Why do we build a community?

Conkers – A glorious Autumn tradition

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question, what are you doing for others?”

Dr Martin Luther King jr

“Alone, we can do so little; Together we can do so much”

Helen Keller

“A community is a group of people who agree to grow together”

Simon Sinek

It seemed to take forever to drive the few kilometres outside of Chisinau on a beautiful sunny autumnal Saturday afternoon in October to reach the dirt track, through the vineyards that led to the destination that day. The few families picking the remaining grape harvest stopped to stare as we drove past and before we saw our destination we heard a huge cacophony of over 200 dogs all bark their various individual greetings as we arrived at one of the most remarkable and hopeful places in Moldova; the AREAL Animal rescue centre founded and run by the dedicated Debbie O’Connell and Jane Sumner. These two compatriots of mine have had the compassion and vision to support and give a home to stray dogs and cats in Chisinau and Moldova through their rescue centre and phenomenal work over the last few years.

It was through a colleague of mine, Rosie Moran, that the school first became involved as a part of their social responsibility to their wider community and Debbie and Jane gave the third Founders’ Lecture this Autumn on their work and wider animal welfare to a packed auditorium in school.  The generosity of the school community in their donations of food for the centre moved most attendees to tears.  It is a drop in the ocean and so much more work remains, not least affecting legislation changes on animal welfare and continuing our support in an ongoing, sustainable way, but it is an important start in getting the school community involved in their wider community.  Walking around the pens and runs for the dogs and listening to some of the harrowing stories on that Saturday afternoon convinced me more than ever about the importance of community as we go forward into the next decade.

Moldova, for me, has always epitomised the strength and collective power of community, especially when compared to so many fractured societies in other parts of the World; often places that on the surface seem prosperous in material needs but underneath the fault lines, the loneliness and the lack of community bonds are all too obvious.  I have always envied Moldova for the strong sense of community I have been privileged to see and witness.  What the 21st century needs more of as it progresses and globalisation and technology threaten to isolate and individualise societies more, is the belief and need to get back to community as our basic building block in our humanity. We need to find more community that brings us together, rather than focusing on the things that widen division. There are too many challenges facing all countries globally from Climate Change, to scarce resources, that need us to act collectively and as a community. The former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neil, once said; “All politics is local”.  I used to pose this as a question for discussion to my A Level and IB Politics/History classes and I still believe that what we do at the grassroots level can resonate, have real impact and carry momentum up to a national and international level.  Read anything on the micro loan lending in India for inspiration or ecology projects that have grown forests and wetlands from previously devastated landscapes, to see this power.

In a school, community is one of the most powerful and unexplored ideas, and yet the best schools I have seen around the World often have vast populations: from a 4000 student school in Chaing Mai, Thailand to a 3000 student school in DC. The strength of community in action in these organisations comes from making sure there is enough “glue” to hold these people together around the common purpose, mission and values of the school. To go back to Sinek, we build community from wanting to grow together.  That is the starting point.  I am trying not to mention the “B” word dominating the UK here, but one of the most serious issues in the last four years in this often vicious and destructive diatribe in Britain, is the schism it has created in the country and how on Earth it is possible, at a national level, to put it back together again. The forthcoming General Election, the third in four years, may offer a solution but most commentators see the likely result as only echoing the very entrenched and opposed views which have created a polarisation in UK society.

Conversely, the recent local elections in Moldova were praised by the international community for the democratic, fair and peaceful manner in which they were undertaken, the number of parties involved offering choice and the participation and debate underpinning them, as Moldova continues to move itself forward  on the approaching thirtieth anniversary the fall of the Berlin Wall and the enormous implications of the break-up of the USSR and the Soviet System for Eastern Europe.  I would go as far as to say that I find living and working in Moldova more hopeful than the UK right now.  That is partly because conversations and debate here in Chisinau and across Moldova are more outward facing and about the longer-term issues that need addressing and resolving.  There are some incredible people in all walks of life in this country who want to put their energies and abilities into solving problems for the next generation.  This includes the remarkable support of the international community in Moldova spanning the formal diplomatic communities, NGOs and the valued support the Moldova diaspora gives back to respective communities with still strong ties of home.  This is how we build community.

The grapes ready to press

There were two recent opportunities I experienced that illustrated community in Moldova at a local level.  My apologies in advance, because having worked with education in Moldova for 6 years now, I am going to mention wine and I have been very defensive when people who visit Moldova say nothing more than the wine is amazing – it is, we know it, don’t pity the country either and find a less hackneyed way of talking or writing about this corner of Europe.  So, with no hypocrisy, I have some wine stories; two, to be precise. Building a community in the school is a real challenge, especially when there are three main languages and over 20 nationalities.  In international education, it is a challenge in any international school to get local and international educators to form strong bonds which unify them as a staff, let alone bringing diverse students and families together as one.

Vineyard harvest

At the very end of September, we did just this when a group of international teachers went out into the beautiful countryside north of Chisinau to help a colleague’s mother with the grape harvest and to learn the ancient and noble art of making wine.  The sun was very hot, we had a great home cooked meal, all sat together and even suffered the ironic good humour of local villagers laughing at western workers coming to Moldova to do manual jobs instead of vice versa.  Migration is a huge problem to solve in Moldova and that is why ensuring young people want to stay in their communities with opportunities and hope is another way we are going to build a community in this country. My second wine-making experience was in the famous wine village of Cricova with the incredible wine maker Radu and his neighbours. I have been privileged to see so many wonderful moments in Moldova. A recent jaw dropping performance of “The Tempest” in Chisinau by a local group or a beautiful Sunday in the north of Moldova and a visit to Soroca and the Nistru river, but this weekend in October, with the “real” Moldova was something special and unique as neighbours and friends made wine together, ate together and laughed together.  Right in that moment I felt I was sitting in the most prosperous and wealthiest corner of Europe.  We could all do well to be reminded of the important and precious things in our lives at such moments.

