Defining our school communities: curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humour, along with a bit of a blurred vision about a better world

Community is a desire, continually replenishing itself as people seek voice and connectedness, in all their imperfections.
(Brent, 2004, p 213)

In this blog series to date I have shared my thinking on communal leadership and how school leaders have a key role to play in community capacity building. I have suggested that school leaders adopt the learning on offer from and stance taken by outstanding people in the field of community organising. In this blog I return to the concept of ‘community’ itself, its complexity and why defining it is problematic in itself.

In Blog V, I introduced the work of the late Jeremy Brent. I draw on Brent’s work because I believe that Brent is better qualified than most to offer perspective on community. Brent worked for 30 years as a youth worker on the Southmead Estate, Bristol, starting in 1975. He took a Masters degree in Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1992, and went on to complete a PhD at the University of West England, Bristol in 2000. Brent described his research as ‘a search for a way to understand and engage with community, both in general, and specifically in Southmead’.

It is said that Brent refused ‘promotion’ because he wanted to stay on the ground, in the community. Those of us who enjoy or have enjoyed the privilege of serving as school leaders recognise the thrill of being on the ground, in the thick of it. It seems to me that Brent is a classic example of praxis in action. Praxis being a unity of theory and practice, which, in community development, involves theory generated in action.

In advocating a critical approach to community development, Margaret Ledworth (2011) raises concern about the divide between theory and practice that results in ‘actionless thought’ and ‘thoughtless action’. Further, that we have a tendency to emphasise ‘doing’ at the expense of ‘thinking’ (p. 3-4). Some have had a lot to say on this issue in the field of education. The issue of knowledge production is an increasingly charged debate, fuelled by claims posited by ‘knowers’. I am not going there. Brent did the hard miles! And observed:

Ideas can give you the run of the world – action is limited.

What I would say is that I do not think that we think hard enough and deeply enough about what we mean when we speak of, and make statements about, ‘community’ in our schools.

My thinking is tested by Brent in the way he argues that community is best understood in terms of the processes by which it comes about. Community isn’t something that is given or can be relied on. Rather, Brent says, the idea of community is attached to different forms of collective identity that have actually to be created.

Brent offers a fascinating personal reflection on the term ‘community’ in a paper published by Community Development Journal in 2004, entitled ‘The desire for community: illusion, confusion and paradox’. He finds that ‘dictionary-style definitions do not untangle the complexity of community in practice’ (p 214). He argues that, much to the dismay of community utopians, division and unity are part and parcel of community politics. Further, that the times of the strongest community activity have not been times of calm, eschewing definitions describing comfort, such as:

It is like a roof under which we shelter in heavy rain, like a fireplace at which we warm our hands on a frosty day.
(Bauman, 2001, p. 1)

Brent considers arguments about the ‘illusionary nature of community’, based on three sets of ideas:

  1. that illusion does not have a role in the tough world of social reality;
  2. that community is too static to cope with the flows of the world;
  3. that globalisation and its partner, individualisation, are totalising forces that undermine all other forms of social organisation.

As a parent, a citizen, and as a school leader, I sit bolt upright and take notice at this point. And then take some solace as Brent suggests that there is a flip side to the suggestion that community be denied by globalisation, rather that it contests what can equally be criticised as the illusions of individualism. He argues that communities that are dynamic and complex can exist in global conditions.

This anti-definitional approach gives those involved in community activity the possibility, not having to build something that is already defined, but of creating new changes of their own to social life. Perhaps strangely, deconstructing community gives more scope for community action than does definition.

There may be no exact truth to the term, yet, as Wittgenstein points out, ‘[“inexact”] does not mean “unusable”’. Further, that incompletion is a dynamic concept (p. 219).

My interest is piqued. I am drawn back to the world of community organising and the dynamism that pervades messages shared by and the work carried out by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky was an American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. Alinsky, according to Time Magazine in 1970, was a “prophet of power to the people,” someone who “has possibly antagonised more people… than any other living American.”

Beck and Purcell (2013), in surveying the roots of community organising, highlight Saul Alinsky having described in detail the characteristics of exceptional community organisers. I have pulled five of those characteristics out here:

Curiosity: they are constantly curious about the way things are and how things could be different. They are also the provokers of curiosity in others; “for a people asking ‘why’ are beginning to rebel” (p 71).

Irreverence: they have a profound dissatisfaction with dogma and all repressive ideas and practices.

Imagination: they have the ability both to imagine a better future and to enter into the experience of other people

A sense of humour: they have the ability to recognise and come to terms with the contradictions in the world.

A bit of a blurred vision of a better world: they have the ability to see how small actions and projects link into broader movements for social change.

Is it just me or does the description of such traits, and the liberty on offer if we accept Brent’s suggestion that there is no exactitude around the term ‘community,’ a whet to your appetite?

If so, consider this…

Community is the continually reproduced desire to overcome the adversity of social life, and it is community as desire rather than community as social object which commands engagement.
Brent, 2004, p. 221

Bear in mind, as Tocqueville argued in his observations of civic life in America in the 1830s, organisers bring individuals together in a way that creates a collective capacity not present when individuals act alone. Organisers do not simply aggregate individuals but also create new relationships between them that generate new commitments and resources.

If you have stuck with my line of thinking and its presentation, thank-you. I would be interested to know where that leaves you so far as your thinking on community and community capacity building is concerned.

I repeat, I do not think that we think hard enough and deeply enough about what we mean when we speak of, and make statements about community in our schools.

I do think Jeremy Brent’s authoritative and quite brilliant insights throw up a positively thrilling opportunity that schools and school leaders would do well to embrace.

I confess to watching the Pride of Britain Awards, broadcast this week. I admit to being decidedly dewy eyed watching the piece on Dr Paul Stephenson as he received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr Stephenson changed the face of race relations in the UK, taking on institutionalised racism, setting up a sports association with Muhammad Ali. As a young social worker in 1963, civil rights campaigner Stephenson led the successful 60-day boycott of a Bristol bus company that refused to employ black or Asian people, paving the way for Britain’s first race laws. His campaign, inspired by Rosa Parks, directly resulted in the company revoking their colour bar. Eighty years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Dr Stephenson continues to speak out against the effects of discrimination. On taking the stage, Stephenson took the microphone and simply reminded everyone that we owe it to our children and our grandchildren to hand over a society fit for them to live in.

Let us not allow our school communities to be an ‘illusion’ within the globalised world. Rather, let us go with Jeremy Brent’s line ‘Communities that are dynamic and complex can exist in global conditions.’ Let us seek to understand the complexity inherent to our own school community context and exercise curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humour, along with a bit of a blurred vision about a better world.

All the while, minding this dramatic description of living in modern times by Marshall Berman:

To be modern … is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air.
Berman, 1983, p. 8

Not on our watch, eh?!

REFERENCES

Alinsky, S. D. (1971) Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. New York: Random House.

Beck, D. and Purcell, R (2013) International Community Organising: Taking Power, Making Change. Bristol: Policy Press.

Berman, M. (1983) All that is solid melts into air: The experience of modernity. London: Verso.

Brent, J. (2004) ‘The desire for community: Illusion, confusion and paradox’, Community Development Journal, 39 (3): 213-23.

Brent, J. (2009) Searching for Community: Representation, power and action on an urban estate. Bristol: Policy Press

Ganz, M. (2009) Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Strategy and the Organisation in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ledworth, M. (2011) Community development: A critical approach. Bristol: Policy Press.

Tocqueville, A de. (1969) Democracy in America. New York: Harper Perennial.

Communal Leadership and Community Engagement in our Schools: an essay for #EdBookNZ 2017 edition

I have been invited by #EdBookNZ editor Sonya Van Schaijik (Twitter: @vanschaijik) to contribute to the #EdBookNZ 2017 edition. Sonya is one of the great collaborators and activists in the world of education today. It is my pleasure to submit the following essay. I urge educators from around the globe to connect, collaborate and share learning with our colleagues down under. We have so much to learn from one another. And learning is the work.

I am a primary school headteacher (Principal) in the UK. I have extensive experience in school leadership and a particular interest in family engagement and home-school-community partnership. I am completing a doctorate at Manchester University. My research is on home-school partnership through building relational trust and achieving a more equitable partnership, recognising and addressing the issue of relational power.

Writing in 1887, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies introduced the terms gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society) in highlighting and examining the shift away from a vision of life as sacred community and toward a more secular society. The transition from a hunting and gathering society to an agricultural society, and then on to an industrial society, he says, have seen community values replaced by contractual ones. In 1992, Sergiovanni argued for a change in our theory of schooling and the extraction of modern day schools from the gesellschaft camp. Not advocating a polar swing, rather, ‘to build gemeinschaft within gesellschaft’. That, in order to revive a sense of common membership; community of kinship, of place, and of mind. A mutual binding to a common goal and shared set of values. I wonder how schools might cultivate relationships with families and local community in order that such an authentic sense of community be invoked?

Blau and Scott (1962) say that communities are socially organised around relationships and the felt interdependencies that nurture them. I have an interest in social interactions across the school community and how the building of relational trust might address issues around relational power. Bryk and Schneider (1996) task leaders with taking actions that reduce parents and care givers’ sense of vulnerability in social interactions that take place in and around school. They see trust very much as a precondition for authentic participation in partnerships. Relational trust is based on perceived respect, competence, integrity, and personal regard for others, and depends on reciprocity. Need we think then on the nature of social interactions taking place in and around the school community and problematize the case for authentic partnership?

