The Five Buddha Families – Community

 I was first introduced to the Five Buddha Families by my teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman: Buddha (Spirituality), Vajra (Study), Ratna (Livelihood), Padma (Community), and Karma (Social Action). Together, they constitute the Mandala[1] of our lives.

The five Buddha are a way of thinking about our lives, and we can use them to assess our individual balance. Bernie also used them as a tool for organizational design. I was and am inspired.

In this fourth installment of a five part series, I explore the role of Padma (Community)  to both my practice, and to Integration Charter Schools. 

The Sangha, the community of practitioners, is one of three major elements of Zen — along with Buddha (the teacher) and the Dharma (the teaching). As a Zen student, I was never much of a Sangha guy, even as president of the Zen Community of New York. I wanted to come to the Zendo to do my practice and study and get back to my life. I was never really one for potluck suppers.

But, the idea of community has been central to what we have been about in building our schools at ICS. Creating a community of educators (and as we grow, a community of people sharing in the education enterprise), building a  sense of community among our students, becoming a meaningful part of the Staten Island community.

Perhaps the idea of the community of students came first as we began to consider what it would mean to fully integrate students living with special challenges with general education students; how to bring everyone to the societal table, and to level the playing field. We envisioned that the opportunity to be part of a diverse student community would provide a crucial learning laboratory for all students, all of whom would be advantaged as adults by a comfort and an ability to collaborate with diverse peers. We designed programs, including our signature Wellness Curriculum, to focus on the challenges of diversity. And, we designed the curriculum, — College Prep for All — to avoid the unthinking, stereotypical mental processes that lead to tracking.

We are succeeding.

Students are graduating at high rates and with high rates of college acceptance.

Now, we face a new challenge.

How can we help out graduates continue to support each other as they face the challenges of college?

I have always been a team player. I preferred team sports, and I loved being part of a theater troop in college. When I got my first job in psychiatry, I was thrilled to escape from the outpatient clinic office to which most of my colleagues aspired, to escape to the team environment of inpatient work. So, it’s no wonder that when we started our schools, I was attracted to the idea that education is a team game. Working with each student, it is the team of teachers who enable the student to grow and transform over a period of years.

And so, in our schools, it is the teams of teachers, organized by grade and subject, which are the decision making units. For teachers who would like to be able close the classroom door, to be left alone to do whatever they deem best, our schools have never been the place. Our classroom doors are open. Teachers are encouraged to observe each other, learn from each other, to steal best practices.

Our most important professional development practice, teacher observation, is a peer process. The principal or other leaders are only one voice in sharing observations.[1]

Currently, we are adapting this peer observation/development process to other staff groups including counselors, teacher assistants, and school aides.  As part of our hiring process, prospective teachers are invited to teach demo lessons while being observed by a group of peers. and then to participate in a self-evaluation of the lesson utilizing the same rubric used by the faculty for professional development.

We are looking to hire teachers who engage in this process with genuine openness and eagerness to learn and grow. Those are the teachers who will thrive in our schools. At the same time, we are challenging all school aides and teacher assistants to become teachers. We are providing tuition assistance. We are attempting to build a community without caste barriers.

From our first charter, we have committed our schools to using our economic resources (small at first but growing every year) to strengthen the Staten Island community by doing business locally whenever possible. We have encouraged and supported teachers in building civic participation into the curriculum ,and have provided opportunities for student participation within the community — participating in the annual breast cancer walk, raising money, and participating in food drives.

We have encouraged faculty and staff to get involved in local civic organizations and to network with community leaders. We designed the New Ventures curriculum with a heavy emphasis on field learning opportunities and student internships which contribute to the social and economic viability of the community while providing inspiring learning opportunities for our students.

From the beginning, we have emphasized openness and transparency. No surprise that I have championed the open architecture of our administrative office. Respecting a desire for privacy, I will go into our conference room when someone wants to speak to me there, but I have no secrets. Key staff sit at desks around me overhearing discussions that are going on at my desk and correcting mistakes that I am making.

I really don’t make decisions. I get ideas, some good, some terrible. Other people get ideas, some good, some terrible.

We gather small groups of people who have stakes in a decision around the desk and talk. We get different points of view. Sometimes we reach a consensus. Sometimes we don’t. We don’t need unanimity. We are not in a hurry to make difficult decisions. Sometimes the decision-making process takes days, sometimes weeks. My opinions change. I am not always in agreement with the decisions which emerge.

Our growth has provided both opportunities and challenges. As we have grown, our ability to have an impact economically has grown. In the Staten Island economy, we are now a pretty big business. But our increased size has also made it more difficult to preserve the intimacy which we enjoyed nine years ago. In our first two years, we were able to hold our  annual holiday party in Evelyn’s living room. Now, there are few venues on Staten Island which can accommodate us. Sometimes separate parties for each school seem more feasible.

What once could be left to informal processes now requires more structure.  This year for the first time we wrote down our values. We created a Values Team, selecting a faculty group because they had already found their “dream job” in one of our schools.

We asked them, “What makes this your dream job?” They responded with an articulation of our values which captured what we had been feeling but hadn’t bothered to write down. We have begun to use these values to shape rubrics for evaluating job applicants and are experimenting with utilizing then to structure Teacher Assistant evaluations.

Recently, as we began to plan for a second Staten Island campus (our first three schools are all located at the Teleport), we have begun to explore the possibility of creating faculty housing. Can we create an Education Village? Could a pre-school be part of the village? It is too early to tell if this dream will actually be realized, but the possibility reminds me of the evolution of Bernie’s work at Greyston. Beginning from the base of the bakery, Greyston created employee housing and eventually day care. It is, after all, part of a logic of community — of taking good care.

We are a community. We are committed to every student and to that student’s pathway to college. This is more important than our commitment to any set of rules. The rules are there as guidelines.

Our most important measure of school leadership is the ability to find the idiosyncratic solutions to the bureaucratic obstacles which would otherwise derail our kids.

Our commitments to every member of our team are more important than our allegiance to bureaucratic rules. If we work together long enough, — and we hope that we will — everyone us of will go through personal and family crises which will impact our ability to function effectively at work. How we support each other through these crises is how we measure ourselves as a family, as a community, as a Sangha.

[1] Our schools all use observational framework developed by Charlotte Danielson for collecting objective data on teaching in a fully transparent rubric. (For several years, we experimented with using this observational process to determine teacher performance ratings and compensation. But we have found that professional growth is enhanced when the professional development process is detached from performance rating and salary determination.)