What does it mean to go to school?

Experiences of a former democratic school student moving into mainstream education

 

Website Paola c9e241e6

 

After having been to a democratic school in Germany for eleven years, last year was my first year experiencing what most people know school to be like.

 

My rucksack filled with curiosity, excitement and enthusiasm, my eyes wide open, I started sixth form college in the UK with a cohort of students from less alternative secondary schools. Other than looking forward to this year abroad, I was curious to find out what school is like for most children, to know what the majority of people have already stored in their backpack.

 

So far, what I knew about conventional education was from films and stories and, just like everyone else when hearing about democratic schools, I had my prejudices about more conventional schools too. I thought I was going to have very dull lessons, where students were waiting for the time to pass by and teachers just ran through the same program year after year. I expected the students to be bored and disinterested and the teachers to be shouting at them whenever they didn’t behave the way they wanted them to. To be honest, I didn’t really know what exactly I was imagining. I had never experienced anything like it before. I expected I would just adapt to the way the classes were run and that the relationship between teachers and students, even though it might not be the way I’d prefer it to be, wouldn’t bother me too much. This year was going to be a year to experience it for myself, to be able to make up my own honest opinion about the most common type of education.           

 

All in all, naive but confident, I blindly started the year. I wasn't prepared for what I would experience. I wasn’t prepared for how much the different student-teacher relationship would affect me. So far, my teachers had always been people I treated the way I treated other students. They had been people I trusted, looked up to and cared about. Now suddenly I was confronted with the roles teachers and students were taking in this college and found myself being challenged by the way I was expected to act as a student.

 

In my old school, it was usual to study because you want to learn, and actively participate in lessons. On the rare occasion we set each other homework it was an agreement between students in order to  be able to carry on with the content of the lessons, when we did this, we studied just for ourselves. We studied because we wanted to learn. Whenever I learnt something new, I took my time to think and take in what I was learning. Not to please my teacher or my parents but because I wanted to make sure I understood the new subject I was discovering. Then I studied until I felt I had understood it. There, I had experienced learning to be something to enrich yourself. Not to quickly learn by heart in order to get a good grade the next morning. It was clear that by wanting to learn, and making the choice to go to lessons, we took the responsibility for our studies and committed to the agreements we made as a group. The teachers were there to support us, to sustain the school community and to look after the well-being of the students. Not to control what we were learning or whether we were studying in an adequate way. It was my choice. If I didn't want to learn whatever they were covering in lessons, I didn't have to be there.

 

During the first few weeks at college I was completely overwhelmed with homework and studies. Not knowing what and how much I was expected to do. When my teacher asked us to consolidate what we had done in class, I didn’t know what this meant. To have a short look over my notes? Or, to make sure I could remember everything we had done so far?

 

In the following weeks, I found myself spending hours on homework, exhausted and worrying that I wouldn’t do enough to fulfil what I felt I had made a commitment to. I wanted to respect the school, their rules and the way things were done there. I didn’t want them to feel like I wasn’t willing to adapt just because I was from a different school. I wasn’t here to make trouble. For weeks I was totally stressed out. My main activity on weekends was to do homework. I couldn’t comprehend how the other students managed to do all that work while they were also meeting up with friends, playing a sport or watching films. Speaking to a friend, I realised they didn’t. I found out that they usually did their homework quickly before moving on to something else, to the main thing they actually wanted to do. It wasn't the other way around. Studies weren't what they considered to be the main part of their actual lives but what they had to fit in between the things they really wanted to do. After talking to another friend I realised, that this must also be the way homework was organised. It seemed that students were quickly copying and writing things down without really taking them in. Therefore teachers set the amount of homework their experience told them was needed for something to be remembered. If this was the way it worked, it was too much to spend more than 5 minutes thinking about an assignment.

 

Eventually, I realised that by being less stressed out and studying less, I did not disrespect the school culture. Nor did anyone notice I had changed my attitude. Even though I wanted to carry on learning and was still motivated, for my year abroad my priority was to make friends and learn through different experiences. Not to sit somewhere on my own and study. Either way, my grades didn't matter for my future because I was going to do my A-levels back in Germany. So, I decided to take a step back and focus on meeting people and other activities outside of college and nevertheless tried not to feel bad about it. I started to adapt to college, behaving and avoiding, the way every other student had gotten used to do years ago.

 

The following weeks I felt a lot better. I had found a suitable way to act as a student in this college. I felt that, not taking too much responsibility and not taking my commitment too seriously was the way college was run and the only way people were capable of dealing with its system. Adapting to this culture, I actually started enjoying being part of College.

 

A few weeks later my tutor asked me how everything was going. Having always experienced being able to honestly share my thoughts with my teachers, I told her my grades weren’t really important to me and that I was trying not to stress out and spend too much time on my studies anymore. I felt good and relieved when I said that, after the process I had been through to get there. I wasn’t prepared for her strong reaction. When I heard her response, I slowly sat back. Listening, I felt how my trust in her was slowly disappearing. I was disappointed. She said, I had to take responsibility and that when I came here in September I had committed to my studies and I should appreciate all the effort my teachers are putting in for me.

 

There I sat, quietly. Feeling unseen. Feeling misunderstood. Wasn’t that who I was? Where I had started from? The values I was holding within me, being responsible, respecting and appreciating other people? After  the process I had been going through, of accepting that in this school I was supposed to just look after myself. Was this really  her response?

 

Then I realised how she saw me, rather how she didn't see me. She couldn’t understand why I said what I had said and I knew I had expected too much of her. She just saw the reaction of a student. I was just one of them.