We might take a guiding definition for authentic partnership from Susan Auerbach’s (2012) work on conceptualising leadership for authentic partnerships:

Authentic partnerships are respectful alliances among educators, families and community groups that value relationship building, dialogue across difference, and sharing power in pursuit of a common purpose in socially just, democratic schools.

And a guiding definition for relational power as defined by Warren and Mapp (2011):

‘If unilateral power emphasises power “over”, relational power emphasises power “with” others, or building the power to accomplish common aims’.

We inhabit a world in which social divisions are widening not lessening. I believe that community development and commitment to social justice and sustainability requires an understanding of how power works at every level. A few years ago my interest in this dynamic was sparked by Warren and Mapp’s (2011) brilliant work reported in A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform. The authors locate the problems of public education in the US as grounded in unequal power relations in a socially and economically stratified society. Contextually different to the UK and, indeed, New Zealand, maybe, but what can we learn from descriptions and analysis of ‘active participation’ in works such as Warren and Mapp’s? Saul Alinsky was an American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. Alinsky was wholly appreciative of local traditions and values. He immersed himself in them when he organised. He thought the only way to communicate with people was within their experience and you could not do that if you did not learn how they thought or talked, or the stories they told.

Modern day schools operate in a high stakes, ‘standards’ driven domain. School leaders are held accountable in a way they never have been before. Yet school leaders also have a direct influence on shaping a school community climate of trust and belonging. What is it that relational leadership has to offer a vision that is based on empowerment of others? One in which leadership lies not in the position given, but in the position taken (Foster, 1986). Should we focus on forms of communal leadership and how that might advance understanding of the position school leaders might take, accepting that school leaders do have a direct influence on shaping a school climate of trust and belonging through “boundary-spanning interactions” with families and local community (Adams et al.,2009).

I believe that relational leadership turns on our understanding of relational powerrelational trust, and our willingness to truly engage with, listen to, and have authentic dialogue with all members of our school community. I would say, too, that in looking to exercise communal leadership we need pay attention to community capacity building.

In exploring community capacity building, we would do well to turn to the field of critical pedagogy (a form of popular education based on people’s life experience) and how that impacts the concept of social justice in our schools, interrogating the insights provided by the likes of Paulo Freire, John Smyth, and Henry Giroux.

The Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, said that ‘Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.’ Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is a logical sequence. False love, false humility, and feeble faith in others cannot create trust. Trust is contingent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with their actions.

Community capacity building approaches provide space for those most affected at the ‘grass-roots level’ to identify the constraints they are experiencing. The adoption of ‘co-learning’ and ‘problem-solving… dialogue among equals’ (Eade, 1997) trumps the idea of ‘experts’ administering to those deemed inexpert. Smyth (2011) offers a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach. The approach hangs on the premise that if change is to be sustainable then what has to be engendered is ownership, and producing this means being patient and flexible in the way in which relationships are created and sustained around authentic trust, respect and notions of mutuality and reciprocity.

The following extract is drawn from a research project carried out in the UK by Harris, Andrew-Power and Goodall, reported in Harris et al. (2009), that explored the relationship between parental engagement and pupil achievement.  

Parental engagement seems to be the worst problem and the best solution. It is the worst problem because it can be difficult to secure, and it is the best solution in terms of raising student performance.

The research findings highlight a number of barriers facing certain parents in supporting their children’s learning. The authors argue that powerful social and economic factors still prevent many parents from fully engaging in schooling. Furthermore, that schools rather than parents are often ‘hard to reach’.

I strongly suggest that we despatch the notion that some parents are ‘hard to reach’ to Room 101 and work on fostering a climate that sits at or towards the end of the spectrum recognised and defined by Warren and Mapp as “power with”. Empowerment involves a form of critical education that encourages people to question their reality: this is the basis of collective action and is built on principles of participatory democracy. What is more…

We are spending a great deal of time, energy, and resources on learning all we can about twenty-first century instruction. We spend millions of professional development dollars searching for those ideas that will bring us success with every student – a success that still eludes us. In all of this, the notion of family engagement, that being empowering the first and most influential teachers of children, seems to somehow get lost. We simply cannot let that to continue to happen.

(Constantino, 2016)

Think on this… Joyce Epstein’s theory of overlapping spheres of influence, determines that students learn more when parents, educators, and others in the community work together to guide and support student learning and development. In this model, three contexts – home, school, and community – overlap with unique and combined influences on children through the interactions of parents, educators, community partners, and students across contexts.

With attention to contexts and social relations, the theory of overlapping spheres of influence changes the narrow focus of “parental involvement” from what an individual parent does to a broader, more realistic representation of how students move, continuously, in and out of several contexts and how the influential people in those contexts may work together to contribute to students’ education and development.

As a school leader, I have worked with Steve Constantino’s logic model.

Critically, Constantino’s work talks of and seeks depth of engagement. It incorporates Epstein’s ‘Six Types of Family Involvement’ and factors in activity across the 3 Spheres. Chapter 1 in Steve’s book Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles is titled Would Every Family Choose You? What better starting point? If we cannot trust ourselves to check back in with that on a regular basis should we consider emblazoning it big and bold somewhere on the walls of our staff rooms and offices? I say that family and community engagement is the responsibility of all in school, and leaders have a responsibility to provide top quality professional development opportunities around family and community engagement, plus the time to immerse themselves in active participation, alongside parents/carers and community members.

Returning to Auerbach’s definition:

Authentic partnerships are respectful alliances among educators, families and community groups that value relationship building, dialogue across difference, and sharing power in pursuit of a common purpose in socially just, democratic schools.


I am saying that such an aspiration will not be achieved without school leaders exercising relational leadership and communal leadership in order to ignite community capacity building so that the best interests of our young people be met.

I explore all of these ideas and more in greater depth through a series of blogs, here communal leadership and social justice and would greatly appreciate your feedback.

Simon Feasey

Twitter: @smfeasey

Email: simonmfeasey@gmail.com

 

REFERENCES

Alinsky, S. (1972) Rules for radicals, New York: Vintage Press.

Auerbach, S. (ed.) (2012) School Leadership for Authentic Family and Community Partnerships: Research Perspectives for Transforming Practice, New York: Routledge

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B (1996) Social trust: A moral resource for school improvement. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Bryk, A. S., Bender Sebring, P., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S. and Eatson, J. Q. (2010) Organising Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Constantino, S. (2016) Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Eade, D. (1997) Capacity-Building: An Approach to People-Centred Development. Oxford: Oxfam.

Epstein, J. L. (2011) School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Preparing Educators and Improving Schools (2nd edition), Philadelphia: Westview Press.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of Hope, New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.

Harris, A., Andrew-Porter, K. and Goodall, J. (2009) Do Parents Know They Matter? Raising achievement through parental engagement, London: Continuum.

Henderson, A. and Mapp, K. (2002), A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1994) Building Community in Schools, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (2004) The Lifeworld of Leadership: Creating Culture, Community, and Personal Meaning in our Schools, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smyth, J. (2011) Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice, London: Continuum.

Smyth, J., Down, B., McInerney, P. (2014) The Socially Just School: Making Space for Youth to Speak Back, New York: Springer

Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform, Oxford: OUP.

Schools, Families, and Community: Overlapping Spheres of Influence

Family engagement is not optional. It is not an idea that can sit on a shelf until we determine we have the time or interest.
Dr. Steve Constantino

In this blog series, to date, I have expressed my own strongly held beliefs on schools and families working together for the good of the child/student. I have laid bare the theoretical underpinnings that inform my own core values and attachment to community and social justice. I believe we (school leaders) need to better recognise and embrace the concept of communal leadership and community capacity building.

Currently, there is much in the news and on social media in the UK that suggests too many schools are acting in a way that is alienating them from families and local community. Although, I am aware that far far more are working tirelessly to achieve the polar opposite. The actions of the former does beg the question, Why?

I sincerely hope that if you were to analyse key policy documents in any school in the UK (World?) you would detect the child/student being the central figure. Wordle your school documents and find out? Look up ‘child-centred’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and you will get ‘Giving priority to the interests and needs of children’. Dr. Joyce Epstein’s overlapping spheres of influence model places the child/student plum in the middle. The spheres of influence being: school, family, and community. I will return to Epstein’s model, below.

Dr. Steve Constantino once said to me: If we [schools and educators] truly had it all worked out so that all children were achieving in our schools, without the need to engage with families, then good. But we have not, and will not, so we must. I am paraphrasing there, Steve, but that was the essence of your message.

I make no secret of the fact I am a big fan of Steve’s work and, quite literally, logic, so far as family engagement is concerned. That, because Steve’s work talks of and seeks depth of engagement; something recognised by Peter de Witt in his foreword to Steve’s book Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles. Tellingly, Chapter 1 in that book is titled Would Every Family Choose You? What better starting point? If we cannot trust ourselves to check back in with that on a regular basis should we consider emblazoning it big and bold somewhere on the walls of our staff rooms and offices?

Steve tells the story of Yagottawana. He uses the story to stress that if one’s desire to make a difficult change (or choice or decision) does not start with the very simple notion that the change (choice, decision) is something we desire, then the likelihood of success isn’t very high.

The story of Yagottawana…

Having numerous issues and stressors in his life, a gentleman made the difficult decision to seek professional counselling. This was a decision that did not come lightly and one that the man debated and rejected many, many times. In the final analysis, though, the man realised that without some assistance, the issues in his life would continue to affect his health and his relationships with the ones he loved. Because of this, he took the large, difficult, and scary step to take help.

