At my daughter's “back to school night,” I had the opportunity to follow her exact sequence of classes, from first period homeroom, through seventh period. A slogan on the board of her homeroom class read, “Our classroom is a community.” Mr. Braxton, her homeroom teacher, introduced himself to the assembled parents and started to speak about community.
“In life, we’re surrounded by communities,” he said. “From the classroom to our neighborhoods, we’re a part of many different communities.”
Braxton made the following points about his classroom:
- Everyone comes from different backgrounds and brings unique perspectives
- Everyone should be respected
- The actions of each individual affects the entire classroom
He then told parents of his assigned homework: each student was to think about principles that they want to uphold in the classroom. He asked students to have a parent contribute a principle. The class would discuss the list of principles and collectively build a “class covenant,” which will serve as a guide for the class for the school year.
If the classroom is a community, then Mr. Braxton is a fine community manager.
When I look back upon my favorite teachers (Mr. O’Connor in fifth grade tops my list), I can see ways in which they served as fine community managers.
1. Find the Right Balance of Time and Attention
A classroom might have 20-30 students, while an online community might have 1,000+ members. The time spent by teachers and community managers is a zero sum game: the time spent with one person is time you CANNOT spend with another.
Teachers can spend 30 minutes of one-on-one time helping a student with reading. But that’s 30 minutes they’re not able to spend with the other 20 plus students. Community managers face the same scenario. Just as teachers do, it’s essential to find the right balance in applying your time and energy across the entire community.
A teacher may ask advanced readers to help a less advanced reader. Similarly, community managers may ask longstanding members to help onboard new ones.
2. Don’t Let Bad Apples Spoil Things for the Rest
A classroom may have disruptive kids. An online community may have trolls. Both conditions can wreak havoc. A classroom with a disruptive child minimizes learning opportunities, while a community with trolls discourages activity and encourages abandonment.
Both teachers and community managers know that the solution is NOT a one-time action. Instead, they must proactively address these issues on an ongoing basis. Removing a child from the class or deleting the trolls’ accounts may provide short term relief, but it’s not a long term solution. Proactive and ongoing management requires more work, but is more sustainable.
3. Plan to Do Some Parenting
It’s a fact of life: teachers and community managers need to serve as parents from time to time. Disputes need to be resolved and arbitrated. Accidents may require clean-up and first aid. You’ll need to ensure that the basic needs of the classroom and community are met, whether it’s information, learning or just having fun.
4. Create Individualized Learning and Engagement Paths
Mr. Braxton's approach to teaching includes understanding each child's personality, as well as learning style (e.g. visual, logical, experiential, etc.). Based on this understanding, he devises an individualized learning path for each student.
Online communities are larger than your average classroom, so such an approach is not scalable for community managers. However, community managers can map members to particular categories, then apply community management practices towards each category.
For instance, if a portion of your population prefers audio or video content, try doing weekly podcasts or video hangouts to capture their attention.
5. Find Creative Ways to Spur Involvement and Engagement
One teacher plays music in the classroom while her students work. Another models Google’s “20% time” to allow students to do independent research around a topic of their choosing (he then asks students to write blog posts based on their research, an idea that I love).
These are examples of creative ways teachers get their students interested, involved and engaged. Community managers need to develop similarly creative ideas to spur engagement.
Communities are the center of our lives. While community managers spend most of their waking hours managing their online communities, it can be helpful to take a step outside and think about the offline communities we’re a part of. How we manage our offline communities can provide important lessons to apply to our online communities.
If you’re looking to supplement your community management team, I’m happy to ask Mr. Braxton if he’s available when school’s not in session.