Authentic Community Panel

I had the privilege of “sitting down” (via video conference) with our three panelists—Rebecca DeSmith, Gayle Monsma, and Justin Cook—to talk about authentic community. 

John: The focus of our conversation is the idea of authentic community in our schools and classrooms. To begin, then, let’s just start from our perspectives. How do you define authentic community?

Rebecca: Well, I’ll begin. When I think of authentic communities, I think of genuine relationships that are built on trust, respect, and a common goal or mission. It’s pretty simple, but that’s a place to start.

Gayle: I’ll just sort of build on something that Rebecca said that I hadn’t necessarily thought about before – that it’s built on a common goal or mission. I think that’s just a really intriguing idea of what authentic community is. It raises it to the next level beyond just collegial work. It makes it more interesting if you start to think about that and about who, then, you actually have authentic community with. There needs to be somebody that you have that common goal or mission with.

John: So let me follow up with this question, again building on that idea of a common goal or mission: what are the implications of that for me as a classroom teacher or for me as a school leader? What do I do then to build that authentic community related to that idea of a common goal?

Rebecca: In a school, there are a lot of relationships to build: teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, administration-to-teacher, administration-to-student. I’ve actually read some professional articles in the past few months that have said that authentic communities–genuine relationships–begin with administration. What they do to set the climate in the school really makes a huge impact on teacher-to-teacher relationships, student-to-teacher relationships, really all of those relationships. The emphasis should be on moving away from the top-down model of administration to a model that demonstrates respect and a focus on building relationships that are positive and show value for faculty and students.

Gayle: Early in my career, I read some stuff by Roland Barth, and he talked about that idea that the model of how the school leadership relates with the faculty or the staff then is reflected in how the staff deals with their students. It’s a pretty scary thing sometimes; that’s an intimidating idea. But I think it’s probably true. It’s hard to see when it’s in your own building, but I think when you go to other places it becomes maybe more evident. It’s hard to see I guess, like the idea that a fish in water doesn’t recognize its environment.

Justin: I think good leaders create structures in which to understand and know the voices and the opinions within the community. Whether it’s restorative practices of check-in circles or overtly naming norms that define the culture that all of us want to commit to in order to be a flourishing learning-community. There are many ways to structure the type of relationships that Rebecca is referring to. I appreciate, Gayle, you mentioning some voices on this that we might have read. I think about Parker Palmer, and I’m not sure if you can picture that he’s got the graphic of the community of truth with its circle and its lines of connections versus the objectivist model, which is this top-down objectivist structure. Do you remember his definition of community as a place where obedience to truth is practiced? It’s a bit mystical, but it speaks to me certainly.

John: So let’s go just a bit further with this, focusing on what takes place inside of the classroom.  How do we know when we’ve achieved authentic community in a classroom? And, what are some of the things a teacher does to establish authentic community?

Justin:  We’re really excited about something we discovered at an Expeditionary Learning education school in Rochester, an approach by an organization called The Responsive Classroom. K-8 teachers in our schools are using what’s called a “morning meeting.” There’s some resources on Edutopia about this too–happy to share links to it. But every morning for about 25-30 minutes, we’ll have students participate in a collective greeting. So every student’s name is both spoken and then also received. You know, it would be, “Good morning, Gayle!” or, “Good morning, Justin!” or some other playful way of making sure that every student is known and greeted. Then there’s an activity–some kind of energizer inviting us to be excited about the fact that we’ve arrived to learn and that we’re going to get our minds active on learning. Then students have a chance to share some of their own personal thoughts or lives with the class in some way. And then a message from the teacher, some kind of message that frames the day, maybe playfully or maybe focusing on some important aspect of the day that invites the kids to get excited about participating in what the learning is going to be for that day. One of the mantras of Responsive Classroom is that the social-emotional learning is as important as the academic learning. I think as we commit to that mantra, even as it’s challenging us, we realize more and more that the academic learning is even more dynamic because of that shared balance with the social-emotional. So we’re experiencing even more academic gains than we realized we would by actually sharing time for social-emotional learning in the community. We’re excited about it, certainly.