Upon arrival to the counsellor’s office, the gentleman was immediately put at ease. He was under no obligation to say anything he didn’t want to say or take any action he didn’t want to take. He was in complete control of the conversation. Almost without knowing it, an hour went by, and the gentleman was asked if he would return the following week. He agreed.

The following week (and several weeks after that) seemed to be a repeat of the first. He talked about all kinds of things, and the individual hours of conversation flew by. After several weeks, he realised he felt a bit better but really couldn’t put his finger on why. At his next appointment with the counsellor he decided to ask.

He walked into the meeting, sat down, and asked the counsellor the question he had been pondering.

“You feel better because you have discovered the secret,” the counsellor said.

“The secret? The secret to what?” The gentleman was a bit irritated at the answer given to him.

“The secret to success,” answered the counsellor. He walked over to his desk and picked up what looked to be a picture frame and handed it to the gentleman.

“Please read this out loud if you will,” said the counsellor. The gentleman looked at the frame. Inside the frame there was no picture and really no sentence or recognisable word to read. He simply saw the following.

YAGOTTAWANNA

When the gentleman read it out loud, at that instant, he realised what the word was and what it meant.

“One’s personal desire to make a difficult change starts with the very simple idea that we WANT to make the change. Without the intrinsic desire, whatever our goal, it most likely will remain elusive. You have decided to make the change. Therefore, you are.” The counsellor sat back waiting for a response.

“Yagottawanna, eh?” said the gentleman. “That simple?”

“That simple.” The counsellor smiled and said not another word. Neither did the gentleman.

The following extract is drawn from a research project carried out in the UK by Harris, Andrew-Power and Goodall, reported in Harris et al. (2009) that explored the relationship between parental engagement and pupil achievement.

Parental engagement seems to be the worst problem and the best solution. It is the worst problem because it can be difficult to secure, and it is the best solution in terms of raising student performance.

The research findings highlight a number of barriers facing certain parents in supporting their children’s learning. The authors argue that powerful social and economic factors still prevent many parents from fully engaging in schooling. Furthermore, that schools rather than parents are often ‘hard to reach’.

Professor Alma Harris and Dr Janet Goodall’s work is grounded in an extensive and impressive body of research in the real world. And so, it is with real authority that they warn of the need for major efforts by schools to understand the local community, and that deep engagement is only possible if the relationship is perceived to be genuinely two-way (Harris et al. 2007).

As stated before in this blog series, I strongly suggest that we despatch the notion that some parents are ‘hard to reach’ to Room 101 and work on fostering a climate that sits at or towards the end of the spectrum recognised and defined by Warren and Mapp as “power with”. After all…

The evidence is convincing; families have a major influence on children’s achievement in school and through life. When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.
(Henderson and Mapp 2002: 16)

Dr. Joyce Epstein is the architect of the ‘Six Types of Family Involvement’. Again, I return to the idea of depth. Take a look.

This stuff moves us way beyond the Bake Sale. I refer to Beyond the Bake Sale (Henderson, Mapp et al. 2007) still going strong, revised and republished. The foreword to the original in 1986 is quite delicious (sorry!):

Stop! Do not read Beyond the Bake Sale unless you are willing to take a hard look at your beliefs and attitudes about home-school relationships and parent involvement.

Epstein states time and again in her work that ‘School, family, and community partnerships is a better term than parental involvement to recognise that parents, educators, and others in the community share responsibility for students’ learning and development.’

Epstein developed her theory of overlapping spheres of influence, positing that students learn more when parents, educators, and others in the community work together to guide and support student learning and development. In this model, three contexts – home, school, and community – overlap with unique and combined influences on children through the interactions of parents, educators, community partners, and students across contexts. With attention to contexts and social relations, the theory of overlapping spheres of influence changes the narrow focus of “parental involvement” from what an individual parent does to a broader, more realistic representation of how students move, continuously, in and out of several contexts and how the influential people in those contexts may work together to contribute to students’ education and development.

As a school leader, I have worked with Steve Constantino’s logic model. In writing this I returned to Steve’s book for the umpteenth time. All good works reveal new messages on revisiting don’t you find? Already sold on the logic model and the Five Simple Principles, I noticed the naming of chapters and identified the logic in that:

Chapter 1: Would Every Family Choose You?
Chapter 2. A Quick Note About Motivating Teachers
Chapter 3. Understanding Disengagement

Followed by a series of chapters explaining and exploring the five principles (see infographic below)

And then, prior to the epilogue:
Chapter 10. Taking Action and Measuring Success

The logic works, and it worked, for me. Not forgetting (Chapter 2) that it is the responsibility of all in school, and leaders have a responsibility to provide top quality professional development opportunities around family and community engagement, plus the time to immerse themselves in active participation, alongside parents/carers and community members.

Those of you who have given your valuable time to work through this series of blogs will recognise my belief in empowerment. Steve acknowledges Epstein’s work in relating it to his Principle #4 Engage Every Family in Decision Making. Epstein says of Decision Making – Type 5:

Parents’ voices must be heard when it comes to decision making at the school. This enables families to participate in decisions about the school’s programs and activities that will impact their own and other children’s educational experiences. All parents must be given opportunities to offer ideas and suggestions on ways to improve their schools. Having families as true stakeholders in the school creates feelings of ownership of the school’s programs and activities.
National Network of Partnership Schools

I offer no apologies for laying down chunks of referenced text in this blog, although I do appreciate they amount to much. I do thank Steve and those who have dedicated themselves to enabling schools to embrace the power inherent to a recognition of the overlapping spheres, namely: School, Family, and Community – with the child/student front and centre.

Final word, from Dr. Constantino…

We are spending a great deal of time, energy, and resources on learning all we can about twenty-first century instruction. We spend millions of professional development dollars searching for those ideas that will bring us success with every student – a success that still eludes us. In all of this, the notion of family engagement, that being empowering the first and most influential teachers of children, seems to somehow get lost. We simply cannot let that to continue to happen.

Hear hear!

REFERENCES
Constantino, S. (2016) Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Epstein, J. L. (2011) School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Preparing Educators and Improving Schools (2nd edition), Philadelphia: Westview Press.

Harris, A. and Goodall, J. (2007) Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement: Do Parents Know They Matter? Warwick: University of Warwick.

Harris, A., Andrew-Power, K. and Goodall, J. (2009) Do Parents Know They Matter? Raising achievement through parental engagement, London: Continuum.

Henderson, A. and Mapp, K. (2002) A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement000, Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

Henderson, A.T., Mapp, K. L., Johnson, V.R. and Davies, D. (2007) Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships, New York: The New Press.

“Double clicking”, “Sense Making” and Glue

A couple of years ago I enjoyed an hour long conversation via Skype with the brilliant Judith Glaser. I wanted to find out more about Judith’s pioneering work on Conversational Intelligence. A definition:

Conversational Intelligence is the intelligence hardwired into every human being to enable us to navigate successfully with others. Through language and conversations we learn to build trust, to bond, to grow, and build partnerships with each other to create and transform our societies. There is no more powerful skill hardwired into every human being than the wisdom of conversations.

I noticed some time before Judith paused to ask me if I had, that throughout our conversation she stopped me often, asking, “What do you mean by that?” “What does that particular word mean to you?” and similar. Judith has dubbed that technique ‘double-clicking’.

This, in interview with Marshall Goldsmith:

MG: Judith, one phrase I’d never heard from anyone else with regards to communication and leadership is “double-clicking”. What is this and how can leaders and teams benefit by understanding and using this tool themselves?

JG: Double-clicking is one of our five top conversational essentials. I came up with this concept when I noticed what happened when people working on their computers double-clicked on a folder. When they double-clicked, all of these things were inside it that they hadn’t seen before or didn’t remember they’d saved. I wondered, “What if I teach leaders to follow up with questions (double-click) to confirm understanding?” This is crucial because often we assume everyone has the same understanding. Unless we double-click and confirm that we understand each other, we are just assuming that we understand and things can quickly go awry.

Soon afterwards, I had a Skype conference with Tracey Ezard and Sarah Martin (Founding Principal of the best and most innovative school on the planet; Stonefields School in Auckland, New Zealand). Tracey wanted the views of Sarah and I on what constitutes collaborative leadership. I learned that Tracey, too, had taken an interest in Judith Glaser’s work and had pursued that further. Tracey describes herself as a ‘Professional Triber’. In her work with big business and service providers in Australia, Tracey promotes the questioning of status quo, the challenging of assumptions, and the embracing of the unknown. She talks of the ‘learning intelligence’ of organisations, identifying 3 key strands: collaborative growth mindset; compelling environment; and authentic dialogue.

Tracey says about authentic dialogue:

It’s usually the dialogue (or lack of) that kills innovation and collaboration. Dynamic dialogue that builds connections and the ability to create an atmosphere of learning is required in the complexity of today’s world. We need more dialogue that empowers people to feel connected, valued and make the change and transformation required.

In July/August 2016 I made a long awaited and eagerly anticipated visit to Stonefields School. Having enjoyed and benefitted from many illuminating conversations on learning and leadership with Sarah (Founding Principal) over the past two years, I had some idea of just how beneficial this would be for me personally, and how my learning might impact on the way I lead and encourage others to lead. In writing this, I am reminded of a phrase central to an infographic Sarah shared with me some time ago, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I liked the infographic so much (and still do) I had it professionally reproduced and mounted on my office wall. I ask you to bear that phrase in mind as we move on.

