Teachers Without Masks: a Sudbury Alternative

A few years ago, I wrote a dozen posts as an education blogger for Change.org. Since they’ve recently taken down much of their older content, I’ll be resurrecting some of those posts here, in lightly edited form. The following was originally uploaded on June 13, 2009.

Google Group discussion of Sudbury schooling recently featured an interesting article from Teacher Magazine. Written by Anthony Cody, the article responds to Suze Orman’s assertion that “students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered.” Cody admits,  “We can only teach what we actually embody.”

One of the teachers I learned the most from…told me, “The subject your students are studying is you. They watch everything you do.” He helped me understand that when I taught my students, I was showing them the way a man could behave in the world, the way he respected women, the way he dealt with conflict. All these things were part of teaching—way beyond how many protons there are in the nucleus of a carbon atom…

So Suze Orman is right in suggesting that we cannot teach empowerment unless we are empowered. But this got me thinking a bit more. Are we actually even trying to teach our students to exert power over their own lives?

It seems as if students are being taught the exact opposite. Learn what is on the test, because it is on the test, and doing well on this test will prepare you for the next set of tests, and at some point you will finally finish all the tests and be ready—for what? Certainly not for acting in a powerful way in relationship to the world or those around you!

Those who have read my bio know that prior to my move to Sudbury schooling, I taught in public schools. Today I’d like to consider the differences between these two models from a teacher’s-eye view. I agree with Cody that our students study us, and that we teach them far more by example than we ever could in lessons. However, most of the time, in most schools, this sort of instruction is buried beneath an avalanche of mandates and an undemocratic power structure.

When I taught high school, I could never get past the feeling that it was all a performance. My character’s name was Mr. Smith, and the most prominent feature of his costume was the necktie. In the classroom, Mr. Smith was a figure of some power: he made the rules, evaluated everyone’s performance on tasks he set, and controlled students’ freedom of movement. Yet when it came to the conditions of his workplace, Mr. Smith had little to no power. His daily schedule, the curriculum, and the hiring of personnel at his school—these things and more were decided somewhere else, by unknown others, and simply imposed on him and his colleagues.

What’s more, genuine connections between teachers and students were rendered virtually impossible. After all, one must get through lessons and prepare for tests, and you only have 50 minutes a day, 180 days a year, to do so; then new combinations of students and teachers must go through the same routine. In such a setting, it seems to me what most students learn from their teachers is that it’s okay to accept situations where you’re disempowered, where you do things of questionable value and relevance because, well, that’s just the way things are done: do what you’re told, complain to the administration and school board if you want—and good luck with that.

With this kind of institutional dynamic, the need of students to learn who their teachers (and, I should add, their fellow students) really are is severely marginalized. There is little opportunity for teachers and students to know each other in any substantive way, no way for this deeper learning to occur. What’s really going on in the world, as well as each other’s lives, takes a back seat to an agenda dictated by people with no direct, personal stake in what’s learned. I think a lot of my public-school students liked me, and got something out of my classes; but in retrospect, I fear the demands of that system sharply curtailed their most valuable learning opportunities.

What’s the lesson here? Disempowerment diminishes learning. When teachers aren’t free to teach, and when curricula and testing are valued over students’ individual needs, everyone loses.

Fortunately, Sudbury schooling extends to its teachers, as well as its students, real empowerment. In fact, the one job title at Sudbury schools is “staff,” since the work involves so much more than simply teaching. All staff members combine conventional functions of instruction, administration, and counseling; more fundamentally, we serve as mentors and role models. Staff work together, with no one person in charge, to do whatever it takes to keep their schools running and growing, supporting students as they go about the business of learning life. In this kind of setting everyone’s strengths are maximized, their needs met in the most effective way possible, with maximal flexibility.

Because the power structure at Sudbury schools is democratic, there is no need to maintain an aura of separateness about the staff, no need to prop up their authority. Staff members are addressed by their first names, same as anyone. And because students can attend one school over several years—as many as twelve or more—they get to know their “teachers” remarkably well. In fact, our schools feel less like institutions than extended families in which children benefit from growing up with multiple aunts, uncles and grandparents, as well as siblings.

When teachers are fully respected and given the power they deserve, they are in turn more capable of respecting and empowering their students. Ellen Berg, one of Anthony Cody’s colleagues in the Teacher Leaders Network Forum, shared her view that

If our children leave school with anything, they should leave with the sense that they have choices, and that they are in control of their lives. As people, we can’t control what happens, but we can control how we react to situations and whether we learn from the horrible things in life.

I’ve sometimes described my Sudbury career as “everything I loved about teaching, with none of the b.s.” I still believe that, but it now occurs to me that the correlation between empowered teachers and effective education is what really matters. It’s past time we fully respect everyone involved in education, so that young people may enjoy lives where, as Ms. Berg says, “they have choices, and [know] they are in control.” 


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