Community agreements, also called classroom or discussion agreements, are very useful for creating a respectful and supportive learning environment. Some faculty share a pre-made list, others invite students to co-create the agreements by offering a handful to start and then asking students what other issues all in the class should agree to. Community agreements are most often established at the beginning of the semester but they can be introduced and updated at any time.
Community Agreements serve to:
- Ensure that all voices are heard. They create a space that values speaking from one’s own experience, not expecting someone to speak for an entire identity group. It asks that students speak only for themselves and from their lived experience
- Provide a framework to address tense or loaded topics in a way that is equitable, listening to and valuing all voices and viewpoints, whether or not we agree
- Clarify expectations of how the community of learners–students and faculty–agrees to be with each other as a community over the course of the semester
- Provide a tool of accountability for the entire class, including the instructor
- Allow a class to add or edit agreements to adapt to changing or challenging social interactions
Below are some common and effective community agreements. Also these are other examples of community agreements from New School colleagues and others.
- We will make “I” statements: I can speak only from what I know, I think, I feel, I hear, as in ‘I heard you say’ rather than ‘well, you said’, which is an invitation to an argument rather than an opening to discussion. Because ‘I heard you say’ is usually followed by ‘Well, that’s not what I meant…’ Which gets us to
- Recognize intent, acknowledge impact: Because while your intent may have been benign or even supportive, if the impact was hurtful, offensive, dismissive of another’s experience and what they were communicating, then intent, while relevant perhaps, is superseded by its impact.
- One mic: only one person is talking at one time, which is directly related to the next one…
- Practicing active listening. This means rather than thinking about what you are going to say in response, actually focusing on what’s being said and then asking yourself, does something need to be said here? And am I the one to say it?
- Make no assumptions: People do; it’s human nature, but it’s important not speak or act based on those likely erroneous assumptions.
- Cultivate a brave space: We cannot guarantee student safety from unintended hurtful remarks, from ugly images, from painful history. But as a community of learners, we can agree to be brave in the face of those challenges, we can agree to be uncomfortable and brave together through these other practices.
- Be respectful – of your own feelings and those of others, as well as of all races, cultures, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions, class backgrounds, abilities, body sizes and perspectives when speaking.
- Move up, move up: If you usually don’t share much, challenge yourself to share more; if you find yourself sharing more than others, challenge yourself to listen more.
- Recognize your own and others’ privilege – When entering a space, when speaking or not speaking, be aware of privilege based on many forms of identity. At the same time, don’t assume the identity of others. (“Make no assumptions.”)
- Honor confidentiality: We will share the learning but not who said what.
- Honor silence and time for reflection: This also allows time for others to move up their speaking. Practice W.A.I.T.: why am I talking?
- Agree to disagree, but not to disengage: Listen with the intent of understanding. You do not have to agree or believe anything shared; your job is to listen for understanding. Disagree with the statement, not the person if you must disagree.
- Ask questions: And listen to–and hear–the responses
- We can’t be articulate all the time: We will all make mistakes, faculty and students. Acknowledge that if/when we cause harm or make a mistake, we hope we all can agree to engage with each other with grace and understanding and not with accusations.
- No one knows everything, we all know something and together we know a lot. This sort of community agreement reminds students of their roles as contributors, and that their faculty are continuing to learn, too.
Some additional suggestions:
- Acknowledge the liveliness of language – As an example, “you guys” may be intended as gender neutral but may not be received as such; the term “queer” can be offensive to one person and essential for another.
- Suspend status – We are all partners in our quest for insight and understanding, and we each have different areas of expertise.
- Expect and accept non-closure. There is often no easy solution, and we can expect to remain in uncertainty and with the need to continue to dialogue and explore.
- Stay present; take care of yourself – Truly engaging can be challenging and vulnerable.