I had set myself specific areas of focus. A focus I was able to pursue because of the generosity of spirit afforded me by Sarah and the Stonefields Team. I wanted to understand how leadership works at Stonefields; how it is layered, the nature of teacher leader interactions, and what defines contact time itself. Also, what does coaching and mentoring look like at Stonefields?

You don’t need me to tell you just what a privilege that is. I will forever be grateful to Sarah and colleagues for allowing me to be present at senior leadership meetings, leader of learning meetings, professional learning sessions, and learning hub meetings. That, and the significant amount of time Sarah afforded me on a 1:1 basis, whilst carrying out the day job.

Things started to fall in place after early conversations had with Sarah. For all that culture – ‘the way we do things around here’ – is valued, nurtured and protected at Stonefields, you would be wrong to see the place of strategy anywhere other than alongside culture, and definitely not on the plate at breakfast. At Stonefields, strategy is very clearly articulated. Strategic goals are a living, breathing thing. Sarah, as principal, brooks no deviation from those goals, warding off anything that distracts. Indeed, sees herself as guardian of those agreed goals. We had a truly fascinating discussion on just how strategy is formulated and how systems have been developed and refined over Stonefields’ growth years.

On culture, it immediately became apparent to me that Stonefields is a place defined by relational trust, scoring high on all four counts (Bryk and Schneider’s criteria – see Blog post I). Also, where relational power is seen as important, and a key driver. Not the least because Wellbeing is a current strategic goal, encouraged through attention to mindfulness. Staff are actively encouraged to share anxieties at all meetings. Should there be the slightest hint of reticence, then a senior leader would step forward to share a personal anxiety. ‘Sense making’ is a responsibility shared by all. If something doesn’t make sense, say so! I was beginning to understand the Stonefields proclaimed aim that staff be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. I sat in on several meetings, never once sensing that things were left unsaid or that things said were received by all present with anything other than respect, empathy, and dealt with; elephant time on the agenda.

A crystal clear sense of collective responsibility runs through the organisation. Collection and interrogation of data is a collective enterprise. Successes are celebrated, concerns are addressed as a team. I sat in on a team meeting where newly identified target learners were considered and appropriate interventions identified and discussed. This included the identification of ‘anxious’ learners and what might be done to alleviate their anxieties. Lengthy discussions were had on strategies. Contributions were offered from left and right, more experienced and less experienced teachers. I was put in mind of Lipman’s ‘Norms for collaboration’: Equity of voice, Active listening, Respect for all perspectives. At the same meeting, discussion was had on alignment of teacher effectiveness goals to match learner needs. This was not the first and certainly not the last time I heard groups of teachers discussing with colleagues their own effectiveness and how that related to learner outcomes. They very much see themselves as change agents.

A key thing to note is the high level of focus upheld throughout all teacher contact time. Time for social interaction is prized, with all staff congregating for morning tea at 11 a.m., allowing time for staff briefing and keeping in touch. The room rings with laughter, the sharing of anecdotes and, not uncommonly, song. Team contact time, however, is serious business. As Michael Fullan would say (Secret 4 of 6), ‘Learning is the work’. I couldn’t help thinking of the number of meetings I have attended – still do attend – that degenerate into unproductive noise, skirting around issues rather than dealing with them. Senior leader meetings at Stonefields are governed by agenda, with the next meeting’s agenda addressed and set through its course. Efficiency and clarity underscore all interactions.

I visited another school in Auckland; Newmarket. I was delighted, therefore, to read Dr Wendy Kofoed’s comment posted in response to my last blog in this series. Wendy is Principal at Newmarket School. Wendy’s comment, in full:

Another great read Simon, and so relevant to building a strong and robust community. I certainly agree that encouraging and supporting our teachers and communities to transgress, is a key part of our leadership work.

A story … An example of a recent ‘pragmatic transgression’ or idea to action this year has been teachers’ ownership of meeting with parents and students to have learning conversations. Rather than the quite formal timetabled, bell-and-time-bound meetings with teacher voice dominating (aka parent interviews/student led conferences), this year each teacher schedules a time convenient to parents for a quality conversation (usually 2-3 times a year). Does not have to be at school. At this meeting as well as conversation, visible learning, and listening, the written report (we are required to do two per year in NZ) is co-constructed with the parent and student.

Feedback from parents and students has been positive on this gentle nudge to traditional reporting-to-parents.

Looking forward to your next blog post

Wendy

Having had the privilege of visiting Newmarket School, as said, I recognise the value Wendy places in the nurturing and encouraging of transgression. The overriding memory I have of my visit to Newmarket is the comfort everyone clearly felt in one another’s company, through school, and in the staff room. I departed with Wendy saying, “Come again, you are now one of the Newmarket family.” And so, it comes as no surprise to me that Newmarket families are encouraged to fully participate in the ‘reporting’ process, as described.

Again, we see how importance is attached to authentic dialogue and sense making; “double clicking”.

What interests me, in particular, about the Newmarket approach, is the co-construction of a written report. The significance of this, I imagine, is that all participants (learner, parent(s) + teacher) move on with a full understanding of report content, and motivation for recording particular content. It is all too common, I think – although I hope things are changing – in the UK for reports on students to be issued in what, to most parents, would appear to be a foreign language.

I make no secret of the fact that I love the New Zealand way. More than anything, the inherent respect they have for community, culture, tradition and shared aspirations in their schools. I took a look at the New Zealand Ministry of Education website this afternoon. Community engagement features large. I suggest you take a look here . This from a section labelled ‘Reporting to parents and whānau’.

The table below summarises the key differences between one-way reporting and information sharing that informs student/ākonga learning across the curriculum.

One-way reporting of achievement Information sharing that informs learning
Teachers report to parents what their children have learnt or achieved. Students/ākonga, parents, whānau, and teachers share and understand information about children’s progress and achievement.
Focused on describing successes and failures. Focused on describing what learning and progress has occurred.
Accurate labelling is the key purpose. Ongoing learning (by students/ākonga, parents and teachers) is the key purpose.
Once or twice a year only. Continuous and timely with key times for more formal evaluation.
From school to parent. Multi-layered and multi-directional with students/ākonga, parent, whānau, teacher, community.
Essentially a one-way message. Take it or leave it. Collaborating and co-constructing meaning and the way forward.
Reports sent home on paper. Technologies support two way information flows and the quality and the richness of the information.

So much to learn from the other side of the world…

REFERENCES
Ezard, T. (2015) The Buzz: Creating A Thriving and Collaborative Staff Learning Culture

Ezard, T. (2017) Glue: The Stuff That Binds Us Together to do Extraordinary Work

Glaser, J. (2016) Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results

Dare to dream, together, as architects of your school’s tomorrow…

Power is the very essence, the dynamo of life. It is the power of the heart pumping blood and sustaining life in the body. It is the power of active citizen participation pulsing forward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose.
Saul Alinsky

In this blog series on communal leadership and social justice in our schools, I have focused on relational leadership and how this turns on our understanding of relational power, relational trust, and our willingness to truly engage with, listen to, and have authentic dialogue with all members of our school community.

We have explored the notion of ‘community’ itself. In saying that school leaders should be looking to exercise communal leadership I problematized the term ‘school community’ and the idea of ‘partnership’. I asked whether in seeking ‘partnership’ with parents/carers and the local community we are barking up the wrong tree. Is it the case that school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

In looking a little deeper at community capacity building, returning to the field of critical pedagogy and how that impacts the concept of social justice in our schools, we returned to the insights provided by Paulo Freire, John Smyth, and Henry Giroux. I concluded that capacity building approaches provide space for those most affected at the ‘grass-roots level’ to identify the constraints they are experiencing. That the adoption of ‘co-learning’ and ‘problem-solving… dialogue among equals’ (Eade, 1997) trumps the idea of ‘experts’ administering to those deemed inexpert. We looked at what Smyth (2011) terms a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach. The approach hangs on the premise that if change is to be sustainable then what has to be engendered is ownership, and producing this means being patient and flexible in the way in which relationships are created and sustained around authentic trust, respect and notions of mutuality and reciprocity.

I am hugely grateful to those who have engaged in this ongoing conversation. I am especially thankful to those partners I have had the privilege of working with in one particular school community where we explored a way of working that aligns with Smyth’s relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach, as highlighted by Ste Marsay in his comments posted in response to Blog post VI in this series.

I believe the dominant paradigm of school and community ‘partnership’ is a pathologising one that is deficit driven; what is wrong, and what is required to fix it? Community capacity building, however, starts from the viewpoint that all communities have assets, skills and resources, but they also have constraints that limit what is possible. Also, contexts are as important as the individuals that inhabit them.

In his seminal work Rules for Radicals, the community organiser, Saul Alinsky, argues that even the word politics itself, which Webster says is “the science and art of government,” is generally viewed in a context of corruption. Alinsky highlights the fact that words associated with the language of politics, such as power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict, have become ‘stained with human hurts, hopes and frustrations’ (p.48). Alinsky says that power, meaning “ability, whether physical, mental, or moral, to act,” has become an evil word, ‘with overtones and undertones that suggest the sinister, the unhealthy, the Machiavellian’ (p.50). And yet, he says, to use any other word but power is to change the very meaning of everything we are talking about:

Power is the very essence, the dynamo of life. It is the power of the heart pumping blood and sustaining life in the body. It is the power of active citizen participation pulsing forward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault was interested in power as ‘a phenomenon that spreads throughout society with an almost innumerable range of foci’ (Oliver, 2010). Power is, according to Foucault, visible and functioning at the micro level all the time. He pointed out that power was an intrinsic element in all human relationships and certainly in the workplace. He sought to go beyond simply explaining the mechanisms through which power works in society, attaching more importance to a means of altering some of the unfairness of the distribution of power in the world.

