Trying to build cohesive school communities is difficult, and there’s a pretty good reason for this: school administration, much of the bureaucratic structure behind them, and the State largely don’t want anyone doing this, even when they claim to agree that building such communities is actually in the best interests of the students. After all, teachers, school staff, students, and families might actually get ideas and start pushing back against harmful and abusive practices happening within the school (and might actually think about the safety of those around them) if they see that organising together can build protective spaces that engage in work to prevent said harm and abuse from every happening.
This isn’t something that I say lightly because I have yet to see many communities recognise that this level of organising could really change things within their school. It’s not nearly as common as it should be for everyone to band together and put forward specific demands to ensure that a space that claims it was designed for their community to actually meet their needs. Instead, when school systems and governments start noticing this happening, they often choose to play parents against each other or against the teachers.
I say all this because I’ve experienced the lengths that a school can go to in order to divide people. I’ve been one of the few in my schools to constantly try to push people who wanted change to organise in order to achieve those changes. I’ve frequently been the person who asks other people to realise that the superficial changes weren’t going to lead to anything positive, highlighting the many times that nothing actually changed even when we were given something nice and shiny. I’ve also been the constant example to prove that those of us trying to build safer and healthier environments, who seek to organise our communities, eventually get pushed out so that someone who cares about little more than power or money can retain control over everything.
I know what it is to stick your neck out, after people have promised to support you, only to feel overwhelmingly abandoned or alone. I know what it is to have a few people willing to fight with you… up to a point, since they know they’ll also be punished for doing anything more. Yet, I still don’t want to give up because something has to give.
Our schools want to keep us divided because otherwise we might all ask for change, for respect, for safety, for care, and for accountability. And if we know our collective power, we might just win.
They really don’t want that.
This isn’t a call to unionise, though that may help some people in the short-term. Joining a union could be a good idea, but it may not always be the most practical in the grand scheme of things. This heavily depends upon your own situation and the realities of the world you live in.
Full disclaimer, though: I’ve been part of multiple kinds of labour unions (trade/craft, open-association, voluntary, mandatory, and state-associated) and still support some when our goals align. But I personally haven’t seen them as fully useful in our current world for the kind of radical change we need. They can be and are sometimes helpful and supportive, sure, but many simply aren’t prepared for the kind of work they need to do to reach the communities they exist within (if they even want to do that). This isn’t to say they couldn’t be prepared and help other groups build the networks that would make them more successful, but many are so focused on the intricacies of labour (and occasionally a specific kind of labour) that they haven’t fully recognised their connections to the wider communities.
Plus, some are so unnecessarily bureaucratic for many of us who want to participate and openly exclude some of us based on our contract’s stated job title as opposed to looking at our actual job descriptions. This also helps build into my thesis: Schools intentionally try to keep us divided and will find any way possible to do it, even if it means using the systems that are supposedly designed for us against us.
But this isn’t about unionising; this is about organising.
Sometimes people conflate the two, especially when it comes to schools because the only time organising around schools is really talked about is with regards to teacher strikes. We overlook the history of student movements, ignoring all the student walkouts that have taken place in the past few years and the importance of youth and student protests throughout history. We ignore many of the times where community members have come together to work on improving their local schools and community spaces by collecting resources or updating the infrastructure of buildings to be more physically accessible while we frustratingly focus on the negative times when that happens (such as the case of anti-vax and anti-mask people protesting at school board meetings).
Organising, however, can be done with anyone, at any time, and without the consent of a union. And a lot of schools operate in ways that can make this impossible, making it so that people who need each other are separated as much as possible, even when they’re looking each other straight in the face.
The hierarchies that exist within our schools create unnecessary divisions between people, even as we work alongside each other. Sometimes they’re obvious: principal, vice principal, head teacher, teacher, librarian, teacher’s assistant, nurse, cafeteria worker, janitor. Other times they’re more covert, based on seniority, subject, grade level, relationships and connections, identity, class, religion and beliefs.
They’re always there, and someone is always ensuring they exist in order to make sure we do not organise. And if we do manage to organise, they want us to be in the smallest groups possible. They want teachers to strike on their own because that gives them less power; it’s easier to demonise them for “harming children’s education” when they’ve managed to keep them apart from everyone else. They want janitors to keep to themselves so they can’t adequately build a movement to gain support from people who should recognise them as allies, remaining the invisible yet indispensable team that they are, forever hidden away from everyone else.
