Using Community Agreements to Start the Year Strong
Teachers and students can get off to a good start by determining their values and setting expectations for each other as a group.
Every year, or even every semester, whenever I’ve walked into a classroom—whether in September or during a leave replacement in February—community agreements have followed me. Community agreements differ from rules in that there’s no arbitrary expectation, no attitude of one size fits all. They aren’t prescriptive lists of behaviors I give students, with punishments for noncompliance.
Rules that are written before students arrive, in my experience, simply don’t work. How can I expect things from people I don’t know? How can the students understand what to expect if they don’t know me? These questions are the very ones that get us started on our journey. My students and I write the agreements together and amend them as necessary throughout our time together, regularly reflecting on them using our personal and collective values.
The process of building community agreements communicates to students that even if we’ve just met, I trust them to know themselves best—as learners, as people, and as participants in the space where we will treat each other with dignity. Community agreements allow students to build a set of expectations for themselves, the students who are there every day, and hold each other accountable for those expectations as they get to know each other better.
It’s human nature, especially to a teenager, to repudiate fakeness. Most teens value transparency and clarity. Community agreements give students the means to design the experience they hope to have, and to show up and maintain those expectations for themselves and each other every day as an act of integrity.
The first step when we cultivate a community agreement is a values assessment. I ask students to choose, from a list, the five most important things in their life—these are values like loyalty, friendship, respect, and knowledge, as well as family. They then rank these from one (most important) to five (least important) and write out reflections on a series of questions.
These questions include the following:
- Which value is the number one most important in your life? Tell us its origin story. Who taught you this value? Why does it matter to you?
- How have your values changed over time?
- How do you plan to live and act out this value in our classroom?
Allowing students to assess, reflect on, and write about their values provides so much richness and depth to our introduction. Through these prompts, they find out more about who they are and why they are, and as the teacher and audience for their writing, so do I.
When I ask students to reflect on their values, they usually choose respect as being the most important to them, or they at least rank it in their top five. Before I add it to our agreement or ask them to make statements that turn their choice into an agreement, I ask them to tell me what it means. Respect is a word that can be amorphous when we use it or demand it from others, especially in the educational realm, where it often comes with a power differential: It’s expected by those with more power and given by those with less power. To prevent power differentials from taking over the community building in my own classroom, I task students with a “pause and reflect” activity centered on respect.
They dialogue in small groups, asking and answering the following questions:
- What does respect look, feel, or sound like?
- What does disrespect look, feel, or sound like?
- How is respect defined by different cultures or age groups? What about your own culture or age group?
These are some of the examples that students have come up with to create imagery of respect in action: using kind words, giving everyone’s opinions space, prioritizing impact over intention, not interrupting, and not embarrassing people if they make mistakes. After we brainstorm this list, we add these examples to our draft document.
The foremost goal behind community agreements is that students feel empowered. Most of the students I work with, when I present them with the process of creating community agreements, don’t know what to do at first. Many express confusion and dismay at being given the power to design their experience.
This reveals to me something I was cautioned about in teacher education. Paulo Freire critiqued what he called the “banking” concept of education—the idea that teachers “deposit” information into students. That is still what many students are used to. But when I ask my students, “Who are we as humans, learners, and teachers?,” I clarify that I’m not the only teacher in the room. Each student has something they can teach, whether it’s how to change a tire or cook pupusas or write an effective argument.
So much of the community-building process is not about “allowing” students to do anything or even about “giving them a voice.” It’s entirely about moving over, passing the mic, and holding space while they use the voice they entered the room with on the first day.
Recognizing the Power of ‘Yet’
Fostering a culture of togetherness and integrity is a balancing act that can sometimes feel like a lot to maintain, but it is doable. Community agreements make it possible to center students’ voices. The building of community agreements depends on them, their values, their needs, their strengths, and their constant growth.
Community agreements inherently possess the power of “yet.” What we’re capable of or have yet to learn, what we haven’t done yet, what we hope for in the future, are points of power for us as teachers, learners, and community members. The idea of “yet” offers infinite ways for students to guide their own learning and to track the changes in their own learning lives and lives in general over the course of a school year.