Qualities of Teachers-  Understanding

Qualities of teachers are important: understanding is one of these qualities.  This is as true in the local comprehensive as it is at Summerhill.  However, when a school has a unique philosophy the teacher must make an extra effort to understand.  This is the first of a series on qualities of teachers in democratic education.  In it I want to talk about some of the qualities of understanding that good democratic school teachers should have.

Five Key Areas of Understanding


Summerhill has a unique philosophy.  It has been running for nearly a century with that philosophy and there is plenty of material out there to help understanding: the books of A.S. Neill, articles and academic studies and biographical studies.  At the school Policy Statements and the Staff Handbook can help guide a new teacher.  There are also generations of Summerhillians, including the Readhead family, who have a clear feeling for how things should be.

Why is this so important?

  • Teachers at Summerhill do not have the same authority they might have in other schools.
  • What they teach can seem marginal to the full life of the school.
  • It is easy to slip up in the first couple of years.
  • Your qualifications, intelligence and experience may not be relevant there.

You can buy the book here:  Abe Books


You need to learn some humility.  I interviewed one teacher who told me all the things he wanted to change and was offended when I suggested that he should follow the guidelines for the first couple of years.  He didn’t get the job.  Reading the documents, you see, is not all there is to it.  It is not easy to put theory into practice.  It is not easy, for example, to accept that one of your students will correct you on your understanding of the school.

  • Don’t be an egomaniac
  • Allow yourself to be corrected
  • Don’t assume that your knowledge and experience will improve the school
  • If you have great ideas for a different kind of school- go out there and found it!

Kids by Age

Summerhill cover

The development of kids at Summerhill is different to the development of kids in other schools.  It takes a while to get used to this and understand it.  Working in any alternative or democratic school would be the same.  You cannot go into a free democratic school and start measuring kids by the same criteria you use in other schools.

  • If you stop pressuring kids they grow up differently
  • They may not have the same academic skills
  • They may seem more mature at an earlier age
  • BUT they will play as children much longer.

The Curriculum

Summerhill School has teachers who offer classes.  The kids have the option to go or not go to the classes, but the classes themselves are more or less conventional.  This means that the school needs teachers who a fairly conventional understanding of teaching.

  • Understand the Curriculum and how their subject specialism fits into it
  • Have a deep understanding of their subject specialism
  • Understand the different levels in their subject, what comes before and what come after.

You can read our series about the Reduced Curriculum for a start.

Reduced Curriculum 1

Reduced Curriculum 2

Reduced Curriculum 3


Finally, to be a successful democratic school teacher you have to understand yourself.  Why are you doing this?  Do you feel that your life was misspent in the classroom?  Will that affect the way that you give classes?  You have to think this through because those kids you are teaching are not you.  They may want you to be precisely what you are rebelling against: a sound teacher, a clear explainer of ideas, an organized and disciplined guide through the curriculum.

  • Summerhill is not a place for you to live out your own lost childhood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment