Doing Life in the Community Where You Teach
Engaging with people who live around your school can help you build the strong relationships with students that are so helpful to their learning.
Teaching and leading, specifically teaching and leading well, is hard work—even more so amid a global pandemic. Educators and students at various levels are spent, and some are on the brink of burnout. However, I’ve witnessed a renewed commitment and excitement from my colleagues with their return to full-time, in-person learning with students.
Certainly, remote learning, while not the most optimal of solutions, was necessary to protect student health and safety. But humans are social creatures. Although relationship building can happen remotely, it’s better when it’s in person in order to generate true fellowship with each other. Being back in school buildings allows educators to build relationships even more to support student learning.
Build Relationships for Fellowship
For teachers on the cusp of burnout, relationship building with students and families may be a way to remain encouraged despite the challenges this year. For some, that may not be enough. But it’s really important not to abandon our natural desire for fellowship. Therefore, I believe that teachers can take the extra step to build relationships with students and families, and a great way to do that is to “do life” with the community where they teach—especially for teachers who don’t live in the neighborhood.
Where I teach, in Camden, New Jersey, many of the teachers are White; that’s the case for public, charter, and private schools. All our White educators, in addition to some educators of color, live outside of Camden and are only in the area when they come to work. Meanwhile, our students live, learn, and play in the city. Personally, although I am from Camden, I live in the suburbs of Camden County.
How can we say we can relate to our students if we don’t engage with their communities? How can we say we’re employing best practices for crafting a pedagogical stance and instructional methodology when we don’t account for the communities where we teach? When we fail to understand the dynamics of where our students live, we fail to account for the things (politics, culture, and socioeconomics) that shape students’ and their families’ experience of teaching and learning.
Without an understanding of where we teach—the politics, economics, and culture of the community, and how systemic and institutional racism has shaped those things—we can’t understand who we teach. But if we commit to doing life with the community where we teach, we can strengthen our pedagogy, instructional practice, and understanding of the students and families we serve daily.
What Doing Life Looks Like
Doing life in the community simply means substantively engaging with the community where you teach. It’s not as complicated as it sounds; however, it does require that you step outside of your comfort zone, particularly if you’re a White educator teaching in a Black and Latino community, like many of my colleagues. You may not be used to the role of minority, but if you’re willing, your engagement will go a long way in making you a better educator. Below are some ways to do life where you teach.
1. Learn about the politics and culture of the community by spending time there. Attend events and happenings to gain a sense of the community. Participate in community, grassroots, city council, and city planning meetings. You could sit in with a community group discussing issues of the day or maybe attend your local school board or board of trustees meeting. Attend a faith service or a cultural event, or volunteer with a nonprofit organization. Being an educator is your entry point to engage with community members, as someone interested in knowing the community better in order to understand and educate their students.
2. Invest in the students and families of the community by spending some of your money there. Rather than just collect a paycheck and leave, take time to spend your money in the community. Patronize local eateries, use community pharmacies, purchase goods and services in the community (such as cell phones or other electronics).
As much as people speak about wanting to support small businesses, Black and Brown communities are filled with small businesses, from barbershops to corner bodegas. Many of the students you teach come from families that own and operate those small businesses. Take time to give back and invest in the community outside the classroom as you do daily inside the classroom.
3. Partner with community stakeholders; collaborate on developing (and executing) lessons and/or units. One of the great things about being active in the community—patronizing businesses and attending local events—is that you connect with others, thereby building your network. Building your network means having a host of community stakeholders and activists with whom you can collaborate to make lessons and units more meaningful and empowering for students. Normally, teachers invite community members as guest speakers. But take the extra step to incorporate community folks in curating what and how students learn.
Engaging people from the community will go a long way toward building capital with the community and your students. Students may learn in school, but they also learn at home and in their communities. Our students have many teachers. We can work with them to show students that learning is fun and impactful and that collaboration strengthens the sense of community.
4. Take what you’ve learned about the community to your home community to decolonize the thinking of others. Folks often have preconceived ideas about communities they don’t visit regularly. You may work in such a community, and your friends and family might have preconceptions about the people of the community where you work. You can illuminate their humanity with your network of friends and family through casual conversation or critical confrontation. You may even invite them to join you when you participate in an activity. In any case, you have the power to use your breakthrough to help someone else see that we have more in common than we think, and yet systemic racism has caused fractures in society.
It’s important for your network of friends and family to be aware of what systemic racism looks like—using education as an example, it looks like a majority of White teachers, disproportionate disciplining of Black children, and funding inequities that negatively impact districts where Black and Latino students are the majority. Introduce to them the reality that schools are White institutional spaces, and challenge them to consider how such spaces oppress and deny people of color, particularly the poor among them. You can use this as an opportunity to build community by exposing your network to the truths of our society that they may have never considered.
Doing life with those who reside where you teach can illuminate the humanity of people you might not otherwise associate with.