 

In the following weeks I couldn’t stop thinking about it. If this was the prejudice and role of an adolescent, the way students were expected to behave, trying to avoid learning and thinking only about their own values, what was the expected role of a teacher?

 

A few weeks later I was talking to my friend about meetings with tutors, when she suddenly said, “They always say we can tell them everything and that we can be honest to them, but I would never tell my tutor anything personal, I mean she is still a teacher!” I was surprised. So that was it? That is what a teacher is? A person you shouldn’t trust? A person you should try to avoid? Someone you are forced to spend time with every day, waiting for moments to be without them? But how could a teacher have become this role? Isn’t a teacher someone you are learning from about their experiences, someone who is enriching you with some of the many things you can learn about in life? Isn't a teacher just someone, who has been living out there for a bit longer than you but is an individual human being, with thoughts, feelings and beliefs just like yourself?

 

So how come a teacher is seen simply as that. A teacher. How come a student, just as much a human being, is seen as an irresponsible careless adolescent? Don't we care just as much about the world and people as adults do? Aren’t we all discovering this world as a child, a teenager and later as an adult? What happened to mean that all these people are labelled like this? Put into these roles, needing to behave like millions of others with this label? What is the reason for this  being the relationship between students and teachers in so many places of the world?

 

I have experienced that, at the point at which you try to impose a way of learning, a way of being, students don’t feel  treated as individuals anymore. Students don’t feel  seen as people with different needs, lives and experiences. They feel more like a mass that thinks and has to work the same way. So, when it gets to the point that what you’re learning doesn’t correspond to you as a person and the development of yourself at this point in your life, it becomes something forced and the interaction between student and teacher becomes something both are trying to avoid. Then it happens that the richness of life, all the countless unimaginable things you can learn, become an obligation. Hearing you have to behave in certain ways and learn certain things, makes you feel that if you don’t, if you are different and struggling, you aren't a worthy part of this school. You aren’t needed as part of this society. This constant pressure, the “have to's”, the feeling of failing, shuts down the love and motivation and teaches us students to treat others the way we are treated.

However, it doesn’t work this way, we forget that there is no system, no set way of living and learning that can be imposed onto everyone.

 

Because everyone is different.

 

During this year I had multiple experiences of teachers teaching in different ways. Reflecting on them, I see that the class in which I was valued and was asked for a personal opinion, was the class I always wanted to learn for. In this class I felt the teacher treated me not like a student who isn’t complete yet, but like a human being who is appreciated as part of the class.

 

There was another class, in which I didn't feel like this. Where it was written in the air that the teacher knew best. The teacher was the wise one who had the rights and a long way below were us, the students. This teacher put a lot of pressure on us, among other things by making sheets to follow of how we were going to get good grades. Always all about grades. All about being successful, but only by following what the teacher says. However, no one in my class enjoyed learning about the subject, everyone felt that in the rare occasion they did study, it was hard. A struggle. A relief to get over it. There, after some time I felt there was no point in putting effort into what I’m learning if I’m just part of a grey mass. Interchangeable. Determined by my grades. I tried to be seen by this teacher, I put lots of effort into my work, I wanted to be seen as special, different. I wanted to be seen as simply me. An individual. When I eventually realised that there was no interest about real personal thoughts, I gave up on trying. I didn’t have the motivation to study for some grades which didn’t make a difference.

 

In my language class however, where we had open equal political discussions where everyone could share their opinion, I was passionate to learn everything about the language, to study hours without end. I didn’t think about the grades. I thought about the language. I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn from the teacher. Learn everything from her I could. From the experiences she shared with us, just as from the experiences us students were allowed to share. I was inspired and fascinated by her, not as a teacher but as a person who has been living and experiencing this world for a bit longer than me. Although she still set us homework like every other teacher and asked us to do what she said in class, she was different. She treated us equally. There was space for our thoughts and beliefs, there was room for every one of our personalities. She always tried to make the curriculum more political and encouraged us to share our opinions and challenged them so that we would find more arguments. When she asked us to write essays, she asked us to research them ourselves. I didn't really do well then in not spending too much time on my studies because I ended up spending hours on researching, driven, excited and interested. Wanting to show what I had discovered. I realised that in this class, by having been able to share my thoughts and needs and show who I am, it gave me the chance to adapt the things I’m learning, to the way that made sense to me and not to another student.

 

Overall, looking back at this year, I realise how essential the relationship between students and teachers is. When I started back in September, I thought I would be able to ignore this fact. I thought I could easily just behave like the other students. However, I realised I hadn't learnt yet to ignore and shut down like the others, I realised, I wasn’t able yet to not care about the teacher.

 

Throughout the year I never let go of treating teachers the way I wanted to treat them. Equally. With respect and honesty. I want to see teachers as who they are, I want to learn from their experiences, hear what they are sharing. Though for this I need the students to be able to be who they want to be, make choices, mistakes. I want to see every person as the individual that they are. Students. Teachers. People. We are not the same, nor does anyone know better how to live your own life other than you do yourself. However, if you take responsibility for your life, and the choices you make are respected, you will learn how to deal with it. We are all thrown into this giant sea and try to make the most of it. So, why not share our experiences, our lives, our hearts without imposing it onto others? We can support each other, without hiding or destroying the beauty of one another. If we experience this as self-evident in our schools, to be responsible for what we do and who we are, we might attain this utopian democratic society we are looking for more than ever.

 

Paola Murdolo

July 2017