From 1991 till 2003 I ran a small progressive, democratically run school for students age six to fourteen in Evanston, Illinois; the philosophy of the school being to place front and center in importance what occurred inside the young people at the school while they learned; to provide a learning environment in which an equilibrium of rights and responsibilities existed between all those who were part of the school community, whether they were children or adults; and to keep not only any forms of grading or standardized testing from entering the students’ lives, but also any type of preconceived core curricula as well.
Along the way, I learned many things about beginning and directing such a school, many of them through the numerous mistakes which I made in attempting to implement my vision. Therefore, for anyone who is interested in such a learning environment, even in actually establishing it in one’s particular community, here are what I hope will be some helpful tips in doing so. If you would like to contact me with any questions you might have you can do so at email@example.com
What follows are some of the important considerations concerning different issues about which one needs to be cognizant in implementing this type of learning environment. The issues discussed are the following:
Defining the Purpose of the School
Legalities and Start-Up Information
Physical Facility – important things to consider
Admission of Students – what to consider and what to avoid
Beginning the School Year
Implementing Individual Learning Plans
Connecting to the Community Outside of School
Staff Issues – including hiring and firing practices
Defining the Purpose of the School
Naturally, you will want to be clear about what you are trying to accomplish with your school before you open the doors. If, on the one hand, you are attempting to create a results-driven environment which relies largely on test scores and other empirical evaluations of learning, the approach elaborated here is clearly not for you. However, if you are interested in creating a learning environment in which what occurs inside the child while he/she learns is given priority, along with the students’ own involvement in creating the actual environment in which they learn, then you might potentially benefit from reading further.
This is something that can be accomplished provided you are willing to keep all those societal forces which might threaten to derail your mission of creating a developmentally healthy, democratic learning environment from creeping into your school; entering vis-a-vis the values or biases of anyone who walks in the door, be they parents, students, teachers at the school, relatives, interested observers, or other educators with whom you may have to occasionally deal. Therefore, it will be important that you take a strong stand in not allowing those biases or contradictory approaches from seeping into the atmosphere for learning you are trying to create.
Many of us have grown up in a culture in which school has been a place where the adults make nearly all the decisions concerning what children learn, how they learn it, or how they interact with those who teach them; even with each other while they learn. Therefore, as much as you possibly can, it is very important that you keep those attitudes and behaviors which reflect this particular bias out of your school. Otherwise, there will be an inevitable tension between those who represent them and the democratic, egalitarian atmosphere you are attempting to engender.
The best way of keeping those forces which might threaten to derail your efforts outside the door is to clearly define for everyone at your school’s inception just what sort of educational environment you are creating and why; particularly in terms of the egalitarian, informal relations which will inevitably exist there between teachers and students, and in terms of the freedom of movement which students will be given throughout the school day. If certain parents or students, or even those who might come to teach at your school, are uncomfortable with those things, they are of course free to move on to another school. Yet, if they stay, they will know exactly why the particular environment they find themselves in is evolving the way it does.
Legalities and Start-Up Information
In most states, you will need to register your school in some form. The requirements for beginning your school will also vary from state to state. When I began my school in suburban Chicago, the state of Illinois simply required that one possess a bachelor’s degree, although that may have changed over time. Certainly, the board of education in your particular state can provide you with the necessary information.
More important, however, is the need to acquire some sort of funding for your school prior to the opening of your doors. Depending solely on tuition from parents will automatically create a couple of difficult dynamics for you to overcome. One is that, without funding, either tuition will need to be high enough to run a quality program, this often making your school financially unfeasible for many parents whose children could really benefit from attending; or else it will be low enough that you won’t be able to provide a quality learning environment, particularly in terms of attracting quality teachers to it, due to lack of funds.
In terms of the former, let’s face it. many of the parents who will not only understand the progressive philosophy of your school, but will also be raising their children in a manner which is similar to how you teach them, will not be rich, simply because money and conservative values often go hand in hand. Consequently, if your tuition is necessarily high, a number of the parents who are able to enroll their children may well enter with values which are at odds with your own approach to education, making educating their children more difficult. Of course, there will also be parents of means who will be on the same page as you, but that won’t always be the case by any stretch of the imagination.
On the other hand, if the tuition remains low enough for all those whose children could benefit from your particular approach, and you haven’t acquired funding, you may not have enough of a budget for educational materials (which can be quite high at times for a school which stresses an individualized approach to learning), or quality teachers who are in synch with your particular philosophy; the latter of course being extremely important. Hence, your attempts to provide a quality learning environment, and to keep the overall philosophy of your school on track, may suffer.
