The Importance of Community
By Shawna Kolmel, CASE Past President
[Originally published on October 3, 2019]
Recently, I signed up for a two-day introductory training focused on Restorative Practices. I have had previous experiences with restorative circles and, as a result, I can honestly say a part of me was dreading the training and potential emotionally charged environment. I was not looking forward to feeling like I was drowning in the expression of other people’s deep and personal feelings; however, I made the conscious decision to step out of my comfort zone and take an emotional risk with the hope that I would learn something I could use both personally and professionally
I made it to day 2, shocking myself and my colleagues in the process. I must give credit to the facilitator and the program developers because at no point in time did I feel uncomfortable, anxious, or emotionally vulnerable like I had previously. Instead, I was intrigued by the process and find myself wanting more information. My shareable take-away from the training is in the importance of community in all aspects of our profession.
Building a community within your classroom does not mean relinquishing control and giving the students everything they ask, but it does involve listening to students. Having taught in the high school setting with upwards of 200-230 students a year, I know this can be a daunting experience. The thoughts running through my head every time it is brought up are numerous. How do you connect with that many students…and deal with everything else we have on our plates? How do you get them to connect with one another? I have a difficult enough time connecting with my own peers, how do I foster their connections? I don’t have time for the emotional, touchy-feely stuff…I’m here to teach them science. But what if there is a way to build this sense of community and “with-ness” in your classroom that actually enhanced the science learning, helped with the academic discourse?
We have all seen the student who sits alone at snack or lunch and this isolation transfers into the classroom, as well. There have been times, too many to count, where a student skated through the year with minimal interaction with classmates, sometimes without their peers even knowing their name. We have all had students who are disenfranchised and push boundaries with their behavior, yet we know they have a wealth of untapped potential waiting to be sparked. Imagine planning for a substitute and not stressing over how the students will behave because you have built a community where they are responsible for one another and not just to you. There are many strategies you can use to build a classroom community and the training I attended was just one way, but the benefits are universal. Students often behave and perform better when they feel connected and relevant. I encourage you to find a process that works for you and that you find success within your classroom community.
Collaborative Professional Community
“Everyone knows something. Nobody knows everything.” I steal this from one of the Statewide CA NGSS Rollouts because it truly resonated with me the first time I saw it. As a high school teacher, I often felt like I was expected to know everything. This limited my willingness to ask for help. Thank goodness CA NGSS came along and put us all back on equal footing because it gave me the opportunity to embrace the idea that I do not need to be the expert on everything. That is why collaboration is integral to success. We are not experts in everything, but there are people around us who are experts in areas in which we may be lacking.
It is common for us to work collaboratively with our content area or grade level colleagues; however, one of the most impactful collaborative communities I participated in was multifaceted, consisting of science teachers, an English teacher, an English Language Development specialist, and a Special Education teacher. This community formed out of necessity, as my students were incredibly diverse. I was no longer isolated in my planning while trying to differentiate for a multitude of student needs. Instead, I had a team with whom I could bounce off ideas, learn new strategies, revise lessons, and commiserate. My students were no longer mine alone, but instead had a community of adults working to support them.
Additionally, collaborative professional communities can reach beyond our school sites. One of the most important collaborative communities we can create is between our formal and informal/nonformal education partners. Trying to come up with local and relevant phenomena for your classroom can be challenging. Forming a collaborative community with our partners in education can provide you and your students with rich opportunities for authentic and locally relevant, phenomena-driven instruction. These partners are out there and are eager to collaborate, we just need to reach out.
It is incredibly easy to get lost in the challenges of our classrooms, offices, or outdoor learning environments. As challenges mount, it is not unusual to feel isolated and think the problems are yours alone, not realizing that there is a large community of educators who know exactly how you feel. My involvement with the science community at large is actually relatively recent. I know, it sounds crazy. After all, I am President of CSTA; however, this amazing community of educators has only been a part of my world for 5 years. Given that this is my 20th year as an educator, I spent 75% of my career in isolation. Looking back, I am not sure how I survived at times. In this community, I have found friends and colleagues, people who understand my frustrations and challenges, and people who understand my passion for science education. I look forward to meeting with this new community, especially when we pretend to leave work behind and head out to dinner or drinks. Whether you are new to this community or a veteran, I hope to see you in San Jose. What better way to enjoy the community of our profession than the California Science Education Conference.
Written by CASE Past President Shawna Kolmel