Working for love

Mbradford1 (
Sun, 19 Apr 1998 18:09:16 EDT

Melissa from LVS here.

I sent this a couple days ago but I guess it never went through. Here goes
again. (Sorry - it's not from a student.)

There are several comments I want to make regarding points brought initiated
first by Peter, who attended Summerhill.


First the question of low staff quality when there is no pay. I don't know
anything about Summerhill; how it's run or how it chooses staff. I have met
most of the staff from most of the Sudbury schools across the country and I
can say that I have the utmost respect for them. They are truly impressive
people. What has impressed me most does not have to do with their academic
skills or background (which of course is incredibly varied and interesting) so
much as their skills at navigating the immensely difficult road of treating
children with respect, yet not holding back their own opinions; helping when
asked for just the right amount, but not intervening when it's inappropriate;
being fair and wise in JC and School Meeting, and not overly emotional or
swayed by turmoil. Let me tell you, it is a rare person who can do all this!
To me, these qualities are much more important than academic background for a
Sudbury staff member. My attempt at it this year has been laughable in my own
opinion, but I am learning an awful lot - probably more than the students!

As far as staff at our school, we have five staff this year, none of them
paid, (but hopefully will be next year) and here is a sampling of their skills
and backgrounds:

Three have degrees from top Chicago area universities. One has a cosmetology
license. Two have no special degrees. One is a lawyer. Two are certified
teachers. One is a successful musician. One ran his own business. One has
extensive science and math background. One is a professional photographer.
Several speak foreign languages. Two have sewing/craft backgrounds. One
writes poetry. One writes music. Two have extensive
philosophy/religion/history backgrounds. Some are fairly computer literate.

Having said that, I'm sure there are many topics a student might find missing.
That doesn't mean that there is no way for students to get what they need.
One student of ours is interested in automotive repair. This student has
partially pursued taking classes at the junior college and doing an
internship. Will he/she follow through? That remains to be seen - depends on
how interested he/she really is. Staff have done their part to support this
search for studying automotive repair, including finding the contact for the
internship and getting info from the college, but we do not try to "persuade"
this student, no matter how great *we* think it might be for this student to
follow through on this.

Some of our students wanted to learn Spanish, so they wrote a motion which
passed that allocated funds to hire a Spanish teacher. This was several
months ago. Interestingly enough, the students who wrote this motion never
followed up by actually calling the teacher and scheduling something. We're
still waiting. One thing for sure, none of us staff are going to do it! It
is interesting because I remember at the SM that passed this motion, a staff
member questioned whether or not the students were truly motivated enough for
this, given the fact that they could use language tapes or computer programs,
but hadn't been. The actual experience of no one following up has been much
more of a learning experience for these students than a discussion at SM or
anything else.

Peter brought up math. I don't know how Summerhill runs things, but at our
school if you want to learn math, and no teacher has a math background, there
are still many options. You can learn the math together with a staff member,
you can pass a motion at the SM to get a math instructor, you can find a
volunteer in the community to come in and help with math, or you can get a
book and figure it out yourself. (Don't laugh at that last option - it has
happened at many Sudbury schools. I myself have had the experience many times
of having to figure out science and math stuff on my own because my teachers
were either horribly inept or couldn't speak English. And my own daugher has
pretty much figured out how to add on her own, and she seems to have started
working on writing and reading recently.)

Regarding being literate and staff having responsibility for that, I don't
agree. I think we are all responsible for ourselves in that area. I can't
imagine someone making it to age 18 without realizing that he/she will most
likely need to read, write and do basic math to achieve their goals in life.
My daughter, who is 5, clearly, clearly learned the importance of being
literate in math and reading this year just by being at the school around
other kids and staff who were. I wonder what was going on with those
students at Summerhill that Peter asserts are illiterate. What were their
homes like? Where were their parents? Did they come from illiterate
households? How is it that they didn't figure out that literacy is important?
Or what was the attitude toward academics at Summerhill? It sounds like maybe
there are more formal classes there than at a Sudbury school. Perhaps that
could account for some students refusing to become literate. What I mean by
that is - Is there some subtle undercurrent that students "should" take
classes and therefore some students react with rebellion and avoid those
classes? (I don't pose these questions to be insulting - I'm just wondering
if it is a difference between Summerhill and a Sudbury school that could
account for what Peter describes.)

Of course there is the story of the Sudbury graduate who has a PhD in
mathematics but didn't start doing math until, what was it, age 14?, and then
did it mostly on his own. I've heard other Sudbury graduates say, "I'm not
very good at X, but I take full responsibility for that." Another story I
remember reading was about a millionaire who didn't learn to read until
recently - and he was in his 50s. The only person who knew he couldn't read
was his wife. Not even his children could tell. He developed some remarkable
strategies to compensate for his inability to read, and was a very successful
person. He had attended public schools, but had moved a lot as a child. It
was funny, because the article was applauding his courage at finally admitting
he couldn't read, and learning in his 50's, and I was applauding his ability
to succeed without being able to read for all those years.

