The Urgent Need for Community

I remember middle school choir, and remember feeling that I couldn’t trust my choir director.  It’s hard to take risks when you feel like you can’t trust your teacher.

As I spoke with a colleague at the beginning of this school year, she shared this experience from her own middle school choir education. Isn’t it amazing how our experiences as young students can shape the way we feel about certain classes still today? We talked about how important it is that our students can trust us, and that we can trust each other. This conversation made me think about my own classroom. Do my students feel valued? Does their voice matter? Am I actively seeking community in my ensembles?

It is clear that our effectiveness as teacher-leaders is dependent on trust–strong relationships are always based on that foundation. The education researcher Dr. John Hattie has studied the effect size of different components of teaching, and he has concluded that strong student-teacher relationships can have a large positive effect on student learning. Because of the importance of relationships, I decided to frame my school year around this narrative: effective learning must include intentional community building. Here are some ways that I worked this year to build community with my students:

Circle Time – Not just for elementary students – we all love to share our stories with each other! As we began this practice in my classroom, it was clear that my students loved to talk. I’m sure you see this in your classes, too! We talked about big ideas and small things in our lives. This small activity made a big change in the lives of my students, and in their feelings of value and acceptance.

Social-Emotional Learning – Our school focused on Top 20 principles this year, and this became a great way for our kids to learn about themselves in relation to others. The Top 20 curriculum has been our school’s focus, but there are many ways to teach students metacognition and effective social skills. Embrace the power of these tools!

Character Education – Maybe your school is involved in PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports), or maybe you have simply framed your classroom around a culture of exemplary character. Any discussion that involves teaching students how to be better people will strongly contribute to a classroom that is based on community concepts.

We can see that building community is important in our classroom, but it is also important in the lives of people around the world. It is so crucial that our students learn how to listen and respond with empathy. Music ensembles are perfect places to make these connections! We rely on our skills as listeners, and we adapt our own performance in response to the work of those around us. Our success as an ensemble is directly related to our ability to work together.

I came across this interview article in Forbes magazine, and it speaks to our power as leaders in building community. In the article, “Building Community as if People Mattered,” the author and community innovator Rich Harwood presents six lessons for community leaders. Three of the ideas are valuable lessons to us as music educators:

  1. Your most important job is to help people have hope, and believe in the possibility of progress.
  2. You earn credibility as a leader through authentic understanding of the community itself.
  3. Lead even more intentionally if the community is virtual.

I encourage you to read the article for a more in-depth discussion on community leadership, and bring these principles into your classrooms! We are all being asked to lead “virtual communities” for now, and this requires a more acute focus on intentional community building. My wish for all of us is the wisdom to know how to reach our students, and the courage to try new things as we lead our virtual ensembles in this difficult time!

“Building community always comes back to the core, its human members.”

  • Rich Harwood

Our Real Work

  • Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.