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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Accidental Community: Feeling the Love

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of New Teacher Support at Yeshiva University

I recently read an article (posted on Facebook by a colleague of mine) about love in the workplace. The article spoke about how employees who felt companionate love at work performed better. It sparked my interest in teacher communities.

PLCs and a Sense of Community

Communities of teachers, professional learning communities (PLCs) in particular, have always interested me. I have worked in a few different schools and visited many more, and I've always wondered about the community of teachers in each of those schools. From my anecdotal evidence, I've seen many great teachers who work together as family. Sometimes these teachers are on official "teams" or part of organized PLCs, but more often than not, they are part of "accidental communities."

I am defining accidental communities as communities of teachers that work together in a collaborative and supportive fashion despite the structures officially set up by their school. There is no administrative structure in place to make these communities official. They are not given time or compensation to collaborate, yet they do it because they care about one another -- purely out of love.

These teachers I have seen are better off in their classrooms because of their supportive colleagues. They are more willing to try new things, have more resources for varying their practice, and have a sounding board of people willing to listen to their teaching dilemmas and help them rethink pieces that aren't working.

What would happen if these communities were intentional?

There are plenty of schools where PLCs are standard. In these schools, there is an expectation that teachers will learn together and help support one another. Teachers are asked to choose a topic of interest and join a group to learn more about that topic. They work together to help one another in their practice and to improve the teaching and learning at the school. But these are never the same as the accidental communities. Very few of these teachers work on their PLCs outside of designated "PLC time" and often the topics fizzle out after a year or so of investigation. So what is the key difference between these established communities and accidental learning communities? I think the answer is love.

The Potential in Team Building

Teachers who care about one another are the ones whose learning communities last the longest and are the most effective.

So how can we help build this love in our schools? How can we make these accidental communities intentional?

I've always wondered about the corporate team building that my friends who work in the for-profit world engage in on a regular basis. They are always going somewhere to build houses together, going bowling, going out for drinks -- all on their office's dime. We've all heard of the pinball machines, game rooms and office parties that regularly occur at cutting edge companies. Is this the key to building a community filled with love?

If we spent our professional development days going to a homeless shelter and preparing meals, or if we spent one staff meeting a month having an office party, would our accidental learning communities turn into intentional communities? Would this time we spent building our relationships with no school focus actually help strengthen our teaching in the classroom? Will the risk outweigh the reward? Can we sacrifice this valuable time we have together to focus on learning about one another, rather than learning about our practice?

How could a teaching community built on love change our classrooms?

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of New Teacher Support at Yeshiva University
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Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture

Shira, I enjoyed your article and believe that PLC's should be more intentional. Having spent many years in the corporate world and in leading team building, it's not so much about what people do together than it is about how they are together -- how they learn to love and care for each other. Anything that can can bring teaching communities together to connect, care, and learn, will change our classrooms. If you are not familiar with Wegner's theory of communities of practice, you might be interested in reading about it. I'm a big fan of COM's. http://wenger-trayner.com/theory/. Thanks again for the great article!

Eliezer Jones's picture

Great article. I also wonder about why we don't mimic some of the for-profit team building exercises. Sure, finances are an issue, but there are plenty of activities that we can engage in that cost little to nothing but time. It could be that we feel that our work is so important that we can't spare the time to engage in such activities. However, just like in the for-profit sector, the time spent on team building leads to higher quality work. So, maybe we need to choose between quantity over quality or, better yet, teacher retention, satisfaction and positive results over course load.

Melanie Eisen's picture
Melanie Eisen
Assistant director of professional development, YUSP

Great post Shira!
I wonder if the EdCamp movement was a result of teachers feeling like they need time together that the day does not provide- nor do the in service days allow for time to talk about the pressing needs in their classrooms.

Rebecca M. Solomon's picture
Rebecca M. Solomon
PhD in Curriculum and Instruction

I enjoyed this article, and it made me think about how schools can promote and capitalize on these relationships. It is natural for teachers, or any group of employees for that matter, to form relationships that are not mandated in the employee handbook. School leaders should set the tone for the school by providing the types of opportunities you suggest, and by participating in them as well. In addition, sharing and celebrating personal and professional milestones in the workplace can also help foster a loving environment. We can all celebrate the birth of a grandchild, or a son's graduation, or a teacher's successful attempt at creating a lesson for a flipped classroom. These can create a sense of family in an organization, which makes people want to belong and want to stay.

jeanne hoel's picture
jeanne hoel
Associate Director of Education, School & Teacher Programs, MOCA, LA

Thanks for this post. Potentially, professional development programs developed in collaboration with museums can be a source of support in this endeavor. Museums can serve as "neutral" or fresh spaces away from schools to engage with colleagues through the lens of an art form or cultural or scientific resource. Outcomes can include learning facilitation techniques or specific "content," but at its best, museum PD Collaborations provide opportunities for teachers to engage with one another as adult learners with much to learn from and about one another. Because these kinds of collaborations are customized for groups and their specific needs, they usually don't show up as typical "off the shelf" offerings listed in museums' calendars of events. Instead, call the education department or head of school and teacher programs and strike up an exploratory conversation about what you envision. We're here to support teachers!

Kristi's picture

You are so right! As I look back at the PLCs that I have work on in the past, the most successful ones were with colleagues of mine who I genuinely liked and trusted professionally. I realize in a perfect world, you would like every person that you work with in a school. Unfortunately, that is not the reality of the situation. But I think it is still possible to have those successful learning communities in school because it all comes down to two words: trust and teamwork. We spend a huge amount of time at the beginning of the school year building a community in our classroom but we rarely do the same with our colleagues. We may be able to find that "love" for one another that make accidental communities so successful if we invested that time with the people we work with too.

Dory Zinkand's picture
Dory Zinkand
Principal, Tall Oaks Classical School

Thank you for a thoughtful post. I often hear comments on how isolating teaching can be, even though we work in buildings with scores of colleagues. Intentionally providing opportunities for "accidental" communities to form can be an important role for administrators.
Dory

Sally's picture

Love makes all the difference. I have sat on many official PLCs and never did more than the minimum amount of learning and discussing. Primarily due to the fact that I didn't know my fellow PLC colleagues as well as my group of friends at work. As friends we would collaborate, learn, discuss and participate in activities outside of school. Due to this shared love and respect for each other we absolutely learned more and were better teachers due to it.

t_appell's picture

LOVE this article! (Pun intended.) The most rewarding PLC's I've belonged to are the accidental ones that I was able to construct for myself - with like-minded colleagues who not only care about me, but who share some of the same core values and beliefs about children and how they learn best. We have been able to collaborate in meaningful ways that have resulted in pretty amazing learning experiences for our students. The planning and preparation is fun. We feed off of one another, gain new insights and ideas, and share in our enthusiasm for providing authentic and relevant experiences in our classrooms.
Each year our staff is asked to complete a survey to assess our perceptions of our school's effectiveness, leadership, etc. Every year, we answer this question: Do you feel like you have a best friend on the staff?" Each time we fill in the questionnaire, we joke about the validity of asking such an obscure thing when referring to a work environment. However, having read your article, I more clearly understand the underlying questions that they are looking to gather information about: "Do you feel supported at work?", "Do you feel cared about as an individual?", and - perhaps most importantly, "How can we help build love in this school?"
Perhaps they are onto something. How can we use love as a vehicle for increasing the effectiveness of PLC's in an effort to improve student learning? How can we incorporate some of the team-building activities that are so often used in the corporate setting to improve staff cohesiveness and enable teachers to make genuine connections with their colleagues?

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