Are schools communities?

I was catching up on my podcasts, listening to Start the Week from BBC4 from January 17. They were discussing the need for moral judgements in civic discussions, and historian Eric Hobsbawm said this (10:29):
It's an old problem…: the problem between community and society. Once you stop having a traditional community which is a so-to-speak human sized unit in which you think you know at least everybody who belongs to it and in which a certain amount of consensus is possible.

How big can a school be and still be a learning community? When, merely because of the number of people involved rather than the disposition of the stakeholders, does it become an institution?

I taught at a suburban high school in Southern California with 3,000 students. There were members of staff I didn't know, let alone students; standardization and pre-made decisions seemed necessary just to keep all of those students in the right place and at the right time. If we look at the governing institutions of the district or even the state as they create and mandate learning objectives and even more detailed curricular material, the situation becomes hopeless.

What can a teacher do? The teacher carves out of this society a community within the classroom. Within those walls students should find a refuge from being treated as a number. Within those walls students should have a voice. Within those walls (and hopefully those walls are metaphoric as the wider community becomes the learning space) people belong.

In my last years at that school, I taught in a history/English team that had that kind of atmosphere. We had one-on-one interviews with students twice a year, gave opportunities for authentic learning, brought in guest speakers and required more of them then the standard class ... it was a team in the real sense of the word. Those students belonged to us, and we belonged to them. The experiences we had with those kids are among the finest I've had in my life. I'm still in touch with dozens of them more than a decade later.

In essence, if it takes a village, well, most of our students don't really have one. Most schools can't serve that function, and the increased centralization of education decreases the personal attention students receive as learners. The most essential function I serve as a teacher is to create and maintain a community that we, students and teachers, all belong to. The school may not be able to do it, but I can.

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