Therefore, the way around both of these potentially harmful dynamics is to attempt to acquire funding for your school before it has actually come into existence. What you will need to do is to file an application with your particular state for not-for-profit status, which you will need before you can file for your 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. After you receive that, you can simply apply for funding from those foundations which give money to progressive education, such as the Annenberg or MacArthur foundations.
If you have not yet acquired funding, but you do have a facility for your school, and parents who are ready to send their children there, you will have to decide whether you simply want to begin without the necessary funding, hoping that it will be easier to receive such funding once different foundations have been able to see the success of your program; or whether you want to wait to start your school until you have in fact been funded.
One of the best ways to recruit parents for your school, other than talking to anyone with whom you are familiar who has school age children, is to simply hold an organizational meeting at the local library or somewhere else in the particular geographic area in which you plan to start your school. In order to make people aware of your actual attempt to start a school, what kind of school it will be, and also the time and place of the meeting, you can simply create flyers which describe these things wherever you think parents might notice them. Also, placing an ad in one of the local papers, or getting a reporter to write a story about your endeavor are also good ideas.
However, if you are vague at any of those meetings about what you have in mind, that will tend to not only create doubt in everyone’s mind about your ability to turn your vision into a reality, but will also make it more difficult to go about actually creating the school you envision when you yourself are unclear about how it will operate. For instance, you can provide descriptions of your school such as the following: that students will have freedom of movement throughout the day in meeting expectations that they and their teachers have hammered out by working together; that each student will have an individual learning plan, one negotiated with his/her teachers, for which there will be a consequence if he/she fails to follow through on it; or that that those consequences will be decided at regular all school democratic meetings at which each student and each teacher have one vote.
In addition, it is extremely important that, right from the beginning, you establish what the lines of authority in your school will be. If your plan is for a school that is run by a small group of parents who have equal say in bottom line decision making regarding all important issues, then you need to make that clear to everyone. Or if the school is to be your school, with you as the director who will make all decisions regarding selection of facility, hiring of teachers, salaries, tuition, and the like, then that needs to be spelled out as well.
For if the lines of authority (i.e. who will have bottom line decision making on various important issues) are not made clear right from the beginning, then that can lead toward complications and bad feelings later on when parents who assumed they would be given a significant hand in running the school find out that this is not to be the case. On the other hand, if it is to be your school, to be run by you, and that is not specifically spelled out from the outset, then some parents may try to see how far they can go in usurping your authority in steering the program toward where they themselves want to see it evolve. Needless to say, either one of these developments can lead toward the sort of typical school politics which tend to create mistrust and dissension within the school community as a whole, eventually filtering into the actual learning environment itself.
Once you have enough parents who are interested in sending their children to your school, and you have found an adequate facility, you can begin hammering out a budget based on the tuition you will be charging and the funding you are going to receive. You will also have to create enrollment forms which give you all the necessary contact information for each child, and which contain questions including, most importantly, parents’ motivations for sending their children to you, which will give you some idea of the values and expectations of the parents and students with whom you will be dealing.
The size of your physical environment relative to the number of students enrolled in your school will of course be very important. Because your students will most likely have freedom of movement throughout the day, they will tend to need even more space than they would in a more traditional school or classroom. Otherwise, it will occasionally be difficult for students to find the quiet place they need to concentrate while they learn.
Therefore, if you can find one or two large rooms to begin with, rather than several smaller rooms, it will become easier for your physical space to engender the sort of environment you are attempting to create. In addition, particularly if you live in a cold weather climate where the children can not alway go outdoors to play, it is important that your facility have some sort of indoor play area. Otherwise, it will become impossible for the children to release their needed energies during the course of the school day, and recess will end up taking place, in one way or another, at the wrong times in your learning environment.
Particularly if you live in a city or large urban area, you will need to find a facility in the area which is zoned for a school. Of course, because they have already met the necessary zoning requirements, churches and community centers are excellent places to look. If the rooms which you rent are not up to code to satisfy the fire department, then you will need to invest money to make this happen. If you don’t, and someone from the fire department decides to drop in unexpectedly one day, they have the right to temporarily close down your school.
