A great deal is expected of schools these days to provide that sense of community that may well be lacking in the lives of so many young people today; school may in fact be the only place that provides stability, continuity and a sense of belonging.
Way back when, community had a very different meaning.
- family, both immediate and extended. Families tended to live closer to their relatives and especially their grandparents. Kids could scoot between family as they lived nearby and families tended to stay located in one house and area for extended periods of time if indeed they moved at all. Intergenerational interaction was valued, the family unit remained cohesive.
- Neighbourhood really meant something!
- Neighbours knew one another and engaged with one another, kept a lookout for one another and would check-in if they felt or noticed that something was not quite right. They celebrated together and consoled one another.
- Church was a big part of growing up and it was where the generations came together for fetes to raise funds for the community, celebrations and condolences.
- Volunteer groups such as Scouts, Girl Guides and Brownies, where practical skills were taught and a sense of community spirit and doing good deeds for others was encouraged.
- Sporting clubs where kids could develop their motor skills and learn about healthy competition-winning and losing, along with the responsibilities of commitment.
- School, where the institution and teachers were respected professionally for the role they played in the learning process, including instilling truthfulness and honesty.
Community was characterised by strong intergenerational relationships and what would be described as good old fashioned values; key ones being respect and care for others.
Many of these aspects of community have evolved to look and be quite different.
Families have evolved to become blended and extended in different ways with shared parenting and very busy parents. Indeed, if a couple has remained married to each other as original partners and their children are the product of their union, this family unit would be considered part of the eccentric fringe of society as described by social commentator, Hugh McKay.
Neighbourhoods have changed with long-standing families moving out of the “hood” and new residents moving in to shape their new homes with renovations and secure boundary walls serving as a barrier to over-the-fence conversations, visibility and friendliness.
The traditional church has in many cases has struggled to remain relevant.
Many traditional volunteer groups have suffered a similar fate.
Sporting clubs have remained strong but it continues to be a challenge to keep kids connected and involved as they grow older.
So that leaves schools.
As community has evolved, the emphasis has moved from people reaching out to connect with others, to becoming more inward looking and focusing on social media as their main form of connectedness. The online community certainly connects people but not necessarily in a way that is positive or healthy. Fake news, vacuous influencers, hate commentary, judgmental commentary on girls and women in particular, provide a very distorted and dysfunctional community to engage with. Given that stats tell us that our young people gain much of their information from social media these days, it is no wonder that mental health issues amongst our young people have skyrocketed.
So, where do young people turn to, to deal with and manage the myriad of issues and challenges that they now deal with. For many, it will be their school. Young people will seek out a trusted adult to confide in or it may be that the school picks up that all is not well with one of their own and acts on this. Parents, with their children, will be seeking guidance, interventions, resolutions. Whilst most of the issues do not come from within the school, it does come back to the school to deal with the fallout. There is an expectation that the school will “fix” the problem. This is a very big ask of the staff and the school more broadly however, educators will know that unless a student feels safe, supported, connected, with a sense of belonging and trust in the school, then the learning won’t happen. The lot of educators today goes well beyond classroom teaching!
So, how do schools nurture these critical pre-requisites to learning? The schools that do this effectively, have a well-resourced network of staff, who are equipped to focus on student well-being and behaviour management. They have programs with age-appropriate social and emotional developmental content. They seek input and feedback from recognized expertise in the field, beyond the school, to inform their programs, policies and practices. They seek feedback from their students. They offer comprehensive co-curricular and extra-curricular programs that run before and after school, that engage and challenge their students and keep them connected to the real world, through developing a strong sense of self. The school is very clear about their core-shared values which apply to all members of the school community-students, staff and parents. Members of the community who fail to uphold these values are held to account. Such schools provide strong and positive role models to their students, as many students spend far more time at their school than they do with their families.
So, community is best experienced in the real world, through relationships and engagement, not on-line, where fantasy is confused with real world. In the meantime, we can only hope that social media platforms will be forced to evolve their mission from simply connecting people to connecting people in a positive, constructive and socially responsible manner. Similarly, countering fake news with the ancient wisdom of Socrates and his Triple Filter Test about truth, goodness and usefulness, would be a strong antidote to hate-commentary.
Socrates believed that before a person passes on something potentially harmful or hurtful about another person, they should ask themselves three questions:
1. Am I sure that what I am passing on is true?
2. Is what I am going to say a good thing?
3. Do I really need to say this and is it useful?
This would make the school’s role a whole lot more straightforward and promote much happier communities!