Every day that I’m out buying groceries or getting gas or grabbing a bite to eat, I run into one of my students or someone who knows me from the school I teach at, Cross Keys High School. I live in the same neighborhood where the feeder middle school, Sequoyah, and one of the feeder elementary schools, Cary Reynolds, is located, and I’m only ten minutes away from my work. The location couldn’t be more perfect.

People always ask me, “How do you have time to do all the things you do?” and I always respond, “It’s about synergies.” Many teachers live in one community, teach in another community, and often recreate in yet a different community. In order to be actively involved in all three – and to have an interior life – one would have to resolve to never sleep. However, when all three occur in the same space, more time is freed up to actually invest one’s self into a community in a meaningful way.

Instead of spending 2-3 hours a day driving into your place of work, imagine if you only spent 20 minutes? You would have 2.5 hours more to actually live instead of fight insanity in traffic.

Instead of awkwardly trying to get to know your students while never truly understanding their community, imagine if your students lived next door? (For many of us, that seems a bit too scary – but hang with me.) How much better would you understand your students if you shopped where they shopped, walked where they walked, visited the parks that they visit?

Instead of trying to be involved in your community’s interests, with little time left over to watch your students’ music or athletic events, imagine if your community was their community, and that by investing in your community, it meant you were investing in your students’ community simultaneously?

For many teachers, the benefit is not apparent on its face; however, if you examine more closely the positive effects of these actions, I believe teachers will see just how much more effective and fulfilling it is to live, work, and play in one community.

There are several benefits that I believe extend into the classroom, and they are:

  1. The more you know your students, the more you can understand how to engage them in learning. As former President Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” This should be the foundation of all pedagogy. You can achieve much deeper levels of care and compassion when you are integrated into the community of the students you teach. I’m not saying that you can’t demonstrate your interest in their lives if you don’t live next door, but the level at which you will be able to understand them will be significantly increased if you don’t live in a completely different community with completely different people.

    community discussions
    Students engage with community leaders and public officials at Plaza Fiesta as they discuss their class projects.
  2. Students see you as a real person. Some of us probably don’t want to see our students outside of school. We like it that way. However, if you could live your life in such a way that it wouldn’t matter if your students saw you in the grocery store, imagine what effect that could have on them. For many students who live in homes that experience poverty, they are not exposed to individuals who have gone to college and established careers. When they see you – their teacher – being a normal human being doing things that normal people do, they begin to see things differently. Their “norm” becomes different. Likewise, you — a middle-class teacher — begin to rethink the way that you see “normal,” and you are able to understand more clearly the incredible breadth of human experience. The more that we can see the commonalities and the differences between “us” (teachers) and “them” (students), the more likely our students are to think that teachers are real people who do real things – that they aren’t just robots who don’t understand the “real world.” You become even more relevant to them, which encourages them to think that what you’re teaching might actually be relevant.
  3. You have more time to live. Many teachers that have children want to be involved in both the lives of their students and the lives of their own children, and that is often a hard balance. If your children’s school district is the same as the school district you teach in, when you advocate on behalf of one, you are also advocating on the behalf of the other. Instead of needing twice as much time, you can accomplish much more in less time.

For example, when I advocate on behalf of Cary Reynolds Elementary and its overcrowding issues, I am doing that because the current students who attend there deserve better conditions. Simultaneously, I am also advocating for the school that my two daughters will most likely attend. In this case, I can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

In addition to this, when I teach my students to be community activists and to speak up for what they would like to see in their neighborhood, I am also empowering and speaking up alongside my students in their advocacy efforts. For me, I am already going to go to public meetings – why not mentor my students while at the same time personally attending these meetings with them and their families?

doraville meeting
Students attend a Design Doraville Comprehensive Planning meeting, discussing character areas, affordable housing, and zoning with community members, public officials, and planning engineers.

Everyone has to live somewhere. Many people don’t understand how they can have time to be a social advocate while simultaneously juggling a job, personal time, and family; however, if you choose your home to intentionally be a part of your students’ community, you can increase your understanding and relevance just by existing in your neighborhood. When you invite your neighbor over to dinner, you are learning about your students and their community while at the same time enjoying friendship in the same way you would if you lived somewhere else.

Do you want to break down the wall that exists between you and your students? Join them in living.

working with kids
After enjoying dinner with friends, my daughter paints birdhouses with kids in the neighborhood in one of the apartments. The evening was hosted by Presencia, Inc., a non-profit which seeks to teach children how to lead with love. Also present was Judy Dominick, a local blogger/writer who writes about racial reconciliation.