Julie Allan (2013) contends that Foucault’s work encourages us ‘to question what is given to us as necessary to think and do.’ Foucault’s intention was ‘to show people that they are freer than they feel’. Foucault spoke of transgression. Transgression is a form of resistance involving the crossing of limits or boundaries. It is not antagonistic or aggressive, nor does it involve a contest in which there is a victor; rather, transgression is playful and creative. Transgression has been viewed as an attractive construct in relation to marginalised and oppressed groups, not least of all because it forces a recognition of exclusion. For those who transgress, ‘otherness lies ahead’. Allan concludes that, above all, Foucault’s legacy was that he makes you think.

And so we return to one of the great thinkers on, and one of the most influential education writers of our times, Paulo Freire. Freire’s liberating pedagogy resists forms of fatalism and ready acceptance of the status quo. Freire offers the example of Brazil’s (his native country) street children. He says that overcoming fatalistic comprehensions as to “being” on the street is synonymous to probing the social, political, and historic reasons for being on the streets – against which we can fight, in this way collectively and consciously. Further, Freire says:

As beings programmed for learning and who need tomorrow as fish need water, men and women become robbed beings if they are denied their condition of participants in the production of tomorrow. Every tomorrow, however, that is thought about, and for whose realisation there is a struggle, necessarily implies dreaming and utopia. There is no tomorrow without a project, without a dream, without utopia, without hope, without creative work, and work towards the development of possibilities, which can make the concretisation of that tomorrow viable.

I urge you to think on the many conversations you will have had with members of your school community, parents/carers in particular. Think on the form of relationship you have with them. If you were to ask them how ‘free’ they feel to engage in authentic dialogue and participate in the production of tomorrow – your community context utopia – what do you think their response would be?

I exhort you to look back over comments posted by one school community participants’ thoughts on their sense of empowerment through what amounted to a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach to home-school partnership. Ste Marsay, in particular, and his distaste for rabid self-interest, neo-liberalism, and his own sense of being excluded and marginalised. Ste’s preferred state:

Author and Creator of your reality, as opposed to being worried and fearful of condemnation, ridicule and criticism for imagining you could possibly be so; a creator and dreamer in your own right.

Think on these words of Freire:

If our goal is to rejuvenate the social – to make it real and vibrant to the extent that people are compelled to abandon solipsistic individualism and fight their way free from the prevailing culture of depressive cynicism before once again investing in collective projects, goals and identities – there must be a corresponding rejuvenation of the political. The supremacy of neoliberal political economy in the West, tied as it is to a doctrine of asocial liberalism and the stupid pleasures of 24-hour hyper-consumerism, has depoliticised our cultures and fragmented and individualised our society. It makes no sense to argue otherwise.

I believe that now is a good time to address the politics in and around our individual schools. Politics need not be a contentious or discoloured word. Let us think on power as a means of altering some of the unfairness of the distribution of power in our schools. Encourage school community members to exercise transgression.

Dare to dream, together, as architects of your school’s tomorrow…

REFERENCES
Alinsky, S. (1972) Rules for Radicals, New York: Vintage Press.

Allan, J. (2013) ‘Foucault and his acolytes’, in M. Murphy (ed) (2013) Social Theory and Education Research: Understanding Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu and Derrida, Abingdon: Routledge.

Faubian, J. D. (1994) Michel Foucault Power: essential works of Foucault 1954 – 1984, London: Penguin.

Freire, P. (2007) Daring to Dream: Toward a Pedagogy of the Unfinished, Abingdon: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of Hope, New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.

Oliver, P. (2010) Foucault: The Key Ideas, Abingdon: Hodder.

Smyth, J. (2011) Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice, London: Continuum.

Pulling in the excluded happens…

We refuse to be what you want us to be, we are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be.
Bob Marley, Babylon System

In this blog series on communal leadership and social justice in our schools, I have focused on relational leadership and how this turns on our understanding of relational power, relational trust, and our willingness to truly engage with, listen to, and have authentic dialogue with all members of our school community.

In my last piece (Blog Post V) I explored the notion of ‘community’ itself. In saying that school leaders should be looking to exercise communal leadership I problematized the term ‘school community’ and the idea of ‘partnership’. I asked whether in seeking ‘partnership’ with parents/carers and the local community we are barking up the wrong tree. Is it the case that school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

In this, the sixth blog in the series, I look a little deeper at community capacity building, returning to the field of critical pedagogy and how that impacts the concept of social justice in our schools. A return to those introduced earlier in this series of blog posts: Paulo Freire, John Smyth, and Henry Giroux.

I believe the dominant paradigm of school and community ‘partnership’ is a pathologising one that is deficit driven; what is wrong, and what is required to fix it? Community capacity building, however, starts from the viewpoint that all communities have assets, skills and resources, but they also have constraints that limit what is possible. John Smyth (2011) contends that these strengths and constraints are not universal but differ from person-to-person and are highly context dependent. Contexts are as important as the individuals that inhabit them. Capacity building approaches provide space for those most affected at the ‘grass-roots level’ to identify the constraints they are experiencing. And so, the adoption of ‘co-learning’ and ‘problem-solving… dialogue among equals’ (Eade, 1997) trumps the idea of ‘experts’ administering to those deemed inexpert. This is what Smyth terms a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach.

I am going to reproduce here, in full, a comment posted as feedback on Blog Post V by a parent who was a member of a discussion group formed at a school of which I was head teacher.

Hello there all.

Not sure at all how to start this but I am ruminating on all of the above. It’s a sticky consideration the notion of community, amplified excellently by Jeremy Bent’s ‘It (community) includes, embraces and empowers, but it also excludes’

How true and obvious upon being revealed and yet I had never considered the complexities. So what can I say on this issue? Only that which I myself experience.

I am a Me-ist, by which I mean my life has always been and still is all about me fundamentally. Questions such as:-

1. Who am I?
2. What am I doing?
3. Why am I doing it?
4. What is this I?

And on and on and I wonder a great deal about this whole I-ness, this whole Me-ness.

However, the Me-ist trip appears relevant to the topic. “Me, Me, Me” is hammered home to us all constantly via many various mediums. Think about it.

“Because I’m worth it”
“I’m loving it”
“Your M and S”
“Just do it” (What, Who, Where? maybe it means me?) etc and I am sure you will find many more examples of your own.
On your own.
You.
Me.

Hmm, so this ‘I’ seems to be the thread I am following, this sense of isolation, this sense of me being all alone and yet always talked to, always advertised at, always being tricked and deceived into imagining that I am part of a community, as long as I am prepared to pay. And play along.

Hmmm.

So, what Simon has done, did do for the Big Me was to regularly invite me and others into the school to discuss ways in which we could, collectively, consider what we all would like to see happen within the school so as to best improve the conditions for learning far all the children, as well as for the teachers providing the learning. He also would put forward proposals to us all and then let us all hammer out our reckonings. Gently I found the Big Me being humbled due to encountering all the other Big Me’s. We were asked on one occasion, teachers, deputy head, and parents, sitting at mixed tables, to respond to questions such as ‘What do you think school did for you?’ and when the various answers came out it was to me astonishing how similar, collectively, the individual tables of people shared the same story. By that I don’t mean to say ‘We all shared the same story’ I mean to say that within every grouping there was more or less a balance it seemed to me of positive memories and negative memories. The beauty of the proposals was that they were open ended and therefore all present waxed lyrical about their lives, their experiences and lots of laughter and agreement ensued.

Wonderful to behold for Big Me, I ain’t so different from everybody else! We all had stories that coalesced and diverged and coalesced again and it never appeared to be about agreement or lack thereof, it was just story-telling, the telling of our stories to one another.
It felt like community building to me on reflection, wonderfully so.

So, ‘But it also excludes’ being the final statement of Jeremy Brent’s deeply insightful sojourn into the nature of community has been the ‘Pull’ for me into this discussion. ‘Big Me’ found itself pulled into a ‘Big We’ (All urinary jokes or puns have been pre-considered) and do you know what, one of the excluded suddenly found themselves included. Over many meetings organised by Simon I found out that we matter, that we are part of something outside of our subjective selves. And that we all know that truth through the love we have for our children.
Pulling in the excluded happens, I tell the tale of my own experience by way of example and I am glad to state it so and it is an ongoing journey.

Ste

What Ste has to say on this through his experience engaging in the sort of dialogue he describes offers a hugely valuable insight from one (parent) who would commonly be excluded, as he says.

Ste picks up on my reference to Jeremy Brent in Blog Post V. I drew on Brent’s work because I believe that Brent is better qualified than most to offer perspective on community. Brent worked for 30 years as a youth worker on the Southmead Estate, Bristol, starting in 1975. He took a Masters degree in Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1992, and went on to complete a PhD at the University of West England, Bristol in 2000. Tellingly, Brent said:

Ideas can give you the run of the world – action is limited.

He argued that community is best understood in terms of the processes by which it comes about. Community isn’t something that is given or can be relied on. Rather, the idea of community is attached to different forms of collective identity that have actually to be created. I recognise just what Ste is saying in Brent’s words.

