How involved should the staff be?

Sudbury schools tend towards a “hands-off” approach. We don’t tell kids what to do, apart from basic rules like “Don’t hit people”. We don’t force them to take classes. We don’t give them assignments. We don’t force them to learn one topic or the other. And that’s great!

Some people take this too far, though. Some people think that the staff should never initiate any sort of activity. The staff’s job is to do clerical work and make sure that the kids are physically safe, and nothing else. What if some kids are bored, though? Well then, you’ve got to stand back and let them figure it out for themselves. If you so much as suggest an activity, you are automatically pressuring the kids.

I think this is based on a traditional view of how adults and children can interact. Our culture provides many examples of adults domineering kids, so some of us get the impression that dominance is pretty much the only possible way for adults and kids to interact. Therefore, the only way to let kids be kids is to limit their interactions with adults.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Sure, sure, there are definitely pushy people out there, including folks who dress up their demands as “suggestions”. But there are also people who honestly respect the kids, who truly intend a suggestion as a suggestion and nothing more, and who are quite willing to back off when they see that they’re not wanted. It’s this latter group that should staff at Sudbury schools, and it should be perfectly fine if they initiate activities now and then, so long as nobody is actually pressured to join in.

The book “What it Means to Staff a Sudbury School” includes some discussions on this point. This is a great quote:

For me, the student-staff relationship at Sudbury schools is based primarily on the assumption that kids deserve respect and freedom like adults, and they should be treated as such, not less and not more. That means, while in traditional education staff assumes a role of false superiority and pretense of being an all-knowing guide, in Sudbury education I see the danger of staff assuming a role of fake inferiority and pretense of ignorance. In my understanding, in a Sudbury environment, staff should simply not fake in any way. Just like among a group of kids activities are always initiated by someone — I mean it’s not considered against the principles if one student suggests to a bunch of his peers “hey let’s play basketball”, but it is if a staff member does the same? Didn’t we then just turn the direction of discrimination around? The point I see in the whole initiating-activities problem is that staff must not feel it is their duty to intervene when students have a problem or are bored, and do so because they think this is their superior mission, so that students feel manipulated, but merely out of the question “would I naturally say this if I joined a group of adult friends”.

Exactly. Staff are different from students mostly in the fact that they get paid and therefore they’re obligated to keep the school functioning even if they have to abandon their own interests from time to time. But if the staffers manage to keep the lights on, and if they’re always available to any student who asks for help, then there’s nothing wrong with the staffers pursuing their own interests in whatever spare time they have, and there’s nothing wrong with them suggesting activities to whatever particular kids are likely to enjoy their suggestions. (Of course, any kid who wants to be left alone should have their wishes respected.)

By pursuing interests and suggesting activities, the staffers can actually model what Sudbury learning is like. Again, and of course, they shouldn’t force anyone to follow in their footsteps. The point is not to turn students into miniature versions of the staffers. The point is for staffers to show by example a few of the possible ways of being human, so that students can observe and react. Let’s say a staffer decides to build a model volcano, for instance. Some kids will see this and ask to join in, while others will see this and decide it’s not interesting. Both groups have learned something here! Both groups have learned a tiny tidbit about their own interests and personalities, by comparing and contrasting themselves with the staff. (And of course they do the same with their fellow students!)

But this only really works if the staffers are authentic. So basically: Show up, respect the community, and be yourself. That’s the Sudbury way.