Community Engagement

It’s been a busy two days at the London Summer Institute. So far we have had sessions on:

Professional Identity

Classroom Culture and Ethos

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture

Child Protection: Teachers and the Law

Observing Teaching and Learning

While the days have definitely been fast paced each session is carefully structured to allow for learning, discussion and self-reflection. We are also asked to complete our reflection journals each evening, allowing us to evaluate our learning and build next steps for development.

It is also reassuring to see such a strong support system in action. Classes are divided into Home Groups, each of which has two academic tutors from our university provider and one Learning Development Officer from Teach First. If you also include our placement school mentors, this means that each participant has the experience of four mentors to draw upon. Consequently, I feel really well supported in my learning and able to ask for help if I need it.

Being in a Home Group, and spending time with our regional colleagues, means that participants quickly build a huge network of support.  I have learned so much from listening to the advice and experiences of those in my learning groups. I know that forming strong professional relationships is going to prove invaluable come September, when we will be able to offer encouragement and advice to each other as our workload builds.

However, the highlight of Summer Institute so far has been this afternoon’s Community Engagement Project. Everything was quite mysterious to begin with. Each participant was allocated to an area of London that was in the surrounding community of their local school. We travelled to a meeting point independently, but when we arrived we were divided into small groups to explore the task that we were about to undertake. The project facilitators then explained to us that we would be going out into the local area to learn more about what it was like to live there and to speak to people about their learning experiences. The route we took, the people we spoke to and the questions that we asked were up to us. Before we knew it we were out on the streets and off on our mission.

I set off with my partner, who seemed to have a much better sense of direction than me. We walked through the town centre and along one of the busiest roads in the area. The first person we met was a man who had lived in the community all his life. While he was able to identify many challenging circumstances he was positive about the development of the area. He told us about the changing attitudes towards race and was proud that things had become more diverse and tolerant. He did have concerns about some of the pressures placed on young people in the area but his outlook was positive.

Next we bumped into two pupils who had just completed their GCSEs. Aware of some of the issues raised in our first conversation, I asked the children about their attitudes towards learning and their community. Again I was met with optimism and enthusiasm. Both children felt that despite the obstacles of growing up in the area, good teachers and inclusion projects had given children in the area access to opportunities. The children were confident, articulate and highly aspirational; their outlooks seemed completely incongruous to the stereotypes of young people in their area. These young people showed that education really has the power to shape everything from aspiration and confidence, to integration in the local community.

Further down the road we came across a quite different story. A man in his early twenties told us that he had found school challenging and received little support from his teachers. He felt his learning had been continually disrupted by bad behaviour. His teachers had never stayed at his school long enough to build meaningful relationships and he had even experienced hostile comments from teachers about the prospects of young people in his area. The man didn’t feel a part of his community and felt unsafe living there. He told us that one day he was hoping to move but getting a job was hard, as he had left school at 14 so that he could be home-schooled. It was interesting to see the impact that a poor educational experience had had on the man’s life. Lack of inclusion at school had caused him to feel like an outsider in his own community.

Finally, we spoke with a woman at a local park. She told  us about the transformative effect that local outreach projects were having on the community. Parks, youth centres and sports facilities were all helping to change the identity of the area. ‘It’s not as bad as people make out’ she said.

Later that evening we met up with the rest of the group to reflect (and eat pizza). The room was buzzing with anecdotes collected from a wide range of people but what had we learned?

For me, the overarching themes of the discussion were: pride in the community, positivity in challenging circumstances, the diversity of the area and the power of educational experiences. I was impressed by the resilience and optimism of the people we had spoken to. The openness and time that the people which we interviewed spent with us showed me just how important a school’s links to the community are.

At the end of the session we were asked to consider what we had learned about ourselves. This was really hard to answer. I knew that I had gone into the project with a whole host of assumptions about what the area would be like and who I would meet. I felt out of my comfort zone approaching strangers and had no idea whether what we were doing would make an impact. However, Teach First helped me to realise something very important about myself. Assumptions must always be challenged. Getting out of my comfort zone helped me to think about my school community is a new way. Instead of feeling apprehensive about challenging circumstances, I now feel inspired to get involved.

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