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Guest Post: How a School Community is Like a Garden

September 7, 2015

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This post was written by Shannon Heighington a Brampton, Ontario based teacher in a Medically Fragile, Developmentally Delayed classroom. She also completed her Principal Qualification Program, (Part I). Full disclosure, in her spare time she helps me raise our children and not only tolerates but encourages me.

I feel a school is very much like a garden. I’m not speaking of the gardens of eras past where each row was tidy and specific. That image reminds me too much of the one room schoolhouse with each row and desk being assigned to a certain pupil based upon age or form alone.

NO, instead, I speak of the garden that has diversity within its numerous plants. While each plant may be heading in a different direction, they all share the same flowerbed. Some plants as they grow attract butterflies, others may be there for scents or visual aspects and still others could one day be on our own supper table.

Yet they all need the same basic care and opportunity to grow.

We often discuss in education the differences between being equal and being fair and once more the garden metaphor works in this capacity. For each member of the garden to succeed they have their own needs. Some individuals needs more water, others need less shade. Some plants work well beside others and other clash. The wise gardener knows that there is no book that will define the “right conditions” for each but that we can provide the best possible conditions through being a student of the environment, the climate and how each member interacts.

As a special education teacher for may years, I see this first hand. Some students might need more ISS/ESL support then others. Each child is an individual; not everyone is going to fit into boxes with all the boxes checked off.  Each child comes with their own history, their own ideas and their own stories.

If a plant, like a student, seems stagnant, it should be obvious that the growing conditions may need to be addressed.

A garden, like school, does not end at the edge of the flowerbed or school fence. Instead, it takes an entire community outside those defined boundaries to help in the success of the growth within.

It’s not just books or AQ courses or research articles one reads that help us bloom into educators and leaders. It’s the staff that has come from all different backgrounds that we can gain knowledge from. It’s all the administration that helps to shape the school. Some of the most important interactions we learn from are from other students in the school not just our classes. Parents play a very important role; they are the ones that give the backgrounds and struggles and successes they and their child has faced.  Given this information helps to guide us on how we interact with the students, or which type of programs we need to develop to help us to be more successful.

We cannot forget the community working with residents; local companies, municipalities and others all help to guide educators and students.

A few years ago working with the fields centre staff for the Peel Board in conjunction with a local high school and the City of Brampton, my IGLD students developed an Eastern Bluebird project.  This new idea program helped to teach them empathy and respect for the environment.  The local high school cut all the wood; for the bird house; the field centre staff came and helped the students use power tools to build the houses. Both schools took a hike near the school and hung the bird houses on city property.  Every day I had students coming in to school saying they saw birds and babies. This was a huge accomplishment for these students. They continued to check on the houses on their own and as a class.  They were so upset when a few of the houses were damaged by others. They wanted justice for the birds.  For some this was the first time they believed in themselves.

The field centre staff introduced a very vital aspect to our current concept of community. We may all live in the same neighbourhood; but we shop outside our community; we attend different faith based centres, if any… in fact. The last community hubs we have are green spaces and schools.

When we wake up in the morning to walk out the door, everything/one that we interact with through the day helps guide ourselves and those you come into contact with for their day as well.  A farmer or gardener who takes his or her role perhaps as a hobby rather than as a passion will no doubt see a less bountiful harvest after all.

There are so many educators who have helped me to blossom and could see when I started to wilt and were there to nourish my soul. No doubt these educators had had mentors who helped them to blossom as well.

I have always believed that students (and teachers alike) can accomplish anything if they have the right growing conditions, support and people to help guide them. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson “A weed is a wildflower whose attributes have not yet been discovered”.

And that is the greatest thrill of working in a school community, inside or outside – discovering those attributes in all.

Shannon is a middle school teacher in Brampton, Ontario and you can follow her on Twitter @shanheighington 

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