The Necessity of Community
March 13th, 2020 was the last day I walked the halls of my school with students still in attendance. I’ll remember this day well since it was supposed to be the day we had a big event for our male students called March Dadness. March Dadness is an event intended to foster relationships between male students and significant adults in their lives. We had speakers lined up, team building activities, and plenty of food and fellowship. It was a great event in 2019 and many of our students were excited to participate again. Sadly, we had to cancel the event at the 11th hour due to the emerging crisis.
Upon reflection of the event in 2019, it was a small sample of what was right in our community. We had male students show up from all different backgrounds and neighborhoods. We had a generous faith-based sponsor provide money for food and a t-shirt for each participant. The most important aspect of the night was that it cultivated a sense of belonging for our stakeholders or in other words, community. This made cancelling this event such a disappointment. We weren’t just canceling an event, it felt like in a strange way we were canceling community.
After being quarantined for the better part of six weeks, it feels as if March Dadness and interacting with students and teachers is a distant memory. I don’t want it to feel that way and I am still in touch, but it is difficult to maintain these relationships when you are not saying “good morning,” walking through classes and having tough conversations that are not a part of your regular routine. As I reflect, I am reminded that these routines cultivate community in our schools. Students and teachers want to feel “known” in their school community and it makes them know they are valued.
During the COVID-19 Pandemic, my community has shifted. I exercise, in socially distant manner, with a small group of men in my neighborhood four days a week. We push each other in our workouts, crack jokes and talk about the latest events. We even have a text change that extends the banter beyond our early morning workouts. Since we can’t go anywhere, we have been brought closer together simply as a result of increased time together. After comparing my school and my small exercise group, I have been reminded of some basic truths about community through this recent experience:
- We were created to be in community. It really doesn’t matter what your community is, but you were made to be in one. I have shifted some of my community focus from my school to my exercise partners. I have also involved myself in Zoom calls, webinars and group texts. There is a desire that exists to be a part of something with others. It also doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert. We want to be with others and we want to do life with others. As school leaders, we must capitalize on this desire for all stakeholders to belong to their community. What can we do more of to help students feel that they are a part of something?
- Healthy community pushes you to be a better version of yourself. I don’t exercise as hard by myself. If I am with others, I am encouraged to do more exercises, different exercises and harder exercises. I get better physically. Within the context of the school community, I am asked challenging questions that push me to dig into solutions. These experiences happen within the context of community, not in isolation.
- Community makes life pleasurable. When I talk to parents and scholars, many have lamented that this experience has increased their stress and they are yearning to return to normalcy. Students want to be with their friends. They have stated that it’s not fun to be stuck at home by themselves. They want community because community brings them joy. When I exercise with my neighbors in the mornings, it has brought great fun and enjoyment in the midst of a time of great uncertainty in our country.
- Community reminds you of truth. Human nature already assumes that the way you think about something is true and correct. It is not until you are challenged by someone outside of yourself that you begin to think differently. You are challenged by what is true through your community. Recently, one of the guys in our exercise group made a joke towards another guy that was considered offensive. He meant it in jest, but the damage was done. It wasn’t until other guys stepped in and reminded him that the joke was indeed inappropriate that he apologized. We need community to make us aware of these missteps. When we are in a school community, we constantly do the same thing. If a student doesn’t act appropriately, if a teacher isn’t professional or we analyze data in a way that isn’t accurate we have others to point us to the facts. We need community to remind us of this.
As we continue to trudge through a new normal in American public education, it is important that we remember the importance of community in quality schools. There is little doubt that if and when schools return, they will look quite different. However, the cultivation of strong community should remain an emphasis in the next phase of our country’s education history. Community is not just important for our schools and our neighbors, it is important for us as humans.
Dr. Eric H. Tornfelt is an Assistant Principal at Sedgefield Middle School in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Tornfelt was honored as Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the year in 2012. He has a proven track record of instructional leadership success in a variety of school settings. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Furman University and his Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership from Wingate University.