Small village schools, support networks and more. What role should the Community play in the world of a teacher? How can Community help teachers cope with vulnerabilities and give them a sense of identity? Plus, learning moments for the entire group.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast.
Welcome to the School of School podcast.
Welcome back everyone to another exciting episode of the School Of School podcast. Here with Adam Gifford. Say, hi, Adam.
And Robin Potter.
That was pretty slow there, Robin. You got to be snappy.
Okay, sorry. Hi.
Got to keep it moving. Hi. All right, so we're here... We're going to talk about community, right? Community, does it have a role to play in education? What do we mean by community in education? Look, come on, I'm just going to throw it over to you guys right away. What are we talking about when we say community?
Do you know? It's really interesting because whether or not this is out of order or not, we've been discussing in an episode of podcast, sorry, a podcast episode about, I don't know, the future of education and those sorts of things. And I was thinking about one thing that I don't know would've changed through the ages is the importance of community and learning through community. Now of course, there's all sorts of different communities, some of them are oppressive, some of them aren't particularly positive, those sorts of things. But it takes communities to function. So if you had a group of individuals, then a group of individuals, I don't think that there's too many examples that I've read or seen function as well as a functioning group within a community where people are learning off each other in a community.
And I think the basis of this, we were talking about educational communities and teachers sharing ideas and support, and we use terms like feeling okay, being vulnerable in a community, which to me means just being honest and sort of I need help with this, and that if we don't have those communities again, something else that's been said in a previous conversation, Andy, you're talking about sort of isolation. That it's very easy for us to become isolated. And I think that that idea around community and the value of community is something that really needs to be not just fostered, but actually identified and talking about the worth of it. I think that that's really important.
When I think of community, I can think of community in all different forms. I mean, I'm a part of many communities, and as you said, Adam, I mean, it's much stronger than the individual. So you also touched on vulnerability, and I think that's a key term right now when looking at leaders in our community and the ability to be vulnerable and show that you're vulnerable to others. All those things keep coming up.
It's hard to imagine what you as an individual would be without a community. If you're isolated in any context, just imagine living by yourself in the middle of nowhere, you lose your identity. I mean, we identify ourselves as members of a community. You don't... Complete isolation, it's just not how humans work. But what does it mean in an educational context? Obviously, there's school communities, there's communities of teachers, there's communities of pupils. What role should the community play in the life of let's say a teacher, not just their classroom, but the community as a whole? What should it look like? What are we talking about when we talk about community and education?
Gee, it's multilayered. I mean, the first thing that jumps into my mind is your literal community. The people whose children are coming into your classrooms, but also the people... So the parents, the caregivers, the guardians of those children. But also the people who help that community operate. So that might be your shopkeeper, the local librarian, the person who runs the fish and chip shop. All of those things that have been established and stay as part of a community and have an impact on them.
So I've worked in places and I remember once there was a talk of the local shop closing and it was massive. It was massive because the implications of it were that people might not be able to get the day-to-day things they need. There was a big part of that community who didn't have cars, the public transport. So all of a sudden when one piece of this community started to be questioned, it raised a whole heap of other things that perhaps you couldn't predict that it was going to happen because it might've been as easy as in this day and age, well, it's okay because Amazon will take care of it or something along those lines.
But I think for me, the interrelatedness of a community, and it really, what it brought home to me was that what I did in my classroom had an impact on all of these people. So it wasn't just the children in my classroom, it was about immediately their parents and their caregivers, my colleagues, because you wanted the credibility of the school to be one in which reputationally it was intact within the community. You're also really aware that your role, how it was perceived by the community was really important. There was a pride attached to it. There was a vulnerability that parents have in sending their children to you in your care hoping that you will do your job, that you will do these really well.
So I think that the more you start to look into, it's huge. And the importance of it is massive. And so if I just sidestep just a little bit, what that made me do was think the educational community, which to me was the people that I could trust to talk to who would make me a better teacher, that's kind of what it came down to, was so important to me because I started the longer I was in the whole school community, realised the importance of it.
