Who’s Responsible For This?

As a former high school teacher and longtime Sudbury advocate, I’m pretty mindful of how different these two paradigms are for the adults and students who live them. My relatively new Twitter habit has really brought this out for me, enhancing my appreciation for what this contrast entails.

My tweeting counterparts in conventional schools frequently describe the burdens teachers shoulder on a daily basis. I remember from my own years in that system the weighty, unceasing responsibility of deciding what to teach students, and how: how to chop up and frame the material, how to get students motivated and keep them engaged, how to measure what they’ve learned. And of course all this instruction can only occur when teachers succeed at what’s known in the business as “classroom management.”

Yes, I remember quite vividly what a struggle teaching was, and this makes me all the more grateful I found my way to Sudbury schooling. While my duties as a staff member do include teaching, they extend more broadly to mentoring and building relationships with students, plus helping run and grow the school. In this environment I have discretion over how to do my job, working as part of a non-hierarchical team that frequently stretches me in new ways. Being on staff at a Sudbury school is demanding, but the challenges are more authentic and fulfilling than I’ve experienced anywhere else.

In both Sudbury and conventional schooling, adults take on serious responsibilities. In mainstream schools, however, so much of the responsibility for learning is placed on the adults. No wonder working there is so demanding and exhausting! Content, scheduling, activities, instruction and assessment, not to mention classroom and school management—teachers and principals are in charge of all these things, because it’s assumed young people can’t or won’t take responsibility for their own learning.

Contrast that with the distribution of responsibilities at a Sudbury school. Staff are available for support when asked, and they’re responsible for ensuring that the school stays open. Beyond that, though, students learn early on that the responsibility for what they learn, for their choices and behavior—for what they get out of their Sudbury experience—is ultimately theirs. In effect, we tell young people ages 5 to 19 (more or less), “it’s your life—what do you want to do with it?”

In the prevailing paradigm, the vast majority of significant decisions are made for students throughout their school careers; in the other, it’s up to students to decide what’s worth their time, to identify and achieve goals, to determine how well they’re progressing. In one, responsible adults run the show; in the other, young people practice the skills and tasks of responsible adults. Which paradigm do you think more likely to foster mature, critical thinkers, people with the drive, flexibility, and persistence to craft fulfilling lives?

After all these years, it remains difficult for me to criticize my counterparts in more conventional schools because I know how hard they work, how much they care, how dedicated they are to making a difference. That makes the effects of that paradigm all the more regrettable. Specifically, I’m thinking of the tendency for adults in that system to assume qualities of saviors and/or martyrs. Teachers are sacrificing themselves, it’s true, and they deserve much better than they get.

However, I think we should aspire to something greater, to a system where no one needs to be sacrificed, neither young people nor adults. In most schools, teachers and principals are overworked and undervalued, while students’ growth is limited and/or distorted by a well-intentioned, controlling degree of guidance and direction. I’m reminded of Piaget’s saying that “when you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.”

Let’s put responsibility back where it belongs. Let’s not blame teachers or students for the way most schools are, but instead let’s create better options, ones that give young people the responsibility, respect, and trust they need to grow into effective adults.

 

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