Gayle: Have you been hearing some feedback from teachers who’ve been doing it? Some stories? Is it working the way you’ve expected or hoped?

Justin: Absolutely. One teacher shared with me that she’s never felt so socially-emotionally engaged herself because she’s known even better through the activities and that she knows her students even better than she’s ever known her students before. Another principal shared the fact that there was a new student who was quite nonverbal. As they started implementing Responsive Classroom, they started to see this student actually come out of this shell, start to share a lot more of who she was and what she was feeling. I had a teacher share that she wants to create an environment where each student is excited and joyful and welcomed, but there’s a student who just kept sharing how much he wanted to go home. So you have to recognize that the narratives often do get complex, and I just urged her to say, “That’s a valid voice.” If that’s the student’s social-emotional place at that moment, that doesn’t mean that we have to shut that voice down. How can we create space for that voice also to be honored even though it adds complexity to the learning dynamic.

Gayle: Are you playing around with the idea of a model that would work in a high school environment?

Justin: That’s a great question. So it does look a little different in the middle school grades where you do more of an advisory meeting, and I’m thinking about the use of crews. Or we have another high school that’s really focusing on this, not through Responsive Classroom, but they’ve created houses–just a homeroom structure where there is a lot of career and social-emotional support within a group that stays together 9-12. So every year you have grade 9s join the house, and you have a group graduating out of the house.

John: Your example of a student who says, “I just want to be home” brings us back to Rebecca’s opening comment. It seems to me that’s a great example of the trust and respect. A student who trusts enough to share that kind of thing and then a teacher who can model that kind of respect, and other students who can model respect can say, “Yeah, that’s a valid comment here. It is welcome in our community. Let’s see if we can support each other in that.”

Gayle: One very simple thing: when I was a classroom teacher, I used to stand at the door of the classroom every morning as the students were entering. Just even something small like that, right? Make sure as a teacher, that you’re not running off those last pieces of paper or putting the last things together for a PowerPoint, but just standing there, greeting the students, welcoming them by name. It always amazed me, the stories I’d hear on the way into the classroom. Sometimes they were initiated by me. Sometimes I’d say, “Hey, you had a soccer game last night. What happened?” or “Your grandma, is she still in the hospital?” Whatever it happens to be. But just a very simple rhythm in a day. I know a lot of teachers will stand in the door on the way out too, and they give a fist bump or a high five or whatever it happens to be and, “Hey, see you tomorrow! Have a great night!” Just those small rhythms we can put into our day are also really important.

John: That’s true. Excellent. So let’s briefly just touch on the obstacles to authentic community. From your perspective, what are some of the obstacles that we face in schools that get in the way of authentic community?

Rebecca: I have a list of things, which include emphasis on testing or data analysis and grades more so than–as Justin was talking about–building those social and emotional relationships. Pressures to try to accomplish too many teaching standards and benchmarks. You know, the old “a mile wide and an inch deep” sort of teaching. Got to get through the curriculum. Time. Not having enough time in your classroom day to build relationships so that your classrooms can be places where students feel accepted, where they feel they can take a risk, where they feel joy in learning and being who they are.

Gayle: I think sometimes it’s a fear of the messiness. If you actually engage in this authentic community you get to know people on a different level. Then when stuff starts to arise, you have an obligation to deal with it, and then you’re invited into people’s messy lives and people are invited into your messy life, and it takes time and energy and commitment and all of those things that sometimes it’s easier not to go there. I think that’s one of the obstacles, people sort of saying, “Is it worth it? My life is pretty full already.”

Justin: I appreciate the list that’s being named. I would echo your list, Rebecca, absolutely–for sure. Gayle, part of what you’re referring to for me is even just the ratio of kids to teacher in the room. For me the high school structure of–you’re in for 70 minutes and then you’re out, so you have less actual sustained time within the group of students. That comes to mind for me. I also wonder about the growing gap of segregation by demographics. So an adolescent culture is something that we talk about existing, and the gap between adults and adolescents. Or even specifically within teen culture, the fact that identities are often mediated virtually. So we’re talking about a whole technological impact. The list quickly makes us feel somewhat overwhelmed by the obstacles, I think.