Something else worth considering is how tolerant people the people are from whom you rent in terms of having a group of school age children in their facility. If they are uptight about the usual sounds of children in their building, this could easily have a profound effect on the more open ended learning environment and atmosphere you are trying to implement. For it is hard to see how either you, your fellow teachers, or your students could be comfortable if everyone feels they have to walk around quietly during the course of the school day. The ultimate solution would be to receive the amount of funding that allows you to purchase your own facility, but that is of course not so easily done.
As far as your actual classroom areas, each student should of course have his or her own desk, even if the only time they spend there is to desposit their belongings at the beginning of the school day. For it is obviously important, for reasons of pyschological security and well being, that everyone have a space that belongs exclusively to him or her. However, if the desks you provide the students are too large, they will inevitably take up too much space, and consequently there won’t be enough open space for children to move freely while an orderly learning environment is maintained. Therefore, small, lightweight desks are probably the best answer.
Admission of Students – what to consider and what to avoid
Obviously, there will be certain types of students who can benefit from the sort of progressive, egalitarian approach that your school represents. Naturally, those young people who are self-motivated and intensely curious about their world will almost certainly be a good fit, more than anything because the learning environment that you provide will allow them to seamlessly expand what they are able to learn, and likewise what piques their curiosities and interests.
Also able to benefit from your type of school, simply because it will tend to be a highly social learning environment, will be those students who might be particularly shy and inhibited. For in an environment in which students are given freedom of movement throughout the day, and in which they are empowered to have a direct hand in what they learn, and how they will learn it, there is much more opportunity for a shy child to insert himself into the web of interpersonal relationships to be found within this more open ended type of environment.
On the other side of the spectrum, however, there are those young people who tend to be unmotivated and undisciplined. Occasionally one can work with them to make a difference in their lives within your type of learning environment. In fact, that is one of the real advantages to this type of open-ended individualized approach to learning; that teachers have more time to work with students on many of the personal, developmental issues that might have been marginalized or ignored in more traditional, rigid environments.
However, there will also be cases where not only will the more open-ended nature of your particular learning environment not be what is necessarily best for those young people who require a more disciplined, structured approach, but their unfocused, undisciplined behavior can in fact become a source of distraction for your other students, as well as being more of a disruptive influence for your school than it would be somewhere else where the learning environment is not so open ended and interpersonal, and where the students do not enjoy freedom of movement throughout the school day.
Therefore, particularly in this type of democratic school, it is very important that, when parents approach you about enrolling their children, that you ask intrusive questions, both in meeting with them personally, and on their child’s enrollment form, about what type of learner and person the child is, and about any behavioral issues which he or she might have. It is also most important that you ask the parents about their specific motivation for enrolling their child, this often being deeply connected to the type of student who will appear at your school.
One also needs to be extemely cautious about enrolling students who have a parent who teaches at the school. Obviously, it is very difficult for any parent not to have the usual parental anxieties concerning what is transpiring with their child. So if that parent, while they teach at your school, isn’t able to separate those anxieties from what is occurring with their child or with the school community at large, a couple of negative dynamics can easily take place.
One is that, in teaching their own child, they won’t be able to develop the necessary professional distance that would allow them to do so effectively. The other is that, in allowing their anxieties concerning their own child to color how they see the learning environment as a whole, they may attempt to control and steer it in ways that might be beneficial to their child, but will end up constricting your open ended environment for other children. On the other hand, if a parent is in fact able to separate their anxieties concerning their child from their professional duties as a teacher, they can certainly be an effective teacher who will bring the unique perspectives of both teacher and parents to a learning environment which is evolving daily and organically.
Beginning the School Year
Once it is determined who will be enrolled in your school, you will need to sit down individually with each student before the school year begins in order to develop a learning plan for which he or she agrees to follow through. Parents need to be included in this process for a couple of different reasons. One is so that they have a clear idea of what their child has agreed to in order that no confusion results. The other is so that parents have the opportunity to provide the necessary input into their child’s learning plan when it is called for.
What is most important in this process, however, is that the child experiences his learning plan as his own creation for which he has agreed to be responsible. If parents or teachers begin to insist that certain learning activities or behavioral objectives are to be included on the plan to which the child does not agree, and these are in fact added, then what will very likely occur is that the student will no longer be experiencing ownership over either his learning or his life while he is at your school; and teachers will be put in the position of implementing activities that bring all the forces of unnatural adult authority into play. Therefore, the plans have to be negotiated very carefully, recognizing that everyone involved (student, teachers, parents) have equal rights and equal responsibilities. What should or shouldn’t be included in the plans, and how to implement them, is discussed in the section Implementing Individual Learning Plans.
