I’m excited to see Houston Sudbury School get some local publicity. Back in 2001-02 I was involved in establishing a predecessor, a school called the Brazos Valley Sudbury School. Sudbury schools are perhaps even less known than Waldorf schools, and are modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Sudbury, Massachusetts. While I no longer agree with all of its tenets, Sudbury is an interesting, albeit a bit more extreme approach to education, giving a great deal of power to the children themselves by offering no curriculum whatsoever.
As a disillusioned public school teacher, what I loved about this Sudbury model was its democratic governance structure and empowered, self-directed students. What I came to appreciate through visiting the Sudbury Valley School and studying its literature was how much children will self-correct when given the space and trust to do so and how confident and mature adults must be to allow that. I also came to appreciate how important it was to surround children with worthy adult role models to emulate and a healthy, safe environment.
I still struggle a great deal with any form of educational coercion, whether it comes from adults towards children in the form of unrealistic educational demands or government towards citizenry in form of unjust laws. But, what I have found is that children know exactly how to handle adult coercion in schools, they simply refuse to learn or disrupt and misbehave, and this is how it has always been, just as American citizenry has always known how to handle unjust govenment. Thank you, John Holt for clarifying that for me!
What I have learned since 2001 and come to accept is that Waldorf Education has a different picture of the human being than these other models. It has taken me many years of studying Steiner‘s writing to even come to hair’s width understanding of his body of work, but I do see that human beings need different things at different ages to develop optimally. My growing discomfort with the Sudbury model came about through what I saw as a mismatch between the needs of children under 9 years of age and the goals and approach of Sudbury schools to meet the ultimate need for adult freedom from coercion, which is also a vital need, but far at the other end of development. In between lie twenty-one long years of slow human development toward adulthood. I see now that healthy parental boundaries is a loving force, not only a coercive force, and by extension, a teacher’s loving boundary can also be a powerful force for good, not only something coercive. The difference lies in the quality of the relationship between child and adult and the adult’s worthiness to be a model before the child. In too many schools, children do not have a true, loving relationship or bond with any of their adult teachers. We strive for this to not be true in a Waldorf classroom. We strive for a loving bond that lasts a full 7-8 years, of course, being full of imperfect human beings, Waldorf schools can miss the mark too, to be totally honest.
What I have also come to accept as truth is that no matter whether a teacher or adult works in a Sudbury School, a Waldorf school, a Montessori school, a charter, a public, parochial, classical or progressive, a homeschool, or an unschool, that whatever the adults are like that surround a child, the quality of adult communication that children see modeled around them will have a profound influence on the character of the child. What is in the best interest of the child is that the adults around them trust one another and communicate in a healthy way through conflict. That is what will shape their ability to handle relationships in their lives, and give them an understanding of how to live in harmony when harmony is needed, and how to approach conflict respectfully and productively when conflict is needed. This environment with positive adult role modeling is so much more vitally important than the minutia of drivel that gets passed off as educational curriculum in almost every classroom I have ever seen in any type of an enviornment.
Another important factor is to allow the child to grow and live organically “into its own.” Waldorf Schools do it differently than Montessori, or Sudbury Schools, but all seek to achieve the same end, to honor the child’s true nature by doing no harm. One person’s idea of how best to do that varies greatly from another, just as one educational model differs from another. This must be negotiated through conversation, listening, and understanding among the community of adults creating the given educational environment, thus my on-going study of NVC, or Non-Violent Communication and my on-going interactions with Bren Hardt of Houston NVC, since my days of being involved with Brazos Valley Sudbury School.
Ideally, everyone involved in a school understands and agrees with the general approach being applied and the adults ideally work from shared principles. I have not yet found a school or community that totally exemplifies my ideal of shared understanding of principles, though I continue to strive to create such a school in my lifetime that at least comes close, perhaps quite foolishly or naively so. I still feel it is worth continuing to strive for. I adore my colleagues at Great Oak, and I work hard to continue to have the privelege of associating with such intelligent, hard-working, and kind people. That trust among adults with a common vision and principles makes all the difference in the world to my willingness to be a part of a school community.
Perhaps the best that we can do as adults, is to continue to examine our ulterior motives and motivations for becoming educators in the first place, or in the case of parents, to examine our true motivations for seeking alternative forms of education for our children, and work to keep our egos in check, remembering that our first task is to do no harm to the organic nature of the child. Secondly, respect the child as an individual on his or her own path in this life, someone who has the right to become who he or she is organically meant to be. We ouselves, as adults, can then focus on how to grow into the best version of ourselves that we can be, and to remember that the children are depending on us to give them models on how to live and do just that.
For more information about Great Oak School, visit the school’s website.