We often use the word “community” as a noun, but lately I have been thinking a lot about the process of doing community, especially as we tentatively and cautiously return to in-person convenings and conferences.
I lead our college’s participation in the AACTE Special Ed NIC (the field of education loves acronyms). Spelled out, that stands for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Reducing the Shortage of Special Education Teachers Networked Improvement Community. I realize that 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 focus.” A major component and benefit of a NIC is being in community and working together, doing community.
One of the first things I did when I returned to BU full-time in October was attend an in-person AACTE convening in D.C. on Oct. 1. First, it was really nice to have an abrupt change. I needed a hard transition. My last day at city hall was Thursday, Sept. 30, and on Friday, Oct. 1, I had a Lyft driver pick me up at my house at 4:00 a.m. and deposit me at Logan airport and I was on a flight and on my way to D.C. Reagan National. By 8:00 a.m. I had checked in to the Eaton Hotel on K Street and walked to DuPont for an outdoor breakfast at 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 hadn’t been enough reminder.
So what is this AACTE NIC all about? According to AACTE’s website, “This NIC aims to address the problem of the shortage and lack of diversity of fully prepared and credentialed special education teachers in public schools across the nation.” This is important work, and I’ll probably write more about it 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.
As a bit of background, our college’s participation in this network improvement community was a bit late. The cohort began in the summer of 2019, and we were invited to join in January 2020. The rest of the NIC members met in person in the fall of 2019, and while we had planned to gather in person in the spring of 2020, as we all know, the world of in-person academic gatherings shut down.
I had been missing the in-person connection that really helps to cement a cohort experience. While not every institution was able to make it to D.C. in October, representatives from most of the 11 participating institutions were there. On a personal level, I was also able to see one of my team members whom I had been working with since fall 2019, and while we have been meeting weekly via Zoom since March 2020, she has been out of state the entire time and finished her M.B.A. remotely. It was so wonderful to see one another in person! It was an unanticipated and unexpected moment of joy. It was also really wonderful to see folks from the other NIC member institutions in person for the first time.
The academic field of teacher preparation is overwhelmingly female, and many of the women in the room at this convening 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 convening or conference. The mood was cautious but also appreciative and strangely exhilarating. We spent a full day and a half sharing success stories and challenges. It was powerful. Much of our focus was on recruiting and retaining diverse teacher candidates to the field of special education. Creative solutions were shared, as were common barriers. Many of the institutions are facing enrollment declines. Many have also experienced staff and faculty reductions during the past 20 months.
On an individual level, many of us had also experienced COVID-related deaths—in both our professional and personal communities. There was an underlying seriousness and somber tone to our laughter and the smiles behind the masks. There was also a bit of savoring the moments together, knowing that we might be facing another all-remote period in the not-too-distant future. It was communal and felt like we were doing the work of community. The NIC met again virtually last week, and we were able to pick up a bit 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 write this as COVID-19 rates are rising and I am about to attend three days of an in-person annual meeting here in Boston for our regional accreditation body, NECHE. I am excited at the prospect of seeing colleagues in person that I have not seen in years! I’ll be double masking as I do community.
How about you? Are you attending conferences in person?
Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic 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 a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.