Building School Community: Connection and Conflict
The good news is that there is a tremendous hunger on the part of parents to be a part of a community and to build community. At a Solomon Schechter day school in a large Northeastern city where I conducted a year of ethnographic research, which I shall call Jewish Day, parents’ interest in building community motivated their interest in the school. For example, at admissions meetings, parents specifically asked about the degree to which school families formed a Jewish community. In other words, their interest in enrolling their children in a Jewish day school was connected to their interest in forming a community for themselves. Of course, families were concerned that the school offered a strong academic program. But they also came to the school looking for community, and prepared to build community. In this sense, parents did not need to be socialized to understand that building community was important; they already knew this.
Parents did not merely want to experience community; many parents had the ability to create community, and the school was able to draw on the parents’ strengths and talents to do this. The school provided the basic infrastructure, and parents did much of the work. For example, the school created a Parent Association (PA) for families with a mission of involving parents, building community, and fundraising. Parents then took the initiative to shape the PA into an organization that held fundraising and social events for school families, and sent mishloach manot, baby gifts to new babies in the community, wedding gifts when people got married, and Shabbat meals when there was a death in a family.
The former PA president described how he and other parents took the initiative to expand the reaches of the Parent Association:
“After we enrolled our daughter in the school, my wife and I would attend PA meetings regularly. Eventually the PA leadership asked me to be a vice-president. We had an energetic group of five on the leadership team. We used to be thin on meetings and events; within two years there was a lot more happening. The school had always held a Shabbaton, we added a wine auction, and the listserv…”
The school listserv became a key mechanism for communication and community building. On the suggestion of the PA, the school created an email distribution list for all school families and ensured that the list was current; this list was not just distributed to all families, but families themselves could post messages. So families could communicate with one another about anything from passing on school uniforms to announcements about lifecycle events and shivas.
My depiction of community building at this school reinforces the description of how Jewish day schools become a site of community building presented by Alex Pomson and Randall Schnoor in Back to School. My work also builds on a question that Pomson and Schnoor explore: in addition to creating the infrastructure, what steps might the school take to build community among parents?
I would suggest two answers that stem from the challenges of building community. The growth opportunity for all members of a community, including parents, is learning to manage conflict: to acknowledge disagreements, to work them out, and to continue to stay connected with others who share different viewpoints. Since conflict is a part of any community, the school can model tools that might help children and their parents resolve or manage conflict in a respectful manner. At Jewish Day, the school emphasized the importance of acting with menschlichkeit. Students and their families learned about menschlichkeit at the beginning of the year, and this concept was reinforced by acknowledging students who had acted with menschlichkeit in the school’s weekly newsletter that went to all families. The result was that menschlichkeit became part of the school culture for children and adults. For example, Terry, a Jewish Day parent, described how her understanding of menschlichkeit helped her to act a little better when she was angered by a teacher’s actions:
“My son came home and said that the gym teacher spoke to him inappropriately. Initially, I was furious. But I took a minute and thought about what the school is trying to teach about menschlichkeit and treating others with respect. So rather than the angry words that initially came to mind, I emailed the teacher calmly explaining that this upset my son. The teacher wrote the nicest email back explaining that his tone had been misunderstood, and that my son is one of the best athletes in the class, and all of this other stuff…the outcome was good. The division head also responded and agreed that the gym teacher had spoken inappropriately. But all of the communication was done in a civil, supportive way.”
Terry’s words remind us that, if consistently modeled, a school can play a key role in teaching children and adults to listen to one another respectfully, thereby creating an environment of civility in which members of the community have tools to stay connected, and continue to be part of the community, even when there are disagreements.
Second, one way to handle conflict, disagreement, and the fact that members of the school community are “only human” is to create a culture of openness. At Jewish Day, this began with the school: at parent events and in the weekly newsletter, school administrators shared ways in which the school operated in a professional, thoughtful manner, while continuing to grow and improve. The school was not presented as “perfect” but rather as a work-in-progress. In the newsletter, administrators drew on this image of growth and improvement to facilitate communication between home and school:
“[At a back-to-school night,] Debby, the admissions director, launched into the longest speech of the evening: If parents have an issue, they should call their children’s teacher. After that, speak to the division head. But ‘if you feel you just need someone to talk to, if you need to...,’ she searched for the right word for a few seconds, then said, ‘vomit out something, feel free to call me.’ She looked around the room. ‘We know that there’s no such thing as the perfect school. Being together in the school community is a human process. We’re always working on it, correcting it, and working to do as well as we can.’”
Debby’s speech makes several points. First, the school is not perfect; mistakes will be made. Second, she acknowledges that parents are quite concerned about their children’s experience in the school; parents may have strong feelings when they feel that something has not been handled correctly. And lastly, she encourages parents to be aware of their strong feelings (the complaints that they want to “vomit out”) and to use those concerns as a way of staying connected and in communication, rather than letting concerns distance them from the school. Interestingly, a number of Jewish Day parents responded to this approach by describing the school as a “diamond in the rough.” Parents understood that there were many excellent aspect of the school, and that some areas needed improvement. Since the school was open about its weaknesses, parents perceived problems with the school as opportunities to improve it, rather than opportunities to disconnect.
The case of Jewish Day raises important questions for all schools. What tools might a school offer to manage conflict among not just the children who attend the school, but also the larger community of teachers, administrators and parents? How might a school communicate not just areas of strength, but also areas of growth? It is messier, and slower, to acknowledge that conflict and imperfection are part of any community that we are going to build.
Interestingly, St. Cornelius, a Catholic school I have studied, also had a strong parent community, but their model for building community was very different. A high percentage of parents were involved in planning social and fundraising events, but they were not at all involved in decision making for the school: there was no board of directors, no education committee. The school focused on building social connections, but did not emphasize areas in which it was still a “work-in-progress.”
When we compare St. Cornelius with Jewish Day, we might think about the extent of parent participation that we’re seeking. Can we have community in a Jewish school without active participation in decision making? And are there areas in which parents should not participate? Ultimately, if we think about the kind of Jewish communities we want to build now and into the future, we must pay attention to our humanness and create ways for all of us to stay connected in the face of conflicts and differences. ♦
Renee Rubin Ross is a postdoctoral fellow at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. She cab be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
As of July, 2013, Dr. Rubin Ross is a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com.