In setting up your physical environment prior to the first day of school, it is important that you factor in the wishes and opinions of your students as much as possible so that when they arrive that first day they won’t feel that they are coming into an environment that doesn’t belong primarily to them. This can simply be done by asking for advice and suggestions by students when they come in to negotiate their individual learning plans prior to the school year beginning; and then once again after school has begun, particularly in the course of a democratic meeting in which all the students in the school are involved.
Since most of the learning at your school will take place on an individual basis, rather than occurring as part of a large group, there should be a large block of time set aside for allowing this to happen. That is, as individual students follow through on what they they have agreed to implement on their individual plans, there needs to be plenty of time allowed for them to do this. Obviously, the best time for this is at the beginning of the day when everyone’s mind, both teachers and students, is most clear; and it should extend far enough into the school day that there is adequate time for everyone who is motivated to do so to finish attending to everything on their individual learning plan. There should also be a recess or play time in the middle of this period of individual learning, so that students can adequately refresh themselves before returning to their academic activities.
The afternoon hours are obviously the best time for any group lessons, art activities, or forays into the world outside of school simply because once you insert those sort of activities into the middle of the individual work period, it becomes difficult for many of the students to return to the more disciplined activities of learning certain basic skills or concentrating on areas of concern which are more academic in nature.
There should also be an adequate block of time reserved at the end of the day for teachers and students to sit down with each other on an individual basis in order to ascertain if each student has followed through on everything that is part of his or her individual plan. If someone hasn’t, the consequences for this are something that will be discussed in the next section regarding the implementation of the plans. However, if there isn’t enough time left at the end of the school day to go over the plans, then the bottom line measure of accountability on which your school rests (i.e. in lieu of grades or test scores) will have much less weight to it.
In addition, there should be a period of time set aside at the beginning of the shool day for everyone in the school, both teachers and students, to gather in order to discuss the day’s events; particularly what everyone needs to be reminded of in terms of the different group lessons, or even small group excursions outside of school which might be taking place on any particular day. Also, if there have been any tensions lingering from the previous day which involve the school community at large, and which a number of people believe can’t be put off until the next all-school democratic meeting, then these may need to be resolved before you can carry on with your day. Otherwise, they will almost certainly find their way into the fabric of relations between students and teachers or between students themselves.
Implementing Individual Learning Plans
The individual learning plan you create with each student in your school is what should effectively replace the grades that you don’t give, as well as the standardized test scores that you don’t require your students to take. Therefore, it is in effect the bass line of your school, and therefore should have real weight. As much as anything, it is a device for implementing an equilibrium of rights and responsibilities between teachers and students. That is to say, each student is expected to follow through on everything to which he has previously agreed in creating the plan, as are the teachers.
All of the plans, after they are written up, should then be kept in some sort of plan book, put out in the middle of the classroom, which anyone can refer to at any time during the school day. As was mentioned in the section having to do with the implementation of the daily schedule, there should be a significant amount of time set aside at the end of the school day for teachers to sit down with students individually to ascertain if each item on the plan that needed to be effectively addressed that day was.
If not, a general consequence, voted on by everyone at an all school democratic meeting at which each student and each teacher has one vote, should be implemented. It could be something such as requiring that anyone who did not finish everything on their plan the previous day can’t go out to morning recess the next day until the necessary work is completed. Usually, the students in the school will have an even clearer idea of what a good consequence might be than will the adults simply because they are more a part of the web of interpersonal relations with the other students.
Finally, in addition to purely academic concerns, it is certainly alright to place personal or developmental concerns on different student’s individual plans. These could be such things as a student making an effort to control his anger in certain situations, and a particular teacher agreeing to work with him on this by helping him to adopt specific behaviors whenever he is angry. Of course it is often important, maybe at times even more important than the academic parts of a student’s plan, that the student agree to include these more personal concerns. Otherwise, the young person might come to easily resent having to conform his behavior to certain standards that he doesn’t feel he has had a hand in creating. Consequently, the possibility for any realistic changes in his behavior which truly come from him might never transpire.
