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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Who are your people? I mean, your people at work, your community of like-minded folks who make you laugh and appreciate you. Who are the people who help you muddle through the messiness of our education system and with whom you discover new trails to travel?

I hope that as you read this your people -- in the present and from the past -- come to mind. I hope you recall how you feel when you're with them, the acceptance, lightness, and rejuvenation that surges in your being. I hope you have memories of working through challenging problems, building on each other's ideas, and offering and receiving support. I hope you have memories of breaking bread together, playing Pictionary or some game that makes you laugh hard, and perhaps of walking together through a beautiful forest.

It's those people, that community, that makes it all worth it. That makes it manageable. And by it I'm talking about all the hard stuff, the exhaustion, the battles that we lose, the torrents of grief, the confusion, and insecurities. When we emerge from those places and recognize our communities surrounding us, it's manageable.

I have those feelings regularly -- both the ones that make me feel like I'm drowning, and the ones that jolt me with awareness that I am supported, I'm not alone. I'm wrapping up 18 years of working in the same school district -- a large, mostly dysfunctional urban district that includes some really, really good people. They are what keep me in this district; the ratio of Good People to Challenge and Dysfunction remains one that I can manage.

A Community of Resistance

As this year closes, I'm awash with gratitude for the team of coaches I've worked with. As I review our journey, my attention rests on the eight members of this team -- on who they are as individuals, and who we are as a group, and what they each mean to me. I have learned so much from them; they have brought and shared so much of themselves. I'm inspired, strengthened, and more effective with them -- what a gift.

I posted this quote by bell hooks next to our office door this year: "One of the most vital ways that we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance, places where we know we are not alone." It was my intention to carve out such a space where we'd support each other and also push each other's learning. While I have yet to engage in a deep reflection on this year with my team (we'll do that next week) I definitely feel that at least for myself, I fulfilled this vision.

I struggle with finding hope in this work we do, the work of transforming schools. It often feel that the transformed vision of education that drives me is so far out of reach, so unattainable. I read a lot on this subject of hope and one of the most useful things I've read is by Margaret Wheatley in So Far From Home. She writes:

"We are consoled and strengthened by being together. We don't need specific outcomes. We don't need hope. We need each other. And as we share our common journey, careful to stay together, we discover that hope has never left us. It is the essence of being human, always present just beyond the horizon of events and difficulties." (2012, p.161)

Lessons Learned

Here's what I've learned this year: With a powerful community I can do so much more. I am happier. I learn and expand and, possibly, I can transform. I can imagine many more years of work if I'm surrounded by people like Anna and Manny, Han and Noelle, Michele, Dave, and Rafael and John. Thank you, team of coaches. Most humble thanks.

And I'm ready to say this: If you don't have a powerful community around you, build one. Find one. Look and keep looking until you find one.

Editor's Note: Edutopia will be relaunching a new and upgraded online community starting in the fall of 2013. Hope you will join us!

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Dianav75's picture

Reflecting on this past year I have realized something. The times I learned the most was during a leaning community with fellow teachers. In the coming year I need to make sure our team had time for this,

Catherine O'Brien's picture
Catherine O'Brien
I teach sustainable happiness.

I recently attended a conference for school administrators on social and emotional learning. Over lunch, I asked a principal and vice-principal how they know that they are successful (since assessments focus on academics). They broke out into the most radiant smiles and the principal said, "We've got soul!". The VP added, "She's right! We do! We're an inner city school with lots of challenges but the kids love coming to school and the teachers love coming to school. The kids write songs about how much they love their school." They've learned that paying attention to the social and emotional needs of their students AND each other is key to success. They've made a very conscious choice to build a flourishing community.

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

I wish I could have talked to Lamar's parents before they got all squirmy and made him, but having a parent-teacher conference this morning works okay, too.

Come to find out, Lamar's mother doesn't have asps for hair, fangs for teeth, claws for hands, hooves for feet, or yellow eyes. She pretty much gave us the lowdown, in the calmest and most articulate tones, on Lamar from birth to today. She wasn't Jerry Springer material at all. She was about as far away from being on the Jerry Springer Show as Margaret Thatcher. Anyhow, after her remarks, I took in a deep breath and thanked whatever god Lamar worships for getting him this far. I don't know why Lamar's dad wasn't there. Maybe he was home hiding in his gun safe.

Once Mr. Squirm the science teacher butted in there was no subtle, or even obvious, gesture we made that would make him shut up, so we ended the meeting with Mr. Squirm still talking as we all stood up and walked out of Mr. Warbird's classroom. I was one of three other teachers ready to talk to Lamar's mother and start a plan to help Lamar get better and be happier. We never had a chance. Plus, Mr. Squirm's got a weird voice and he wears dumb shoes.

While Mr. Squirm was walking away ... through the commons room in his dumb shoes ... telling Lamar's mother how long he's been teaching and how he's working so diligently to apply all of his incredible knowledge of behavior and emotion management into the head of Lamar, Mr. Warbird said Mr. Squirm sure does know how to high jack a parent-teacher conference so nothing really gets done, doesn't he?

Miss Velvet said he sure does.

Mrs. Yinyang said he sure does.

I said he sure as heck does.

Then we went to our classrooms and started our day, without having gotten anything done in the important last hour of our lives. I thought if there's a time, however rare, that a teacher can disrupt the flow of goodness rather than the Satan-possessed kid we're there to help, it was the important last hour of our lives. Good manners ain't science ... rocket or otherwise.

KellieSmith's picture

Great post! I agree with you that it is great to have people that you love surrounding you at work. Coming to work everyday with the satisfaction of having people that feel the same way you do about teaching makes a huge difference on the school's atmosphere.

I think that professional learning communities are really a huge reason for my school having such a close relationship this year. I have seen teachers come together and help one another on a different level that the previous years. It is such a learning experience to have a connection with other teachers that can help you come up with new ideas, give you advice, and just share stories and experiences.

Jo-Ann Fox AppEducation.com's picture

Dear Elena,
I love your post about the importance of building a community of learners with whom you can learn from and share. We talk so often about 21st Century learning involving the 4 Cs: create, collaborate, communicate, and critical thinking. But I believe that there is one more "C" that is the center of all learning for both students and teachers. The 5th C is "Community." I love the edcamp saying, "The smartest person in the room is the room." We truly learn more, reflect more, and are challenged more by our community of teachers we build around us. I feel fortunate to not only have an amazing community of learners at my school and district, but in my personal learning network on Twitter. Building a community these days truly has no boundaries.
Thank you,
Jo-Ann

Shawndece's picture
Shawndece
Ed.D student in Higher Education and Adult Learning

Hi Elena,
I enjoyed reading this post. What strategies would you give in communicating or mentoring those teachers that are challenge to work with and are resistant to change?

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger

Hi Shawndece,

You ask a huge and really important question, one that requires a volume to answer it! I guess the first thing I'd suggest is that you find some ways to listen to those teachers, see if you can get some understanding of why they are challenging or resistant. Invite and listen to their stories -- if you are their colleague. If you're their administrator or supervisor, that's a different thing.

Take a look at the blogs I wrote last spring on EdWeek Teacher -- on my blog on coaching teachers. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coaching_teachers/2013/05/how_can_i_coa... There are three posts about coaching resistant teachers. It's a huge topic and one that we need to tackle.

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