Community in the Classroom
By Ralph Wells
Much has been said about the need for all people to live and work together in community. Those of us in education often speak of learning communities. So learning how to build communities becomes very important. This article will explore my experience of how I have done this.
Before I can relate my community building efforts in my classroom I must define a few terms and thoughts. I will then apply those thoughts to what I have learned in my classroom.
To speak of learning communities I must be able to understand what the word community means.
I have seen many definitions of community. The definition I have found most useful is that "community is where two or more people have learned how to transcend their differences to successfully complete a common goal." So in transcending its differences for everyone to learn what they are meant to learn the group will become a learning community. The order of words in the prior sentence is very important. A group cannot become a community and then learn to transcend their differences. I have seen this attempted far too many times and it is always doomed to failure. Rather by the very process of learning how to transcend differences the group becomes a community.
With this definition in mind I have observed several major characteristics of communities that I think are important, both to life and to the classroom.
These characteristics are:
Honesty: A group of people cannot transcend differences if they are not honest about the differences that exist. Just as a starter these differences may be physical, educational level, intelligence levels, racial, religious, or cultural. In fact, everyone is different from everyone else. The first step in learning how to transcend these differences is for the group to admit they exist.
Reality: Communities are focused and based on reality. Communities constantly self examine themselves to ensure they are being real, and are not falling into traps of prejudices or pre-conceptions. Communities also do not either inflate or deflate their worth or their member's worth. Communities live in reality.
Unity: A community must ultimately be one group. Sub-tasks may be delegated (and in fact will have to be if the group is very large) but the group as a whole must have a common task to successfully complete to become a community.
Tasks: Communities have learned how to do their tasks with no, or at least a minimum, of task avoidance. Groups outside or sub-groups inside the community are not scapegoated or blamed for the group's failings or weaknesses. The community owns the problems together and works together to solve them. The whole community not just one primary leader owns solving problems. There are no "saviors." The community stays in the often uncomfortable struggle of dealing with difficult issues without thinking something magical will happen to solve these difficult issues without hard, sometimes very hard, work.
Exquisite uniqueness: Because a community is made up of different people, and the differences are accepted then a sense of the beautiful exquisiteness of uniqueness as applies to people begins to permeate the group. The group holds each other in love, respect and awe. Even the commonplace (after all there are over five billion people in the world so being a person is not uncommon) becomes something to be honored and appreciate and affirmed.
Emotions: A group that has not learned how to allow emotions in the full human spectrum to exist can not be a community because they have not learned how to be honest. Emotions do exist. Love, hate, gentleness, kindness, anger, spite-these are all feelings that different people feel at different times. My experience, especially in middle class white United States is that emotions are not always trusted and often are hidden. This very act of hiding emotions is often dishonest. And sometimes the only emotion that is safe to show is that of anger, especially by men. Most men would consider it quite improper to show the gentler emotions such as love or hurt in public. To cry is considered unthinkable by many men. Yet such decisions dishonor our ability to feel and contradict the need for honesty.
Acceptance: Once a group has learned how to be honest and to allow emotions in the full human context to exist then the both the group and I can begin the learning of how to accept one another for who we are and not for who I wish they were. I can give up my attempts to fix them, and they can give up trying to fix me.
Safe: Because a community is a group ever learning how to better and better understand reality, perform tasks, accept differences, and to feel emotions honestly then it is a safe place to be who I really am. And in this safe place I can also work on becoming who I am meant to become, knowing my other community members will love me and accept me as I continue on my journey. Since I will be loved and accepted, then it becomes a safe place for me to work on changing myself-and a safe place for me to stop trying to change or fix others. A community is a safe place to take reasonable risks.
Inclusive: Since communities are loving and accepting they are inclusive. True communities will not exclude someone as a punishment of the person but only as a last resort to protect the community. This should not be misinterpreted to mean there will not be consequences for unacceptable behavior, for there are always consequences. But it does mean people are not excluded for reasons that do not affect the tasks being done such as race, religion, gender or physical disability. People respect each other.
Spirituality: Because a community is a safe place for people to be who they are, and its attention to self-awareness and personal growth then a community is a place of spiritual growth. The journey to become all I am meant to be is a spiritual journey. And for me to have a spiritual experience all of me must be present. I must be personally engaged and emotionally present. If the classroom is to truly be a learning community then it must be, at least partially, a spiritual place.
Quality of anger: Communities still have anger. But the tone of the anger is always respectful and the anger is never used as a source of energy to hurt someone else. In speaking my truth, in my being honest about how I feel, I may hurt someone by what I say. However it is never my intent to purposely hurt someone or to be cruel just to "win."
