From Co-Developing Norms to Providing Them: A Journey Toward More Equitable Community Building

From Co-Developing Norms to Providing Them: A Journey Toward More Equitable Community Building

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-7270-5.ch003
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It is a common perspective that new communities should co-construct norms, in the beginning, in service of community building and increasing buy-in. While these are potential outcomes for certain groups, the authors' work in cultivating learning communities of early career high school math and science teachers at the Knowles Teacher Initiative has demonstrated that asking new communities to co-construct norms in the beginning can be challenging and problematic as it can often serve to reinforce problematic interactions and expectations in a learning community whose members, and their ways of learning, are varied and diverse. The authors' current perspective is that norms should be given to a newly formed community to better advocate for all of its members' needs and to advance the learning of the whole community. This chapter describes the challenges and assumptions that new communities encountered when asked to construct their own norms; considers the role of identity, power, and culture in norm construction; and presents the three norms that are now offered to new communities.
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Our Context And Its Impact On Creating Norms

The Knowles Teacher Initiative is an organization whose mission is to improve math and science education for all students through developing and supporting a network of math and science teacher leaders across the nation. The Knowles Teaching Fellowship program offers over $10K worth of benefits (including fully-expensed professional development meetings, summer stipends, mentorship, grants for Fellow’s professional learning and materials for their classrooms, and access to a professional community) each year to those who are invited to join.

Our teachers are purposefully selected for demonstrating potential to develop content knowledge for teaching, exemplary teaching practices, and qualities of a teacher leader. These are the criteria that we believe can contribute to the development of a network of teacher leaders. Applicants go through a rigorous selection process that involves a written application, an individual interview, and multiple group interviews to determine whether they have the dispositions, awareness, and understanding to achieve our mission. Each year, we invite one cohort of about 35 teachers (who we call ‘Teaching Fellows’) into our Teaching Fellowship. Our curriculum requires three in-person meetings a year with their cohort and monthly online meetings in small groups. Our Fellows also have the option of meeting more frequently virtually or using grant funds to meet in person in regional groups.

Once accepted, our goal as professional development providers is to support this new cohort to build a community where they can (a) make intellectual contributions with which the community will authentically engage, (b) share and explore dilemmas that they encounter in their practice, and (c) work with others to bring about positive change beyond their classrooms. This work and way of engaging with others requires a community of trust in which its members are willing to be vulnerable with each other and to open up unattractive parts of their practice. This type of community is difficult to build and countercultural. Teaching is personal and as such, we do not often voluntarily open up about the challenges and mistakes of our teaching practice with others. We believe that the norms of a community can help its members to work and learn together in ways that allow them to see and understand their own practice more deeply and honestly and to solve difficult problems.

There are three aspects specific to our program that may make it particularly challenging to build a trusting learning community.

  • 1.

    Our Fellows first meet one another in a competitive setting.

Applicants go through a competitive process in which they are purposefully assessed for certain criteria. One applicant’s failure to adequately demonstrate those criteria works in favor of those who remain. While cohort members are no longer in competition once they are accepted into the Teaching Fellowship, there is still a negative residual that leaves a mark on the community. For example, one Fellow commented, “Even though I know many of my fellows have similar challenges as me, I sometimes feel like I don’t have the time or feel scared to ask for help. I am not sure why because I feel trusted in this community, but I don’t want to seem like a bad teacher.” This fear of being perceived as a “bad teacher” may be a consequence of the competitive nature to join this prestigious Fellowship. Having all “won” a Fellowship, Fellows may now feel a need to prove themselves worthy and deserving of this Fellowship to staff and to each other. The fear of not being good enough hinders them from engaging in vulnerable, yet necessary conversations about how their teaching needs to change in order to better serve all their students.

This competitive process to select our Fellows is reflective of dominant culture in the US. Characteristics of a competitive culture include a “win at all cost” attitude, a winner-loser dichotomy, being action oriented, valuing aggressiveness and extroversion, and making decisions through a majority consensus (when White people have power) (Katz, 1990; Okun, 2000). These characteristics (see Appendix A for Characteristics of Dominant Culture) work against our goal to create communities of trust and vulnerability that seek to learn how to get better at teaching.

  • 2.

    Our Fellows don’t select the curriculum and the curriculum requires difficult conversations.

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