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Like a Family

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Guest Post by Zac Chase

The title of Chapter 6 from A Year at Mission Hill, "Like a Family," speaks volumes -- more than might be apparent at first glance. Key here -- and key in schools that strive to see, nourish, challenge, and understand the whole child -- is the attempt to be like a family. When we do so, educators must keep a constant eye on and acknowledge the fact that, no matter how close we get, the best we can do is be "like" a family, rather than attempting to be the family of those present.

This is a positioning of school that makes it unique as a threshold experience. Still living and dependent upon their families and guardians, students are offered up by those same adults to schools for brief tastes of what life as individuals might look and feel like. Families, as a professor of mine once put it, are saying, "Here. This is my best. Please take care of it."

By contrast, the best schools can do is attempt to move toward their own goals while trying to create an environment that is akin to, but not the same as, an actual functional family.

One type of organization that finds its way into this synthetic family is the team. Students find themselves working with and alongside others who they may or may not know outside of school. They must meet group objectives, individual objectives and form a community worth nurturing while navigating their own self-development.

This is no easy task.

Most helpful for understanding this process is Bruce Tuckman's framework for the stages of group development: "forming, storming, norming, and performing." Similarly, there's this piece from Gina Abudi who adds "adjourning" as a fifth and final component.

Students, of course, have been living within the dynamics of their families since they were born. Yet while certain pieces of Tuckman's stages were likely to be found in students' home lives, school is the place where they will be encounter the dynamics of group processes from start to finish.

It makes sense, as we see in Chapter 6, to align that team-forming process as closely as possible to what students might recognize from their own families. When this happens, schools deploy a social version of Lev Vgotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. Working with these new friends will be similar to the interactions they experience with their families, and will ask them to grow a bit through the discomfort of the change.

Because Mission Hill pays such admirable attention to the development and growth of its teachers, any conversation of a familial environment is equally concerned with the needs of children and adults.

As 4th and 5th Grade Teacher James McGovern mentioned, his school is a place that asks him to challenge his previous thinking, and "let go of things that don't work well." Indeed, one of the best lessons Mission Hill has learned from families is the importance of having tough conversations. And no one has outlined this process as succinctly and insightfully as George Lakey in his book Facilitating Group Learning. Lakey highlights the importance of disagreements and arguments in group learning, pointing out that many adults will avoid such conversations or not know what to do with themselves when they find themselves in the middle of disagreements.

Schools aren't families -- but they come close. The best schools take the best pieces of family life and operationalize them for students and teachers alike so that they might foster closeness while preparing their charges for the world beyond.

Zac Chase is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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