Friday Lesson: Creating Conditions for Community

Courtesy of Laurie Frank |

Creating Conditions for Community

Recently I was on a Greyhound bus from Key West, Florida to Miami and had an interesting experience. Every time the bus stopped for a break the driver would admonish us about being responsible. He said things like, “You’re all adults and I won’t come looking for you,” or “Stay in the area or we’ll leave without you. I will not wait for anybody!”

I do agree that it’s important to remind people about how things work. For that I was appreciative. What I did not appreciate was his tone and assumption that we were all going to run off the bus in various directions with the intent of being late. I had to work hard to keep myself from yelling at him. Others were not so restrained, and the bus ride became stressful and tiring. Even the beautiful scenery lost its luster.

The lesson I was reminded of was that the person in authority and power (the bus driver) had set a negative tone that affected everyone. We all reacted differently—some checked out, others became combative, still others like myself gritted our teeth and rode it out.

Our environments are no different. Whether working in educational, business, or therapeutic settings, the person in authority (e.g., teacher, boss, counselor, principal) has a vast amount of influence on the climate. It is up to that person to set the tone, and it can be one of caring and sharing, or one of doom and gloom. There really is not much in between.

Purkey and Novak describe a theory of practice known as Invitational Education, which can be summed up with their quote: “People and environments are never neutral; they are either summoning or shunning the development of human potential.” Basically, everything matters—from what we say, how we say it, the policies we have in place, to the signage on the doors and walls. The question is, are we inviting in what we say and do, or are we disinviting? How intentional are we when working and interacting with others? What are the messages we send?

Creating community has to be done intentionally. Without intention we run the risk of doing things randomly. This generally guarantees random results. Intentionality raises the likelihood that we will truly create community in our settings. Concentrating on some conditions that support community can focus our efforts and sustain intentionality. Following are some conditions that have proven useful to me. Please note that the examples are heavily weighted toward school, as this is my major focus. The basic principles, though, can be generalized to any setting where community creation is a goal. I invite any comments and additions to this list:

BALANCING “ME” & “WE”

Empowerment (ME)
Individuals need the opportunity to make choices within the boundaries of the social commitment. It allows individuals to “be themselves.” This comfort gives people the safety net to take risks in order to learn and stretch themselves. It also guards against the pitfall of groupthink.

Examples: Choosing a project and how to present it, right to pass, challenge with choice, open dialogue, consensus decision-making.

Social Commitment (WE)
Commitment from individuals is needed in order to keep a community healthy. Once norms are developed, this is what gets you through the rough spots.

Examples: US Constitution/Bill of Rights, YMCA: Caring, honesty, respect, responsibility, Full Value Commitment, community agreements, ground rules, values statements.

Safe Environment
Physical and verbal violence has to be addressed. Ground rules and social commitments help in establishing boundaries. Instances of harassment, and violence though, must also get a reaction. Teach coping skills (e.g. dealing with frustration, making mistakes) directly. Establish processes for addressing conflict so that all know what to expect when the social commitment is violated. This can range from reminders, to class meetings, to accessing the larger school community systems.

Examples: Intentional relationship and trust building, mediation, class meetings, codes of conduct, restorative practices, peer courts, opportunities to identify “elephants in the room,” dealing with triangulation (where issues are talked about to others rather than between those who are involved in it).

Time
It takes time to build relationships and create community. In a school setting, this means it has to have a high place in the priority list if it is truly valued and is, thus, given a chance to become a reality. It is also helpful to view community building as an essential part of the curriculum, rather than as a separate add-on to the day. Although you may begin the year with dedicated community-building time, it can become more and more integrated with the lessons as the year progresses.

Examples: Class meetings, conflict resolution, sharing stories, dedicated activity/sharing time, small group projects and sharing.

Ownership
Focus (Goal Setting): Goal setting provides focus for individuals and groups. The asking of questions is another way to help people focus. Community members can focus on individual and group behavior, tasks, desired outcomes, etc.

Examples: Behavioral goals, group goals, academic goal setting, action planning, strategic planning, needs/strengths assessments.

The 3 R’s: Routines, Rituals, Responsibilities
Routines provide consistency and continuity, while rituals (in this sense) offer continuity and connectedness. Authentic rituals are frequently spontaneous or arise from the personalities of the people in the community. Rites-of-passage are special rituals that help community members make the larger transitions. Responsibility entails having reasons to give to the community, to each other, and to oneself.

Examples: Routines: Daily meetings; Rituals: Talking circles, pre-testing support party, new student orientations, special day celebrations, ceremonies to indicate movement to another level, graduation; Responsibilities: Job/responsibility charts, conversations and ideas about how to make things right when conflict occurs.

This lesson is compliments of Laurie Frank. To find more information and to contact the author, please visit: www.goalconsulting.org

Thanks for joining us in December for Friday Lessons with Laurie Frank. Laurie is the author/coauthor of several books, including Journey Toward the Caring Classroom, Games for Teachers, and Leading Together.

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