Starting Out

Starting Out

8 Ways to Kick into Gear

There is a difference between thinking up a good idea and getting down to work with it. We know this at Summerhill Democratics because we are human like everyone else: we can trip up on the same roadblocks that stop other people advancing with their projects. In this post I want to think about what those roadblocks might be and how to get around them.

1 Too many great ideas
You want to start an educational project and you get together a group of friends. “Oh, Summerhill,” says one. “No, the Wilds,” says another. “Emilia Reggia.” “Montessori.” “Steiner.” You end up not knowing what you are about: is it creative teaching, child-centred direction, non-direction, feeling in touch with your inner angel or just the rejection of a system that you don’t like?

Summerhill is not like that. Freedom of choice and democratic meetings. From one phrase the rest of it comes. That is why we encourage the leaders of educational projects to get together right at the beginning of their project and sort out in a few words what it is about- clear words that everyone can understand. A strong defining philosophy will give the project greater resilience and you will be able to explain it to your staff, your parents and your critics.

Can you do that? If you need help, get in touch. We are not going to shove Summerhill down your throat- our motto is Your School, Your Way- but we can help you think clearly about what your school is for.

2 Baleful perfectionism
“I don’t think the wording on the policy on assessment is quite the way it should be.”
Are you kidding me? You are going to capsize your whole project because one line of one policy statement is not quite right!
“No, no, of course not. But there are other problems as well. Like the colour of the tiles in the toilets. You see, I’ve been looking into it and there is a direct relation between colour and emotion…”

If you have a perfectionist on your team you have to get them into order. Perfectionists feel like they are helping out by picking holes in the project, but refusing to move forward because of doubts and indecisions is a sign of weakness, not strength.

We can help you with your core management team. We can coach you through the process of defining the purpose of the project, setting goals and taking realistic steps to achieve them. Sometimes an outsider who can redirect you to action when you have been derailed by perfectionism is helpful.

3 The inner self-critic
“It’s all going badly and it’s because of me. What was I thinking? I don’t have the intelligence or the experience to do this. It’s no wonder no one takes me seriously. They didn’t take me seriously when I was a child either.”

No, you do not need therapy! These thoughts have probably passed through everyone’s head at some point, and you are none the less, none the weaker, for it. It is natural to feel that you are not up to a big challenge, and it is reasonable to doubt yourself when you reach a moment of difficult decision.

We at Summerhill Democratics can help you through the moments of self-doubt by re-focussing your attention on the clear reasons you gave us for starting the project in the first place. We are on your side! When you start to doubt yourself we can be a dispassionate friend from outside who pats you down and helps you back into the ring.

4 Failing to ask for advice
“Why would I ask for advice? It’s all on the internet, isn’t it? God, no, I don’t want to waste my time talking to someone else about it.”

This kind of bluster comes from someone who does not really know what he is talking about. It is completely understandable if you are cooking a pie and want to look for a recipe. It is understandable if you are pruning your apple trees or making cement. But starting a school is a different enterprise altogether.

When you look at the structural integrity of the buildings of your school you call in an expert and pay them for their analysis. You do the same with the electrics, the plumbing, the roofing, the fire escape plan and internet. Sure, you could do these things for yourself, but you don’t because you know you are going to be inspected and, frankly, why take the risk?

Is starting a school really so much easier? Are you really happy to give everyone free rein without any professional guidance? If you want to talk about how advice can help, get in touch.

5 Failing to listen to advice when asked for
Sometimes we are resistant to the advice that comes to us. I know I am. If I am cooking and someone comes in and starts telling me what temperature the stove should be or how much salt I should add, my first instinct is not to say, “Oh, thanks for your wonderful advice.” It is to take the chopping knife and stick it into the advisor.

We try not to be smart Alecs at Summerhill Democratics, because consultation is not about telling you what you should be doing: shoulds, oughtas and had betters just end up making you feel frustrated and undervalued. It’s “your school, your way” so our intention is to gather as much information from you as we can, ask the right questions, help you to come up with an action plan and then follow you through to completion.

Our consultation plan reflects this with detailed questionnaires before we even start talking. For our focussed consultations by Skype we prepare an agenda, research the items on it, talk and then send minutes and a summary of actions.

6 One bad apple spoils the bunch!
It’s true of apples but it is not true of projects. If you have a hiccup in your procedures, even if it is your fault, that should not imperil the whole project. Say someone takes their child out of your school accusing you of failing to protect the child from bullying. You investigate the case and have a sensation that there is some truth in it that you do not want to accept.
“Perhaps the school is no good,” your internal voice tells you. “Perhaps I am not good enough to be doing this job.”

But it is not true. Don’t make big generalising conclusions from individual incidents. Tell yourself, “It is not the incident itself but the way I react to it that will prove my worth.”

You are in education and you would not treat your students with the same level of harshness you treat yourself. Give yourself a break: just because something goes wrong, that does not mean that the whole plan needs to be changed, abandoned or passed on to someone else.

7 Lack of money
You need money to start a school. There are no two ways about this. You can take your child out of school and home-educate for a small investment in text books but setting up a school is an entirely different game. This means that you are talking about large sums of money even to get going with a project. It is disheartening.

However, you need to think about this in the right terms. No single person is going to have enough money to start a school. Starting a school is like starting a business and has to obey a different magnitude of financial logic to the logic you use to pay your household expenses. What this means is that you can look for financing to get the project off the ground, and you can come up with a financial plan that makes sense over the mid-term to recoup that investment.

There are other people who are better qualified than we are at Summerhill Democratics to help you with fundraising and financial planning. However, we think that one of the very first expenses you need to think about investing in- before you have a building, before you start talking to parents, before you start dreaming about the curriculum- is some solid help in consultation with us. We can help you design a project that will convince you, your investors and your future parents more.

Don’t put the cart before the horse!

8 Disputes in the team
Teamwork is not easy. Even when there are only two or three in the team there can be disagreements about major issues. If you extend that to a whole staff, you can expect trouble unless you have a firm centre that will not wobble off course.

My experience of teaching is that teamwork in a strict sense rarely takes place in most schools and is often of indifferent quality. Even at Summerhill teachers are the bosses in their own spaces. This means that modern management techniques that are designed for situations where there really is teamwork do not transfer well to schools. Personally, I would rather have a competent science teacher who was not a team player than an incompetent science teacher who was.

You have to think carefully about what disputes are “allowable” in your team. By this I mean that there are some decisions that will only ever be made by management. Your staff can discuss what they think the philosophy of the school should be, they can even argue with each other about it, but they should never have a voice in it so that it comes to the level of a dispute.

If you keep the philosophy of your school clear and understandable and ensure that it is fully understood by the core team- the management- then you will have the freedom to employ people from all different traditions without imperilling your project. You can have a traditional art teacher who happens to be a very good artist, for example, and he will not be able to nudge the whole ship off course.

We can help you think about the different levels of decision-making and involvement you need in your project. Get in touch and we will help you start your project.