Communal Leadership and Social Justice

The absolute aim of this blog is to ignite debate and provoke interaction and conversation amongst those interested in its theme and content. I very much welcome, therefore, your thoughts, comments and challenges. Please post these as comments below or email me at simonmfeasey@gmail.com

I have an ever growing interest in community organising and will begin by posting some of my collected thoughts and let this space evolve. 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 working through building relational trust and achieving a more equitable partnership

We live in a world in which social divisions are widening not lessening. It is my belief 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 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, maybe, but what can we learn from descriptions and analysis of ‘active participation’ in works such as Warren and Mapp’s?

The focus of this particular blog post is communal and relational leadership and an understanding of how that might be exercised to impact home-school-community partnership building.

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. My interest is 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’ 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?

Modern day schools operate in a high stakes, ‘standards’ driven domain. School leaders are held accountable in a way they never have been before. School leaders also have a direct influence on shaping a school 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, therefore, 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).

Let us take a guiding definition for authentic partnership from Susan Auerbach’s 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’.

What is meant by partnerships between parents and professionals? Carol Vincent problematizes the term partnership. In common parlance, a partnership means a relationship of cooperation, shared responsibility, mutual benefit, and voluntary participation. Vincent suggests that in education, it is a “diffuse concept” meant to “invoke a warm glow of equality and joint endeavor” (Vincent, 1996, p. 466), as seen in school mission statements that reference it.

How and why can a partnership between parents and professionals be set up to bring about change? During the taught part of the EdD programme at Manchester, I was privileged to attend a seminar in Manchester led by Etienne Wenger where he shared and we debated his research on Communities of Practice. 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. Thinking on a more authentic home-school-community partnership would benefit from the drawing of parallels with Wenger’s conceptualisation because, necessarily, 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)

Wenger postulates that education in its deepest sense concerns the opening of identities, ‘exploring new ways of being that lie beyond our current state’. If professionals and parents are to bring about change then, I believe, a new way of being so far as home-school-community partnership is concerned must prevail.

What are the power dimensions in such a partnership, and how might relational trust be developed? We talk a lot about school culture but what do we actually mean by this? For sure, it is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. Smyth et al. (2014) say that in examining school culture we need to be especially mindful of relations of power – these can sometimes work collaboratively, or they can be coercive. They advocate a focus on school culture if we are to be serious about substantive school reform. They emphasise the crucial importance of inter-relationships between people in schools. They underscore the socially constructed nature of schools; suggesting we map the “cultural geography” of the school so as to have a clearer idea of where the school has come from and where it might be headed. Sergiovani (1992) distinguishes between what he calls the lifeworld of schools – values, beliefs, interactions – and the rules of the system world. He says:

Any attempt to thoughtfully reform schools will have to address the creation of schools as authentic social spaces in which students, their parents, school professionals, and the surrounding community are deeply understood, respected, and empowered” (p. 10)

I have quite deliberately weaved together a number of theories and thinking from those in the field. That, I hope, will challenge thinking.  Ultimately, a sharing of ideas, along with challenging and open debate may lead to our collective contribution; the offering of a new conceptual framework for communal and relational leadership in, around and of our schools. Also, a new way of activism for parent, community and professional partnerships. Let’s go… Let us debate and create…

 

REFERENCES

Adams, C.M., Forsyth, P.B., & Mitchell, R.M. (2009) The formation of parent-trust: A multilevel analysis, Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(4). p.4-33.

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.

Foster, W. (1986) Paradigms and Promises: New Approaches to Educational Administration: New York: Prometheus

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

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.

Vincent, C. (1996) Parental empowerment? Collective action and inaction in education, Oxford Review of Education, 22(4), p.4656-4682.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: CUP.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Communal Leadership and Social Justice

  1. Corina Gamble

    In an increasingly commodified education system, the power relationship model described here is offer counterbalanced by the expectation parents have hat school “produces results”. In the early years part of th school (where I work), this feeling can be deepened to extend the expectation of a “service” – including the expectation that communication systems are monitored 24hours a day. While the educators’ position of power undoubtedly remains, these are powerful barriers to a genuinely equal partnership. My experience is more of fluctuating highs and lows of collaboration, usually concentrated on community events (shows, awards days). To achieve a truly authentic partnership, a lot of leaders would have to give a lot of heir perceived powers away in exchange for nothing much – as long as data exists, it will be used to compare and contrast schools and individuals. This is just a perception of course – it could even be biased by the time of year when it’s written!