Respect: In a community people respect each other for no other reason then they are a person. A community clearly understands the difference between respecting a person because they are a person and respecting a person's skills or college degrees. A person may have to earn respect for their skills; respect for being who they are as a human being is a birthright.
A community is a complicated and vibrant being in its own right. Many different interactions at many different levels are occurring. And people must be vibrant, self-aware and other-aware to be part of a community. All of each person must be engaged in the process of working and living in a community.
And so to be learning community people must be emotionally present, respectful, and inclusive and be willing to work together on a common goal. They must be honest, including being willing to share their feelings.
In community being fully human means incorporating the different parts of me that in whole make me uniquely me. These parts include my body, my emotions, my personality and my intellect. These parts working together allow me to grow and become all I can become. With very few exceptions a person may grow in any of these areas, and in so doing make the whole person stronger.
Part of who I am is my feelings. I love, I feel anger, I worry, am sometimes sad. And all these feelings, at any particular time, do effect how I relate to the world I live in. This world includes my classroom.
My personality suggests how I may deal with a particular situation, or more precisely, with a particular set of feelings I may be experiencing.. For example, just about everybody has been angry at one time or another. But we all deal with anger differently. Some become violent, some become pensive, some become scared of the intensity of their own anger. Some even do damage to themselves by trying to deny they are angry. The personality is where my heart is stored. And because of things that have happened to me in the past, the heart is where I have learned whether the world is a fundamentally safe or unsafe place to live.
The intellect, the "brains", is where raw data is stored and in a totally logically way connected together. 2+2=4. No matter what 2+2=4.
However my feelings will certainly be different if I am talking about 2+2=4 nuclear weapons being dropped on my city, or 2+2=4 million dollars being what I have won in the state lottery.
And my personality will determine how I choose to manage those emotions. Will I share a sudden windfall of money or will I hoard it? Will I resent paying taxes or will I be so thankful for having received such a windfall in the first place that paying taxes is a trivial issue for me?
Our bodies house these different components. The body is a boundary, that in a very real physical way shows that I am separate from you, and you are separate from me. My body may be shorter or taller then yours. My body may be thinner or fatter then yours. My body may be a different color then yours. My body may be disabled in some ways while yours is not. Our bodies in a very physical way exemplify that we are different from each other. And because of the boundary, and the differences all of us have in what the boundary houses, we will sometimes be in conflict. And so part of becoming all I am meant to be involves learning how to handle conflict constructively. Until a group learns how to handle conflict constructively the group cannot become a community. The two extremes of conflict resolution are to either pretend there is not conflict or to go into open warfare where someone wins and someone loses depending on who has the most political resources instead of who might be more spiritual in their approach to the problem. Both extremes are task avoidance behaviors and will get in the way of a group to become a community.
To become all I am meant to become means all parts of me need to be engaged in the education process. At its best life itself is a most wonderful setting for the education process to occur. Very naturally the heart, personality, intellect and body work together to help the whole person grow, improve and learn about itself and the world we live in. A perfect example of this merely requires going to the nearest playground and watching healthy two and three year olds at play. So in many ways the goal of a learning community in the classroom is to relearn what we all knew as two year olds-to regain the wonder of this world we live in.
In the United States the education process has been very much delegated to the formal setting of the classroom. Unfortunately all too often only the student's intellect is invited to enter the classroom by the education system. The student is asked to leave his heart and personality at the door, and to engage the body only to the amount necessary to deliver the minimum intellect necessary to pass the course. Not much is expected of the body in a classroom other then to stay awake.
However I submit that a person's learning is best accomplished when all the parts of the person are fully engaged. And while data to be learned may be simply that-data to be incorporated into someone's intellect, the process by which the data is learned should engage all of who we are. The process should allow the students to be fully human; and for that matter allow the teacher to be fully human also. Without this presence of the complete person the classroom can never go beyond a dispenser of facts and become a true learning community.
I am an electrical engineer by education, and I teach building engineering technology courses in an architectural major. These are very technical classes, and traditionally taught in very intellectual fashion emphasizing lecture and laboratories teaching logical and non-emotional problem solving. These problem-solving skills are very important and should not and cannot be discarded.
Yet at the same time the very definition of the word architecture involves the science of designing and constructing buildings for their use by people. Since people using the buildings are more then their intellect then the design of the buildings need to involve more then the intellect. By emphasizing only the intellect a large component of what a good architect or building engineering technology person needs to know is excluded from the curriculum.
