Creating Community: Lessons Learned In The Barbershop

by William Jackson

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. but the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

While sitting in the barbershop waiting for my turn to get my hair cut, I could not help but witness the similarities a barbershop has to a classroom. Each barbershop has a barber, and patrons waiting for their opportunity to get their hair cut. Similarly, in each classroom, there is a teacher, and students waiting for the opportunity to be taught. Interestingly, while waiting for my haircut appointment, I could not help but draw the connection this experience had to classroom and community engagement.

In the barbershop I frequent, my barber Tony always leads the patrons with a question to drive inquiry. Given his responsibilities as barber, he had a haircut to tend to but made a point to greet all members of the community as they entered his shop with a handshake or personal greeting. As barber, he took it upon himself to create an engaging experience for all patrons as they entered the barbershop. In this specific time, the process began with a warm-up question to determine how engaged each patron was: “What do you all feel about the NBA trades and team-ups this year?” a relatively simple question to all patrons who, like myself, spend time deep in the nuances of black American culture—basketball being one of our current hallmark areas. This question, in a classroom context, represented a hook, or leverage point for all parties to jump in.

Considering the patrons were all black, it must be noted that Tony made no visual attempt to differentiate the hook. However, from observation, patrons chimed in and expressed their excitement, or discontentment with the current status of the NBA; everyone was engaged. This conversation took a unique turn when a patron came into the barbershop with wet, unkempt clothes and expressed that he wanted to sell cell phones to anyone who was willing to buy.

As an educator, my lens immediately went to the scholar who arrives late to class and disrupts the learning as peer scholars are at their pique of engagement. What I witnessed from Tony was something that I plan to take with me when coaching school staff on community building and classroom engagement. Tony immediately went to the back of the barbershop where he had a stack of clothes and cleaning supplies. He handed a clean pair of clothes to the gentlemen along with a broom and said “I have told you before, you cannot sell items here. You can work here for ten dollars an hour. Go put these clothes on and let’s get to work” the gentleman walked to the restroom to change.

Upon witnessing the faces of disgust in the room, Tony expressed to the patrons, “This is my cousin. I am helping him through some difficult times. I am sure you all have family that struggle too.” I was immediately humbled and reminded of my family and those who struggle closest to me. I was also reminded of the scholars that arrive late to school, and are in need of firm love and support. “…Let’s get to work” sticks deeply with me because if we as educators want to create a sense of belonging for all members of our school community, it is important that we use inclusive language. This barbershop lesson is an example of how to lead from behind while building the culture of engagement and inquiry in our communities.

This also led me to consider how I could bring what I experienced at the barbershop to my everyday encounters with teachers, staff, scholars, and families. Thus, I have included a few takeaways from my experience at the barbershop that are reflective of the daily work needed to build a strong school community.

All members of the community are welcome

No matter how challenging it may be to do so, it is necessary that we make our best attempt to create a sense of belonging for all members of our school community. This means making contact with scholars and families upon their arrival to school. If our scholars do not arrive, it is on us to make contact home. Seeking professional development for culturally relevant curriculum, instruction, and school community engagement can support here as well.

Lead from behind

Driving inquiry requires that we understand our role as educators in the classroom and school. Scholars are most engaged when they understand that they are able to drive the classroom curriculum. Similarly, teachers are most engaged in instruction when they have the opportunity to craft their curriculum.

Know your community

Be an active member of all community engagement nights. Make note of which communities are not in attendance, and make a point to find access to them. Also, if you notice a scholar is always late to school, or does not get along with others in class, it is on you to get to know the scholar, and provide love and firm support for their development and engagement.

Engagement requires engagement

In order for us to ensure classroom and school engagement by all members of our community, we ourselves must be engaged in our school and community culture.


William Jackson is an educational leader, lifelong learner, and educator. Grew up in the Central District of Seattle where he attended St. Therese k-8 and O’Dea High School. Began his teaching career at O’Dea High School where he taught History, coached football, and moderated the Black Student Union. Currently Serves at Nathan Hale High School as Assistant Principal and moderator for the Black Student Union. 

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Patrick Giblin

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