Practical Lessons: Building Authentic Partnerships with the Community

By MEGHAN RAFFERTY

Meghan is the School/Community Partnerships Coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools

I am a teacher. My teaching style has always been to tell stories. I don’t teach in a classroom anymore, but I still tell stories all the time. This is my story.

My career has been a winding path of increasingly difficult to explain job titles. When someone asks you what you do, “second grade teacher” is a really easy answer, no matter who is asking. “Gifted resource teacher” was slightly more challenging to explain, especially to non-educators. “Elementary social studies coordinator” got more difficult, even to those who work in my own school division. “School/community partnerships coordinator”? Impossible!

As School/Community partnerships coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, I have a really unique, interesting, challenging, and rewarding position. I am an ambassador of the schools to the community and of the community to the schools. I get to spend half of my time with teachers, students and principals and the other half of my time with parents, volunteers, and community organizations. I get to connect kids to the real world and connect the real world to kids. It’s not easy to explain, but when I do, the usual response is “Wow! What a cool job!” quickly followed by “What is your background?”

I began my career on my 22nd birthday in rural Pennsylvania. I had a class of 18 second graders in a room built for 6th graders at Blue Ball Elementary in Lancaster County. (Google it. It’s a real place!) I occasionally succeeded, but mostly failed and loved the heck out of those kids. I marched through the text book, leaned on my colleagues, and stayed at school late into the night most days. In my four years at Blue Ball, I taught second grade for two years and fourth grade for two more, earned a Master’s degree in teaching and curriculum, and became an adequate teacher who could never imagine doing anything else.

Then I moved to Virginia Beach during tough economic times. I applied to dozens of schools and heard back from none. Then I was contacted by the Director of Gifted Education for an interview. I thought it was a mistake. I barely knew what gifted education meant and was superbly unqualified, but I accepted a position as gifted resource teacher because I desperately wanted to live in Virginia Beach and needed a job. I left the classroom sooner than I wanted to, but I learned so very much! As a classroom teacher, I was terrible at building relationships with parents, something that became vitally important to my new role. I learned to co-teach, designed instruction for adults, learned sophisticated pedagogy, and most importantly, began to understand the power of authenticity in the classroom for all students. I earned my gifted endorsement. I had the greatest job and thought I would never leave.

However, I had developed a passion for instructional design and had the opportunity to join the Department of Teaching and Learning, designing elementary science and social studies curriculum. I learned to lead teacher committees, present to administrators, oversee large projects, and develop assessments. I earned my administrative endorsement. My favorite projects, by far, involved connecting community partners to curriculum, helping teachers create real-world opportunities for students to connect to organizations and businesses with expertise in the content they were studying. I love curriculum and the job was made for me, but I became passionate about partnerships and wanted to do more.

When the opportunity emerged to join the Office of Community Engagement as school/community partnerships coordinator, I could not resist. The best part of my job in Teaching and Learning was connecting with the community and I loved the idea of working on partnerships full time. I now work in the Department of Media and Communications, I am still a teacher. My curriculum? The irresistible power of connecting students to the world, starting with their own community. Virginia Beach is an incredibly transient community full of people trying to figure out what “home” means. I get to help shape the identity of our schools and community by connecting like-minded adults who want to make education more meaningful and engaging for kids. It’s a dream job. Sometimes, though, I think back on my journey and wish I could talk to myself in my previous roles. Here’s what I’d say:

  • Teacher me: connect your students to the real world. Abandon the textbook and occasionally even the literature you love so much in favor of real people, real experiences, video chat, and field experiences. All the reasons you think you cannot are weak excuses. Overcome the obstacles and your own fear of failure. It’s worth it. Kids will make memories and nothing is more important.
  • School Specialist me: do the work for the teachers. They are busy and afraid. Support them, stand by their side, and find ways to connect students to the world. Show teachers how to add relevance while still meeting (and exceeding!) requirements. Show parents how to expose their children to a wide variety of opportunities. Show students windows into the world and mirrors that help them determine who they are and who they will become.
  • Curriculum Coordinator me: set the example. Make yourself uncomfortable. Take risks yourself and remove barriers for teachers. Your job is filled with state requirements, alignment, and accountability. It’s easy to pretend relevance and accountability are mutually exclusive, but they are not. Show teachers how to connect the requirements, their passions, and their students’ interests. It’s worth it.

And I try to talk to myself now. This is what I say: Partnerships me, remember who you are and where you came from. Give others what you wish you had been given. Stay a teacher. Tell your story.

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