Although a significant proportion of the learning at your school will occur on an individual basis, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be adequate time set aside for both large and small group lessons, during which a number of students gather around a single teacher. The important thing is that the students are given a significant hand in determining how the subject matter of these different group lessons evolves. Although, at the same time, these group lessons can become excellent ways for students to acquire knowledge in different subject areas which is both necessary and relevant for them to have, as long as the lessons have been democratically negotiated into their individual plans.
Of course, it is certainly alright for a teacher at the school who has a genuine interest in a certain subject matter to teach it as a group lesson to all those students at the school who wish to learn it. That is, all those students who are interested in the particular subject begin attending the lessons, and in doing so, agree to keep coming to the lessons for a stipulated period of time decided by all the students in the group. In addition, there should be a limit set for when new students can join the particular group lessons (for example, any time after the end of the second lesson). Otherwise, if these sort of parameters are not set, students will be able to drop in and out of the lessons whenever they want, which will of course become a genuine disruption for all involved.
Students themselves may also initiate group lessons with other students, provided there are enough students interested in the particular subject matter, and that the student who teaches it is in fact competent to do so. In fact, in terms of children building self-confidence that can be applied to other areas of their lives, either academic or personal, this is an excellent way to facilitate this development; by allowing a student to teach something about which they have a certain amount of expertise or knowledge to other children.
Eliminating grades, tests, and standardized test scores at your school will mean of course that learning will need to be evaluated in a much more personal, anecdotal manner. This will mean keeping daily records of specifically what skills and knowledge individual students have attained while implementing the various items on their individual learning plans; these records of course being shared with individual students while they are being created.
Keeping empirical measures of learning out of the picture means that you will be in a position to expand subject areas exponentially, simply because they will not have to be continually narrowed in order to teach your students certain knowledge, skills, and information on which they will be eventually tested. Yet, at the same time, it is important that you are able to determine if significant learning is indeed taking place; and this can be done in a number of different ways.
One of course is to personally check the work of your students as they move from one step in a particular learning sequence to the next. That is, if you can directly see that someone is correctly solving mathematical equations or writing grammatically correct sentences on the paper or computer screen that is presented to you by them during the course of the school day; or if there are mistakes and you can point out to the students where they might have gone wrong, then why the necessity to interject a grade or test scrore into the process?
Then at the end of each week, you can simply put the work of each student in a folder and send it home with him/her so that his/her parents can see what their child is or isn’t accomplishing, not by looking at a grade or test score, but by looking at the actual work in which the student has been engaged.
This more direct approach to evaluating learning and record keeping means that there is now no longer some interfering entity (i.e. grade, test score) standing between a student and how his learning is being evaluated. Hence, all of the negative judgmental effects which these interfering external measures have upon a young person’s personal development are completely removed, allowing for a more natural process of simply correcting certain mistakes which a student has made in attempting to assimilate a subject matter or skill. That is, making a mistake now has entirely to do with simply correcting it and then moving on to whatever one is learning next, rather than having one’s personal worth somehow diminished by some empirical measure that the student most likely doesn’t even understand.
Finally, you may often find that those of your students who are leaving your school for a secondary school the following year will be asked to provide results of certain competencies by way of some standardized test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Naturally, they are usually going to need to take these tests in order to move on to a high school. What is important, however, in terms of the atmosphere you are trying to create at your school is that this testing takes place in a manner that does not interrupt the flow of activities that take place during any given school day. Therefore, you can have students take these tests in another part of the building while the rest of the school day continues, or maybe even have them come in after school or on the weekend, when school is not in session.
Of course, in the more open ended, child-centered, democratic environment you will be creating, there won’t be such measures as detentions, trips to the principal’s office, or bad marks on report cards which are related to social deportment and behavior. Yet obviously, you will still want to have appropriate methods at your disposal for dealing with behaviors which are disruptive to your learning environment. The essential difference between your methods and those to be found in more traditional schools, however, is that yours will tend to be more personal, less formal, in nature.
Rather, they will emanate essentially from the equilibrium of rights and responsibilities that you will be endeavoring to implement with your students, both as individuals and as a group. This means that in any situation which comes up in which there are difficulties with a student’s behavior, the consequences should necessarily come from the rights and responsibilities that belong to those students involved in the particular situation.
Every learning or social situation that might evolve at your school will have certain rights and responsibilities which are inherently part of the situation itself. Therefore, there is a point of equilibrium in any situation in which the rights and responsibilities of everyone involved are in balance with each other. So if a particular child or group of children is not acting responsibly, then other people’s rights are inevitably being violated. Therefore, when disciplinary issues arise, discussions between those students and teachers involved should initially be concerned with finding the specific point of equilibrium that exist within the particular situation.
