My career in education as teacher, coach, and administrator, in various types of schools, has given me significant and comprehensive experience in the academic, athletic, and business arena. I have a background in parochial, public, Quaker, and nonsectarian single sex and coed schools. These include very small schools of 100+ students to very large schools of over 900 students. Through these experiences, I have gained an appreciation for different approaches to the educational process and the management of educational institutions. Some schools focused on discipline, others on academics, while still others on athletics or the arts. Some schools were well endowed and in a strong position fiscally while others were struggling to meet costs and raise funds. Others had a clear mission and vision while some were trying to determine what kind of institution they wanted to be.
However, regardless of the focus or position of the school, what I believe was always of great importance and high necessity was a solid and firm sense of community. The schools that I felt would survive and thrive, and where I felt most attached, were the schools where the culture fostered a strong feeling of togetherness, family, and community. When the Head of School, teachers, administrators, and Board at these institutions worked tirelessly to encourage a communal atmosphere, the school prospered on most levels and was able to focus on its core mission and vision. A collaborative effort from all involved was needed to initiate and sustain this level of teamwork and community. Therefore, to accomplish this task, it is necessary to understand the impact and contribution of the many dimensions making up the community.
First, are the families, beginning with the students. It is vitally important every student feel that the school is a place of comfort and safety. A place where they can be themselves, explore themselves, share themselves and, at the same time, be a part of something bigger than themselves. As a teacher or administrator, developing a solid relationship with the students is critical. Some students spend 7 to 10 hours a day at school, so it is important for both teachers and administrators to nurture that relationship. That’s nearly one-third of the day spent at our institutions and the main reason why our schools need to be communal. Every student must feel accepted and supported during the best and worst of times. They need to know they are being treated like a unique person, then as a student. When a student realizes a school is a haven for the positive, there is nothing they will not do to help maintain that feeling, enhance the community, and, simply, be the best person they can be.
Within this type of community, students feel valued and respected. They are engaged, expressing their opinions positively and openly, while attempting creative problem solving. Students are appreciated and celebrated for their individuality, taught to listen to themselves as well as listen attentively, thoughtfully and reasonably to the ideas and opinions of others. This can only be achieved if the students have the feeling of belonging. And that feeling of belonging can only take hold if the community is one where there is a conscious effort to establish and promote it.
Parents are an integral part of the community. Obviously, their support in many ways is critical to a school’s culture and sustainability. In the same way a school strives to make every student feel welcome and safe, the institution must make the same effort in regards to the parents. In a school of any size, the diversity of the parent body could be vast. Different cultures, religions, nationalities, and other preferences are all present in our schools. From those who can afford to pay the high tuition without financial aid, to those who qualify for almost full need, to those caught in the middle, they are all part of a school community. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the school to assure that all families feel supported and have the opportunity to become involved.
All too often, schools forget those families who cannot take time off from work to come to school events or serve on committees. Schools must provide programs and opportunities that can involve all community members during the course of the year. This, again, needs to be a conscious effort by the school. Whether it’s through the parent’s association, the athletic department, or the Board of Trustees, every single family must have some chance to participate and/or have their voice heard.
When people can converse, barriers are broken down, stereotypes are demystified, and insight replaces misconceptions. This strengthens the school as a community, allowing the needed interaction amongst the various constituents. This interaction is always a good thing for without it, factions can form which could destroy the very fabric and cohesiveness of an institution.
Teachers direct the engine of the school. Just as the executive chef manages the engine of a successful restaurant, the kitchen, the teachers manage the classroom. The teacher’s classroom prepares the food of learning. Having numerous years of experience in the classroom, I clearly understand the need for passionate teachers in the community. A passionate teacher has the welfare of the student at his/her core and the ability to encourage students to learn through doing. A teacher’s mission is to assist children with their intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical development, as well as encourage students to help each other. This helps create a community that builds its foundation on a strong, safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment.
Teachers are the heart of the school. When that heart is beating strongly, it means the teachers are invested. They have been involved in decision making, had their opinions heard and generally, had a level of transparency from the administration that allows them to fully understand the vision and mission of the school. This support and level of trust is imperative to a strong and creative educational environment.
The administrators of a school are the leaders of the institution. They must be a group where risk taking and thinking creatively is encouraged for everyone. An institution must not only provide stimulation for the entire community to discover and implement creative solutions and ideas, but also the motivation to aspire to something higher and better. People perform best when they take personal ownership of their surroundings and situations. To achieve this, effective delegation of both authority and responsibility must be part of the equation.
The administration allows members of the community to learn to be effective learners and contributors and, more importantly, leaders. This is not to say that the lead administrator, the Head of School, is totally hands-off. However, this approach allows the Head a greater freedom and flexibility to oversee the entire community, and act as a coach and mentor, leading through effective and positive influence, yet clearly recognizing that the ultimate responsibility for all decisions in an institution rests at the top.
Given the above, this next point has become extremely important to every independent school, as well as most business institutions. While I believe the sense of community is vastly important to the success of a school, none of the aforementioned areas will be possible unless the school is fiscally responsible and sustainable. Most schools have become complex financial enterprises, needing to be strategic in their approach both in how they spend money and how they raise money.
Marketing, positioning, branding, consumer mentality, accountability and a whole host of other business-like terms have found their way into reports and procedures as the process and expense of operating a school has changed and increased. Maintenance, food, books, insurance, and salaries have all increased over the years. Higher tuitions are coupled with the need for increased financial assistance, becoming a high priority as we witness the need to help families afford these fine educational communities. Schools, especially independent schools, face the challenge of being financially sustainable while meeting the challenges of maintaining quality programs, good teachers, and the diversity of the community.
To assist in keeping a school sustainable, the importance of developing that sense of community is vital. Part of sustaining an institution means having a certain level of transparency from the administration, specifically the Head of School. I believe it is extremely important that the various constituents of the school community fully understand the state of the school. Without the knowledge of the state of the school, members develop their own ideas which may or may not be accurate.
However, when people have accurate information and can make educated decisions, they will do what is necessary to stabilize and strengthen the school. It becomes a collaborative effort to design, implement, and promote the mission, vision, and culture of the school. It’s an expanded, cohesive concept of “advancement” and everyone from the development office to the business office to the parent’s association to the Board of Trustees, become focused on the single task of building a cooperative, sustainable community. When the academic, financial, demographic, and global dimensions of the school are clearly identified and understood, I believe there is very little that will encumber a school. Schools are complex, exciting, and interesting places.
The challenge of building a school community is an ongoing process. Each year, it is incumbent upon the school to take a close look at how it is achieving this goal. I’ve always looked forward to working in a school community that creates an atmosphere where conversation and inquiry can occur, and initiatives and challenges are resolved in a productive and collaborative way. A school where the leadership is grounded in moral foundations that project positive influence and motivation, scholarly stimulation, and personalized reflection, is a school where exciting and authentic pursuits and changes occur. It is also a school where the culture promotes what I call a “HIP” environment- Honesty, Integrity, Passion. The school culture instills these values in their students and community and they are empowered for life.