P1080979A completely wonderful year has ended. It has been full of challenge (to which we have risen), difficulties (which all the staff have met and faced), brokenness of all sorts in families, staff and children (which we have done our utmost to heal) and contentment (which we have done our utmost to celebrate, even if we have failed partly in this).

I remain deeply grateful for all that God has begun to do for those we teach and love. I see daily the evidence of the hand of God in what happens in school, whether positive and beautiful to behold or in the active and sometimes ugly resistance of spiritual forces to what God is doing amongst us.  Not everyone appreciates that perspective, of course, but that does not invalidate it one bit. As a wise person once said to me – the fact someone doesn’t believe in God doesn’t mean he does not exist.

We said a sad farewell to 45 Year 6 children on the last day of term – two had left earlier on – and saw them blessed on their way. It has been a joy to watch them mature this year and as always, writing my bit of their reports was a chance to reflect not only on their progress and our hopes for them, but also on what they had contributed. And this is where it gets interesting. Children and families engage with the school at different levels. This might be reflected in issues like ethnicity and social class, but actually these are relatively minor factors in terms of engagement, and it is the school’s responsibility, I feel, rather than the families’, to ensure that engagement. However, most parents can act in a reasonably responsible adult way and once gently challenged, can know how they “position themselves” with regard to the school. For those who find it hard to engage with the school, as an organisation or because their own experiences of school are difficult, we need to impart confidence. This goes for children as well. Those who don’t seem to “give much” to school nearly always would if we encouraged them and taught them that their work and contribution had value to us. Schools should change to embrace the children and staff they get, and change subtly to incorporate the new gifts and perspectives, not expect children to alter to fit school.

I have been thinking a lot more about the nature and purpose of community recently, inspired particularly by a fantastic quote by Wendell Berry from his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community” written 20 year ago that has really got me thinking. It has all sorts of ramifications for us, and deserves a separate blog. But the quote is powerful and is worth reproducing plenty of times, particularly in the light of what I have just written above. See what you think:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature. (Community, of course, is an idea that can extend itself beyond the local, but it only does so metaphorically. The idea of a national or global community is meaningless apart from the realization of local communities.) Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – have to encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. it will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably, but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behaviour. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and does not work in a given place (pp119-120)

This is as clear and unambiguous a challenge to community as I have read. It’s context is Berry’s of course – a rural community on the lower reaches of the Kentucky River – but there are many things in it that resonate with school and which challenge me as a leader and as someone who would delight to create such a community, as poor at it as I have thus far proved. It is about choice and membership. Do we want to be part of a community or not? This is at the heart of our restorative practice work as well. The community has a responsibility to act in certain ways which make it attractive to potential new members, whilst individuals both outside and within that community have a continual choice about how they act toward and within it, for the benefit of everyone – often, as Berry says in a powerful poem about the Amish – in consciously losing ourselves, rather than deliberately using what we have to find ourselves. The quote finishes with a warning about the huge forces that stand against the creation of a genuine community:

But the life of the community is more vulnerable than public life. A community cannot be made or preserved apart from the loyalty and affection of its members, and by the respect and goodwill of the people outside it. And for a long time these conditions have not been met. As the technological, economic and political means of exploitation have expanded, communities have been more and more victimized by opportunists outside themselves. And as the salesmen, saleswomen, advertisers and propagandists of the industrial economy have become more ubiquitous and more adept at seduction, communities have lost the loyalty and affection of their members. The community, wherever you look, is being destroyed by the desires and ambitions of both private and public life….community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility. Private life and public life, without the disciplines of community interest, necessarily gravitate towards competition and exploitation (p121).

Powerful stuff. Community does not exist without hospitality to one another, without the “breaking of bread” – however that is understood in different religious and secular traditions – amongst one another and without a facing commitment to making it work. We can’t stay in community and not do the “focal practices” (Albert Borgmann’s phrase) that are required to sustain it. It will definitely not happen by itself. And in a school or a classroom, this has to be deliberate and clear, from the teacher or school leaders, to the rest of the class or school community, as part of the covenant that holds together the communal expectations and the communal “offer” – to use an appalling local authority-type word.

Speaking of Borgmann, I have at last properly got down to reading his fantastically closely argued but rather intellectually challenging Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology. I already know what he suggests, because Eugene Peterson writes of his solutions in his Christ Plays in 10000 Places. However, it is a vitally important debate, following on from work like Technopoly by Neil Postman, but from an avowedly creation-aware and Christian perspective. He too sees community as being assailed by the privatisation of technology. In the chapter entitled “Communities of Celebration”, he argues that the private-public sphere separation has squeezed the sense of local community, but that this private-public sphere separation has come about partly, even mostly, because of a poorly judged response to the growth of technologies that have grown from those that serve to make a hard life easier for the majority of people to those that are merely to speed up or entertain. A true community, he argues, is made up of a group of people in each other’s bodily presence often, sharing memory and practices of commitment, and that celebrates together – in play, in ritual and as a text of how it interprets itself (p47).

All of these a school can do straightforwardly and without too much effort. Indeed, the very presence of parents and Y6 children as well as staff and the whole school community, even the nursery, on the last Friday of term – this was such a celebration: the thanksgiving from some noble and beautiful texts read and written by the children themselves, interspersed with “in-jokes” and a solemnity of giving and receiving gifts.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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