In the late 90s I was involved in getting a grassroots school reform movement off the ground in Baltimore City. One of the first schools that agreed to participate was exceptionally low performing and lacked really basic resources like textbooks, a library, a gymnasium, and a cafeteria. Its team of dedicated teachers and administrators were doing everything they could to increase the academic performance of their students only to be faced with a relentless decline in test scores. When I arrived, the State had just threatened to take over the school if it did not show signs of improvement.
My job as a community organizer was to bring all of the stakeholders together to work towards bettering the school (parents, teachers, students, neighbors, churches, local businesses). At the beginning, my focus was solely on uniting teachers and parents because there was a lot of blaming going on from both sides. The teachers felt that the parents had no clue what they went through and that they were lazy and didn’t care about their kids. The parents, on the other hand, felt that the teachers didn’t care and didn’t do a good enough job.
The first step I took, after months of one-on-one meetings, was to organize a community walk. The teachers agreed to leave the confines of the classroom and spend a Saturday morning visiting parents in their homes to talk with them about how to improve the school. However, the morning of the walk, to my surprise, the teachers were feeling quite intimidated. They had no problem meeting parents in their classroom, but the idea of meeting parents in their homes was feeling entirely out of their comfort zone. At the start of the walk some of the teachers in my small group refused to be the ones to knock on the doors, insisting that I do it instead. However, once they mustered up the courage, they were amazed by the warm and open welcome they received.
The simple act of stepping out of the safety of their classrooms and into the world of the parents was a transformative experience for them. Parents opened up as they had never done before because they were able to talk in the comfort of their own home instead of the intimidating setting of a classroom. And teachers began to experience their school through entirely different lenses.
For many of the teachers, this walk was one of the defining moments of their careers. During the debriefing meeting, teachers that I never saw even crack a smile were beaming with delight. One teacher had tears rolling down her face as she described how proud she was to be a teacher at the school.
The catalyzing effect that this walk had on the school blew me away. It marked the beginning of a new kind of relationship between parents and teachers- one characterized by increased mutual respect, understanding and collaboration. Neither could continue to blame the other for the problems that the school was having because their preconceived ideas of each other were shattered from interacting with each other in an entirely new and more expansive way.
This experience taught me how much our ability to change things hinges on our willingness to enter into other people’s worlds both physically, mentally, and emotionally. For me, an organization that is full of life and spirit is one in which this happens regularly and consciously in many different ways. Whether it be something as simple as periodically changing my work space so that I have the experience of sharing an office with different co-workers, inviting a funder into a conversation that I might not usually invite them into, or taking on a task that is completely outside of the parameters of my job. It always amazes me to see the ripple effects that these small acts of boundary crossing create.