That is, after you have effectively stopped any disturbing behaviors by one or more students from occurring so that they do not cause any further disturbances with other students, it is important that you discuss with them why what they are doing is violating other students’ or teachers’ rights, and then out of that discussion apply whatever consequences both you and the particular student or students who are involved agree are fair. It will also often be important that you bring those students whose rights have been violated into the conversation, and even give them a voice as to what consequences they think might be fair in dealing with the student who created the disturbance so that the offending person can better understand the difficult situation that he or she has created.
There will also be times in which, in order to promote a true reality of encounter between two or more students who are having trouble with each other, you simply stay out of the way and let them work things out between themselves. In fact, quite often when adults get involved too quickly in arguments between students, they really just exacerbate the situation simply because the students are not given the opportunity to come into full relation with each other, and in so doing, begin to resolve their difficulties.
Weekly democratic meetings, attended by both teachers and students, at which issues involving the entire school community may be brought up and discussed, are extremely important for a couple of different reasons. One of course is that they reinforce the democratic nature of your learning environment, that in which an equilibrium of rights and responsibilities necessarily exists between everyone who is part of the community, adults and children alike; the other reason being that in an open-ended environment such as yours, one in which young people are given much greater latitude than they would be given in more traditional settings, it becomes much easier for various tensions which have been left unaddressed to bubble to the surface and become a disruption unless they are addressed at large by the entire community of teachers and students.
The meetings work best if they are chaired by a student who runs the meeting and calls on various people to speak. They began at our school by reading a list of concerns which students had written on a “concern sheet” that was posted in the classrooms during any part of a given school week. Anything with which students were concerned, be it academic or personal in nature, could be written down. Then, when the meeting began, the chairperson went through the list, asking students to vote on which items they wished to discuss first. After a particular matter had been discussed, and there was an obvious decision to be reached, a vote was then taken, with each student and each teacher having one vote; the majority decision then becoming a rule for how our learning environment would be governed.
Of course, as the responsible adult, you will want to maintain the authority to exclude various items from discussion if you feel they are not appropriate. These could be such things as students asking for a recess period that is obviously too long, or bringing up a concern with a particular student that might lead to that student being picked on by the entire group during the course of the meeting. Also, of course, you won’t want to let students vote on such things as the decision to expell a student from the school or remove a teacher simply because children in their formative years have not had the necessary life experience to be handed such decisions.
One of the more important issues which can be decided at these democratic meetings is what consequence might be applied when individual students don’t finish the work on their daily plan that they have agreed to complete each day. This is a decision that obviously has particular importance simply because it is the bottom line consequence, in lieu of grades and test scores, for not attending to academic learning. Hence, because all the students realize that they are the ones making this decision regarding academic responsibility, the decision will be one that has real teeth to it because it is their’s. Hence, when the consequence for not completing work is applied to a particular student, it can’t be dismissed as part of the world of unfair adults. As was mentioned previously, one decision that was reached at our school regarding unfinished work was that if someone hadn’t finished all their work at the end of a particular day, they couldn’t go out to recess the next day until it was completed; although of course students were always free to take work home with them and finish it before they arrived at school the next day.
Finally, of course, it is of the utmost importance that the decisions that are made at the meetings be written down and implemented immediately if they are to have any weight; and that they are allowed to be in force for a significant period of time before the students and teachers are allowed to bring them up and vote on them again, except in cases where it is immediately and universally agreed that some mistake has been made. Like the implementation of the individual learning plans, the decisions made at these meetings tend to be the actual bass line of your learning environment; that which gives its open-ended approach purpose and order.
Connecting to the Community Outside of School
Because you will have more latitude at developing a daily schedule than what occurs at more traditional schools, you will have a real opportunity to connect your students to the world of professional expertise which exists outside the schoolhouse door. This means that you can actually begin taking small groups of students to the laboratories of those doing scientific research, the offices of lawyers, accountants, and bankers, newspaper rooms, studios of artists and filmmakers, or simply the small shops and businesses of those involved in various esoteric pursuits, such as making oriental paper.
In addition, you will have the opportunity, should you choose to pursue it, of following through on those experiences which your students will have had connecting with experts by working what they may have learned into their learning plan back at school. For example, if a group of your students were to visit the lab of a physics professor at a local university who had demonstrated to them various lasers and their chemical properties, you could follow through on this by conducting lessons with them about the chemical composition of light.
