It is that time of the year when every new teacher is seeking advice ahead of the new academic year. Whenever anyone asks me what pearls of wisdom I have for the new cohort of trainees and ECTs, I have religiously stuck with ‘spend time in the local community.’ In this article, I will explain why.
I want to cast your mind back to 2016. A young ECT (then NQT) rolled into a leafy but deprived Lincolnshire suburb in his Kia Ceed playing Miss Jackson by OutKast. Fresh off a pretty intense PGCE year, I had entered a new town and new surroundings. This would be my home for the next 10 months or so. Let’s set the scene too. This was at the height of Brexit and I was the only person of colour (POC) in the school. There was an overriding feeling of unease and I won’t lie, as much as I was an alien to this community, they were aliens to me. This needed to be addressed if I was going to have any chance of success here.
Despite the two parallel universes colliding and the blaring differences between my hometown and where this school was located, this intangible feeling of being valued and respected is something we all strive for. It is ubiquitous. Schools do not exist in a vacuum. The local community makes the school. The two are interrelated and not binary. How can we cater for the needs of our pupils if we don’t know them or their background?
What is a community?
The word community, a bit like ‘wellbeing’ and other popular buzzwords in education are incredibly woolly. According to the Sociology Guide, a community ‘at the minimum… refers to a collection of people in a geographical area.’ Other elements that make up a community include:
Of course, we are not assuming that community simmers down to ‘back in the day’ where you could leave your front door open and everyone knew everyone. Communities are complex, heterogeneous and come with their own traditions, cultures, customs and sense of place and identity.
At the heart of a community is its schools and as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic when schools work with their communities, this is a recipe for excellence. In my first school, the community was very distinct. Despite being a mere 30 minutes away from my home, I almost felt like I was entering an entirely different country once I crossed the school gates.
My mentor spoke about the community being a funnel for the school and then my classroom. At length, she explained how developing relationships with the pupils is key and that I needed to invest some time in actually spending time in the local community. I wasn’t asked to do displays or create a snazzy new scheme of work (both of which have their time and space). This has lived with me ever since. School communities, like colleagues and pupils, can leave a lasting impression on our lives, and boy, did Spalding become my second home.
The ‘I’ in community
The summer of 2016 was my opportunity to hit the ground running. After the handover meetings were complete and I had learned the route to the school off my heart, I set out on a mission to get to know the local community a bit better. Although this is not an exhaustive list and I would strongly recommend you supplement these tips with working on your subject knowledge, preparing your classroom/resources and enjoying your summer holidays.
Talk to everyone
I was a newbie in the literal sense. I had no idea where to park or where to buy lunch. As I was preparing for my NQT year, I occasionally went into the school during the summer. Site staff and other teachers were working hard and trying to get a head start before the hustle and bustle of September. This was a really good time for me to strike up conversations with my future colleagues, to build my knowledge of the school, its history, and its pupils. This eye-opening tacit knowledge can only be gained by holding these nuanced conversations with the locals. From cleaners to the lady at the tills in Tesco. I was like a sponge trying to absorb as much information as I could. Get a whiff of the local air, enjoy a pint (of Irn-Bru in my case) at the local pub and try a local culinary staple (vegetable ravioli). This is an effective use of your time and think of it as market research as you immerse yourself into a new community.
As a part of this tacit local knowledge, an understanding and appreciation of local landmarks are vital. I also believe it is so useful in developing rapport with your learners. By getting to know a bit about their lives and locality, you can develop a deeper understanding of their lived experience. This individualised insight is priceless. I remember spending time at the local foodbank one morning and was left shocked by how many local families relied on food donations. An understanding of the local geography and socio-economic surrounding can guide your teaching. I never once questioned a pupil if they didn’t have a pen and always asked my pupils if they’d had breakfast/lunch. On a pastoral basis, as a form tutor, this was actually a game changer. Visit as many local places as you can! It will help build a broader picture of your context.
I knew from day one I was facing some pretty challenging classes. Behaviour management is so contextual, isn’t it? What works in one school and with one cohort needs adjusting, refining and changing for another school and cohort. This is what reflective practice looks like. Of all the hot takes, books about behaviour, and populist Tweets, I have always held on to the belief that showing interest in your pupils, their lives and their intellectual worlds is the most underrated behaviour management tool. My rowdy Year 11 class were shocked when I asked them what the score was for a local football match at the weekend. It took me seconds to Google this and find out the score. Such low effort but high impact. When pupils feel valued, and respected and that someone is showing a genuine interest in them, they will get on board. There are local events, quirks and sayings that you can embed into your lessons and interactions with your pupils. It will mean the world to them that you are actively making an effort and wait and see, it will be reciprocated.
‘What advice do you have for a trainee/ECT ahead of the new academic year?’
Spend time in the school community. We are the ‘I’ in community and as September creeps up on us, gathering your bearings, developing your local knowledge and quite simply showing interest in the surrounding you will be sharing for the next 10 months will help your assimilation to school and its community.
As an outsider in many ways, my first school still holds a special place in my heart. When the time came to move on, I genuinely felt as though I was part of the community and that the community was now a part of me too. The memories I have been left with will last a lifetime. I learned more simply by being immersed in the local community than in any CPD sessions I have attended. The power of communities cannot go understated.
Criminologist Jack Katz once wrote ‘I graciously envy those who can somehow transport themselves into intellectual worlds they have never inhabited before.’
This is your intellectual world now. Become the ‘I’ in your school community!