Neill was odd. When I speak to people who are setting up schools it is common to come across young couples who are thinking about their future children or parents who are already seeing their children suffering at school. A strong personal interest drives their project for education. Neill did not have children until he had been working for many decades as a teacher. He was odd.
This post is about teachers and teaching in your school. The reason I started by mentioning Neill as a childless bachelor is to dissociate in your mind what might seem like an obvious connection: that schools are founded for the founders’ children. You only have to think about it for a couple of minutes to see how that cannot be the case: what happens when your kids grow up? Does the school cease to function?
This is important with regard to teaching because parents often have misgivings about the endless measuring and testing in mainstream education. They want an environment that is more nurturing, like the home environment. When those parents are the founders of schools they look for teachers who will embody those qualities: who will foster creativity, lead experiential learning, teach through activities, drama and art. They often start schools for their own young children and others of the same age and might expect that this nurturing environment will grow into a fully functioning school for older children.
I think this is a big mistake.
It is very hard to put teachers and teaching in their place when adults have already adopted a nurturing role. It is hard to see how “big family” schools could ever develop into anything like Summerhill.
Summerhill in Neill’s early days was a tough school. There was a fairly dogmatic insistence that children growing up “naturally” did not need adult intervention at all. It was the polar opposite of those schools where nice adults do nice things with the kids and everyone is very caring and tender. Neill tells Bertrand Russell to stop gabbing on about the stars to a child and leave him be. When the children got to the age where they needed to start preparing for examinations it was their job to pull their socks up and get down to work.
I’m going to deal with the subject of leaving children alone in another post. Right now I want to make a couple of fairly contentious statements and then make a few practical suggestions, all to do with teachers and teaching. First, Summerhill has no pedagogy. You want a fancier, nicer way to teach arithmetic; go somewhere else. You want children to learn science through drama; go to a state school. Second, Summerhill was never about being nice to children. Being nice is radically un-Summerhillian because there is an implicit inequality between the person being nice and their victim.
This should be a great relief to school founders. You do not have to find someone who is a believer to be a teacher in your school: it is better for you, your school and your children that the teachers are competent, not that they hold a certain set of ideological positions. Structure your school with the Meeting at the centre of school life and freedom for the children to choose to go to lessons and you are already waving goodbye to discipline problems, bored children in classrooms and all that crazy measuring.
Be deeply suspicious of teachers who are constantly devising fun things to do with the kids. I would rather have an adult who was modelling adult behaviour to children.
Since there is no Summerhill pedagogy and you do not have to be nice to the children you can focus on the practical question: what is the point of school learning? You don’t even need to answer this question yourself: your students will answer it for you. They are all growing up in freedom, enjoying the opportunities that a democratic school gives them to be themselves. They know that they do not need your help to grow up, that they do not need to be watched or measured in order to be sane and healthy. They also know that a part of growing up is extending your boundaries and starting to interact with the wider world.
This is where the curriculum and your teachers come in. So my practical suggestions are these:
- define your core curriculum and hire teachers according to it
- have studios where children can go to work on arts, crafts and IT with adult help if they need it
- give your children regular updates about where they can go with their learning. Let them meet people and ask them questions.
- put a muzzle on the ideologues
We at Summerhill Democratics can help new schools by:
- helping you define your key educational policy statements. This is what your teaching staff sign up for and forms the basis of their contract with you.
- offering training courses for democratic education teachers. We don’t train teachers in how to teach, but we help good teachers clarify their thinking about what it means to be a democratic education teacher.
- setting up and resourcing studios and classrooms. We are experts in setting up spaces for independent and guided learning.
- helping you run careers talks for your children.