Community is a non-negotiable foundation for learning — this isn’t new information.

We know that children, teachers, and families thrive best when they know they belong to a community where they feel welcome, safe, and free to share their big ideas and, when necessary, their concerns. Sure, building a community has looked different this school year — let’s face it: drastically different — but we have to maintain our commitment to making this critical foundation a priority for every child and every family or we can forget about hoping for any semblance of a successful year.

While it has been overwhelming to completely reimagine the start to the school year, I think it’s important to remember what we need to focus on in the first months of school — critical months that set the stage for a year full of learning and growth by building relationships and a sense of community. In order to successfully build a learning community, stakeholders must share common attitudes, goals, and interests.

Whatever model of learning students are in this school year—in-person learning, fully remote learning, or a hybrid of the two — everyone is going to feel the stress of the new reality: children, families, siblings, and teachers. So let’s acknowledge it. If part of building a community is sharing common attitudes, then it’s important for all involved to be able to speak openly about their current reality. Some families will be under tremendous stress and need to think unconventionally about how best to ensure that their child gets what they need. School members taking time with each family to understand what their reality will look like — including any obstacles they are nervous about — lays a strong foundation to build upon. The more schools know about each family’s day-to-day reality, the more they can dynamically plan to support families and set them up for success.

With everyone involved working above and beyond to make this school year meaningful and successful, it’s more important than ever to encourage families to share their goals for their child’s learning. As parents, caregivers, siblings, and grandparents take on more responsibility for guiding children’s learning at home, it’s so important to make sure that families understand their role in sharing their hopes and goals for their children. And, as educators, when we look to introduce additional goals or areas of focus, it’s important to share with families why a particular skill leads to future success. Schools can also share some very specific activities that families can do to help their children build those skills. When families are invited to actively participate in the goal-setting process for their children, they are more likely to share meaningful and specific information about their child’s learning.

Lastly, research tells us that humans learn best when content is highly interesting to them and connections can be made to real-life. When teachers combine hands-on investigations of topics that are relevant to children’s interests and daily experiences, learning can rise to a whole new level. Coming together as a classroom community to investigate and explore high-interest themes allows children and families to jump right into the learning and begin to share common goals and interests, even if the setting for those investigations looks different for everyone.

I continue to be in awe of the tenacity and passionate positive outlook demonstrated by the St. Peter learning community. As we continue to strive to define our common attitudes, goals, and interests our community will continue to grow stronger making adversity just that much more manageable.

Darin Doherty is the principal of North Elementary School.

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