Last October I had the privilege of co-chaperoning 100 Lincoln High School Abes on a trip to China as guests of President Xi Jinping.
Read that sentence again—it’s still mind blowing to me. Going to China was part of my job as a high school Mathematics teacher at a high-needs school in Tacoma, Washington. It has taken me months to reflect on my time and really find the heart of what I wanted to say about this trip.
You might think I’ll share how my students learned about themselves, broadened their worldview, pondered their own values and beliefs, and discovered a new love of travel. Or all about how we visited the Forbidden City and one of the seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall. But that’s not the story I want to share today.
This is about community--how schools must be the heart and center of our communities.
Almost as soon as President Xi invited our students, ‘how will this happen’ became our paramount question. Many of our students have never been outside Washington or even Tacoma, let alone on an airplane.
Amazingly, our principal’s office began to fill with rolling suitcases from community members and cameras donated for student use. A local church put together snack bags for students to take on their 12-hour flight across the ocean. A school neighbor who works for T-Mobile had phones with plans donated for chaperones on the trip. And all of this was just the beginning.
Alumni advocated for our students, encouraging the school to open the trip to students with a range of GPAs and from multiple grade levels. Alumni and China experts came to our school to talk with students about what they could expect, how to pack their bags, what shopping in a haggling culture looks like, and how to represent the Eastside of Tacoma on an international level. The owners of the East Asia Market not only helped to fund students’ needs but also joined us to act as liaisons with communities in Hong Kong and mainland China.
What we value and who we value inhabit the soul of any community and influence our students, creating the informed citizens of our future. Our students were humbled and overwhelmed by the generosity of their community. They felt the outpouring of love given to them as they embarked on their trip and were inspired to act in kind. On our flight home the students had already begun to plan ways they could be more welcoming and inclusive to the exchange students in our own building. They realized the need to expand their own definition of the Abe community.
As teachers, if we want to create great schools then we also need to intentionally create opportunities to invite the community into our classrooms and buildings. Schools must be the heart, the center of the community. As concerned citizens and community members, when we buy a new house we shouldn’t be asking “Are there good schools here?” but rather “Where is the nearest school?” and “What can I offer it?” Great schools should not be isolated from the communities they serve.
All kids deserve to be appreciated, supported, and challenged by their communities. Our trip to China is just one example of the massive impact a school-centered community can have on students.
So yes, I got to chaperone students on a trip to China. But, more importantly, my students saw in tangible ways that they are valued members of their communities and connected to their larger world. I know I must continue this journey by making my classroom one where the community is welcome and invited to join in.
I challenge you to consider - what types of school communities will you create?
Start now. It’s what our kids deserve.