How a “community-up” model of school relationships can nurture teacher agency

Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from “Teaching Fiercely: Spreading Joy and Justice in Our Schools” by Kass Minor. Copyright © 2023 by Kass Minor. All rights reserved.

It is important to distribute equitable responsibility within the community to nourish teachers with time and space for planning, thinking, reflecting and collaborating. When this labor is centered on one entity, like “school leadership” or “grade team leaders” or even one person like “the principal,” the likelihood that an authentic and intentional thought sanctuary for teachers will come into fruition is minimal. One way to think about this movement is through the concept of “community-up,” meaning that community growth is connective, lateral and moves upward, together.

The cylindrical model shown below is an example of a community-up model, and supports organizing within a school community. I learned about the cylindrical model from Indigenous educator Cinnamon Kills First during her keynote speech at the Arizona K12 Center’s Teacher Leadership Institute and, later, a collaboration we did. Like talking circles, it is based on Indigenous wisdom. Many educators are familiar with talking circles, where classroom communities meet together in a circle formation to initiate, build and/or restore community.

While talking circles are usually referred to in the restorative context, circles also are used as an instructional methodology wherein communities learn together, co-creating knowledge. Importantly, the community of people participating sit within a circle shape so all members are able to see each other, and no one person is centered. All people within the circle are equally visible. Usually, an item referred to as an “object of power” is held to indicate a person is the speaker, and is passed around for turn-taking.

The cylindrical model builds on circle ideology; it is used to symbolize a flattened hierarchy, where no one person in the community is more important or more capable than another. As the circle of people in the community contribute and learn together, the circle grows upward, transforming into a cylinder, showing equitable growth for all.

With permission from Cinnamon Kills First, I imposed the categorization and labels to the shapes she presented at the Fifteenth Annual Leadership Institute: Evaluating Student Voice Through Teacher Leadership conference. (Courtesy of Kass Minor)

To the right of the cylindrical model, notice the triangle. The triangle is a more typical representation of how power and agency flows through a school. At the top, school leaders are positioned with ultimate decision-making power. Their vision, guidance and leadership (or lack thereof) significantly impacts how all people experience school.

On the right bottom angle of the triangle, you will find teachers. The yellow arrows shown between teachers and school leaders demonstrate how connected they are as well as their relational power dynamic. This is significant: School leaders are almost always positioned above teachers.

Kids are placed on the bottom side of the triangle, representing their lack of power within the school, as well as the people with whom they are connected to: their parents and/or caregivers and their teachers. They also serve as a conduit for how teachers and parents and/or caregivers communicate with one another. That is, what kids say happens during their school day is interpreted by parents/caregivers in ways that shape their perspective on their child’s teacher. This can either hinder or strengthen teacher agency.

Finally, you’ll see the left side of the triangle connecting parents/caregivers to school leaders. This connection varies across school, but this body of voices has the power to heavily influence the ways in which school leaders strategize and make decisions.

The cylindrical, or “community-up” model allows the entire school community to contribute to the needs of school communities, enabling more space and time for teachers to plan, collaborate and be thoughtful when developing curriculum and making instructional decisions based on the needs of their students. Potentiality for community contributions is vast, and, again, looks very different depending on school demographics, resources and perspectives.

Below are a few examples of distributed community contributions:

  • One community I worked in solicited parent volunteers to serve as substitute teachers so their teachers on staff could participate in professional development together with me. Many parents and caregivers volunteered; however, this com- munity was affluent, mostly white and East Asian, and many volunteers had jobs with flexibility that allowed them to con- tribute their time during the school day.
  • Another time, a principal I worked with liaised with a community sports group to spend time with children in the gym so teachers could curate their classroom libraries more thoughtfully together, rather than covering each other’s classrooms and doing the work in isolation. In that case, the community was predominantly immigrant and BIPOC, disadvantaged economically, but advantaged in that they had a long-term commitment to building cross-community relationships.
  • I’ve also seen students contribute to nourishing teachers’ agency. One school I worked in regularly invited students to attend curriculum-making sessions with teachers, acting as thought partners with their teachers to ensure their learning was relevant to their experience. These experiences were built across their advisory program, so when curriculum meetings happened, students were prepared to contribute in meaning- ful ways. This particular school served economically disad- vantaged students and was racially and economically diverse.

Significantly, they were led by a visionary school leader with a strong, diverse school equity team who were equipped to actionize various learning structures they learned through workshops centering students, equity, and racial dynamics as part of their school experience.

Kass Minor is an inclusive educator and community organizer who is deeply involved in local, inquiry-based teacher research and school community development. Alongside partnerships with the University of Chicago, Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project, The Author Village and the New York City Department of Education, since 2004, she has worked as a teacher, staff developer, adjunct professor, speaker and documentarian. Kass reads books like other people listen to albums, and the classroom is her concert space. While Kass’s organizing work in school communities is inspired by her North Stars Myles Horton and Fannie Lou Hamer, her pedagogy is centered in joy from the communities that surround her and motivated by the idea that every adult can teach, and every student can learn. Teacherhood, paired with motherhood, has driven her love of information sharing and redefining who gets to be a knower in the fiery world we live in today. Keep in touch with her on social media @MsKass1, or follow her whereabouts by signing up for her newsletter.

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