I think there is no world too small to be influenced by politics. It begins as soon as three people get together in a room. In my little alternative school world, politics has been a major factor on many different levels from the start. I’ve just taken a good long while to recognize all of it.
I first saw the place as a kind of experimentation ground for true democracy. Leadership didn’t announce itself to me and the rules were all unwritten (and unspoken at least until I inadvertently transgressed one of them - then I heard about it promptly). I navigated through a maze, trying to identify who exactly my boss was and what my position in this new world should be. I focused on English teaching and instinctively stayed away from the inner workings and politics of the school. As my hours and involvement increased, I found my place in the Team, but still kept a distance from the larger circle of parent-financers and their association. I couldn’t, however, prevent their intruding on me.
We (the team of teachers) have spent the better part of the last two years dealing with conflicts of interest. The Board members, who ostensibly represented all the parents, naturally had their own ideas about how the teachers should do their work, who should stay and who should go. Unfortunately, they often formed these ideas out of distorted interpretations of their own children’s selective perceptions of the school day. They had no real firsthand idea of how the school actually runs as a whole or how we teachers work and work together. On our side, we spent three fourths of our conference time dealing with and deflecting the attempts of the Board to put through personnel and pedagogical changes. All the while, in the background, a thousand discussions over coffee or wine and a thousand phone calls between networked participants brought the whole situation to the fore. A parents’ evening laid the groundwork for a General Assembly where the whole structure was blown up and a plan laid for reconstituting the project/school. An interim board was installed, sub-groups were formed, responsibilities delegated, issues defined and discussed ad nauseum. A new concept took shape based on the principle of ”sociocracy”. The prime directive of this new concept: parents should collectively support the teaching team and not undermine us.
The vast majority of parents seem to be enthusiastic about the changes, despite the extra time and effort despite the extra time and effort expected of them now to keep the school running smoothly. Here and there, one hears some mutterings about “communism”, but no one has taken their kid out of the school.
Yesterday, in the midst of all this upheaval, we were visited upon by a very well-known and respected Montessori Guru. He looked all over the school, observed us working, did a little teaching himself and then spent the entire afternoon with us (the team) reflecting on our school and where we stand. Before his arrival, we were . . . not on edge exactly . . . but just a little wary, because we had heard stories from teachers of other similar schools that had gone through the same process recently. Many of them had been severely criticized. What would this guru think about our improvised, montessorish teaching methods and fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants organization? Our flea market furnishings and handmade materials? Our donated kitchen supplies and temporary patches to the many broken fixtures?
It turns out, he seemed to love our school.
He did make criticisms - a lot of them about aesthetics – and they were absolutely valid. The purely visual first impression of our school is not that appealing. He also made some very sensible suggestions for improvement in our teaching. But his louder message was ”this is OUR school” - meaning the teaching staff’s. We run it. The parents can decide to enroll their kids with us or not, but once they decide to, they should pay the fees and shut up. It was so incredibly validating. And so timely.
On a personal level, it also did me a lot of good. The guru and I hit it off from the get-go. In the morning, I shook his hand, introduced myself and said “Its nice to meet you” in English. His reaction set my anglophile-radar off. (There are many Europeans who immediately react positively when they hear my accent - they drop their usual reserve and become personable.) He was clearly one of those types. By noon we were bantering and kidding one another. I started a list of his no-holds-barred comments to students who act up: Get lost! You lazy bum!! stuff like that. (My colleagues are all ultra- sensitive and respectful when they talk to the kids, so this was refreshingly human.) In turn, he made fun of me for saying I was too old to start a Montessori course, but then invited me to take part in just the two sessions that would help me most (quite the unheard of offer, it seems!) His energy and enthusiasm were infectious; his entire dynamic personality was on display, including the obvious delight he takes in his artistic and colorful materials. While watching him present to the students, I realized that I have become too reserved. I have adapted myself a bit too much to my colleagues way of doing things and given up some of my own authenticity in the process. For instance, I had all but stopped using some of my group dynamics symbols after my colleagues seemed a bit shocked by them. But the kids had reacted differently and those objects really were effective. I think it is time to reactivate the coffin nails and “If I only had a brain” music box. And I am going to add a new one: a Mr. Potato Head with really big ears and no mouth.