Teachers sit through all kinds of pointless professional development. We crowd into our cafeterias to sit through countless, disconnected PowerPoint presentations about data and differentiation, all while the community hums right outside the window. This norm in teacher professional development stems from the flawed premise that outside consultants, trainers who only know the address of our school, know more about teaching our students than our students’ parents, religious leaders, older siblings, and small business owners. It is time to change that narrative, to position community members as the ones who have the most to offer to educators as we work together to build the best schools for our students.
To shift the paradigm of teacher development to be one that honors community and raises up community members as partners, I encourage you to consider the following three questions (and check out the aligned resources!) before you start planning you teacher training for next school year:
What are the strengths in the neighborhood and what is the history behind those strengths?
This question positions teachers as learners. It challenges us to go past the surface level strengths (“We have a library up the street”) and invites authentic, empowering dialogue with the people who live around our school building. You can answer this question by asking this of parents you meet during student pick up, paying attention to the places and spaces you hear students talking about in positive terms, or just walking around the neighborhood and striking up conversation at places like the nearest bus stop. I bet you will be challenged and inspired by the journey behind this question.
A resource that can help systematize or scale this question throughout a whole school staff is this community asset mapping toolkit created by experienced community organizers.
Where do my students feel proud in the community? Where are my students’ families most proud of their children outside of the school building?
Schools are often traumatic places for students and their parents. Seen as oppressive institutions that have caused community damage, teachers can unintentionally trigger anxiety or feelings of isolation in caregivers trying to swallow their apprehension and support their children. This question challenges us as educators to step outside of our comfort zone rather than forcing families to step outside of theirs. Instead of simply heading to the school parking lot and heading out towards the highway, stop in the neighborhood for dinner at a family-owned restaurant or a sports tournament at the local YMCA. Exploring this question took me to places including a community center poetry night, the annual immigrant Thanksgiving hosted by a group of families in the neighborhood, and a Baptist church where a student delivered a sermon to his faith community. These are places where parents and mentors eagerly told me about their students and consistently told me how much they wish other teachers could see their children in these spaces outside of the school walls. These experiences remain as some of the most poignant, powerful professional development I have ever received.
To hear additional voices sharing their experiences in schools and their advice to teachers hoping to partner with families, check out this article by ASCD.
Do I have the community’s blessing to be an educator here?
Educators typically go through rigorous interview processes with school staff and district leaders before receiving an offer to work for a school- but how often are educators ‘interviewed’ by the community? Asking this question shifts the orientation of an educator to consider how they might humble themselves, take time to walk alongside parents, caregivers, and community leaders, and seek their approval before accepting a position. This orientation pretty much requires that an educator walks the sidewalks, spends time in the neighborhood spaces, and swaps stories with people who hold unique insight about our students. One of the most powerful moments I have had in my education career was the day I spent time with a mother of students at a school where I had applied to teach. After taking a tour of the school with the mother, I asked her what she was looking for in a teacher, which opened up a conversation that extended far beyond our brief school tour. I learned about ways I could work with students effectively in the school and what her children valued in a teacher. No education consultant could provide me with the nuanced insight she held about her children. After our conversation, I asked her if I had her permission to work in her children’s school, to which she replied: “Yes. I believe you will be a great teacher for our students solely because you asked me that question.” That moment has never left me, and I have since had a similar walk with community leaders in any school where they offer me a position.
This piece by Dr. Kelli Seaton provides powerful insight into the why and how of student and parent involvement in teacher hiring.
The community just outside the school walls holds incredible power. Power to re-envision all that is possible with students; power to challenge educators in new ways; power to invest our students in their teachers. It is time we honor this power and amplify it in our schools- starting with the way we train our educators.