And think of all the people who graduate from public schools and can't read or
do math. They have had many adults try to persuade them that it was
important. Does Summerhill have a worse literacy rate than a traditional
school? Somehow I doubt it. Certainly there are many people who don't do
well at math, despite having many years of instruction. So they use
calculators and hire accountants. The point is, that a person needs to
realize for him/herself that it is important, and then be self-motivated
enough to do something about it. That is where the characteristics of self-
reliance, of independence, of Sudbury graduates comes from. As far as I know,
there has never been a Sudbury graduate that didn't learn how to read. The
book *Legacy of Trust* is a pretty extensive study of Sudbury graduates. I
can't explain Peter's experience because I don't really know much about
Summerhill or the particular students he describes. That's not to say that I
disagree with looking for weaknesses in the model and addressing them if
necessary. It's just that I'm not yet convinced that the weaknesses are
there. The only actual evidence I've seen has been positive. Peter, can you
be more specific about your evidence of illiteracy?


Another issue that was brought up was the idea of a drop-in center that
includes students of all ages, and internet classes. These ideas address one
problem, but in my opinion they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
One of the central struggles of a Sudbury school is reconciling individual
rights and freedom with community rights and needs. I can't speak enough of
the importance of this struggle. A drop-in center and internet classes simply
can't incorporate this aspect in the same way.

With respect to adults, I agree that learning is a life-long process:
however, it has been my experience that what children learn, need, and bring
to a Sudbury school is (in general) very different from what adults learn,
need, and bring. I personally have found that despite my belief in children's
right to self-determination, it is very challenging as a staff member to see
things from the students' perspective. It is especially hard to sit back and
watch students decide something that seems so clearly a mistake, based on your
adult experience and knowledge, and allow them to learn for themselves the
hard, and long, way, in particular when you think it is a decision that might
be harmful to the school. (I must mention that you often find out that they
were actually right.) Some kids spend a lot of their time just getting used
to having power. The actual rightness or wrongness of their decisions is
secondary to them in comparison to having the freedom to make those decisions.
I think in time things will evolve at our school where there is not such a
division between how the students view issues and how the staff view them -
that has happened already to some extent - but it is a process.

I can't imagine having lots of adults around dropping in as students and
bringing all their adult perspectives and baggage. I would be afraid that it
would really harm the balance of power, among other things. I'm not
suggesting that the adults are unimportant or have nothing to offer: quite
the contrary, but I really feel that a Sudbury school run democratically with
a judicial committee for enforcing rules would not be at all the same if it
were not a place primarily for children with most of the power resting with

Having said all this, I acknowledge that I have not done research on this
subject or tried to develop a school like this. Perhaps the goals would be
much different from those of a Sudbury school. Who knows, maybe it could work
just fine. This is just my gut reaction based on what I have read, discussed
with other Sudbury schools, and experienced myself.


OK I think I covered everything I wanted to say. Just one more comment. I
guess it is in response to the "cult" notion. Please keep in mind that the
people who actively participate in this list (post things) may not have any
connection to, or experience with, an actual Sudbury school. Actually, it
seems that few do, mostly (my guess) because many of the Sudbury schools'
staff are too busy or just not that into internet discussion groups. And in
my experience most of the students are too busy living the model to spend much
time talking about it. Even if more staff or students did participate, I
think you would find that not even those directly involved in a Sudbury school
agree with what a "Sudbury school" means! That to me is definitely a sign
that it is not a cult. My point is, I don't think it's judicious to cry
"cult" based on the discussion on this list.

Someone who appears intolerant of criticism may indeed be so, but have no
direct affiliation with Sudbury schools, or may just be someone who holds very
strong opinions, and others respond defensively. A very common problem many
Sudbury schools have is people read about this educational philosophy, study
it, discuss it, say they agree with it, and then when it comes down to
practicing it, find out that they didn't really believe in it after all. They
might decide it was a weakness in the model, when to those involved with the
model it seems much more like they really didn't understand it. I say that
because many of us in Sudbury schools have seen people get hung up on the same
things over and over again. Often people are looking for a kind and gentle
place, rather than a rough, frustrating yet very rewarding, place. This
experience tends to make one much more blunt over time. Some people interpret
that as intolerant or closed-minded. I think of it as helping people self-
select out in the beginning so that they don't get involved and then later
tear apart the community by pulling out and claiming "You didn't meet our
educational needs!" And it does get a little tiresome to get attacked by
people who haven't read the Sudbury materials or visited a Sudbury school yet
think they know all about it. (Not referring to people on this list so much
as general experience.)

Anyway, excuse me - I'm late for my next brainwashing session. (Insert smiley
face here.) Looking forward to further discussion....