Building School Community by Empowering Students

By: Stanley Pollack

The disruptive behavior of some students can be a top concern of middle school teachers, administrators, and parents in many schools. While time is spent considering approaches to decreasing behavioral incidents, important goals also include focusing on increasing attendance and creating a productive learning environment for students. Here are some ideas to consider as you create a school culture that engages all students as positive, productive members of the community.

Building Community in Your School
I think we can all agree that a strong sense of community within a school is important—but how do we go about effectively building community? First, we need to understand that a strong community is created by weaving bonds of understanding and caring among individuals.

The Center for Teen Empowerment has developed an interactive methodology that functions to build deep levels of communication and trust among groups of children, teens, and adults. Any school can incorporate this approach by making the commitment to work skillfully throughout the school year to engage students in activities that help them learn each other’s names, share information about their backgrounds, and talk about their hopes and dreams. The result is a school where students have the context they need to see each other as human beings who deserve respect.

Involving Student Leadership
The best way to achieve this result is to recruit and engage a broad range of students to work as partners with faculty in facilitating these community-building activities. By “a broad range of students,” I mean that the leadership group should include students who are most likely to be involved in negative behaviors as well as students who would more typically be tapped for leadership positions.

Integrating students who are having difficulty with those who are experiencing more success allows those who are doing well to influence those who are not. It also gives the leadership group the credibility needed to positively influence the school culture across the board.

What Might It Look Like?
Picture an assembly with students and teachers speaking about their lives and talking about their hopes for the coming year. Maybe there’s a skit with role reversals—students act as teachers and teachers act as students. Perhaps there is a student speak-out, where audience members are asked to comment.

Then students return to classrooms or break into small groups where they spend a period engaged in interactive exercises that help them learn names, speak in pairs about their lives, brainstorm issues they face, and set goals for the year.

The Payoff
Of course, none of this is easy, but neither is teaching math, science, or English! In fact, teachers go through years of training and spend countless hours of in-school, after-school, and out-of-school time doing everything they can to help students learn. But when it comes to the essential component of building community in the school, though we agree that it’s important, we usually dedicate little or no resources to making it happen.

In our 23 years of experience at the Center for Teen Empowerment, we have repeatedly seen the major payoff for all elements of the school when community-building strategies, propelled by student leadership, are implemented. It’s an investment that is well worth the effort.

Stanley Pollack is the founder and executive director of the Center for Teen Empowerment, which works in Boston and Somerville, MA, and in Rochester, NY, and he is the author of Moving Beyond Icebreakers: An Interactive Approach to Group Facilitation, Learning, and Action.


8 comments on article "Building School Community by Empowering Students"

Fantastic article Mr. Pollack! Thank you for clarifying what it looks like to build community within a Middle School. I agree with the points you made about empowering teenagers and letting them lead in certain things. As a Boy Scout, I have seen this kind of community building firsthand. Under the guidance of adults, boys select their Senior Patrol Leader (boy head of the troop), Patrol Leaders, and Assistants to lead the troop in campouts, meetings, and achievements. The boys not only have to depend on each other, but they have to get to know each other on a personal level which builds a community of respect. As a teacher in training, I would love to emulate this concept in our Middle Schools today! Not only would it help with discipline, but it would make the general atmosphere more open and constructive for the students.-Daniel

2/16/2015 9:40 PM

What a wonderful article that you have written Mr. Pollack, you made many great points in your in your article! Your clarification on how to build a community within a Middle School was very helpful, you gave me many good examples that I can put in to my future school. I agree with the points you made about empowering teenagers and letting them lead in certain things. As being an Eagle Scout, I have been a part of a community-building activity. As my troop being scout lead, we had teenage leaders that made the decision on what we were going to do from the meetings to the camp outs we went on. With this type of leader ship we had to depend on each other to make the troop run and be successful. To do this we had to have respect for each other to make the right decisions. This also can be placed into team sport, On my football team are head coach had the seniors do a lot with the community, putting us in to small groups to do different things around the city, and at our football camps for the grade school students, he put us in charge and had us run different groups teaching us useful leadership skills that we will need in are everyday life. As a future teacher, I will keep this in my mind and take this concept into a Middle School that I might get a job at! Not only would building a community will help with discipline in the school, but it could make the atmosphere more open and constructive for the students.