When my plane touched down at Stansted a couple of weeks ago and I found myself walking down The Mall, across Trafalgar Square to my hotel ahead of giving a keynote to the British Council’s international education conference on curriculum and global learning, I very much had this experience of Moldova under my finger nails and it wasn’t just the red stained grape juice.  I did speak about what is at the heart of global learning to the audience and my examples drew upon all the wonderful communities I have known as an educator in York, north Bristol, Wootton Bassett, Crickhowell, the Forest of Dean and now Moldova. These diverse places all have something in common, the strength of the school community; teachers, students, support staff; and the wider school community; governors/founders, parents, local business and other groups. In Moldova, creating a community in a school when the school is only in its third year is a wonderful challenge and one already well underway. Social responsibility, such as supporting the Animal Rescue Centre in Chisinau or the orphanage in the Botanica district, is how we are already developing our wider community. There are a number of things I have seen here in education that the UK would do well to adopt: the morning of the UN “Teachers’ Day” and the way it was celebrated with students welcoming the staff at doors with cards and music, is something that was quite magical.  I did however, play my role and imported a very British tradition to Moldova this Autumn as we held the first ever mass conkers competition in school.  It was joyous and not a health and safety issue in sight!  Just students and staff (and a founder) having fun and enjoying a compelling day in education together – as every day in school should be.

The community in school is also being built around celebrating festivals and traditions and I made a point of my talk in London to illustrate how narrow the curriculum had become: so exam result and target driven in England to the point that many brilliant and much needed teachers have left the profession forever.  I have discussed the magic of seeing Heritage’s Golden Autumn festival, the International Maths Week and one of the best and most sophisticated global education weeks I have experienced in any school. So much so, that in London, the British Council honoured the international work and commitment of the school with a special award and only last week in Cannes, my colleague and global education coordinator, Tatiana Popa, received a prestigious Etwinning prize, surpassing 100s of schools across Europe for this stunning honour.  This prize is for the students, teachers, school and for Moldova.  Both awards illustrate what we are doing here in our corner of Europe, taking meaningful education forward into the 2020s and showcasing the best of Moldova. 

It was with the same pride that I sat with the representative of the IB (International Baccalaureate) in the Ministry of Education a few weeks ago and discussed their innovative international curriculum for our Post 16 model.  In my November meeting with the Minister of Education I will be using the many examples of where we are creating something dynamic and relevant in global education in our communities for our young people.  In my weekly routines there are three moments in the week, outside of the daily greeting at the school gates of all students, colleagues and parents, I look forward to the most. The Teaching and Learning briefing always blows me away, with the incredible and compelling work teachers are doing in the classrooms every day.  I love the assemblies in school and a long-time favourite of mine, whether running a large 6th Form or as Principal of Wyedean School is to talk with students about the issues of the day, our values and how they could approach and solve issues.  We are definitely smashing the false binary choice that has been the standard fare for the last decade in these moments, as we continue to develop critical thinking in our young people.   Which brings me to my third moment:  My Thursday afternoon class of upper school critical thinking.  I cannot wait for this generation to start leading when the baton gets handed to them.  To this end, I am also grateful to my wider community of parents for giving up their precious time to come into school and either give talks about their work in fields from diplomacy to international charities or just to come and support the school community with activities or parent voice.

Building any community takes time.  I have recently given an interview to the British Council in SE Asia about leadership and organisation in schools.  We spoke a lot about school culture and the power it has over strategy, and what I kept returning to is the importance of school community and the way we build it in the same way as culture; in the everyday things we say and do. The common purpose, shared values and ability to allow a framework for individuality and space is key to all the successful communities. 

I spent time with family in mid Wales this Autumn and not only was it good to be walking up Welsh mountains (don’t mention the rugby World Cup in Japan) or being by the sea, but when we had the community together carving pumpkins or seeing the interactions in small Welsh towns in cafes or shops it brought it home how important it is to build a community.  Even the Halloween “Trick or Treat” my wife and I took our kids on showed how valuable and enjoyable a community spirit can be and the hope it gives for the future for our own children and those of friends, families and the ones we teach.

Dr King asked, “what are we doing for others?” and this Autumn one of his followers who heard that call and went on to ensure he was using his voice and agency for those that needed it in his city of Baltimore, Elijah Cummings, passed away after a long and distinguished service in public life and in the Congress of the USA. The generation who picked up the baton from Dr King and served the wider community is best epitomised by the former Chicago community activist and first black president of the USA, Barack Obama. Former President Obama spoke these words in his oration at the funeral of Elijah Cummings: “I tell my daughters…being a strong man includes being kind. That there’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others”.  With just two months remaining of this second decade of the 21st century and looking forward for the hope and optimism of the 2020s to face the real challenges in our local and global societies, the need for strong communities in schools and society has never been more urgent and we need to not only look out for others but to also ensure we are doing things for others. For all our sakes but especially for those who come after us next.  This is why we build communities. It is the most powerful human construction we can make and it is a worthy legacy to pass on.

Rob Ford

Enjoying the harvest

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