Buildings are intended to support the work of the larger community. And to have community all the parts of each person much be engaged. Which means the people doing the design need to know how to engage their humanity to make the buildings they design more humane. Introducing this to the school curriculum requires thought and planning.
I would like to suggest the following responsibilities to allow both students and teacher's to be fully human in the classroom. As the teacher I am responsible for creating the environment so that the students feel safe to allow their full humanness to be present in the classroom. I am also responsible for being competent in my field and to appropriately present the material the student's need to learn. The student is fully responsible for their learning. They must cooperate with me, and I with them. I am in a dance with the students and sometimes I lead, and sometimes they lead. And as with any good dance the heart, personality, intellect and body are all involved.
I have identified several items that must be present in the classroom to allow a student to be fully human, and not just intellectually present. I have had to rethink my understanding of the traditional role of a teacher and the traditional role of students. As the teacher I am the role model for the students and they will usually pattern their behavior after my behavior and my expectations. I do own the responsibility that comes with being the primary leader in the classroom.
I will share some characteristics of the classroom environment I have identified that as teacher I need to help create so that both the students and I may be fully human as we learn together.
A Safe Place
First, and in my opinion, foremost, the teacher must make the classroom a safe place. Students cannot learn if they are not in a safe place. In today's culture all too often it means the students and teacher must be physically safe from harm. Fear, nurturing and learning cannot co-exist in the same place at the same time. Safe place does not mean there is no accountability. In fact part of creating a safe place is holding everyone accountable for what happens in the classroom. Students must know grading will be fair, impartial, and should supplement learning not just evaluate learning.
But safe place means more then that. It also means an emotional safe place. A teacher realistically cannot be held responsible for what happens to the student outside the classroom, but they are responsible for not making the situation worse inside the classroom. Belittling or embarrassing students is not appropriate. Neither is biting humor or minimizing another person's humanity. Racial comments whether the minority is present in the classroom or not cannot be tolerated.
I do not know of any teachers that would consciously do this themselves. But as the primary leader in the classroom, I am also responsible for not allowing others to do this either. In my experience a classroom may be unsafe for some very subtle reasons. As a teacher I must be very aware of what is going on in my classroom to confront unhealthy behavior. Without exception when someone is being minimized they are also not being heard-and they may be the very person with the solution to the technical building problem the class is struggling with. And if they are not being heard their solution will not be heard either.
Being a safe place does NOT mean difficult issues are ignored. Part of reality is difficult issues do exist, and in fact in community is the best place to deal with these difficult issues. And a community is willing to stay in the struggle however long it takes to truly solve the problem so the community can move on to the next thing the community is supposed to be doing.
A learning community requires that everyone be emotionally present and not just physically present. The pressure and stress many of our students are under now is unbelievable. Single moms trying to balance childcare, a part time job, and school too are no longer a rarity. And single moms are not the only people feeling the pressure of living in today's culture.
Many students enter the classroom so full of feelings or stress that there is no room left in them to learn. A space must be created for the person to empty. I start each of my classes with "How is everyone doing today?" Easily 99% of the time the answer is a quick "doing fine" and I move on. But the times someone has shared something they need to empty themselves of has helped the person free up the space within them to learn. The other students also experience the opportunity to support others, as they would wish to be supported. They learn something about being vulnerable and about caring for others. Through experientially learning they learn what it means to be human in a work environment. The group learns how to listen.
As teacher I set the example that when I ask how everyone is doing I am not just being polite. I really want to know if someone is feeling something they need to let go of so they can be emotionally present in the classroom. The students will quickly figure out if I am just faking it.
Even in the occasions someone has needed to empty to be emotionally present very little actual class time has been needed. And the class time left is much more productive because the person has let go of whatever would have kept them from being present in the learning experience. And the rest of the class reacts to the respect shown the person who needs to empty themselves to be emotionally present.
A learning community needs to be a place where risk is allowed and failure is redefined as an opportunity to learn rather then an opportunity for punishment. As a teacher I set the example, by acknowledging my own failures, taking my own risks, and allowing the students to take their risks and learn from them. I share my own design mistakes from when I was in the consulting field. I tell them in my class I want excellence not perfection.
Every time I ask my class how they are doing I am taking a risk. I have had students talk about deaths of someone close to them; about serious even terminal illnesses of themselves or someone they care about.