John Smyth’s (2011) relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach hangs on the premise that if change is to be sustainable then what has to be engendered is ownership, and producing this means being patient and flexible in the way in which relationships are created and sustained around authentic trust, respect and notions of mutuality and reciprocity. What this means is the creation of a shared reading of context around a central defining agenda that is worked through in dialogical ways (p.115). So we end up turning conventional views of school and community partnership building on their head. Those who have historically been construed as ‘objects to be manipulated and controlled’ are treated instead as ‘creators of a learning’ which has an open ended worldview that is subject to contestation, debate and negotiation (Mitchell and Sankey (2001). Note Ste’s perception (one I share) that the discussion group’s central defining agenda was how we might best improve the conditions for learning for all the children in our school.

Smyth tells us that Freire’s central notion is that ‘hope’, as an idea, ‘is rooted in our incompleteness’, and that what makes us human is the ‘constant search to feel more fulfilled. This is something we pursue collaboratively, something that is at considerable variance with the dominance of neoliberal ideas today, in which the overwhelming emphasis is upon individualism, materialism, consumption and personal acquisition. Note Ste’s troubling over ‘Me’and ‘I’. Smyth cites Ira Shor, arguing that this applies to all western societies:

With our deep roots in individualism… [we have a] devotion to ‘making it on our own’, improving yourself, moving up in the world, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, striking it rich by an ingenious personal effort.
Ira Shor, 1980, p. 110)

Henry Giroux (2011) urges us to rethink education as ‘the practice of freedom’. Writing on Paulo Freire’s legacy, Giroux says that hope, for Freire, was ‘a practice of witnessing, an act of moral imagination that enabled progressive educators and others to think otherwise in order to act otherwise’ (p. 161). Hope demanded an anchoring in transformative practices, and one of the tasks of the progressive educator was to “unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be” (Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, 1994, p.9). Underlying Freire’s politics of hope was a view of radical pedagogy that located itself on the dividing lines where the relations between domination and oppression, power and powerlessness, continued to be produced and reproduced.

Giroux concludes that ‘Far from instilling propaganda in students, I think critical pedagogy begins with the assumption that knowledge and power should always be subject to debate, held accountable, and critically engaged’ (p. 172).

Smyth highlights the work and thinking of the black feminist bell hooks (1990) in her essay ‘Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness’. For her ‘Spaces can tell stories and unfold histories’ (p. 152). It is when marginality is chosen as a ‘site of resistance’ (p. 153), that ‘we move in solidarity to erase the category colonised / coloniser’ (p. 152). She invokes lines from singer Bob Marley:

We refuse to be what you want us to be, we are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be

In other words, it is from this ‘space of refusal’ (p. 150) that alternatives are constructed. Let’s hear it for the Radical and a refusal to simply accept the status-quo!

Which takes us back to Ste and his reflection on the telling of stories and histories, in the space that we created…

Wonderful to behold for Big Me, I ain’t so different from everybody else! We all had stories that coalesced and diverged and coalesced again and it never appeared to be about agreement or lack thereof, it was just story-telling, the telling of our stories to one another.
It felt like community building to me on reflection, wonderfully so.

Pulling in the excluded happens, I tell the tale of my own experience by way of example and I am glad to state it so and it is an ongoing journey.

REFERENCES

Brent, J. (2009) Searching for Community: Representation, Power and Action on an Urban Estate, Bristol: Policy Press.

Eade, D. (1997) Capacity-Building: An Approach to People-Centred Development. Oxford: Oxfam.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of Hope, New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.

Smyth, J. (2011) Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice, London: Continuum.

Community as a powerful antioxidant that can protect a school’s lifeworld…

There is no recipe for community building – no correlates, no workshop agenda, no training package. Community cannot be borrowed or bought.
Sergiovanni (1994)

To date, in this blog series on communal leadership and social justice in our schools, I have largely focused on relational leadership and how this turns on our understanding of relational power, relational trust, and our willingness to truly engage with, listen to, and have authentic dialogue with all members of our school community.

In this blog post I explore the notion of ‘community’ itself. If I am saying that school leaders should be looking to exercise communal leadership then let us problematize the term ‘school community’ and the idea of ‘partnership’. I also ask whether in seeking ‘partnership’ with parents/carers and the local community we are barking up the wrong tree. Is it the case that school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

In reviewing Home-School relationships and its ‘story’ in the literature, Carol Vincent (1996) argues that much of the home-school debate lacks a critical approach. Vincent warns of the reliance on consensual language, such as ‘partnership’, ‘dialogue’, ‘involvement’, ‘sharing’; with such terminology serving to edit tension and conflict out of the relationship, whilst being powerful in effectively constructing norms for home-school relations. Fifteen years later, we have Hornby and Lafaele (2011) highlighting the widespread use of the term ‘partnership’ at all levels from school prospectus to government policy papers.

Despite its wonderful “feel-good” nature its use is problematic. The use of language such as partnership, sharing, mutuality, collaboration, reciprocity, and participation, masks the inequalities that exist in reality in the practice of PI [parental involvement]. (p. 46-7)

Q. How often do we freely use such language to describe – define, indeed – the position in our schools? How did we, how do we, match up against the rhetoric: reality tension described by Hornby & Lafaele?
(You may want to take a look at your school mission statement.)

Etienne Wenger identifies three dimensions that he says are the source of coherence of a community of practice: mutual engagement; a joint enterprise; and a shared repertoire. Might thinking on a more authentic home-school-community partnership benefit from the drawing of parallels with Wenger’s conceptualisation? For, in such a model, group members are engaged in actions which meanings they negotiate with one another in actively participating. Wenger’s second characteristic of practice as a source of community coherence is the negotiation of a joint enterprise:

It is defined by the participants in the very process of pursuing it. It is their negotiated response to their situation and thus belongs to them in a profound sense, in spite of all the forces and influences that are beyond their control.
(Wenger, 1998, p. 77)

Thomas Sergiovanni contends that the lifeworld of a school must be the primary focus of the decisions made by its administrators while the systems world, one in which management techniques and goals dictate action, plays a peripheral role. “Culture, meaning, and significance are parts of the ‘lifeworld’ of a school” (p. 4). Sergiovanni declares that the values and general culture of the school should reflect those of the parents, students, teachers, and local community.

Sergiovanni highlights the importance of the factors that contribute to a school’s character and how this character, with all of its contributors and effects, will determine the school’s success. One of the critical components of an effective community is uniqueness. He argues that this trait connects community members, committing them to their commonly owned goals and values.

Sergiovanni provides a vision of community as:

… a powerful antioxidant that can protect a school’s lifeworld, ensuring that means will serve the ends rather than determine them (p. 59).

The lifeworld and the systemsworld are symbiotic. That is, in the proper balance both are essential in creating effective schools. An important aspect of balance between the two worlds is directionality of the relationship. One world must necessarily lead the other, and which leads matters greatly in terms of the type of school that develops. And so:

Either management systems are uniquely designed to embody and achieve the purposes, values, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and students in a particular school or the purposes, values, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and students will be determined by the chosen (or more likely state- or district-mandated [national- or locally-mandated]) management system (p.7).

Q. What is your assessment of the lifeworld-systemsworld symbiosis in your school community. Which world leads the other?

Is it the case that beleaguered school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

In looking at community capacity building I am going to return to the field of critical pedagogy in order that we might arrive at the concept of social justice in our schools. A return to those introduced earlier in this series of blog posts: Paulo Freire, Saul Alinsky, John Smyth, and Henry Giroux.

I think it best that we pause for thought here. Although, before we draw breath, we note that the road ahead is a challenging one. Smyth warns that exploring a complex idea like community does not lend itself at all well to ‘cut and dried definitions’ (p.5). He cites Richard Johnson (2009) in his introduction to Brent’s (2009) book Searching for Community, saying, exploring the notion of what community means involves a ‘mapping not just [of] spaces or places, but also relevant arguments and ideas’ (p.4).

Community isn’t something that is given or can be relied on. Rather, the idea of community is attached to different forms of collective identity that have actually to be created. Community in this sense is always fragile and fractured, always takes variable forms and always involves particular kinds of power. It includes, embraces and empowers, but it also excludes. (p. 5)
Jeremy Brent (2009)

Something to dwell on before we return to this…

Q. Are we barking up the wrong tree in seeking ‘partnership’ with parents/carers and the wider community?

Q. If we pursue such a line then is it not the case that we are separating ourselves (school) out and determining direction?

Q. Is it the case that school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

Q. If so, and we embrace a philosophical framework such as that of Sergiovanni’s, are we looking then to ‘push the description of leadership past the realm of empty buzzwords into a model necessitating deep, radical change’ ?

REFERENCES

Brent, J. (2009) Searching for Community: Representation, Power and Action on an Urban Estate, Bristol: Policy Press.

Hornby, G. (2011) Parental Involvement in Childhood Education: Building Effective School-Family Partnerships, Canterbury NZ: Springer.

Hornby, G. and Lafaele, R. (2011) “Barriers to parental involvement in education: an explanatory model” Educational Review, 63 (1) pp 37-52.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1994) Building Community in Schools, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (2004) The Lifeworld of Leadership: Creating Culture, Community, and Personal Meaning in our Schools, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smyth, J. (2011) Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice, London: Continuum.

Smyth, J., Down, B., McInerney, P. (2014) The Socially Just School: Making Space for Youth to Speak Back, new York: Springer.

