A long time ago, back in college maybe, I had a dream in which I was living in some kind of spiritual anarchist community where nobody owned anything and everyone shared. I remember there was food and a bonfire and people playing music and lots of laughing. There were people I knew there and people I hadn’t met, but they all seemed real to me, like it was something that was actually happening, or would happen. I have vivid dreams like this from time to time where I wake up with really strong feelings. In this one I just woke up extremely happy and I didn’t want to wake up, I wanted to get back into the dream. It’s a dream I’ve never forgotten and one that I am always wanting to get back into. I have been a part of many different kinds of communities since then but none of them have been literally like the one in my dream. I notice though when they come close in some way. My wife and I have lived in two different neighborhoods, one in New Mexico and one in California, where we went through long periods of time sharing meals, childcare duties, and some jam sessions with our neighbors. I think that the times when I am most open to this kind of community is when I really remember this dream. Or maybe I had the dream in the first place because I am open to living in community, or at least I think I want to be.
We are all part of different communities, neighborhoods, church communities, extended family, friend groups, book clubs, softball teams, we do it all the time. These communities help us find meaning, especially when there is some kind of special bond between the people in them, and they are all sharing some kind of purpose that seems to amount to something greater than the sum of their parts.
I have also been a part of school communities. I have taught at many different schools, most of them for short periods of time, and they are all different in how they feel as a community to me. In fact, even in the schools where I have taught the longest amount of time, how community seems to be defined can change from year to year. But looking back on all of these school communities, I can see that one of the things that they all have in common is a desire for community and connection to happen. That there is purpose when that sense of community is strong. When we have had faculty meetings where all we do is pour over data but the sense of community is weak, there is less meaning in that data. There is suspicion, disinterest, cynicism. But when the sense of community has been strong, people want to engage with the data as an opportunity to go deeper, to do better.
So is school just a building with classes or should it strive toward true anarchy, the kind in my dream? Is teaching just a job for a paycheck? Or is it something more, something with a greater purpose? Most teachers I know talk about the experience of seeing students outside of school and the student acting shocked that the teacher can exist outside of the classroom. This is less true if you teach older students but it happens. Teachers aren’t always thought of as people who have separate lives. When I was a younger teacher, I almost didn’t. It was a calling. I was crushed one year when I first started teaching bilingual math classes and I was really outside of my comfort zone. I wasn’t reaching the kids, they were running all over me, I had no control and it was the kind of anarchy most people envision when they hear that word. I remember walking out of my classroom and seeing an administrator and just saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” I would have been the fourth person in that classroom that year to have left. My administrator didn’t have any words of wisdom for me, and I didn’t actually give up, but I thought about it. I remember feeling lost. I was a teacher and if that was taken from me, if I wasn’t capable of it, then who was I?
As I got better at teaching, I threw myself into it more and more. I stayed late, took on other responsibilities. I would look down on the teachers who left campus right when school ended, the ones who seemed to think it was “just a job.” But then I had a family. All I wanted to do was be home with my new son and make the most of my time with him and with my wife when she got home from her higher paying job. I went part time for a couple of years. After we had our second child, I took a year off. After going back to teaching full time, I often found myself sprinting to the parking lot when the bell rings, watching younger teachers shake their heads at me. Who had I become?
Then came the pandemic. We were “teaching” to blank screens and to kids who were quickly getting lost. I found myself calling parents and they would hand the phone to their teenager who was still in bed at 3 in the afternoon, “Here you talk to her, she won’t listen to anything I say anymore.” I would talk to the kids about how it was still important to get up and have a day even if they were stuck at home. I would counsel the parents and tell them they were doing a great job. Meanwhile I wasn’t sure about anything. Was I even a teacher anymore? Was a strong community even possible anymore? What was going on? I wanted to get back into my dream.
When I first had that job where I was struggling and wanted to quit, I remember walking by the classroom of another teacher. She was a bilingual social studies teacher and had many of my same students in her classroom as I did. I walked by and saw the kids working on projects. They were making a mess, talking happily but calmly, but working together. They were at ease and nobody was challenging the teacher. She was at her desk grading their notebooks and not worrying about the class. She didn’t have them “under control,” she had created a community with them. That was what I wanted.
I went to that teacher and learned from her. I was also taking classes at night in bilingual education and Spanish and I was tearing through Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy for Liberation. I created projects, I invited my students to explore and create community with me. It was never perfect but it has always been better since I started teaching this way, with students as partners in community. The pandemic definitely broke that for me and this school year I am working to get it back. It is happening for me because I have been part of this school community now going on 8 years and a lot of the students know me before the school year starts so I have something to build on, even though all of us got out of practice. But that is what it is, a practice. We have to practice at being community wherever we are, not just expect it to happen for us. This is true both inside and outside of the classroom. And just like you have to practice to learn how to solve equations or find the mean in a set of data, finding meaning through community takes time and work and patience and love. Let’s get back into the dream.