Or if another group were to visit the newsroom of a journalist who writes human interest stories for the local paper, you could follow through on this with the students by taking what they had learned and then assisting them in writing their own stories about what is happening in their own communities. Likewise, after your students had visited a computer programmer, and had a change to work with him or her, you could introduce various algebraic concepts in assisting students in writing their own programs.
Of course, if these visits to professional experts were to take place over a period of time, rather than just occur once; if the students were to stay in touch with the expert via e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter; and if you as their teacher were are willing to familiarize yourself with some of the advance knowledge they are learning from the expert so that you could become a conduit of sorts between you and them, a new exciting way to learn could be introduced into your school, one which connects classroom learning to the world of professional expertise which exists all around it. Therefore, it would be best if, prior to visiting the workplace of a certain expert, there were a number of classroom lessons introduced which would prepare students for what they would be experiencing outside of school.
Occasionally, of course, the entire group of students in your school could journey together to some place in the surrounding community, preferably after an interest has been expressed by the whole group of students in the school in doing so. Yet the trips in which classroom learning is effectively integrated with the world of professional expertise will tend to work best if they proceed in small groups. Finally, I have found that large group excursions tend to work best if they occur on a Friday, when they won’t interfere with the rhythm of the academic learning which tends to build during any particular school week.
In an open-ended democratic learning environment such as yours it is of course essential that both the basic approach toward learning and the temperament of the teachers in the school match that of the atmosphere you are endeavoring to create. In other words, the environment you are creating will not be the right place for those teachers who insist upon a high level of control of their students. Of course, a reasonable amount of discipline and order is necessary, as is a calm, settled atmosphere in your school in which students can concentrate. Yet a teacher who believes in using his/her unnatural authority to control behavior, shape character, or establish without question that the acquisition of certain knowledge should become part of young people’s academic programs will only cause an undue amount of friction within your learning environment, as well as cause the students in the school, who have grown accustomed to a more personal, organic approach, to inevitably reject such a teacher.
Therefore, as soon as you or the other teachers in the school begin to perceive that a teacher has been hired who does not fit the school’s philosophy, it is important that you speak to that teacher immediately, carefully re-explaining both the culture of your school, and specifically what you think that teacher must do to effectively assimilate him/herself into that culture. If the teacher disagrees with what you have to say, or within a reasonable period of time is unwilling or unable to change, it is extremely important that you immediately hammer out a separation agreement, and then send that person on their way. Yes, it will be a burden to everyone if there is a temporary staffing shortage at the school, but at the same time, almost nothing will become more of an impediment to the sort of democratic learning environment you are trying to implement than a teacher who doesn’t recognize the equilibrium of rights and responsibilities which are a necessary part of such a milieu.
In addition, in your type of open-ended, democratic environment, it is extremely important that the teachers have a certain amount of professional distance from what is occurring with the group of students as a whole, as well as with individual students, simply because the voices of the students in regard to their lives and learning have to be so carefully considered. Therefore, hiring parents to teach at your school who have children enrolled will often be a mistake simply because it will be so much harder for them to have that sort of professional distance; not to mention the sort of anxiety-ridden school politics which might occur if a student’s parent who teaches at the school, and so is close to other parents, has to be dismissed. Therfore, it is highly recommended that in the vast majority of cases you don’t hire parents as teachers.
Of course, in hiring teachers, you will be looking for certain attributes and attitudes which will allow someone to be effective within your democratic environment. Among these are: someone who possesses an open, engaging personality, and who does not stand on adult pride and self-importance in dealing with young people, and so is willing to treat them as equals; someone who is genuinely excited about the possibility of a more democratic approach to education which you are endeavoring to implement, and who does not see teaching as just another job; someone who is flexible enough to let go of preconceived attitudes and values whenever necessary; and if possible, someone who has a high level of expertise in teaching at least one of the basic skills of reading, writing, or working with numbers.
Probably the most important thing to keep in mind as far as staff issues is that at this sort of open-ended, democratically run school, having even one wrong person on your staff is one of the worst things that you can possibly do; while conversely, having the right people will almost certainly increase your chances for success exponentially. In other words, don’t try to muddle through the school year with a teacher who is wrong for your school, particulary if you see the children not accepting him or her. As soon as possible, replace him/her with the right kind of person.