Remember how we imagined teaching would be? Students, projects, stacks of grading to complete- those were the things we knew to expect. Yet we were probably unaware of the sense of isolation educators sometimes feel. Teaching can be such a solitary profession. Although we may be part of an interdisciplinary team or the member of a department, the better part of our day is spent as the only adult in a roomful of students. Whom do we turn to for help or guidance? How do we form connections with a larger community of educators? What is the fabric that connects us to one another?
The Los Angeles region of Facing History and Ourselves has a Teacher Leadership Team made up of 20 educators who meet several times throughout the year. These teachers successfully implement Facing History strategies in their classrooms, have a strong commitment to collaboration and demonstrate both the willingness and capacity to mentor others within and beyond their school communities. Every few months the group meets to discuss educational trends, share best practices, and serve as a resource to others on the team.
At the Teacher Leadership Team meeting in September, I asked each teacher to write his or her goals or intentions for the school year on a colorfully painted cardstock square. We read our cards aloud and assembled them on the floor so we could see what each other had written. I told the team that although most of us were at different schools, we weren't working in isolation towards our goals because we could always count on the group for support.
After the meeting I took the squares home and "quilted" them together as a tapestry of our collective best intentions.
I've thought a lot about quilts this year. In October I wrote lesson plans using the Stitching Truth guide about the women who used quilts as a form of protest art against Pinochet's regime. I visited a section of the AIDS quilt in December and was moved by the symbolism of the quilt as both a political statement and individualized tribute in memory of those who had succumbed to the disease. But most quilts aren't political, they're personal. What did it mean that the Teacher Leadership Team made a quilt of our intentions?
As an art form, quilts are representations of the culture they come from and I love that they are frequently created during a "quilting bee." I'm drawn to the idea of communal quilt-making. In times past, cooperative labor was something communities understood as necessary for survival. One could not raise a barn, clear a field, or make a quilt in a timely manner alone. People recognized that certain tasks required the effort of many and the community pitched in to help. Not only did the job get done, but societal ties were formed and strengthened.
Perhaps that's what I saw in the quilt created by our group. It's common understanding that, "It takes a village to raise a child" but how do we create that village? Although we are typically the one adult instructing and guiding a class full of young people, surely we were not meant to do this work fueled by our personal strength alone. How do we create a network of support? What are the ways we connect to other teachers- on our campus, in our subjects, and beyond?
Creating the "Quilt of Intentions" with the Teacher Leadership Team was a purposeful way to frame our meetings for the year. Sharing our goals with one another laid a foundation of trust and we were able to build upon it with each additional meeting. Whether it was trusting that our own ideas and experiences would serve as a resource for another teacher, or trusting that someone else in the group could bring a fresh set of eyes to an old (at least to us) set of challenges, we felt safe to share our authentic selves. And I believe this experience will pay dividends in the future, for when we are able to create a responsive community and a nurturing environment for ourselves as educators, we are better equipped to provide it for our students.
If I were still in the classroom, I imagine that I'd want to create a quilt of my students' intentions too. I might post their quilt on the wall the whole year, or perhaps only bring it out periodically so that we could reflect on our progress. There's something powerful about the visual reminder of the goals we've committed ourselves to and there's also something meaningful about declaring these goals publicly to our peers. We become accountable to each other and that small measure of accountability becomes the building block for greater levels of trust.
How do you create a sense of community in your classroom? How do you create a nurturing environment for yourself and others engaged in the work of education?