Why Community Partners Need to be a Part of Your Classroom5 min read
I once had a dream to build an aquaponics garden in a greenhouse attached to my classroom. Aquaponics is a form of gardening that combines raising fish in tanks with traditional gardening. In aquaponics, the nutrient-rich water (fish poop) from raising fish provides a natural fertilizer for the plants in the garden, which then help to purify the water for the fish. It’s a really cool system that I wanted my students to build so that they could learn about gardening while raising fresh food for the local homeless shelter.
It sounded engaging for students and fun for me, so I got excited about it to make it happen.
So I started planning and found almost everything I needed for my students to build the garden in my workshop at home or at Home Depot. The only thing I could not find was a 500 gallon container to raise the fish in. For several months I searched Craigslist, local stores, and even the junkyard to find a giant plastic fish tank. No matter where I looked, My search came up empty. The only tanks I could find were $1000, and as a teacher, there was no way I could spend that kind of money, nor could I get my school to cough it up. When I announced to my class that unfortunately we would not be able to build the garden because I could not find a giant tank for the fish, one student raised her hand and said, “Oh my dad has a bunch of giant clear tanks at our house that he uses for his business. I’m sure he would give us one.”
“Wait, really? And you’re telling me this NOW? I’ve been searching for one for months!”
Sure enough, after checking in with her dad, he donated a 500 gallon tank to my classroom that we could raise fish in. This was after doing months of searching and almost giving up on the dream!
Parents are an invaluable resource.
This experience made apparent an invaluable resource I had at my disposal the entire time: the community. If you have 180 students in any given year, that means you have at least 180 parents, with 180 careers, 180 interests, and 180 favors you can ask. There is a common sentiment in teaching that this is an isolated career. Teachers may be surrounded by a bunch of students all day, but their connection with the outside world is limited and so they have to pull up their bootstraps and survive it on their own. What I began to learn when that student’s dad gave me the water tank and countless situations since is the invaluable resource the community can be for the classroom.
I started learning this by the resource my students’ parents were to me, but I quickly learned that it is not just the community directly connected to my classroom through their students who want to be invested in what is going on in schools.
Making Bold ‘Asks’
Here is a reality: for a number of reasons, the whole community wants to be a part of what you are doing in the classroom. First, your students have ideas, perspectives, and effort that the community can use. It is not a one-way street; your students can provide a benefit to the communities that they live in. Whether students are painting a mural at a local business, writing children’s books four kids at a local hospital, planting a community garden for a homeless shelter, or anything else that serves the community in some way, your students have desired skills and characteristics to contribute.
Additionally, and I’ll be frank, when local organizations, whether for-profit or non-profit, partner with teachers and classrooms, it looks good for them. It is positive PR to work with local schools. Businesses are often trying to find ways to connect with the communities that they operate in and can be a huge resource to donate goods, serve as guest speakers, provide resources, or just share their expertise with a class working on a project.
Aside from what community partners can give to classrooms, they also provide authenticity that makes the work students do realistic for them. This in turn makes their time in the classroom meaningful and therefore way more engaging.
Why aren’t school connected to community partners more?
So if the community can benefit from students, and students benefit from the community, why does it often feel like there is a divide between them? Why aren’t more schools intertwined with local organizations?
My guess is a lack of communication.
Teachers can and should boldly ask local organizations to be a part of what they’re doing in the classroom. Whether it is sending a mass email to parents or even cold calling or emailing an organization you found on Google, there does not need to be trepidation in making this connection. The truth is, I have never once as an educator been told, “No, I do not want to help your students” by anyone I’ve reached out to for help.
Again, this is because community partners want to be a part of the work your students are doing. They want to say yes. But very rarely will the community get in touch with you to offer their assistance. Whether it is fair or not, it’s the educator who often has to make that first connection. There is a classic adage used in the sales world that basically says, “You will never get what you want unless you first ask.”
So who can you reach out to and ask to work with your students? What person or organization could help take your class to the next level and provide authenticity and expertise? And what community partners are out there that needs you and your students?