Alistair Goold highlights the importance of building community relationships both inside schools and outside
Building community and enhancing wellbeing are increasingly important aspirations for many international schools. Visions, missions and values are carefully considered in order to cultivate learning environments where positive relationships between students, teachers and parents can culminate in successful and meaningful learning. However, community is an abstract concept that is often poorly defined, and the more ill defined our conceptualisation is, the less impact our efforts for growth will have in our organisations. Insufficient understanding of what community means often impairs such progress, resulting in many well intended efforts for community health often never being fully realised.
How should we as international schools define community? If we are serious about building community - and enhancing wellbeing - we need to embrace conceptual complexity. With unique diversities and transience in our schools, we need to arrive at thoughtful and concrete definitions. Clear definitions bring clarity, and more significantly, allow us to measure progress.
For some, community is defined as ‘community of place’, where we identify with those who come from the same geographical location as ourselves. This may be local, regional or national (and often manifests in support for sporting teams). Anderson, in his 1983 text ‘Imagined Communities’, provides insights into such mental constructs. We may never meet most of the fellow members of our home nations, yet in the minds of each lives a shared image of communion. A shared history and culture helps people to distinguish who is, and who is not, part of their community. The ‘community of place’ definition can be problematic for international schools, as although we may be located in a geographical location, we are not ‘local’ and our function is not to serve the local neighbourhood - our concept of community is more abstract.
For others, there is ‘community of interest’ which transcends ‘community of place’. This is not defined by a physical space, rather, it is something that unites people over a common bond. ‘Community of interest’ occurs when people share common interests or passions. With the advent of the internet, such communities, with their support and exchange of ideas, have grown exponentially. This form of community often lends itself to existing online and may lack the real world interaction that so many of us are hardwired to seek. This definition of community is closer to what many of our staff and students experience.
“Community is both a feeling and a set of relationships among people. People form and maintain communities to meet common needs.” (Lee & Chavis, 2015, p.4)
Research has shown that third culture kids (TCKs) define their belonging more in terms of personal relationships than with regards to geographical locations (de Waal & Born, 2021). For TCKs, community is not a place. It is not a physical building. It is not just a shared identity or an online forum. Community is how our students feel about each other. It is their relationships with one another. Community happens when their individual needs are fulfilled and when a sense of belonging is fostered. It happens when positive interpersonal relations are cultivated. Communities flourish when each individual finds a sense of belonging.
In recent decades, western society has seen a decline in the quality of relationships that people experience. The 2004 Wellbeing Manifesto by Shah and Marks identified that the relationship between economic growth and wellbeing isn’t as straightforward as what many had previously assumed. Wealthy nations do not necessarily produce happy citizens. This is evident by the fact that in the UK, GDP has grown over the last 40 years but life satisfaction has not. This echoes the work of the economist and Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen (1999) who argued that measuring the development of a nation cannot be linked only to GDP. For Sen, freedom and wellbeing should be both the means and the end to a nation's development.
“For most of human history, trying to understand what led to well-being was the stuff of philosophy or poetry.” (Shah & Marks, 2004, p. 4)
How can restorative practices improve community health?
Schools need evidence-based strategies to optimise community health and wellbeing of both staff and students. Research shows that restorative practices (RP) can help to strengthen relationships and build community, allowing members to flourish and enhancing a sense of community. People who feel part of healthy communities are more likely to thrive, collaborate with others and make positive contributions.
Restorative practices can support community wellbeing both psychologically and socially. By embracing restorative philosophy in our policies, modelling the restorative approach in our behaviours and equipping young people with restorative mechanisms and approaches, we can help them foster healthy, flourishing relationships. As Csikszentmihalyi states (see Dodge et al, 2012), happiness must be prepared for, cultivated and defended. Therefore we must equip individuals if we are to take their wellbeing and inner equilibrium seriously. Evidence indicates that when schools focus on grades alone, this has negative impacts on our students’ creativity and innovation. Students need to be valued for who they are as opposed to the exam results that they achieve. RP provides institutions with a toolkit to achieve this.
In an increasingly online world, RP can offer proactive ways to build positive real world relationships. In situations where harm has been caused, it can offer mechanisms to promote relational justice. Whether it be through restorative conversations, circles, victim-offender mediation or family group decision making conferences. The use of restorative practices helps to improve behaviour, reducing both bullying and violence and enhancing social capital. Conflict is not something to be solved by professionals, rather, it is something to be possessed by our students as we empower them for lifelong learning, which can lead to a strengthening of civil society.
As internationally minded institutions, perhaps it is about time that we looked to non-western approaches to relationships and restoration. RP, with its roots in indigenous cultures across the globe, provides us with this. As an emerging social science with an increasing body of supporting literature - RP can help to achieve a vision for community, equity, inclusion and justice by building social capital and achieving social discipline through participatory learning. The restorative model provides us with a unique opportunity to build community and enhance wellbeing - however we choose to define it.
Anderson, B. R. O. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Rev. and extended ed.). Verso.
de Waal, M. F., & Born, M. P. (2021). Where I’m from? Third Culture Kids about their cultural identity shifts and belonging. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 83, 67–83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2021.04.004
Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i3.4
Lee, K. C. D. M., & Chavis, D. M. (2015, May 12). What Is Community Anyway? (SSIR). Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/what_is_community_anyway#
Sen A. Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred Knopf; 1999.
Shah, H., & Marks, N. (2004). A well-being manifesto for a flourishing society. London: The New Economics Foundation. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from https://b.3cdn.net/nefoundation/813660812dc0c82af5_vkm6vve98.pdf