And that's actually quite daunting. The more you think about your role within that, it's huge. It's really huge. And I think that that means that your support network, be it emotional support, professional support, practical support, it becomes increasingly important as well and that these things are fostered because it's really big and it's all really important stuff that we're talking about here, I think.
I was just visiting one of our schools recently, and they're a small village school, and they talked about the fact how important community is to other village schools in their area and that they actually have an association with about 30 rural schools and that they rely on each other for all kinds of things, like how to learn because they are kind of unique and just the support they give one another. And I mean, this isn't an official network. This is something that they created because they saw how important it was to be a part of a rural community that can hold each other up, that can provide support, that can kind of guide them in the right direction. And that's just one example of many where without that community, some of these schools may not exist, or maybe they have to close, I don't know, because they're so small. And...
Or they'll drift, right? They'll drift...
Or they'll drift, yeah.
... and lose their sort of way because they're isolated. Yeah.
Yeah. And that's just one of many. It doesn't have to be a rural community. It doesn't have to be a village school. I mean, look at some of these schools that are very large and they're in the city, but they still need support and they need it within the school itself. And Adam, he talked just about that, having that support within your school, but also it can be much bigger than that. It can move beyond that. And it can be leaders of schools who have their own community. It can be teachers of schools who have their own network. But all of it comes back to the fact that community is there to lift up and support one another.
Well, it's about identity, it's about purpose, it's about all those really core sort of things that drive just about everything that you do as a person. And without it, isolation is always a bad thing. It never leads to good things because things get hard. And you need people to help you and you need to know that those people are there for you. And you also need to know that what you're doing has meaning and it has purpose and that people are benefiting from your contributions and those people that you're serving, even if they don't tell you you know that they're benefiting and they're appreciating what you do.
The school teacher, often only criticism you get is negative criticism about how you could be doing your job better. And certainly from an institutional point of view, most of the feedback you'll get is about how you can improve, not about how great you're doing. And that's kind of tough. And you need people around you. You need to be reminded. And sometimes that community just means maybe seeing a child that you taught no longer be a child and be a functional, happy member of society.
And then if you're not in a community and you don't get those experiences, every once in a while you see someone and you say, "Oh, so-and-so who was in your... They became a whatever, a doctor." And then you go, "Oh, I remember little Billy when he was struggling, learning how to remember his timetables," whatever. And then you feel like you've done something. And I think that that's what it's all about. But also, it doesn't have to be just about the pupils, like you said, it can be the teacher in the other classroom. It's like they came to you for some help and you were able to help them and all those types of things.
I think that's the thing.
That's what makes you human.
Yeah. And I think that within, I'm sure this is true of other professions absolutely. But within education, I'll give you a couple of examples of how easy it is to isolate yourself. So you've talked about criticism, Andy. So as a school leader, I could say, "Right, I'll tell you what we're going to do. And this could make my life easier in a heartbeat or momentarily easier. All parents have got to drop people off at the gate, drop their children off at the gate, and there'll be two teachers on the gate." And what I happen to know about the gate is it's by a busy road, which means you're not hanging around easy. So now my parents are gone. Okay, so I've done that. So the children come in, no parents come in, easy-peasy. Same thing with teachers, that once we get in our classrooms, we can kind of do what we want and it's very easy to say, "I've not got time to talk to you. I'm busy." That's reasonable. People use that all the time.
So I think that it's really easy to establish a culture systematically to make sure we are not having the conversations that we don't have. But the problem is, of course, is that that means that we can't be vulnerable. We don't get the trust of our community. We don't get the trust of other people. And I think that's the thing. I think when you go into schools that have done that, who know that their community can come in to talk to them. I'm not saying you need... I'm always a bit hesitant on this open-door policy because there's times where you've got to just do some work. So you can't just walk into my office anytime you want. Within reason, you know what I mean?
But I think that as long as there's that free-flowing information, and I'm able to say, "I don't know, I don't know the answer to that." Because the flip side of it is it is easy. I can tell you a few tricks and tips if I want to keep people at bay. It's not hard. It's not hard at all by the nature of we've got this group of children here, you can't come near.