I remember on one occasion after I had only been teaching for two years that when I asked how everyone was doing on a Monday morning one man in class said his daughter had been baptized that Sunday and he was really happy. Then another woman shared how she felt when her daughter was baptized. And all of a sudden the class became very human. Yet I can truthfully share that the class time was remarkably productive that day. The students had been affirmed as people and parents and even people with different religious beliefs and without children could still appreciate someone else's joy. This increased class productivity that day was bought with less then three minutes of time at the start of class.
Meanwhile I was standing there wondering how I was going to explain to an administrator if they came in my classroom why my students in a class on Building Mechanical Systems were discussing baptisms and families. I never know what the students will say when I ask them how they are doing, and I am always taking a risk when I do.
I recently had a student who I knew was trying to become certified as a diver doing rescue work. The day he took his diving test I made sure to encourage him in class. He passed his test and brought in donuts for everyone to celebrate. School is hard work, and a time for celebration occasionally is a wonderful way to excite a class and to remind them that success is important everywhere and not just in the classroom.
Unity of Group
The classroom needs to be one group. As a teacher I have a unique role, but then so do the students. Having different roles does not mean there should be two different groups-one group being the students one being the teacher. Being a learning community means the entire group learns how to transcend differences to successfully achieve a common goal. I have to work hard at transcending my own issues sometimes so that my students can have the learning experience they deserve.
In a learning community I can not permit myself the luxury of allowing my ego to be stroked by thinking that because I know more then the students do I am better then the students.
Being in unity also means a group shows loyalty to each other. The group is sensitive to each member's needs. Neither the needs of the group or of the individual automatically rule over the other. Instead the needs of the group and of the individual are balanced.
As a teacher I try to be very real with my students. If I am sad I tell them. I have shared deaths of people close to me. I also share my joys. I first stumbled on just how important it was to the class for me to be real when my wife was pregnant with our first child. The students loved hearing about my wife's pregnancy and loved it when I brought our daughter in for them to meet. By being more real, I gave them permission to be real also. Wearing masks gets in the way of learning.
The issue of trying to not wear masks is a very large one. I do not know all, and I am not the end all of building engineering technology. I happen to be a teacher who is trying to share information and love for a particular profession. Before it is safe for them to admit they don't know something I have to be willing to admit I don't know something. Fortunately my students have not had to look very hard to find something I don't know!
People tend to grow because someone expects them too. Realistic but high expectations make it clear that I expect my students to grow. High expectations do something else also though. I send a very clear message that I expect those expectations to be met. Failure is not an option. I have had several students tell me that for the first time in their life they were receiving a strong message that they had what it takes to be successful.
This means I must support them on their journey. Sometimes that means crying with them; sometimes it means laughing. But support always means being human with them.
Supporting students sometimes means going on a side path for a while. Recently one of my students told me she was diagnosed with a very serious disease, even life threatening, and she needed to talk about it. For her, right then where she was at in the present moment, the best thing I could do to ensure her academic success was to simply listen to her. Listening requires engaging the heart as well as the ears.
At the same time I must remember which problems are mine, and which are the students. Solving problems that really belong to the students may make me feel good, but are not helping the students. In fact, in the worst case, I am being co-dependent keeping my students dependent on me rather then helping them grow past me so they need me no longer. Caring and listening to the students does not make their problems my problems. In a community there is healthy problem ownership. I sometimes tell my students a major part of my job, as a teacher, is to be helpfully unhelpful.
Listening also means a respect for silence. I must be willing to create the space of silence and to sit in the space to allow the students time to process and come up with their answers. Needing time to process and think before answering does not necessarily mean my students are poorly prepared.
Awe and Reverence
I am continually amazed at what students trust me with. I am in awe of how they succeed against very difficult odds. I revere their spirit and their refusal to give up. To create a learning community I believe a teacher must realize the common is not so common. And that for some people and the situation they are in just getting up in the morning is a very brave thing to do. Such courage is to be cherished.
I often teach in three-hour blocks of time. In certain school terms the same students can have me for six hours a day. I have to let them get up and move, and I even encourage them. I threaten jumping jacks on a regular basis!
In my case it is easy to bring physical movement into the classroom because of teaching building engineering. I simply take the class on a trip to see something in the building relating to what the class is studying at the time. That allows them to see for themselves what the textbook and lecture is talking about and to move and exercise. Remember the two year old on the playground!
To truly create a learning community I need to be very self aware of my students and myself. I need to be in touch with how I feel, and how the students feel, both individually and as a group. I need to be aware of what is going on in the larger community the school exists within. Recently my home city, Cincinnati, had major racial unrest after an African-American man was killed by a white police officer. One day the school was shut down early and everyone sent home because of fear of potential violence occurring near the buildings. Such things do impact the classroom, even at the college level.
