Doing or Being? Discovering Classroom Communities: Part 1

Keith Duffy

The following is the first installment of a two-part article. Part one asks the question: Must teachers always actively “build” classroom communities, or can communities reveal themselves without us exerting our power? Part two, to be published presently, will examine the general philosophy behind Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s book The Spirituality of Imperfection which answers that question in a surprising—and perhaps counterintuitive—way.

A quick search for the key phrase “building classroom communities” at Amazon will retrieve approximately 250 distinct book titles. Spanning from 2017 to 1990, the products range from nuts-and-bolts workbooks and planning guides to philosophical treatises regarding ways to construct positive, productive learning environments. The pupils being discussed by the various authors range from budding elementary learners to jaded college students. The books focus on traditional classrooms where students and teachers are rubbing elbows on a daily basis to virtual classrooms where no personal contact occurs. A third of these titles include the exact phrase “building classroom communities,” while others opt for slight variations on the pedagogical theme: building character, building cooperation, building equity, building confidence, building understanding. You could conduct the same search at any online bookstore or library database and find similar results.

My point is this: For the last 30 years (and likely much longer), a slick educational industry has evolved that focuses solely on informing teachers how to successfully devise, implement, and manage—in other words, how to build—a classroom community worthy of our students’ time and attention.

So, what’s wrong with this? From the perspective of a composition teacher who has spent the last 25 years collecting battle scars in the trenches (and loving it), I can confidently say there’s nothing wrong with a little help. Teachers old and new need as many resources, suggestions, practices, and philosophies they can stuff into their teaching bags. I don’t know about you, but I’ve completely reimagined my composition classroom a dozen times since my professional marathon began in 1993, and I’m likely to redecorate my lesson plans several more times over the next decade before eventually calling it quits. We all understand that a healthy dose of collaboration among students and teachers leads to a more productive learning environment. Although there’s always disagreement about how to best accomplish this, we are mostly convinced that the classroom should be a safe, secure environment where students feel comfortable taking risks while having opportunities to engage in routine community-building activities of some kind.

Right about now you might be thinking to yourself: ‘This is precisely the moment where he’s going to use a pregnant transition word like however.’ Congratulations. You’re paying attention.

While the advantages and disadvantages of specific collaborative pedagogies have been discussed at length by teachers and researchers, I raise the issue of educational community-building activities for one purpose only: Our emphasis on doing things to create a sense of community in our classrooms is in direct conflict with some broadly defined spiritual approaches to community that emphasize being over doing. And some of these spiritual approaches might serve our classroom communities in ways that a cleverly marketed workbook never could.


Communally speaking, here’s the big question: What would happen if students and teachers stopped doing and started being? I acknowledge that I’m presenting the issue in a very binary (and probably reductionist) way, but my motive here is to get everyone thinking about how much force (how much of our individual wills) we apply to the formation and functioning of our learning communities.

As you might imagine from that nebulous question, I’m not proposing any concrete ideas about how to envision or develop a spiritually sensitive classroom community; fashioning a curriculum from spiritual insights flies against the ephemeral nature of the spirit. Even worse, doing so would force us back into the same limited space occupied by those 250 books on Amazon I just mentioned. I generally agree with the widely held notion that the spiritual and material worlds are (at least sometimes) incommensurate. Indeed, the word spiritual was originally coined to denote “that which is not material” (Adler 1). For me, the being versus doing dilemma comes down to this: What variety of shapes might a community take—and what sorts of roles might students and teachers play—when the community itself is not manufactured but is found (or even better, dis-covered or uncovered) by those engaged in the enterprise of learning? What would happen if I decided to not exert control over the learning community in the classroom? What would happen if it established itself and evolved on its own with me as a member and not as its maker?

When I’ve approached the edge of this cliff in my practice (usually by examining and questioning my own penchant for overcontrolling the classroom, which I’ve openly confessed to in numerous articles over the years), I’ve sought insight from a specific source (one of my favorite books of all time): The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.

In the upcoming second installment of this article, which will be published here in a short while, I’ll discuss some specific concepts surrounding the formation of communities as perceived through the spirituality of imperfection lens. But prior to that, I’ll finish this first installment by explaining the basic principles undergirding this philosophy. A spirituality of imperfection is not itself a religious movement or doctrine, and it’s not an idea owned or originated by Kurtz or Ketcham, the authors of the book; instead, it is a broad historical concept that merely suggests a particular kind of orientation or attitude that makes us available to our spiritual selves. As the name implies, a spirituality of imperfection is based upon the idea that we are flawed. The source of our humanity is our very ordinary and imperfect nature. Though many of us strive for perfection, such striving keeps us separate from our humanity, hence, our spirituality. Perfection denies the reality of our humanity, and it is within our human-ness as flawed beings that our spirituality (and ultimately community) finds its home. Following this line of reasoning, any community dis-covered by human beings will be equally imperfect; communities can be negative and positive, inclusive and exclusive, stagnant and productive; all communities have the same limitations as the ordinary human beings who comprise them. Communities exist in a paradox.


I’ll explore some of these ideas in part two of this article later. But for now consider this: A central idea according to a spirituality of imperfection is that community is always present; when human beings are together, a community is always already there. In other words, community does not have to be made or built or fashioned by any single person. Instead, a more passive perspective suggests community simply has to be dis-covered (uncovered, revealed, choose your own verb) by those imperfect people who constitute it. I realize applying this concept to a classroom may seem unlikely (and possibly even naive). But I’d like readers to seriously ponder the possibilities and feel free to reply here.

Could there be an alternative to building a learning community? How much control do you exert over your own classroom community in its formation? Have you ever overexerted control? As a teacher, have you ever taken steps to “let go” of your classroom to see how the learning community might establish itself? Or does this very thought sound antithetical to the idea of learning? On the contrary, perhaps none of these questions apply to you; maybe your teaching style already allows your classroom community the freedom to be found by its members. If so, how does that work and what does that classroom look like? Let us know.

As mentioned, in the upcoming second installment of this article I’ll delve much deeper into the Spirituality of Imperfection and ways it can problematize our existing notions of learning communities as literacy educators. Keep watching this space for part 2 and please leave a comment on part 1!


Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.


Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. New York: Scribners, 1995.

Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Bantam, 1994




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