We often use the word community as a name, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of Make community, especially since we are tentatively and cautiously returning to face-to-face meetings and conferences.
I lead the participation of our college in AACTE Special Ed NIC (the field of education likes acronyms). Put simply, this means the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education reducing the shortage of special education teachers in community improvement network. I realize this is a mouthful. Let’s start with the NIC part. So what exactly is a networked improvement community? The short definition is “an intentionally designed social organization, each with a distinct problem-solving goal.” A major element and an advantage of a network card is to be in the community and to work together, make community.
One of the first things I did when I returned to BU full time in October was attend an in-person AACTE meeting in Washington on October 1st. First of all, it was really nice to have a sudden change. I needed a difficult transition. My last day in town hall was Thursday September 30th and Friday October 1st I had a Lyft driver at 4am to pick me up from my house and drop me off at Logan Airport and I was on a flight and en route to DC Reagan National. By 8am, I had checked into the Eaton Hotel on K Street and headed to DuPont for an alfresco breakfast in Kramer (a nostalgic diversion). It was rush hour on a Friday in October. The streets and sidewalks were empty, a stark reminder that COVID-19 is still very much with us. As if the masks on the plane weren’t enough to remind him.
So what is this AACTE NIC? According to AACTE website, “This NIC aims to address the problem of the shortage and lack of diversity of fully prepared and accredited special education teachers in public schools across the country.” It’s an important job and I’ll probably talk about it more in future posts, but what I really want to share today is the experience of the joy of being in person again, of being in community.
For your information, our college’s participation in this network improvement community was a bit late. The cohort started in the summer of 2019 and we were invited to join us in January 2020. The rest of the NIC members met in person in the fall of 2019 and when we had planned to meet in person in the spring 2020, as we all know it, the world of in-person college meetings has come to a standstill.
I was missing the in-person connection that really helps cement a cohort experience. Although not all institutions were able to make it to DC in October, representatives from most of the 11 participating institutions were there. On a personal level, I also got to see one of my team members that I had been working with since Fall 2019 and although we had been meeting weekly via zoom since March 2020, she was out of the state everything time and completed his MBA remotely. It was so wonderful to see each other in person! It was an unexpected and unexpected moment of joy. It was also really wonderful to see people from other NIC member institutions in person for the first time.
The academic field of teacher preparation is predominantly female and many of the women present at this meeting also had young, unvaccinated children at home. For the majority, this was their first plane trip during the pandemic, and for most of us, it was our first in-person meeting or conference. The mood was cautious but also grateful and strangely uplifting. We spent a day and a half sharing successes and challenges. It was powerful. Much of our goal was to recruit and retain a variety of special education teacher candidates. Creative solutions were shared, as were common obstacles. Many establishments are facing a decline in registrations. Many have also experienced reductions in staff and teachers over the past 18 months.
On an individual level, many of us have also experienced COVID-related deaths – in our professional and personal communities. There was an underlying seriousness and a dark tone to our laughter and smiles behind the masks. There was also a bit of savoring the moments together, knowing that we might face another quite distant time in the not-so-distant future. It was community-based and it was like we were doing community work. The NIC met again pretty much last week and we were able to pick up some of that closeness that we developed when we were together in person in early October, signaling a bit of – I know you! I met you! We spent time together and shared stories.
I’m writing this as COVID-19 rates rise and I’m about to attend three days of an annual in-person meeting here in Boston for our regional accreditation body, NECHE. I’m excited to see colleagues in person that I haven’t seen in years! I will be double masking like I do the community.
And you? Do you attend conferences in person?
Marie churchill is the former Chief Policy and Planning Officer of City of Boston Mayor Kim Janey and current Associate Dean for Policy Initiatives and Community Engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in Times of Crisis and an ICF Certified Leadership Coach.