Qualities of Teachers : Personality of Teachers and Schools

Clara was an experienced but frustrated state school Science teacher and very much wanted to find a better situation for herself. One Friday evening, over drinks, a friend told her about Summerhill. The philosophy interested her and she bought the book, Summerhill, and then visited the school; over the next year she made visits to a couple of democratic day schools, read more books and checked out various websites. After the visits and the research Clara was still not sure what working in a democratic free school would actually be like, except that she would probably get less pay and have to move away from home. Clara looked and looked for likely positions but for a long time there was nothing; then out of the blue her mom was talking to a friend of a friend who mentioned the DM democratic school was advertising for a science teacher. She went to the web page, hesitated, then thinking that she wouldn’t get the job anyway, “So why not,” Clara applied. Two weeks later she was asked to an interview. Happy, but in a mild panic, Clara started to worry if she could cope in a ‘free’ environment.  Words like these were ultimately confusing:

‘Teaching at DM is a creative challenge. We want staff to be part of a democratic school experience where children have free choice of action in democratic community. It is important that the children know that you value play and classroom activities equally; that you value classroom activities and play equally.’

Clara did not need to worry

Clara needn’t have worried:

For a start, DM wanted an excellent Science teacher, who could organise an attractive learning space, and deliver a well-planned curriculum. And that was Clara. DM did not want someone who said, “ Well, I just finished cycling across the alps and then for the last six months I’ve taught myself juggling and have started a butterfly collection. I’m sure the kids would love it.” I know you think I exaggerate. I don’t.

Of course, if that person has a solid Science teaching background and also cycled the alps and could offer those extras fine and dandy. To joke a bit, there used to be a lot of inexperienced schools 45 years ago that would approach the situation in reverse: “Yay she cycles and juggles and has a butterfly collection ! Seems like maybe she can teach Science. Let’s hire her.” This, thank goodness, is no longer the case.

What, by the way, should Clara expect, be looking for ? Because an applicant for a democratic free school position should also be testing out, ‘interviewing’ the school. Just because a school claims it’s ‘one of those cool places’ doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good place to work.

A good place to work

Democratic free schools like DM will have :

  • a clear vision statement
  • accessible critical policy documents
  • clear job descriptions
  • clear staff assessment and complaint procedures

They will have clear structures in place for:

  • the day, the week, the term
  • defining the laws of the community
  • well run democratic meeting and law making procedures

It will be easy to identify:

  • rights of community members
  • responsibilities of community members
  • the rights of teachers
  • the rights of children as learners.

A school like DM will have an easily understood management structure and business model.

If a school is missing a lot of the above an applicant should be suspicious and as democratic free school ‘apprentice’ should probably look elsewhere; don’t be desperate, or in a rush.

A clearly drawn landscape

And a well-run democratic free school should also be a clearly drawn ‘daily’ landscape. New children and staff should be able to look about, make good sense of what’s happening, of traditions and procedures and easily follow along. Democratic meetings will be regular and a place where everyone can listen to news, issues and discussion, take part as much as they want, and vote if they want. What can and cannot be voted on will be clearly defined.

At DM Clara will not be going into a wild west community where marauding children maraud but into a very sensibly structured freedom-not-licence situation where kids will impress her with their good sense, friendliness and charming independence. And as an equal member of the community she can tell people off, give them her opinion, tell them to stop doing this or that if it is licence or breaking the laws. And, actually, once the children get comfortable with Clara she will carry considerable weight as an adult, if she acts like a reasonable adult.

If hired, she will meet weekly with a staff mentor. She will be in charge of her classroom and will be expected to make sure it’s attractive, well organised and safe. Clara is also in charge of her own curriculum, schemes of work and methods of light touch assessment and ‘in class’ record keeping. She will understand how management will monitor her work. Quality control is natural; it’s only fair to children and parents.

Clara will most likely have small classes and the students will be somewhat age and ability mixed. Clara should have a relaxed personality that does not overpower a small group or a small room. Staff in democratic schools can have much more influence on children than in a state school and it’s essential to be aware of this. Students will care what Clara thinks and feels and will worry how their decisions will affect her. They must know that she is neutral regarding lessons … that not doing the work or not coming to class is just fine … that she won’t be sad !

