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…

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.

5 thoughts on “Dare to dream, together, as architects of your school’s tomorrow…

  1. Peter M DeWitt

    Hi Simon,
    I love this line, “Author and Creator of your reality.” How do we get our students to feel like this? How do we get the adults in the school to do this? As a principal, I always tried to check to see if my actions we contributing to the empowering of students and teachers…or the enabling of them. I hope most of those actions contributed to empowering.


  2. simonmfeasey

    Thanks for your thoughts, Peter. Always very much appreciated. Ste’s words – “Author and creator of your reality.” – struck a chord with me too. I am grateful to Ste for the time he has taken to reflect on this series of blog posts and offer his perspective. Ste is a very engaging, intelligent, thoughtful and engaged participant in the process we created together; allowing for what we term authentic dialogue, yes, but also a relationship-centred approach to home-school ‘partnership’. I take much from the fact that Ste felt liberated by the process. That is why I love Paulo Freire’s work. Take this, from Freire:

    ‘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.’

    You posed a challenging question to us all at one of your workshops in London (World Visible Learning Conference): Are you the sort of leader who walks into a faculty [staff] meeting with one idea and back out with the same idea? I have thought time and again on that simple question. Applying that to the above, who are we to dictate wholly on our school community’s tomorrow, without, as you say, empowering others to participate on an equal footing. To dare to dream and be the architects of our future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 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 form parents and students has been positive on this gentle nudge to traditional reporting-to-parents.

    Looking forward to your next blog post


  4. simonmfeasey

    Thank you for taking the time to read and respond, Wendy. Having had the privilege of visiting your school I recognise the value you place 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 you 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.

    In the UK, 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”.

    What interests me, in particular, about your approach, Wendy, 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 (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.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts.

    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.


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