“This is not a place for adults to live out their own lost childhood,” Zoe Readhead said to me when I started working at Summerhill School. “It is a school. And we need good teachers.”
A.S. Neill was not generous to teachers in his writing. He went so far as to say that teaching is a neurosis. Yet teachers and classrooms are vital to the Summerhill project: it is not a school where the children are expected to negotiate their own curriculum; teachers are hired to give classes and that is what the children sign up for. In this article I want to describe to you the position of teachers at Summerhill and how they work. In next Thursday’s Thoughts I’ll think about what it might mean for your school.
There is a core of twelve resident staff at the school. When the school grows there may be more. When it shrinks there may be less. This staff consists of eight teachers and four houseparents. Houseparents are the adults who are charged with the day-to-day care of the children. They might offer an occasional class or outing, but that is not their primary function. The eight teachers also live in the school and substitute for houseparents on their days off, so there is some overlapping of roles. A teacher at Summerhill has fixed class hours but can easily be busy well into the evening.
Since there are children from ages 6-17 at the school there needs to be adequate provision for all ages with a small staff. This is achieved by having core subject specialists and area teachers:
English, Mathematics and Science form the academic backbone of the school. Language skills are clearly important to all learning, Mathematics and logic are vital to clear thinking and an education in Science protects the children from superstitious thinking. It is essential to the project of Summerhill that these three should be the “good teachers” that Zoe was asking for because without a strong, flexible backbone the curriculum loses shape and parents lose confidence.
Classes 1 and 2 are the lower and upper primary divisions. These teachers can take advantage of the expertise of other teachers in the school, particularly the area teachers and Science teacher. Class 1, the lower primary division, requires an adult who is not afraid to impose herself on the children to some degree. Younger children rapidly learn the value of their freedoms but a teacher who is prepared to say, “Oi, it’s time for your reading lesson now” does them no harm and is not being anti-Summerhillian.
Class 2 is for the older primary division. This can go from 9 all the way to 13. Leonard was the teacher of Class 2 for many years at Summerhill and changed what was fairly chaotic before him into a well-organised space with a distinct method. It consists of an activity area with carefully chosen materials for the children to work under their own initiative, a teaching area and a library/quiet reading area. Children strongly identify with the space, helping to clean and maintain it and insisting on the rules that make it function well.
Art, Woodwork and IT are for what I call “area teachers” since they require a different kind of competence to the three core subject specialists. Although there are classes to sign up for in the areas they are open access spaces and the curriculum is more informal, prizing creativity and self-directed learning. Managing an area can mean delegating responsibility: it is not unusual, for example, for ex-Summerhillians to open Woodwork. It is a complicated task to be a teacher responsible for one of these spaces.
Music is important at the school. A lot of money has been invested in the recording studio and there are many musicians who come in to offer lessons with instruments as well as for jam sessions. Some of these are ex-Summerhillians.
This would be a poor curriculum in itself without the additional subjects offered by teachers who come into the school as day staff. There are teachers who offer lessons in Japanese, Chinese, history, geography, dance and drama. There have also been teachers of Spanish, French and German at different times. Children also go out for horse-riding classes. Day staff rarely go to staff or community meetings and are paid hourly: they do not see themselves, and are not seen as, members of the community. There is informal sporting activity at the school, but no permanent sports teacher. Sometimes houseparents take up a role with sport but it is informal.
Children elect to do the classes they want to at “sign up” at the beginning of each school term. Sometimes teachers will offer special classes alongside their normal offering in response to a particular demand: debate, for example, or astronomy. At Class 2 level there is more freedom for teachers to do this because once children get into the “upper” school they have a clear idea of why they are going to class and what they want out of it: they want classes that are focussed on getting them the examination passes that will take them to the next phase in their lives.
This does not mean that children in the “upper” school are obsessed with examinations. By comparison with the school I attended, where I took 12 O levels, Summerhill students tend to go for the lightest possible academic load that will get them to the next level, typically five or six GCSEs. When they go to classes, however, they want those classes to be focussed. They are possessive about “their” classes and want them to lead to a definite result. This can be frustrating for a teacher who wants to develop an “interesting” curriculum.
There are regular “careers” meetings for children at different stages in their passage through the school to give them the information to make good decisions about what they are going to do.
For some children the academic route is difficult. They may have severe delays in reading and writing, for example, or be suffering something like a phobia of classes and school after their pre-Summerhill experiences. This makes being a teacher at Summerhill even more challenging since the teachers cannot just focus on the children who regularly attend their classes. They also have to be ready to accept new additions to their classes who are hesitantly making a return to academic learning.
Summerhill is challenging for a teacher. The days are long and the variety of classes and tasks in one day is extraordinary. On Thursday I will return to the topic of teaching with some suggestions as to how you can learn from Summerhill for your school.
If you are interested in starting a conversation send me an email.