Vincent, C. (1996) Parents and Teachers: Power and Participation, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Vincent, C. (2001) “Social class and parental agency” Journal of Education Policy, 16 (4) pp 347-364.

Without dialogue there is no communication

A good school is more akin to a family than a factory
John Dewey

If the third in this series of blog posts was about listening then this, the fourth, shifts towards dialogue and the essence of trust, on which dialogue thrives.

The Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, said that ‘Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.’ Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is a logical sequence. False love, false humility, and feeble faith in others cannot create trust. Trust is contingent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with their actions.

For Megan Tschannen-Moran (2014), ‘Trust matters because we cannot single-handedly either create or sustain many of the things we care about most’ (p.17). She cites philosopher Annette Baier (1994):

Trust… is reliance on others’ competence and willingness to look after, rather than harm, things one cares about which are entrusted to their care.
Baier, 1994, p. 128

Tschannen-Moran considers trust to be a pressing issue for schools, for ‘They foster our ideals of respect, tolerance and democracy, as well as the vision of equity in our society’ (p.17). She warns that despite clear evidence of the dividends of a culture of trust, organisational dynamics often complicate things because the power differences imposed by hierarchical relationships add complexity to interpersonal reactions.

My doctoral research (shared throughout this series on communal leadership and social justice in our schools) explores issues around the building of trust and realignment of the power imbalance that favours school. Bryk and Schneider’s (2002) work on trust conceptualises trust in schools as being formed around the specific roles that people play in this setting, with the growth of trust depending on the degree to which people have shared understandings of their role obligations. Warren and Mapp’s (2011) work around community organising in the US offers valuable insight into a collective process that starts with listening and conversation at the ground level; it does not start with a set agenda and it responds to local context: ‘If unilateral power involves power “over”, relational power emphasises power “with” others, or building the power to accomplish common aims’ (p.27). The flexibility in design of my research to date has allowed for concentrated listening and conversation at the ground level, with no set agenda, grounded in the reality and context of the case study school. I seek to explore teacher and parent dialogue, as a necessary pre-cursor to the formulation of a model that recognises and supports the ideal that sees both parental involvement in school and parental engagement in their child’s learning, through effective home-school partnership working, a joint enterprise, underpinned by shared agency.

According to Bryk and Schneider’s conceptualisation of trust, we typically use four key elements to discern the intentions of others in schools: respect, competence, integrity, and personal regard for others. Respect involves a basic regard for the dignity and worth of others. Competence is the ability to carry out the formal responsibilities of the role. Integrity is demonstrated by carrying through with actions that are consistent with stated beliefs. Personal regard involves demonstration of intentions and behaviours that go beyond the formal requirements of the role. All in all, a genuine sense of listening to what each person has to say marks the basis for meaningful social interaction.

I have been involved in leading on the Achievement for All (AFA) project in an AFA pilot school and latterly as the head teacher of a school that adopted the AFA structured conversation model. We made a promise of two 30 minute conversations a year for the family of every student in school; student led.

The structured conversation, introduced and advocated by Achievement for All, incorporates approaches of active listening, solution orientated psychology and problem solving within a clear four stage framework (explore, focus, plan, review), ‘as a means to understand the parents’ hopes and concerns for their child and to engage them in a collaborative relationship that would support their child’s greater progress and achievement’ (Day, 2013, p.36). The success of the mediation process – open dialogue approach, as a means to understand the parents’ hopes and concerns for their child and to engage is clearly evident through national evaluation evidence based findings. Parents reported feeling more included in the process of their children’s education, more empowered, and have sensed a change in the dynamic of their interactions with school staff.

My research through focus group and semi-structured interviews in school, found that the structured conversation concept left teachers, following a “longer conversation” with parents, understanding the child better, with the model well received by parents, it being “more relaxed than a snatched ten minutes”. Beyond the child themselves, the structured conversation also opened up a view on the wider family context, “their history and their situations at home”. This, one teacher claimed, leaves parents feeling “more valued”. On the contrary, the traditional 10 minute time slot only really ever allows the teacher time to speak, to report on the child. No sooner have both parties relaxed into it then the ten minutes is up.

The value of positive relationship building, through face-to-face communication has been wholeheartedly lauded by teachers. After all, “We are all in it together and going down the same path”. Trust must be built, through open and honest communication, with parents and teachers as “equal partners”.

I reproduce here comments posted by one teacher and one parent in response to the first blog in this series, both talking on their experience of structured conversations.

Following watching this video [Brené Brown TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability], as a school, we began to use ‘Structured Conversations’ as a way to work alongside parents. We looked at the way we operated ‘parents evenings’ as a whole and changed it around. Instead of feeding back to a parent, we sat with them and discussed how we could work together as a team around the child. The role switched and teachers asked parents what they thought might work.

At first, as a teacher, this felt unnatural and I certainly felt vulnerable, I can also openly admit to feeling a little defensive, expecting parents to criticise what I had been doing, as opposed to collaborating on the best way to work as a team for the child. This wasn’t what happened at all. Little things like sitting alongside the parent, offering them a drink, and structuring questions as a more open ended ‘chat’ seemed to relax the parents and allowed for a more natural, equal conversation. I fully believe that parents know their child the best so why aren’t we utilising this knowledge? The result of the conversations was that parents appeared to feel more a ‘part’ of their child’s education and therefore did more at home with their child such as reading and home projects etc. They also began to approach me more, asking what they could do to fill gaps in their child’s learning, therefore driving up that ever important data.

Hi All, I as a parent within the school mentioned above, can second what Sam is saying about structured conversations. I sat in on a structured conversation with my son and his teacher, my son at the time was at the end of year 5, what came out of the conversation was that my son kept repeating ‘but I can’t do maths’. We as parents said ‘you can’t do maths yet! But if you work at anything you can always overcome what you want to’, or something along those lines, and at home tried to encourage him to do his maths homework and even had a go as well. A year later, although no structured conversations were held at the end of the year, my son’s report said that he had progressed in maths and had overcome the difficulties he had had with maths. I can only say I feel that if myself, my son and his teacher hadn’t had that structured conversation then I am sure my son would have kept on struggling with maths. Now he is going into secondary school knowing that actually he can work out most maths equations/questions and that he has a positive attitude to learning maths whereas before he just shut down and said he couldn’t do it.

I would add to Jackie’s comment one of my golden memories of a structured conversation outcome. During the course of one conversation, Jackie’s son shared his aspiration to become a computer games designer. A couple of weeks later I vacated my office as teacher ushered in Jackie’s son plus two interested friends so that they could hold a Skype conversation arranged by the teacher with a friend he had attended university with. A friend who is now working as a computer games designer!

Bandura (1997) says that ‘Teachers with high self-efficacy and schools with a strong sense of collective efficacy are more likely to extend support to parents and seek them out as partners in a student’s education’. I say that needs to be worked on and given equal status to everything else any one school pursues by way of professional development. We would do well to spend more time in our schools exploring the concepts of trust, vulnerability and power.

Time to listen, reflect and change?

Trust is not a medium but a human virtue, cultivated through speech, conversation, commitments, and action.
Solomon & Flores 2001

REFERENCES
Baier, A. C. (1994) Moral prejudices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Day, S. (2013) “Terms of engagement” not “hard to reach parents”, Educational Psychology in Practice: theory, research and practice in educational psychology, 29 (1): 36-53.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Solomon, R.C., and Flores, F. (2001) Building trust in business, politics, relationships, and life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014) Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform, Oxford: OUP.

You organise with your ears, not your mouth. Time for agitation in our schools?

You organise with your ears, not your mouth.
Saul Alinksy

In this blog I will focus on listening and the lessons we might draw from community organising traditions.

Saul David Alinsky was an American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. Alinsky, according to Time Magazine in 1970, was a “prophet of power to the people,” someone who “has possibly antagonised more people… than any other living American.”

As suggested in the first two blogs in this series, I, for one, would welcome challenge, agitation and, indeed, a more antagonistic approach to home-school-community partnership debate, and – I think, necessarily – system change.

As we move forward, let us bear in mind Dewey’s words:

I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends.
I believe that the school must represent present life-life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighbourhood, or on the playground.
John Dewey (1897)

Alinsky was wholly appreciative of local traditions and values. He immersed himself in them when he organised. He thought the only way to communicate with people was within their experience and you could not do that if you did not learn how they thought or talked, or the stories they told.

Alinsky’s tools were four: empathic listening; challenging (or agitating); thinking through; and training.

As a school leader I conducted a number of focus group interviews in the school of which I was head teacher; groups of teachers, and groups of parents/carers.

This initiative was driven by these key research questions:

  1. What are parents’ views about:
    a. involvement with their child’s school;
    b. engagement with their child’s learning, and
    c. home-school partnership working?
  2. What are teachers’ views about:
    a. parental involvement with school;
    b. parents engagement with their child’s learning, and
    c. home-school partnership working?

Listening to the focus group audio recordings, listening again, re-focussing and drawing common themes, highlighted for me the power and purpose of focus group use in social research and in the workplace. Data emerged directly from participant interaction. Not for discussion here but, out of interest, the key themes emerging in groups of both teachers and parents/carers were approachability, relationship, communication, responsibility, community and expertise.

Participants were empowered by the process, with participants bold, clear and articulate in the way they expressed their views, while being stimulated by the comments and thoughts of others in the group. More so, where the parent groups is concerned. There was disparity in scope of discussion between teachers and parents, in their respective groups. Yes, I did remain silent throughout, thus encouraging participants to follow their own agenda, but the fact is I was present. How did my very presence influence respective groups? I am inclined to suggest that teachers felt more hidebound by perceived regime expectations, if encouraged to open up. On the contrary, the opportunity this represented for parents unleashed something that was revealingly informative for me both in my professional capacity as head teacher of the school and as researcher. My presence left this particular group decidedly unabashed.