Chad Wolf

2/22/2015 10:01 PM

Stanley Pollack,

I really enjoyed reading this article and it helped me think in a new way about getting a strong sense of community in schools. When I first the title of this article, I pictured the students in my middle school and high school that would have been empowered and they were all the "smart" kids that were the teachers favorites. I like how you said the best way to integrate this idea of a student lead community is by having a "broad range of students", which includes those that are not doing well in school or getting int trouble. It makes sense because if students see their fellow peers, both the "good" and "bad" kids, helping each other create a sense of community in the school, then those watching may catch fire and help the cause as well. As a future teacher, I find myself thinking of ways I can help students, but after reading this I know the better question is how can I empower students to help each other.

Logan Posson

2/23/2015 11:39 AM

First of all, thank you for writing this article. This definitely speaks to what we should be doing in our schools to get our students motivated and wanting to learn. Often times students are not able to have the autonomy of their education that they would like, so I definitely appreciate your ideas and examples on how we can empower and engage our students even more. I particularly like in this article that you state that this is truly successful with a "broad range of students." What better way to have our students learn than have them listen and defend their ideas and the ideas of others that?

2/23/2015 1:29 PM

Mr. Pollack,

This is a great article that emphasizes how important it is for students to feel a sense of community in their school. I attended a very small school, so as a result we had a built-in sense of community. Although I was a shy student, because I was more comfortable with my classmates and the staff, I was able to go out on a limb and take more risks than I would have in a different atmosphere. I genuinely believe that this sense of community helped me get the most out of my educational experience in middle school. As a future teacher, I am already starting to think about ways that I can turn my classroom into a learning community. This is an aspect of teaching that I am very passionate about, and I am glad you have highlighted it in this article!

-Johanna Brockhoff

2/23/2015 1:50 PM

So you talk about a building a sense of community in the school. This can be achieved by having students work together to develop a stronger bond. Perhaps integrating students of different behavioral types together so those who struggle with behavior can have models in those who perform better. This can results in better behavior and a better learning environment for the students.

I think you make some great points, Stanley! Students perform much better when they can cooperate with others well. It creates a sense of camaraderie and allows then to work together more effectively. At a middle school level, this could be implemented very well with the team model. Students in each team could learn how to best work with their team and develop a more personal connection to the student body they are apart of. They can more personally connect with a smaller section of students (their team) than with an entire grade level. It would be important to foster an inter-team relationship as well so as to not separate the two and create a student divide.

2/23/2015 5:21 PM

This article gives exceptional advise in what should be done in schools to keep students motivated and willing to be active learners. I personally think that involving students to work as partners with faculty in creating community-building activities is an awesome idea. Not only will the students learn from this experience but they will also have the opportunity to get to know the faculty better as well. I think that these ideas should be used in all Middle Schools today. The opportunities this would provide for students is endless.


4/18/2015 9:24 PM

Mr. Pollack,

I am a pre-service teacher studying at Kansas State University. I really enjoyed reading through the article! It helped me to renew my perspective on what strong community really looks like in schools. I first read the title and thought that the article would be tailored towards the "high IQ" students who wanted to be involved and leaders in the school anyways. I think a huge issue in today's schools is the lack of participation from all students. I like how you talked about the best ways to integrate this idea of a student lead community. I agree that the best way to accomplish this is by empowering those students that don't enjoy being at school and those students that aren't motivated to grow and improve. Students perform much better when they can cooperate with others well. It creates a sense of camaraderie and allows then to work together more effectively As a future teacher, I find myself thinking of ways I can help students. I am excited to see how I can incorporate these ideas into my classroom and empower all my students to create a powerful learning environment. Thanks!

4/19/2015 10:07 PM

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