John: Let’s talk for a bit about remaining connected with colleagues and how this relates to authentic community.  It is easier as a teacher to become isolated in one’s own classroom. You know, we hear the stories of teachers who take pride in closing their door and doing their own thing.  So what do you do to ensure that you connect regularly in meaningful ways with your colleagues?

Justin:  Well I do think this is a leadership challenge again, that leadership leads with structures that create that kind of honesty and vulnerability, embodying a certain ethos but also creating certain structures.  I think all across Canada we’re falling in love with protocols that create structures for healthy professional dialogue, so more and more we’re using tuning protocols or critique protocols to actually break down silos.  We’re using learning logs where teams of teachers and leaders are visiting each other’s classrooms to look for concrete evidence of where our professional learning priorities are being realized or not being realized.  So there are structures that are breaking down that silo possibility that you’re referring to, John.  I think colleagues inevitably love being known just like kids love being known.  So when those structures feel healthy and vibrant, teachers resonate so potently with them I think because they say, “My work is being seen and recognized and valued, and I’m contributing to the greater good, the larger mission here at the school and not just within my own closed walls.”

Gayle:  Yes, some great ideas Justin – and the whole idea of protocols, I wish I had known about those earlier in my career; I think it would have made a significant difference.  I just think about when I was a principal I had a strong desire to have a good sense of community amongst my staff.  And so I put in place some rituals to do that.  For instance, in a week’s time we would meet one morning a week for staff devotions, just that time to come together and to pray.  Probably some of the most meaningful times were when we left the staff room and we would do a prayer walk through the school.  So each week we would meet in somebody else’s classroom and get on the little Grade 1 chairs or on the carpet in the kindergarten room and we would hear what was happening in that teacher’s classroom with their students, their personal life – just sort of building that community.  And then in our weekly staff meetings, I would have to make sure it’s not just dissemination of information that I could be giving in other ways but to really capitalize on that time together, and say, “This is precious time, and we need to be interacting with each other and collaborating and doing work together, not things that we could be doing just as easily over email.”  And then every Thursday our staff had an extended recess in the morning and we had snack together, just fun, just a good time to connect and turn off the bells and have a little longer recess together. And then later, we started Friday afternoon wrap-up – so just 15 minutes at the end of the day, we’d all gather.  Usually we’d do something like, what’s the highlight of the week, rate your week on a scale of 1 to 10, or whatever it happens to be – one word to describe your week, and then we’d pray and everybody would go off for the weekend. So building some of those routines in, because otherwise quickly the week can just disappear and you haven’t talked to anybody meaningfully.  So put some of those rhythms in place that are places where people can connect.  And sometimes, like when you’re having nachos at recess, it’s not deep, meaningful conversations necessarily, but it’s setting the stage for other things that then happen at a different date.

Rebecca: Those are great reminders that the habits we do in school, do build community.  As a faculty member at a large school, all of those things do bring our forty-some faculty members together.  I want to mention one more thing that is happening at Sioux Center Christian. school, and I’m saying it not just because Gayle does what she does, but Our entire school is in the second year of working through Teaching for Transformation.  I think that whole process has helped our faculty come together and actually become a more authentic community.  You know we’ve always taught our curriculum from a Christian perspective, but Teaching for Transformation has given us a shared framework, a common language, and a renewed purpose to intentionally infuse our faith into our teaching.  I really think that’s brought our faculty into a much more authentic community.

Gayle: I think that it’s as you started off our conversation, with that idea of having a common goal, or purpose.  And that was probably very clear for your staff, that that’s what was binding you together for those days and hours you were spending together.

Justin: I agree.  Common learning, vision, it helps people know whether they are part of the story or not.  What story are we trying to create together as a learning community?  I think it’s absolutely essential.


Justin Cook serves as the Director of Learning at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools in Ancaster, Ontario.

Rebecca DeSmith serves as Discovery Program coordinator and teacher at Sioux Center Christian School.

Gayle Monsma serves as the Executive Director for The Prairie Centre for Christian Education in Edmonton, Alberta.

John Walcott is assistant professor in the education department at Calvin College.