Qualities of Teachers- Organization and Planning

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Good teachers are organized.  In this post I want to talk about the ability to plan as a key quality of democratic teachers. Teachers in Democratic Free Schools can plan the three areas: the curriculum, time and spaces.

Let’s start by looking at the curriculum.  We have already said in our PDF about the reduced curriculum that we are puzzled when teachers ask us for the reduced curriculum on a plate.  We think that one of the key qualities of a good teacher is to be able to take the National Curriculum of their own country and adapt it to their own purposes.

The ability to plan what is going to happen in the teaching space is one of the most important qualities of a teacher.  This is true at Eton, the local Comprehensive School or Summerhill.  Sometimes it seems like the teacher’s hands are tied by rigid curriculum controls, strict management or pressures from parents.  However, in a democratic free school the teacher will be freed from many of these shackles.  She will have the freedom to plan space and time to a much greater degree than in other settings.

This creates opportunities and problems.

Opportunites and Problems

The opportunities are self-evident.  If you reduce the curriculum to the bare essentials, you free the learner from a lot of the mindless repetition that goes into conventional schooling.  You help them to move to the next level but you don’t overburden them with content.  You free yourself to engage in many other activities, provided the school is sufficiently staffed and well governed.

The problems become apparent as time goes by.  If you give children free choice then the predictability of the machine model of education goes out the window.  It is more than likely that you will have to deal with multiple entry points: children at many different levels of skills and knowledge wanting to access the curriculum on their own terms.

Planning is central

Teachers need the ability to plan their space and time so that it gives the best opportunity to those children to re-engage with formal learning when they are ready.  In my experience, the lower primary and secondary levels present fewer problems than the junior level.  A democratic school primary classroom does not have to be markedly different from a well-functioning primary classroom in a state school.  Sure, there are absurd schools where the little kids are lined up in rows and marched around as though they were in the army, but there are plenty of good lower primary classrooms.  The good schools have activity areas, reading areas, multiple activities and pleasant and engaging displays.  I would say that a teacher who can plan this kind of space would be quite capable of working in a democratic school for small children without having to jump through ideological hoops.

At the other end of the spectrum, when children are preparing for exterior exams, the planning of space and time is similarly uncomplicated.  A class in Spanish, English, Mathematics or Science should not look that much different in a democratic school to a class in any other school.  The examination syllabus is the same, the objective is the same and the aspiration of the students to get the requisite tokens to go on and study at another level is also the same.

It seems to me that most secondary school teachers should be able to fall back on some fairly straightforward space and time planning strategies.  The space should be clean, welcoming and uncluttered.  I tend to prefer neutral, even minimalist, teaching spaces over spaces impregnated with the personality of the teacher.  Clean neutrality sends out a strong message of impartiality.  That is a personal preference.  As for time, the secondary school democratic school teacher should be able to plan a series of lessons so that they run together in a coherent group.  He should be able to plan time across the school year so that children are prepared when external examinations come around.  He should also have weekly and daily plans.  This means working back from the bigger plans to smaller units: chunking down.  As I said before, the teacher will be doing this with a reduced curriculum.  This addresses the essential elements of the study plan so as to give children the maximum amount of freedom possible.

Junior Level- a Separate Case

Early primary and examination groups seem to require a similar set of planning skills in a demed teacher to what you might find in the mainstream.  This is not the case at the Junior level.   Here I am talking about children between ages 9-14.  At Summerhill this comprises Class 2 and Class 3.

Why is planning for these age groups so different?  It is partly to do with the core ideas of Curriculum Reduction.  The aim of reducing the curriculum is to give children the maximum amount of freedom and choice. This means we will be faced with a peculiar set of problems in children aged 9-14.  They will have grown out of the friendly homeroom of the younger children.  They will be mature and balanced in their free play.  However, they will not be even remotely ready to start thinking about examinations and their future.

This is the age where, at Summerhill, the informal curriculum takes off.  It consists of all of those activities that fill children’s lives with learning and interest.  You might object to my use of the word curriculum here, but I refer you to the PDF for a fuller explanation of exactly what I mean.  The point is precisely that children in this age range frequently learn more and better through activities and project work that they can undertake under their own initiative. With the guiding hand of a responsible expert, who might be another student, they can achieve more than they do in formal classes where they are apt to get bored and fidgety.

Teachers need to be able to plan spaces that are sufficiently open to encourage participation in a wide range of activities.  They need to be smart enough to design activity areas where children can initiate projects of their own creation and combine those activities with formal classes when they need them.  They will also need to plan their timetables so that they are giving reasonable and fair access to their time to all the children who need it.

Keep the Focus on Teaching

A teaching space is not a lounge.  Teachers need to have a certain firmness of character in order to insist on boundaries and maintain their self-respect.  It is easy to lose sight of this in a democratic free school.  For example, if the teacher has an entirely casual approach to lessons, believing that because it is a democratic school it does not matter if he is late, messy, disorganized or unclean, the inevitable result will be a decline in respect for his person and the lessons he gives.  This is only natural.

Sometimes teachers get the false idea that because it is a democratic school they cannot insist on an atmosphere appropriate to what is being taught in their classroom.  This was never the case at Summerhill.  The teacher’s classroom was their space.  They had the right to eject people who were disrespectful or disruptive and discipline was never a big problem for the teacher.  They had the same right as anyone else in the community to bring up in the Meeting issues that concerned them, and there was a general acceptance that reasonable silence outside the classrooms should be respected at lesson times.

Summerhill and Smaller Schools

I want to finish this post by looking for a moment at smaller schools.  Summerhill has seventy to ninety children at any one time.  Many schools, however, start with a very small roll that might go from ten to twenty.  The children can range from 6-16 years.

The issues of planning the curriculum, time and spaces are particularly acute for small schools.  With fewer teachers covering more ground, planning is even more important than in larger schools, where at least individual specialists can focus on their own area.  For this reason, we think it is essential to have a timetable in a smaller school.  A timetable gives children dedicated time.  If you read the Reduced Curriculum PDF, you will find that having a timetable is mainly a device for teacher planning: if a child signs up for everything available she should still have the majority of her time for pursuing her own interests and passions.

This has a knock-on regarding the planning of spaces.  In a small school, you will need to make sure that the spaces are responding to different needs.  For example, there must be quiet time so that children who are studying or reading can get on with what they are doing without interruptions.  When spaces are at a premium this is partly achieved by planning time.  The same space can be noisy at one time and quiet at another; it can be a play room at 11 and a study room at 1.

The ability to think about and plan the use of spaces across time is a key feature of an effective democratic school teacher.  Ineffective teachers have fossilized ideas about what things should be like.  They either promote noisy investigation all the time or constantly demanding quiet.  Sophisticated teachers have the ability to plan spaces and time.  Planning helps them deliver an effective curriculum to children regardless of their level and prior learning.

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