Giving Thanks for Community

Thanksgiving day was so glorious weather-wise that my husband and I headed out for a long hike. We made a pretty steep climb to the top of a ridge paralleling the Hudson River.

Hudson River at Bear Mountain by kptyson

Hudson River at Bear Mountain by kptyson

Although most people don’t usually pick November as a favorite month, I love how you can see the bones of the earth– the stark outlines of terrain– that show through the bare trees. As we walked yesterday, we had views to the east and west and the steady rhythm of hiking set me to reflecting.

In some ways, teaching is a lonely profession. Early in my first teaching job, the department chair told me I could go into my classroom and shut the door and no one would know what went on. That was good for experimenting with different practices. Over time, though, being the only adult in a room full of teenagers can wear on you. And, even though I landed in a program with a team of amazing colleagues, I was the only English teacher. The constant pile of papers to be read is a weight other English teachers truly understand.

Today, I’m teaching on a graduate level alongside  remarkable scholars and educators. What a rich experience– plus, we can commiserate on the paper load. But we still go into our classrooms and close the doors.

Almost a year ago, teacher and author Jim Burke started the English Companion Ning, fondly known as the EC Ning, an online community for English teachers. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it, but I found people with decades of teaching experience, student teachers, respected English educators and researchers, fellow doctoral students. I got hooked fast.

Suddenly, I could go into the classroom, close the door, and dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of other English teachers were right there with me (as of the NCTE– National Council of Teachers of English– convention last weekend, I think the Ning was at 9,600 members). Maybe more important for me was the thought that my experience could benefit other teachers.

This is a long way of saying that as I hiked yesterday, I thought about what it means to be part of a professional community, one that’s not tied to a physical place or time, where people connect deeply through their passions– for writing, reading, kids, teaching– and where genuine friendships take root and flourish. And I was grateful.

I felt especially grateful because this is not an easy time to be a teacher. As if the pressure for higher test scores weren’t already intense, NYC gazillionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, stood next to Education secretary Arne Duncan just days ago and announced that teacher tenure would be linked to student performance on standardized tests.

I wish the man could hear his tone when he talks about teachers– it’s as if he believes we’re a bunch of slackers who need to be whipped before we’ll finally give in and just do our jobs. (It goes without saying that  if we had been doing our jobs, he wouldn’t need to take this firm action.)

Does anyone feel motivated to work miracles even harder when they’re being threatened?

I compared that to moments on the Ning, where people bring everything from big dilemmas to small issues and ask for help, not because they are afraid to lose their jobs, but because they want to become better teachers.

One evening at the convention, about 50 EC Ning members gathered in person. There was lots of hugging as people connected faces with Ning photos. There was happy conversation and laughter. It was like being in a neighborhood in the big NCTE city.

Remember the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Toward the end of it, author Robert Fulghum gently reminds us to hold hands when we cross the street. The NCTE convention is over and we’ve all left the neighborhood. But we can still gather in a safety zone of our making. We can bring others in. And we can still hold hands– we need to.

Photo: Hudson River at Bear Mountain, by kptyson

2 responses to “Giving Thanks for Community”

  1. msstewart says:

    I belive you failed to include a hankie warning at the beginning of this post 🙂 I was at lunch today with a couple other teachers explaining the Ning and trying not to sound too much like a street-corner evangelist.

    I’m thankful for you (and all the other Ning-ers) this Thanksgiving!

    Meredith

  2. Karen says:

    Meredith,

    I’m glad you had a hankie moment with this post. I didn’t plan for that to happen, but it does seem right somehow. I am just as thankful for you, my dear.

    Karen

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