These intentional separations harm us, especially when we continue to encourage them. Why aren’t more teaching staff standing with their maintenance crews when they need us? Why aren’t we trying to make things better for everyone in the school community? That is, if it genuinely is a community, as we so often claim it is.
But the more covert separations harm us, too. People who are on shaky part-time contracts, younger people who are just starting their career, substitutes who may never get a call back should they speak up, people who constantly hear how oversaturated the market is for people wanting their position, people who know they already deal with more than they ever should because of who they are (either visibly or openly). We are all “put in our place,” and that place is telling us to stay silent because we may lose everything. It’s telling us not to fight back because they won’t suffer, but they will ensure we do.
Yet, there is another hierarchy that exists and is a bit more fluid than most: that of the families and the teachers. This is one that is always utilised by schools, the State, and any administration that seeks to maintain their control over one of the two sides. Rather than create systems where the two work in tandem and without interference, they create spaces where the two frequently find themselves in opposition. When teachers go on strike or so much as speak up about unhealthy conditions, families are used as a pawn to highlight complaints about them “not doing enough” to support the community while “everyone else is working.”
Within the school, there is a perception that families know very little in comparison to the “expert” teachers, as most channels for complaint and concern lead toward administration and away from teaching staff. In many places, the complaints will make their way down to the teaching staff, picking up or losing details as they are discussed and as needed. They are meant as a distraction to redirect the frustration of the teaching staff, obscuring the real problems that could be solved and pointing towards solutions for a symbolic issue or two that might placate everyone. I’ve even seen this tactic used to single-out families of bullied students as being “needy” and trying to position everyone against them, even when they were rightfully concerned.
This belief often extends to the students themselves. So often, teachers are taught to have an antagonistic relationship with their students. They are told that they are the “expert” in something, they are set in spaces to ‘know’ everything and to mark students accordingly, they are told that their word is the final word (with very few exceptions). Far too often, teachers (and other adults) believe that children and teenagers know nothing. But at the same time, teachers are put into a space to not be wrong. This can also be used as ammunition against them should they find themselves in the administration’s crosshairs for whatever reason.
All of these hierarchies combine to make people feel isolated and frustrated. They make it difficult to work together and create long-lasting solutions that benefit everyone (or as close to everyone as we can get while still trying to reach for that goal), even though we must. There is no choice but to work together.
The policies that we work under train us to behave in certain ways. Sometimes we’re being explicitly trained, such as the case of ‘orientation’ days where new staff or new students come together to learn a ‘common culture’ of a school; other times, we’re implicitly trained by watching other people who are the targets of inconsistently applied regulations. They build our understanding as to what is “correct” and “proper” for a given environment, teaching us the ways in which we should and shouldn’t behave. But they also build into the kinds of relationships we’re allowed to create with our colleagues, with our students, with their families, and with the wider community.
This exists even within the most mundane policies in the school. For me, this was always made so apparent in the way my relationships with students were actively harmed by policies that I didn’t even agree with. Being made to enforce dress codes and uniform policies (even superficially) most certainly interrupted or halted the good relationships I was building with the kids in my school. They often (and rightly) saw it as me trying to decrease their autonomy, trying to enforce discomfort on them. And I hated having to do it so that the principal would stop harassing me about whether or not I checked to make sure the kids’ socks were correct, threatening to “send them home” should they continue to wear the wrong items of clothing.
The truth is that I simply didn’t care what kids were wearing (unless it was outwardly inflicting harm on someone else), and it was clearly making it difficult to build a coherent relationship with my students. Why should I have to constantly preface a rule that I clearly don’t agree with by stating “You know how I feel, but the school policy states…” while still being made to enforce a rule that does nothing more than enforce unnecessary control upon someone’s body? Why should they trust me when I’m still enforcing rules that I clearly don’t agree with? Even if I didn’t preface it, it was clear that I didn’t want to (because I’m also not very good at masking).