And I think that's the thing. I think that it takes looking at other schools where having that dialogue that's free flowing, having the ability to say, "I'm not so sure about that." Or, "I don't like that. I simply don't like what you're doing here." And that being the start of a conversation as opposed to now my back's up and I don't want to talk to you because I don't like you not liking what I'm doing, I'm afraid. So it'll keep you at arms length.
But I think sometimes we need to be reminded, I'm just using a school context here, going into those schools that have those genuine, open, trusting relationships with their wider community, just how powerful that is. And it being modelled in schools.
So listen, both of you used the word vulnerability several times. What do you guys mean by vulnerability in the community?
For me, it's about knowing that I'm not the expert. I know what I know, but I'm only going to learn more if I'm put in a situation that I go, "I don't know what to do here." And sometimes it might be that the perception I want to give you is I do know. And so I can bluff it and just say, "Yeah, no, no, I know how to do this." But of course I've dug a hole now. And when it starts to go wrong, I'm going to have to fess up that I've not known for ages, except it's too difficult to come back from.
So I think that for me, it's about being able to ensure that I've got people that I can talk to and say, "Hey, listen, I don't know about this," and that they'll use that not as a stick, but as an opportunity to say, "Well, all right, well, I do know a bit about this and perhaps I'll learn from you both ways." And that as human beings, I think we should always be in that situation, especially if you enjoy learning, of I don't know that, I don't know something.
But again, I think that if we perceive, I'll just use a teacher as an example, as an expert, then that might lead to people saying that they know something a bit more than they do because everyone else does. I see that a lot with just very quickly with the term mastery. That gets thrown like confetti into so many conversations. But when I've been fortunate enough to sit with a room full of teachers and to discuss what does it mean to you? If I've got a room of 15 teachers, usually it's 15 different things.
And that becomes a really interesting discussion. But I can almost... The first part is if I ask them, "Do you know what mastery means," there's a general rumbling without fully committing, but a general rumbling of, "Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." We use it in conversation because there's an assumption that we should just know. It's a mastery curriculum, has been for a long time now. We should just know, right? Everyone knows. "Do you not know? Are you serious?" "Yeah, of course I know." And that's what I mean, to be able to actually say I'm not sure. I'm not sure I know.
And I think that's been a real... The other thing about vulnerability is that's a real flip from a few years ago where that wasn't encouraged to look vulnerable, to say, "I don't know. I have no idea what you're talking about." Or, "I'm not an expert in that. Whereas now I think it's appreciated and it can be a learning moment for the entire group for someone to say, "Hey, look, I just want you to know I'm not an expert in this and I would love more direction." I think that's looked as as a strength now, whereas before it was looked at as a weakness.
So people weren't fessing up. People were going along with, "Oh yeah, I know exactly what you're talking about. Yeah, math mastery. Yeah, I know everything about that." Whereas now it's okay to say I don't know, I'm not sure. It doesn't make you a weaker leader or less influential to admit that.
Yeah. And I think at the very least, being able to have a conversation because I don't want it to be the starting point is I just constantly don't know anything. But it might be one of those just to say, "Are we on the same page? What's your definition because if we're going to be working around this, are we both saying the same thing? This is what I think it's about. What do you think it's about?" And let's have that shared understanding to make sure that before we go any further, we've got a pretty clear idea of this.
We're on the same page.
I think it's got a lot to do with identity. So people feel like they see themselves or they want to be identified as X, expert teacher. So that means that in order... And when you do that, you kind of limit yourself in a way, right? I mean, I'm not saying that you shouldn't be striving to be an expert teacher, not what I'm saying at all. But I'm saying when you start identifying as that. Because then you're like, "Well, I don't want to be found out. I don't want anyone to think that I'm the imposter. I'm the one who doesn't."