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  2. simonmfeasey

    Thank you for thinking on this and contributing, Corina. I would respectfully suggest that your school community explore the concept of vulnerability first. A great place to start would be Brene Brown’s TED Talk on You Tube, The Power of Vulnerability. Relinquishing that traditionally seen as ‘power’ and challenging everyday school life’s taken-for-grantedness (and in this I very much include Home-School-Community relationships) can be daunting. I sat with all staff a year ago watching Brown’s Talk. The discussion afterwards was rich, illuminating and lengthy – with all looking to contribute. We simply cannot redress the balance and claim democracy in our schools without embracing vulnerability and co-creating a new way of working within and across our communities. I have a number of resources and examples of activities that I am happy to share with you if you would like to email me at simonmfeasey@gmail.com

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  3. Samantha Jane King

    Hi Carina & Simon,

    Having been one of those members of staff, I second the Brene Brown recommendation. It is light-hearted and really made me consider, as a teacher, how I put myself across to our parents.

    I see where you are coming from when you state that as long as data exists it will be used to compare and contrast schools and individuals. We are very much a data driven industry, whether we choose to be or not.

    In her TED talk, Brene Brown encapsulates how I feel about this. She begins with the view ‘if you cannot measure it it doesn’t exist’. She then goes on to discuss how connection is the reason we are here. Her research highlights the importance of having a feeling of belonging in order to connect. This got me thinking around how much our parents and community feel they ‘belong’ in school.

    Following watching this video, 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.

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  4. sjk1990

    Hi Carina & Simon,

    Having been one of those members of staff, I second the Brene Brown recommendation. It is light-hearted and really made me consider, as a teacher, how I put myself across to our parents.

    I see where you are coming from when you state that as long as data exists it will be used to compare and contrast schools and individuals. We are very much a data driven industry, whether we choose to be or not.

    In her TED talk, Brene Brown encapsulates how I feel about this. She begins with the view ‘if you cannot measure it it doesn’t exist’. She then goes on to discuss how connection is the reason we are here. Her research highlights the importance of having a feeling of belonging in order to connect. This got me thinking around how much our parents and community feel they ‘belong’ in school.

    Following watching this video, 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.

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  5. Jackie

    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.

    (Also Sam, thank you for all of your feedback in these conversations too which helped greatly as well!)

    Jackie.
    Great blog Simon!

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  6. Ste Marsay

    Hello samantha and corina and How can i even pronounce your name?

    No offence at all by the way, privacy is important. Whenever people say to me “If you have nothing to hide then why worry” i always make a point of pointing out the Official Secrets Act. By this i mean if gchq and other agencies can and do monitor all traffic (this included although i do not in anyway consent to this monitering) then why have an Official Secrets Act?

    I’d love to have a big, Juicy secret i wanted nobody to know about and that nobody could find out about for fifty / seventy or a hundred years but i haven’t one. .

    Anyway, asides aside, onto structured conversations.

    It’s really nice to read about your difficulties as teachers approaching this new venture. its illuminating to read of your fears, your worries and uncertainties. i say this as from my perspective as a parent the whole show went off wonderfully.

    Here is what happened from my perspective.

    Our eldest child was in year five and was going through a pretty low phase with regards to maths. As parents both of us are pretty shit at maths and numbers so what help could we be here? We didn’t even know we were here as it wasn’t as if our kid was coming home after school and saying “Bloody hell mam and dad i am really struggling at maths!”

    Kids rarely do that.

    So this is how it played out. We turns up and the teacher asks our eldest to go on a computer and answer some questions on the screen. We then go into an adjacent room and start to see our childs answers to the questions coming up in real time on onother screen and it was fascinating, illuminating and activating. By activating i mean to say i was really looking forward to our eldest coming off the computer and talking with us all and, guess what, that all happened. As his answers were coming in we along with the teacher were engaging in conversation about our child, in real time, in the now and the teacher was annimated and we were and when all three of us got together we all discussed, as equals, all that was ready to be discussed.

    Our child was being Challenged, questioned and considered by three extremely significant adults in his life. Mam, Dad and Teacher!

    And do you know what, it was an experiential bonanza for all, it truly was!

    I apologise for having to cut this short but we are away on holiday tomorrow and i am presently under the cosh to focus on other matters.

    Ste

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