But these policies can extend farther: what kinds of behaviours teachers are expected to address in the school, how and when you communicate with families, topics you’re allowed to talk about in school, how many teaching and preparation hours you have every day, who facilitates your meetings, what the school’s schedule looks like, whether or not parents are allowed beyond the front gate, what kinds of comments are allowed on reports.
All of these policies impact the ways in which we are able to build connections to the people around us, and they are policies that we either need to work around (and then remove) in order to do just that. If we don’t, we’re not going to be able to successfully organise with each other in order to create a healthy and supportive environment for everyone in it.
Connections to the Outside
I’ve said it once, and it’s worth saying again: Schools are silos. They artificially remove children from their communities and place them into spaces where it is deemed “socially acceptable” for them to socialise with each other at predetermined ages. This socialisation often follows a very prescriptive pathway with children not being allowed to draw their own boundaries with anyone involved, being forced to show respect to people who may not respect them and coerced into cultivating relationships with people they otherwise would choose not to. For a lot of children, this literally means removing them from their cultures and teaching them the “proper” manners, behaviours, values, and ethics of a dominant culture.
This has been the case repeatedly throughout both history and the world. This occurred through the residential school systems that routinely removed Indigenous children from their communities and placed them into schools run by every single colonial power. This still happens to Roma and Sinti children in order to assimilate them into the dominant culture. Disabled children have frequently been neglected by their schools, many of which deem them less worthy of accessing resources. Meanwhile, for centuries, Black African slaves were literally forced from their land and homes, transported to entirely different geographic areas to become slaves, and systematically denied access to any form of acknowledged education; when Black people were legally allowed to go to school, they were segregated into Black schools and subjected to systems of “separate but equal” (which were anything but). This segregation continued through multiple systems and structures, and its legacy still remains today.
Overwhelmingly, our schools have been created in order to teach children and young people how to “correctly” exist and behave within our respective countries, occasionally leaning towards using abuse or neglect until they did as they were told. There are far too many stories of teachers who have harmed their students, children who’ve been harmed by their peers and had teachers overlook it, children who’ve been removed from their families due to low attendance rates, and whole communities having their needs blatantly ignored because of the “requirements” of the school system.
Despite what we’re told, it is not a service for anyone. Instead, it creates a perfect environment for indoctrination and cultural homogenisation (as well as cultural genocide).
This disconnection to the outside world is something that we need to work against, especially as the school system continually reinforces antisocial behaviours. It creates a space to safely teach a biased curriculum that persists in promoting bigotries and harmful social constructs, obscuring information and sources that could challenge their views. It allows these spaces to continue to systematically exclude people from them, including how schools so frequently refuse to accommodate the needs of disabled parents and community members in order for them to participate in the development of the school community.
They do not want genuinely organised communities because it would interrupt their actual purpose.
We need to build these networks to make sure that everyone is taken care of, and we need to ensure that these networks encourage prosocial behaviours and values. They need to become spaces that meet as many needs as it is possible to do so, growing and expanding as time goes on. They need to be information hubs that encourage people to engage with as much as they can while sharing the connections they’ve made throughout their learning processes. They need to be spaces that allow people to do things that space, time, knowledge, and resources have previously prohibited them from doing (like DIY projects, repair services, community gardening, and so much more).
Organising is one of the most important tools we have, regardless of how we choose to do it. In order to effect the kind of change that’s needed anywhere and work towards liberation, we need to be organised. We cannot simply focus on and respond to single-issues when they arise and reform our way to liberation and safety. We need to work together and create the systems that will make it possible to liberate ourselves because we have put the effort into developing connections and networks that lead towards a healthier and safer world.
It doesn’t mean we have to agree on how everything should be done or what the completed model should look like, but we do need to bridge the divides that have intentionally been created through all the systems we encounter in our daily lives. We need to build spaces that allow us to all genuinely solve problems together, every single one of us. We need to ensure that we can create spaces and networks that will allow for us to meet the material needs of everyone around us, putting in the work to unlearn the bigotries that exist within us and ensuring genuinely inclusive spaces that center the perspectives and needs of those most impacted.
And they need to be connected to other nodes outside their own, sharing and exchanging whatever they can to ensure we all grow. This will help to strengthen networks far beyond our own and create wider forms of solidarity.
All of which sounds much better and definitely healthier to me than the alternative. We already know where disconnection leads.