So then you put your guard up and you stop being vulnerable, but you start finding ways to protect your territory if you want. And that's kind of a tendency, a natural tendency, I think for a lot of people. I've certainly felt that way in the past about certain things. But then you realise that actually can be quite liberating to just be a bit more vulnerable and say, "Yeah, I have no idea what you're talking about. Can you please explain?" Doesn't mean you're not an expert, doesn't mean you're flawed.
It means that you're engaged and you want to be better, which is a good thing. But people look for weakness. This is all very political. A lot of people... Self-awareness and identity are tricky. They're tricky subjects. Vulnerability is really hard. But I'm just interested that you guys both really went in on the vulnerability thing in community. And I couldn't make the connection really by what you guys meant, but thank you for clarifying.
But I think what you said, Andy, is really interesting because when you talked about the difference between say, I'm aspiring to be an expert teacher and will hope that that never ends, that that aspiration because that would suggest that I'm always trying to improve, then that's really powerful. If someone said to me, "I'm working every day to be a better teacher," you couldn't want for any more than that. I'd be deeply concerned if someone turned around to me and said, "Well, I'm as good as it gets. As of today, this is as good as I'm going to get.
So I'm going to plateau here for the next 20 years." But I think when you put it like that, it's kind of obvious which one would you rather be.
And I think the other thing too that we probably need to remind ourselves, although all of us have different conversations with different people, I think about my heroes in education that I'm fortunate to meet every now and then, meet people that I find really inspirational and wonderful.
And I think one of the things that is... I can't think of a person that would contradict this. They're all keen to keep learning, that they'll be the first to tell you, "Oh no, I need to find out more about this. Oh, I'm really interested in this. I just started reading about that." And so it's effectively saying, "Listen, on paper, wowee, you've had some experiences. There's truth."
When you talk to them, there's still that curiosity. And again, I know this is a conversation that we've had before, Andy, about sort of fostering these areas that if I'm curious, I'm passionate about, this is what we want. And that's what I've found with all of my superheroes in education. All of the people who, they don't have posters that you can put up on your walls, so they can't do that. But those people to a person that actively learning and actively wanting to get better.
It's a humility. It's believing. So being part, bringing it back to the community thing, you have to be humble. You have to be humble, and you have to believe that you're fortunate to be part of a community and that there's a lot that you can learn from the community. You're not... The minute you start identifying as the leader or the one who knows everything, it starts to fall apart. You're in problematic waters there because vulnerability I think is very much tied to humility and both those things are necessary components in communities. If you can be both those things, you can truly serve your community. So I think community is about service. It's not about getting, it's about giving. If everybody goes in with the idea that they're going to serve the community to the best of their abilities, then everybody benefits, right? It's service and humility. And if you can do those two things and not...
I think sometimes this identification thing is a bit problematic. People want to be the expert. They want to have the accolades, they want to have the badges. Well, I got a PhD in blah, blah, blah and a master's in de, de, de, de. And my research paper says this and my research this and blah, blah, blah, and all this kind of stuff. You're in dangerous waters, right? It's like you've got to have an open mind. It's like, anyway. If you can do that, we can all grow together.
So I'm going to now flip it here and ask what about when a community isn't healthy? Is that possible...
... you're in the community of, yeah.
Poisonous, yeah, like bullying and all that kind of stuff.
Well, so what do you do? I mean, get the hell out is what I would say. Because you're not... I don't know. Can you fix a poisonous community?
Look, education is full of poisonous communities, right? It's a big problem. And a lot of them are because they're forced. So the government will have their agendas and they'll create, call them artificial communities, which serve their purpose. And you started talking about the community of schools that you visited recently, Robin, where it's all a bunch of small village schools who got together and created a group out of necessity and desire to work together and become better. That's a real community.
But sometimes they're forced communities, like you're in this geographic region, therefore you're part of this district, therefore you're part of this community. But maybe it's a poisonous community. Can you fix it? You can't get out of it. What do you do? I don't know, man. I'm not experienced with this. I would just get out. I would just try. I would do everything possible to get out if it's poisonous, because I don't know that you can fix a poisonous community, but maybe you can. It's hard though, right? Adam, do you have experience with this maybe in a school?