Self-awareness also means being aware of my own prejudices and how I deal with them. I am the role model in the classroom and if I am not willing to honestly confront my issues then I cannot expect the students to confront theirs. The classroom is a subset of the larger community and all the issues being played out in the larger community will be played out in the smaller classroom also.
Summary and Closing
I would like to summarize my personal learnings with a true story from my classroom. This story shows the power of a learning community and some of the techniques used to help a group become a community.
I teach a class on mechanical equipment used in a building such as boilers and chillers. One of my assignments involves visiting the school boiler room. The boiler room is large and has tunnels off of it. Some of the tunnels require climbing ladders to get into the tunnels. Entry to the boiler room requires climbing steps. I require everyone in the class to visit the boiler room and then write a report.
In one of my classes I had a student who had been in a car accident and was in a heavy motorized wheel chair. I struggled for a few days on how to handle the circumstances and finally I decided that this fell into a situation where I was trying to solve the class's problem for them. I did know the person who was disabled very well and knew he had a true fighting spirit. I will call the student in a wheelchair John to protect his privacy. I also knew he had very strong upper body strength so he could do some physical things with the use of handrails and with some appropriate help.
I gave the class the assignment and told them that everyone had to do the assignment, no exception. I could immediately see on everyone's face the concern about John.
I matter-of-factly said obviously John is in a wheelchair, which creates a special set of circumstances (establishing reality). I then said the assignment stood, and it was part of the assignment for the class to figure out how to include John in the task (healthy problem ownership). We then went into a discussion on how this could be done.
The class ascertained with John's help that they could get John up and down the steps to get into the boiler room. They would need a lighter wheelchair once in the boiler room though since the group could not figure out a way to lower and raise his heavy wheelchair. Our school has a nursing program and the class asked if I could get them a lightweight portable wheelchair. I did get the wheelchair for them. Because this task involved dealing with another division I felt it was appropriate that I handle this task. This was also a way for me to be part of the group solving the group problem. Getting the wheelchair was the only part of the class assignment that I helped with.
Because of the ladders to some of the tunnels there were some areas John could not physically get into no matter what the class did (again reality). I re-stated the assignment was everyone had to be involved in the boiler room tour. John was to be part of the complete tour. I allowed the group to struggle with this (I was not going to be the savior and the group needed to stay in the struggle) and the group did come up with an excellent solution. The ladder issue was real and there was no solution anyone could come up to for that problem. But one person volunteered to get a video camcorder and videotape the tunnels for John so he could see what the rest of the students saw.
Similar other issues were quickly dispatched with once the group realized I would not change the assignment.
The day of the boiler room trip came. With much working together both by John and the group John was gotten into the boiler room. He saw what everyone else saw. He got to ask questions. Going down the steps required him to leave the wheelchair and use the handrails and get help from a couple of people.
When the group went into the tunnels the group took turns so that someone stayed with him so he wouldn't be by himself while everyone else was in the tunnels. This loyalty was shown without me asking the group to do it. The tunnels were recorded for him.
One of the people in my class was an African-American woman who had had to leave home and support herself since she was 15. She is smart and she is tough. I noticed it was very important to her to make sure John, who was white, was included in the tour. She made it her personal responsibility to make sure he got up and down the steps. She personally helped John do what he needed to do to physically handle the steps. And I felt she touched a part of herself inside her she was not familiar with.
At the end of class we were all back in the classroom. John was exhausted but smiling (the steps had been very hard work for him.) The class was joyful at what they had accomplished. And the class was uncharacteristically silent. In learning how to transcend physical differences, in learning how to transcend racial differences, in learning how to transcend economic differences they learned how they were similar. They were all people sharing a common struggle. The experience was very spiritual for my class and for me, and speaking would have somehow spoiled the experience. Speaking was unnecessary and communication was operating at a much deeper level then just words.
After a few minutes of silence I thanked them for successfully sticking with the entire problem and making sure John was included. The woman who had helped him up and down the steps said at a very deep level "Thank you, Ralph." The class then left, one at a time, in silence.
In reaching community the class had learned much about themselves. The class learned about loyalty, and problem solving, and being human. They had learned about not expecting the teacher to be the savior. And while the boiler room technical information is important in their studies, I suspect what they will remember thirty years from now from the boiler room tour is what they learned about their human side. I know that is what I will remember.