel that if we don’t commit to something, then we stand for nothing. This fallacy is an impediment to good practice because it makes us inflexible to the needs of students (and our own needs) in order to be ‘consistent’ in our teaching.

It is important for me to make this connection between ways of thinking and behaving and ways of teaching, because, in my opinion many young (and not so young) teachers are leaving the profession because they find themselves in a position where they must make a choice between what their students are telling them and what they are being asked to do (and what almost everyone else is doing), and they can’t see a way out. When you get to a certain point, you figure that your only choices are either to go along with the rest of the fish or to be an outlier without peers.

Are communities places of conformity? Are they echo-chambers where we only receive positive feedback from others? Do we have to sacrifice ourselves, our identity and the complexity of our thinking, in order to be part of one? I don’t think we do. In fact, I think it is a mistake to try and to force people to fit themselves into these boxes. We instead need to ask ourselves if the communities we create are really open and accepting spaces where people can find an intellectual, social, emotional, and professional home. We also need to be on guard to make sure that the communities we create are organic enough to grow and adapt as new people come into it, and as existing members change in their views. For me, the question that I believe results in the best long term health for a community is: how do we invite those in and create space for those who don’t feel they belong? How do we validate and engage with and learn from those people?

Community is today generally used to define a group of people who share similar goals/values/interests or who live in the same place. In the first example the commonality is internal, and in the second it is external — that is how it is possible to live in a community and still not feel a part of it. I would like to both broaden and focus this definition in terms of education:

Community is a space (could be literal or figurative) that allows for people to connect and engage with others. Community is what grows out of relationship, which is what happens when two people interact and build trust.

This definition is rudimentary, I will admit, and very open to interpretation. In fact, it isn’t even necessarily positive. A group of people who espouse hate online would constitute a community in this sense. It wouldn’t be a community that I support or would be a part of, but it would fit the definition.

What I want to emphasize though, is that the best communities (my bias) are defined by the quality of the relationships and not by the amount of agreement and/or commonality between individual members. Communities should be able to entertain dissent, should be open to change, and should never feel limited by their own initial conditions of creation.

Point in case, the group of educators that compose Teachers Going Gradeless. This group was brought together ostensibly by an article written by Arthur Chiaravalli of the same name. Being human, we are compelled to name, define, and therefore limit the world we live in. The ‘gradeless’ tag is what started the connections between people, and in many ways it has limited who participates. If your focus isn’t assessment, and you don’t agree with Arthur’s contention, then you aren’t likely to jump on board to chat about your work on Twitter or Medium. However, these three words do not define the relationships of the group or limit the types of conversations we have about practice (or about family, or gifs, or professional development). It represents a starting point and nothing more. As more people join the group, the dynamic changes, as people share more, the interactions shift, and as trust grows in the community the more authentic and supportive and challenging the conversations become. As an aside, it is one of the reasons I prefer to refer to TG2 — if you don’t know what it stands for it is hard to assign it to a particular box out of hand. Ambiguity and uncertainty and questions are the fuel for conversations that push us and our understanding of the world — and I revel in spaces that embrace dissonance and respectful disagreement as a way of building trust and capacity in all participants.

A true community enables us. It invites us in and listens to us. It reflects our thinking back at us, validating some thoughts and forcing us to reconsider other ideas. It grows to fit new members. It allows and encourages people to come and go. And while it has to be located somewhere, this keystone should never be used as a wall to keep others out or to pin people and ideas in.

Positive education communities (cultures might also work) are founded on the establishment of robust and trusting relationships. These relationships connect us to each other as well as to our practices, our students, our lives, and other elements of our unique contexts. The pathways between these things, and the circuitous and wild ways in which we connect are to me, a constant source of wonder. For me, relationships are learning.

As teachers, and also as learners ourselves, it is our job to establish relationships (positive ones) between students and information, peers, the environment, technology, etc. in order to provide students with the tools to be as meaningfully connected as possible. When we don’t do this well or build a negative connection for a student and we limit their ability to explore parts of the landscape on their journey. Ultimately, it is our goal to give students the skills to build these connections for themselves so that they can explore their world as fully as possible.

Relationship and learning beget community. However, how you relate to the group/content/pedagogy is up to you. Your colleagues, in some way, also inform your practice, even if only to highlight for you what you think you need to do differently. The TG2 group, the books you read, the sports you watch, all of these relationships are part of the landscape of your learning journey and elements of your learning community. Sometimes, you might walk with others on this path, and other times you might delight in what you discover on your own. You may also feel that you are being pulled unwillingly along a certain path, but this is all part of the same journey.

You don’t have to fully spout the small ‘t’ truth of a particular group to be a part of one, and any community that would ask that of you isn’t one worth belonging to.

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