I think there's a couple of things that I'd say to that is that I remember, I must've been reasonably new into leadership because I'm thinking this was part of a discussion that was being had at the time. And they were looking at, I think they were called local leaders or national leaders of education. And it went off your Ofsted grading. So if you are outstanding, you could support people. You were deemed fit to support people.
And something that caused great debate, and I think quite rightly too, was the types of schools. So I'll give you an example. I'm just going to make this up, but it's not too far all the truth.
I do that all the time.
If you take a rural small school, for example, that's got an outstanding grading and there's an inner city school, completely different community that requires improvement, the argument was is that if you had an outstanding grading, you could sort of be parachuted into these schools. And I was thinking, "This is so fundamentally flawed because if I worked in a school that was outstanding as a leader, what do I know? What do I know?" And I think you could start to argue about transferability of leadership skills and all those sorts of things. But I thought at the heart of it, you talked about communities and identity. I think that what you can do in schools is play a part of you're quite a significant part of the community.
So I guess what you try to do, usually it's about people not communicating the issues themselves. That's been my experience. When I've seen fractured communities is because they're not talking to each other. You have these little micro communities within them that exist, but actually the commonplace, the talking, and I think places like schools, churches or religious organisations, sports groups are your kind of place where you might have a chance, you might have a chance to start putting things together where you can... It's a type of engineering, I guess, where you have an opportunity to start talking to one another. But this is tough, man. I've worked in schools where this is a generational thing. This isn't just...
Yeah. Yeah. No, so look, you're making me feel bad for saying what I just said about get out because that intrinsically feels wrong. But I think what you've pointed out something that's really profound, which is it's easier, much easier to be the successful member of a successful community than it is to be a leader of a toxic or failing community. And we often, it's if you walk in into an environment where there's a healthy community and you become, let's say the head teacher of this healthy community, everyone will say, "Look at this person in the outstanding job that you're doing." What you did maybe was walk in and do nothing because it was already fine. All you did was show up and not break stuff.
It's a lot different than going into an environment where everything's working against you. You're really working with the worst kind of... The odds are really stacked against you, and you have to fight really hard and you're going to lose most of the time, right? That's very different. I said this, remember saying this to my daughter about volleyball because she's being disheartened because her team kept losing. I said, "You know what? You're going to learn a lot more for playing for a team that loses all the time than you will for a team that wins all the time." Because you play in a team that wins all the time, it's kind of like you're just showing up and like, "Hey, we're going to win again." But if you're losing all the time, it's a lot harder to go to the next match. There's a lot harder to remain enthusiastic about it when you're always losing. You learn, those are important life skills.
So anyway, I think what you said there is really quite profound, Adam. Why should the people who are in... It's the people who are fighting every day to keep their head above water. Those are the ones that you got to look up to. It's not the ones that show up and everything's fine. That's like carry on business as usual.
Yeah. And I think the other part just off the back of that and going back to the volleyball, it's not like your daughter and her team aren't trying. So you get to that point where you can't work any harder. You just realise at that point you don't know what's wrong. And I think that's the thing.
I remember working at a school, I think I'd been teaching possibly my first year. In New Zealand, there's quite a big gang culture. There's a number of gangs, but there's two main ones that have been literally part of our society. It's just the way it works. I'm not from a gang culture. I never knew people who were in gangs. And when I was teaching in this particular community, there was a group of kids that I was teaching and that was their family and that's how they would see it, that the gang was their family.
I have never felt so, in terms of out of my depth, I didn't understand. I couldn't relate anything. I was trying really hard as a teacher. But would it be easier for me to go into a school that kind of reflects my, I don't know, I'd call it cultural capital? Yeah, of course it would. This situation, I was desperate to learn. But what I realised very quickly is that my starting place, man, it was like being a newborn because I had nothing to go on. And so to try to make those links, and then the first thing you do is you go, "Who can teach me out of this community?" That's the first thing. Who do I even go to talk about this? What do I even do next? I have no idea. And that's hard. Yeah, that's really hard. That's really hard.
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