There is no recipe for community building – no correlates, no workshop agenda, no training package. Community cannot be borrowed or bought.
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’ ?
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.