The Depth of Community: Finding Shared Purpose in School

By GREGORY HEDGES

Dr. Gregory Hedger is head of the International School Yangon, in Myanmar. A native of Minnesota in the U.S., Greg has served as an educational leader for almost 20 years. He is involved in international education through his service on the boards of the Association for the Advancement of international Education (AAIE), the American Association of Schools in South America (AASSA).

This past weekend, Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) held its annual International Fair in celebration of the various cultures and nationalities that make up our student population. This year, I found myself intrigued by the strong sense of a positive, healthy community that seemed pervasive through the preparation for the event as well as the actual event itself. In many ways, it appeared as the strongest reflection on community of any event in my four years at ECA, and I have found myself reflecting on this over the past several days, trying to identify for myself what it was that stood out about the event this year, and what it was that made it such a strong community event.

There are a number of things that stood out about the International Fair this year. For one thing, I think this is the first time in four years the fair has not been overshadowed by outside events that created a subdued feeling at the fair. Rather it was the death of a president, elections, or street demonstrations, it seems there has constantly been something that hindered what the fair was about. This was not the case this year. Yes, Venezuela is struggling, and there is much to be discouraged about outside the walls of ECA, but this year the fair provided more of an appreciated escape from these outside events rather than something these outside events controlled. There was more to the fair this year though. As I’ve reflected on it these past few days, I’ve also come to the realization the way the community worked together contributed much to the success of the event. There was a real sense of people coming together this year and sharing the responsibility and ownership of the event. There was certainly a group of people who emerged to provide organizational leadership, but the sense of purpose was shared, with a great many people — parents, students, and faculty — stepping forward to participate in making sure that shared purpose was a success, and the International Fair was a true community event rather than a school event.

As I’ve reflected on it these past few days, I’ve also come to the realization the way the community worked together contributed much to the success of the event. There was a real sense of people coming together this year and sharing the responsibility and ownership of the event. There was certainly a group of people who emerged to provide organizational leadership, but the sense of purpose was shared, with a great many people — parents, students, and faculty — stepping forward to participate in making sure that shared purpose was a success, and the International Fair was a true community event rather than a school event.

This whole reflection on the successes of the International Fair this past week has caused me to digress a bit and expand my personal reflection onto the subject of community, and more specifically, the depth of community. I’ve been fortunate over the years to travel to a number of international schools — those I’ve worked at, as well as though I’ve visited on accreditation teams or in other professional capacities — and I think I can say almost without fail that every school I’ve visited has cited a strong sense of community as the bedrock their school is built upon. And, they really believe it. In almost all cases it is true. Community is what drives our schools, but the question I often find myself asking is, “what type of community?’ What type of community is it that has led to a school being the school it is?

An interesting thing happens when I visit schools as part of an accreditation team. In schools where the community is a positive, healthy community, there will be a constant message emerging of shared purpose, a focus on learning and education, and of people striving to take ownership of what is happening for students inside of the classroom and outside the classroom. In their book, The OIC Factor, Powell and Kusuma-Powell describe the developmental stages of schools. A school in the highest stage of development of self-transforming is one where “teaching and learning go beyond borders” (pg. 199). In other words, it is a school where education and learning are almost a moral imperative with teachers striving to discover the best means to teach every student and then sharing that knowledge. I would expand that definition to communities to say that in healthy school communities I have witnessed, every member of the community is taking ownership in the shared purpose of providing meaningful and supportive experiences for all students.

Unfortunately, not all school communities are healthy ones. It is interesting, in these communities, what often happens is I’ll hear about how wonderful the community is. Then, behind closed doors in hushed tones, I’ll have individuals come and re-declare how strong the community is, but then go on to describe characteristics of what could be described as an unhealthy, or even a toxic community. In these communities, the sense of community is strong, but it tends to be built more on what Douglas B. Reeves describes as congenial relationships rather than collegial or collaborative relationships. Congenial relationships are those where everyone gets along and supports each other to enjoy coffee breaks, and birthday celebrations, and provide coverage for medical appointments. In congenial communities, people come together and find solace in their agreement on what needs to be done differently, and in accepting it isn’t happening because the “other” isn’t doing their job. In these schools and communities, there is minimal professional challenge and the emphasis is on maintaining things the way they are. In his book, The Culture Engine, S, Chris Edmonds describes these behaviors as undesirable norms, or behaviors that have developed to support the status quo and avoiding change or improvement. Unfortunately, As Michael Fullan describes it, without change, a school or community will not learn or improve.

In his landmark work, Building Community in Schools, Thomas Sergiovanni talks about the value of community in schools. He says we become connected as a community because of our commitment to a common purpose and a constant focus on doing what is right to improve. If we truly believe in the value of community, and we believe it is what makes a school strong, then we must also believe in the ideal of a healthy, positive community over one that is toxic and based on congenial relationships. In Adaptive Schools, we are taught to build our work around three guiding questions, 1) Who are we? 2) Why are we doing this? and 3) Why are we doing this, this way? These three simple questions are one tool we can use to guide our thinking and facilitate the development of positive, healthy communities.

As I mentioned earlier, this reflection on community has been a bit of a digression on my part. Sometimes, I find it interesting how my mind works. Something simple will happen, and, before I know it, that one event will transform in my head while running, reading a book, or enjoying a good meal, and take me in all kinds of directions. That is what has happened here. From the enjoyment of a fantastic school community event — the International Fair, I have found myself exploring the many facets of community. Hopefully, my digressions provide you with some thoughts to ponder.

References

Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Garmston, R., Wellman, B., Dolcemascolo, M., & McKanders, C. (2013). Adaptive schools foundation seminar learning guide. Highlands Ranch, CO: Adaptive Schools Seminars.

Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence. United Kingdom: John Catt Educational.

Reeves, D. B. (2009). Leading change in your schools: How to conquer myths, build commitment, and get results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1994). Building community in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dr. Gregory Hedger is head of the International School Yangon, in Myanmar. A native of Minnesota in the U.S., Greg has served as an educational leader for almost 20 years, including 13 years in the role of School Director at Cayman International School, Qatar Academy, and most recently Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela. Greg is involved in international education through his service on the boards of the Association for the Advancement of international Education (AAIE), the American Association of Schools in South America (AASSA), and his work with the International Task Force for Child Protection, his contributions to various periodicals, and his work to promote the next generation of leaders through workshops and teaching. Service learning has been a special interest if Greg’s since his work as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota with the National Youth Leadership Council. His doctoral research focused on the status of service learning in international schools. Greg’s wife, Kirstin, and their daughter, Anna, will join Greg in Yangon. He has two other adult children living in the U.S. More of Greg’s thoughts can be found on his blog.

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Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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