A couple of weeks ago, I was at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas. One evening, friends invited me to join them at a brewery on the east side of town. It was unseasonably cold all week, but they had the heat lamps out so when I arrived everyone was sitting around a picnic table outside. There were eight or nine people there when I arrived, most of whom I didn’t know.
It was a relaxed and friendly group. At some point, a woman seated at my end of the table posed an icebreaker-type question, since most of us didn’t really know one another. We would introduce ourselves by telling the group our name, what we do, something that inspires us or makes us hopeful, something that concerns us, and what we think our “superpower” is.
This could have been a perfunctory exercise. It wouldn’t have been hard to answer any of these questions cerebrally, at a safe distance. But that’s not what happened. The real questions we were answering were more personal: What led us here? What makes our work meaningful? What sustains us? As the conversation unfolded, two realizations dawned on me. First, I was surrounded by a remarkably diverse, talented, and creative group of people. And second, the longer we talked, the more we saw elements of ourselves in one another. Others around the table voiced similar sentiments.
More people joined us, and the conversation at the other end of the table merged with our own. Someone suggested that each person should be introduced by the person in the group who knew them best. It turned out that nearly everyone there had at least one close friend in the group, so what followed was a kind of appreciation. We learned things about each other that we never would have learned by introducing ourselves. It wasn’t just that it would have seemed self-aggrandizing, it’s that our friends know us differently from how we know ourselves. It reminded me of how powerful it is to feel known by someone.
It was one of those evenings that will stay with me for a long time. I experienced community in the way that we as educators want our students to experience it.
Our students deserve to see and hear the best version of themselves reflected in the words and actions of people they care about. They deserve a space to be open and vulnerable, to nurture and express a vision of what makes life meaningful and what sustains them, especially when things get hard. They deserve a space where it’s OK to give, where there is no sanction for kindness or generosity. They deserve people, spaces, and experiences that allow them to experience gratitude, even joy.
At the Workshop School, one of our design principles is “Community first.” We don’t put a premium on community because it opens possibilities for academic growth, although that is also true. We do it because it is worthwhile, important, and defensible on its own terms. The social and emotional growth our students experience in the kinds of spaces I’m describing, and the relationships they build, will stay with them far longer than any of the content they learn.
Some readers may find this point obvious. Of course relationships matter. But if it’s so obvious, if the value of relationships and community is so universal, why are schools evaluated based almost entirely on a narrow definition of academic growth? Why are graduation and promotion requirements based solely on grades and credits in different subject areas? Why does teacher training and professional development focus so heavily on subject-matter expertise?
We need to let go of thinking that community and relationship building are somehow ancillary to the core work of schools. In recognizing their centrality, we begin the hard work of rethinking what and how we teach, and how we organize schools to support that work.