I think adults who work in democratic free schools like Summerhill have to get used to being governed by the Meeting and the Community. What does it all mean? What is the Community?
Summerhill has been called an island. The people on that island make up my community. This is a different meaning to the word than you might have in a Community College, for example. A school becomes a Community College by opening its doors: parents, local businesses and associations, politicians and other figures all flood in; the school is not the community; the community takes in the school. A democratic school, by contrast, can only become a community when it pulls up the drawbridge and its members address one another in equality and respect.
I can’t talk about the sense of community in a democratic free school without making that distinction first. Community is everyone involved in the day-to-day running of the school; people who can vote in the Meeting. It does not include neighbors and friends, family and parents. You can’t have that many people involved in a school and retain equality.
What does equality mean? It is obviously not the case that a student in one of your classes is exactly the same as you are as the teacher. You are the teacher, they are the student. You have a deeper level of understanding of the subject matter, you have education and life experience that your students do not have. It is clear that you are not the same.
But you are equal
You are equal in a school like Summerhill because, whatever your education and experience, it does not give you the right in the school to impinge on the right of another member of the community to enjoy their own freedom. For example, by virtue of being a teacher, you do not have the role of ensuring that people outside your classroom behave one way or another. The community, through the Meeting, gives that responsibility to the people it chooses: they may be adults and they may not.
Even if the community elects people to hold posts, such as ombudsmen and beddies officers, the holders of those posts only have the authority of the meeting when they are acting in their role. This means that the school is profoundly egalitarian. It is not an hierarchical structure where those at the top get more privileges and responsibilities than the rest.
Got that. Move on.
“Yeah, yeah, I got that,” you say.
But it is easy to get it slightly wrong. I made a lot of mistakes in that line verging from “soppy-stern” to permissive. It does not go against equality for you to tell someone to shut up in the dining room, or to get out of your room, or to stop doing something dangerous. It does not go against equality for you to behave as a normal responsible adult.
You are an adult member of a community of equals.
You don’t have to twist yourself into knots trying to be Mr Nice and you don’t have to come over as Mr Strict either. When you get it right, you can just be yourself happy that the kids will ignore you when they want to and attend to you when they want to, too. You don’t have to pretend to like their music and you don’t have to hide the fact that you have your own serious interests. In that way you are allowing children to be children and yourself to be an adult.
You are saying, “You are OK just the way you are. You will grow up in your own time.”
Neill comes back to misunderstandings about freedom all the time in his writing. No, it is not freedom and equality to allow a child to be a complete brat: that is licence. When a child becomes a tyrant there is no equality. You can tell her to get her feet off the piano.
So, one of the key qualities in adults who want to work in democratic schools is the ability to adapt to a situation of radical equality without letting themselves be tramped all over or smothered by children. You can probably learn how to do it, but some people suffer more than others.
You may never “get it”. That is not your fault. It depends a lot on your personality and where you grow up. Some people just can’t get past the idea that it is their job to tell kids how to run their lives. There are plenty of places for them to work other than democratic schools.