In an experienced school Clara will not have to do much crowd control since the children have chosen to turn up. On the other hand kids are kids and sometimes new students will test an adult whether it’s Summerhill or not. Human beings are not angels. At such times Clara then can rely on school policy structure and law. She can ask for a workable teaching environment and if a child is disruptive she can ask him to leave. Clara can say, “ If you disagree we can have an ombudsman case after the lesson or you can bring me up in a meeting.” In 12 years at Summerhill I think I asked students to leave maybe three times and they did so without complaint. If you end up observing democratic school classrooms or learning spaces where students are regularly out of control then there is something wrong with the democratic school. Get out of there.

A sense of humour

If Clara has a bit of humour that works well. Humour creates a good bond with others and shows she don’t take everything, or herself too seriously … just seriously enough. She needs to be sensitive to the self-esteem feelings of small groups where children can more easily detect ability differences; that has to be gently dealt with.

As I have said, Clara needs to be flexible and accept students who have not come to lessons without remarking upon that … especially phrases like,  “ Oh Bill, how we’ve missed you !” But it’s good for Clara to be practical, “ Okay I’ll get to you in a few minutes and show you what we’ve been doing but first I want to get the rest up and running.” In a private moment there’s also no problem saying to Bill that he hasn’t been coming to enough lessons to be able to write the state exam at the end of the year, and that he needs to think about that, though it’s his choice.

No matter how much prep Clara does, if the students don’t show up she has no right to feel let down. And Clara needs to be able to calmly accept a student who shows up for the very first time, assess casually, and offer appropriate lessons at whatever level is presented to her. Every level is equal and not attached to an age continuum. Though Clara must be aware of such continuums in the longer arc of a student’s learning.

So a democratic free school teacher should be friendly, accepting, appear small, be sensitive, offer no pressure re attendance, but be able to deliver realistic information when appropriate.

Keep out of the way of students

Clara should also keep out of the way of students; they need to be left alone to feel they are responsible for their own learning, feel that they can solve their own problems, can organise themselves by themselves. When students need assistance, move in and offer. If they don’t, keep away. Do as little for the students as possible. After all a democratic free school is there to foster freedom, independence and the opportunity for free choice of action in democratic community. It is not a democratic baby-sitting service or multi-activity West Indies cruise ship. It is a place of empty spaces; empty for possibilities, for exploration, for growth. Boredom can be useful and creative. Clara should not rush to prevent child boredom. It’s not her responsibility.

If children need Clara need they will find her. In the classroom she should retreat and have a coffee. Don’t hover and stare. The ability to vanish out of the consciousness of the children is a technique to be aimed at. No footprint. The opposite of , “ The eternally remembered, special teacher.” A democratic free school teacher should strive to be forgotten… you won’t be by the way, but will be greatly admired for trying.

A great democratic free school teacher must not  need  the presence and energy of children to be personally fulfilled. Clara is not a child is not a buddy. She is an adult member of a democratic community and a teacher. Let the children have their unique child world with as little interruption as possible.

One of the charms of a democratic free school is that adults can be themselves as people to a great degree. They can be a teacher and an equal community member with an authentic personality. Indeed, in a successful adult-child school community of basic equality it is pretty much impossible to hide core personality. Adult ‘presence’ will remain, though … because Clara is an adult. Children want adults to be adults; for a sense of security, for advice, for comfort … the normal reasons children will often seek out adults. Children do not want adults to be kids. They know lots of real kids and Clara isn’t one of them.

Of course, children enjoy it when adults play games with them, or joke about with them, do sports or crafts with them. This has nothing to do with the ‘vanishing’ principle. It is the natural ‘sometimes’ relationship that children sometimes choose to have with adults. Zoe said to me, “One reason children like adults to play a game is because they know there will probably be less arguing and messing about … Tom says, “ When Alex joins in Bill and Harry don’t dare keep breaking the rules just cause he’s there.” Children know when adults are fun … as well as useful. I hope you can discern these differences.

And oh, Clara did get the job and is in her third successful year at DM.

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