Teacher group discussion proved to be narrower in scope than that of parents, restricting themselves very much to school related issues, if wrapped around the pupil-parent-teacher dynamic. Parent group discussion was significantly broader in scope and, I would say, markedly more self-reflective in nature. Teachers expressed views that supported need for change in working practice but those views were fed by existing working practice and how that might be extended, while still permeated by the belief that change is likely to be school driven. Parent group discussion was underpinned by a very strong and tangible (I was present) sense of both responsibility and community. If change in approach was to be affected then they want a voice and that input would match school input, with the child at the centre. As one parent put it, reflecting on how he would want his child to feel:

I am part of a cog here, I’ve got them interested in me and I’ve got me interested in me. You’ve got a functional machine rather than a dysfunctional machine because we are all in it together.

The difficulty for schools is that we carry power whether we like it or not, or believe it or not.

Alinsky thought that the best ally of the powerless was the hypocrisy and arrogance of the powerful. Equally, that “apathy” was often a misnomer. That “apathy” is the label put on people who won’t come to your meeting. Rather, people didn’t want to bang their heads against a brick wall. So we return to the “hard to reach” misnomer. Or is it no misnomer when applied to schools? What are we doing to make our schools places that all parents/carers and extended community members feel comfortable engaging with. Or at the very least, less vulnerable.

As previously said (earlier blog posts) I cannot recommend strongly enough Warren and Mapp’s A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform. Warren and Mapp claim that ‘organising connects school reform to social justice’. They say that social justice is not primarily an outcome but a process where people who have been marginalised build the capacity to exert a measure of control over the institutions that shape their lives. Interestingly, they highlight the pitfalls of “scaling up” universal programmes. Programmes that are either adopted or imposed, commonly ignoring the important role parents and young people themselves can play in school change initiatives. Again, we return to the idea of listening at the ground level, encouraging a ‘bottom-up thrust’.

Critically, Smyth et al. talk of seeing school through an anthropological lens of how people make sense of their school lives. Colleagues and I used Dr Russ Quaglia’s work in helping us gather community member voice in an attempt to gain insight into member perceptions. Termly Quaglia Voice surveys allowed us to ‘triangulate’ pupil, parent/carer and staff views. The Quaglia Aspirations Framework is grounded in 3 Guiding Principles: Self-Worth, Engagement, and Purpose. They divide further into 8 Conditions: Belonging, Heroes, Sense of Accomplishment; Fun and Excitement, Curiosity and Creativity, Spirit of Adventure; Leadership and Responsibility, Confidence to Take Action. We held a Vision & Values Event in school. An open invite was extended to all school community members. We all gathered in the school hall – pupils, parents, grand-parents, carers and staff – to discuss our vision for the future of school and what it is we value as a school community. Two hours later, having worked in several mixed groups, we gathered together the large sheets of paper that respective groups had recorded their thoughts on. Everybody had been encouraged to graphically represent (with annotations) their thoughts. The sheets were shared with Tracey Ezard in Australia and a conversation had (via Skype) on their content and the messages they convey. Tracey produced the graphical representation shown here.

What is particularly interesting about the key themes that emerged from the Vision and Values exercise held in school is that so many of the key strands of the Quaglia Aspirations Profile are brought to the fore.

One thing I am not doing is putting this forward as a ‘success story’. Rather, that it should be looked at as an ongoing process. This is why I believe we can learn so much from the community organising tradition. Indeed, Warren and Mapp warn us that community organising is not a programme to be implemented. ‘It is a process to be undertaken whose direction cannot be entirely foreseen or predicted.’

Interesting then, if we apply this to school direction and strategy. No easily defined ‘success criteria’ here. Should there be? How do you listen to your school community? What do you count as success in home-school-community partnership work?

REFERENCES
Alinsky, S. (1972) Rules for radicals, New York: Vintage Press.

Dewey, J (1897) ‘My pedagogic creed’, The School Journal, Volume LIV, Number 3 (January 16, 1897), pages 77-80.

Schutz, A. and Milller, M. (2015) People Power: The Community Organising Tradition of Saul Alinsky, Nashville: Vanderbilt.

Smyth, J., Down, B., McInerney, P. (2014) The Socially Just School: Making Space for Youth to Speak Back, New York: Springer

TIME Magazine (U.S. Edition) March 2, 1970 Vol. 95 No. 9

Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform, Oxford: OUP.

Home-School-Community Partnership through the lens of Community Development and transformative praxis

The cause of democracy is the moral cause of the dignity and the worth of the individual.

John Dewey, 1946

In this blog post I would like to introduce to the debate the brilliant work of Margaret Ledwith, Emeritus Professor of Community Development and Social Justice at the University of Cumbria. Ledwith’s work is largely inspired by that of Paulo Freire (1921-97) and Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Freire emphasised and demonstrated the power of transformative praxis (a unity of theory and practice capable of social change). Ledwith’s work and ideas unfold through stories of everyday life experiences (narratives). Narrative is so defined:

People’s personal stories contribute to collective narratives, which express the hopes and fears, needs and strengths that are the basis of community development and practice.

I am hoping that we may be open to sharing our own personal narratives with regard to home-school-community partnerships and determine where praxis sits. Hence the questions put forward. In a previous blog post I offered a guiding definition for relational power as defined by Warren and Mapp (2011):

If unilateral power emphasises power “over”, relational power emphasises power “with” others, or building the power to accomplish common aims.

Neil Thompson (2007) extends this further in offering a model of four types of power.

  1. power to
  2. power over
  3. power with
  4. power within

‘Power to’ can be understood as personal power to achieve our potential in life. Self-esteem and self-belief are fundamental to it. It also helps us understand how domination leads to a ‘culture of silence’ by diminishing self-esteem and pathologising poverty, that is, convincing people that their social status is due to their own failings.

‘Power over’ is related to relations of dominance and subordination that get acted out at structural, cultural and personal levels. Change has to take place at all levels before empowerment and equality will be cultural norms that replace disempowerment and inequality.

‘Power with’ is particularly important to the power of change. It implies not only solidarity among groups of people who identify with each other, but also alliances across difference in mutual commitment to change for the greater good of everyone.

‘Power within’ is a personal resilience that connects the individual to the collective. ‘It is the basis of self-worth, dignity and self-respect, the very foundation of integrity, of mutual respect and equality, a dislocating of ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ in order to create a world that is fair, just and equal.’

Q1. Reflecting on the home-school-community dynamic that defines your particular community, where and with whom would you say power lies? How so and why so?

Q2. As an individual in that relationship, do you feel connected to the collective? If indeed a collective exists.

Why my focus on community development? Put simply, I think the power of ideas associated with it offer up a lens through which we might usefully view and analyse home-school-community partnership. Ledwith says it is critical pedagogy (a form of popular education based on people’s life experience) that gives community development the potential to bring about change for social justice. The process begins by simply questioning everyday life’s taken-for-grantedness to see the contradictions we live by more starkly. This leads us to seeing the world through a new lens – seeing power in action and co-creating new knowledge, a new story of the world that forms the basis of action for change. As said in my first blog, I contend that the mood of the country so far as the UK is concerned, and, arguably, further afield, is such that a challenging of the status-quo is in train and burgeoning.

Ledwith highlights the values that are fundamental to community development, thinking from a human rights perspective. Everyone has the right to trust, dignity and respect formed out of experiences that are equal, reciprocal and mutual. Ledwith says that this is built into cooperative relationships that work together to connect people in ways that build towards participatory democracy. This leads to people perceiving that they are part of a greater unity, a more coherent whole, rather than alienated fragments without the power to change the issues that are effecting their lives.

I discussed in my last blog social interactions across the school community and how the building of relational trust might address issues around relational power. Bryk and Schneider (1996) task leaders with taking actions that reduce parents’ sense of vulnerability in social interactions that take place in and around school. They see trust very much as a precondition for authentic participation in partnerships. Relational trust is based on perceived respect, competence, integrity, and personal regard for others, and depends on reciprocity.

I trust this is all making some sense and there is a coherence to the threads I am pulling on. What I know for sure is that it is incumbent upon school leaders to think on relational power and how that impacts social justice and democracy in and across the school community. I strongly suggest that we despatch the notion that some parents are ‘hard to reach’ to Room 101 and work on fostering a climate that sits at or towards the end of the spectrum recognised and defined by Warren and Mapp as “power with” and by Thompson as “power with” or even “power within”. Empowerment involves a form of critical education that encourages people to question their reality: this is the basis of collective action and is built on principles of participatory democracy.

After all…

The evidence is convincing; families have a major influence on children’s achievement in school and through life. When schools, families and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.

(Henderson and Mapp 2002: 16)

Q3. Thinking on the content of this blog and the definitions provided by Warren and Mapp, and Thompson, is there something that has struck a chord with you, something that you intend exploring in your school community? If you are happy to do so, please share.

 

REFERENCES

Henderson, A. and Mapp, K. (2002), A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

Ledwith, M. (2011) Community Development: A critical approach, Bristol: Policy Press.

Ledwith, M. (2016) Community Development in Action: Putting Freire into Practice, Bristol: Policy Press.

Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform, Oxford: OUP.