Here's My Future (4)

In Here’s My Future I’m talking about my transfer from a traditional school after seven years to an integrated, more alternative school and all the changes that this change brings for my profession.

A student recently told me something that I found astounding, not because it was a revolutionary insight, but because a 7th grader expressed it, showing an emotional depth and openness that most adults couldn’t even imagine having. We talked about some exercise and then he said: “I’ve always thought if you’re bad at something, you’ll always be bad at it. But now I see that you can actually get better! You don’t have to stay bad.” Having a kid realize that change, especially personal change, is possible, is more gratifying than you can imagine. This is still representative for my experiences at this school.

I wanted to talked a little bit more about specific things my school does and my thoughts on it. One central element is the so-called Arbeitsplan, basically a mind map for certain sections of the yearly curriculum, handed out to students so they can decide what and when to work on it. They still have to do most of it but they set their own pace. On top of that, they learn to become more independent because it is up to them to organize themselves. It asks a lot of them and for the most part, I would say this   really well. I love the concept. It has some disadvantages, though, which mostly come from relying too much on the concept. If you leave the students alone too much, they don’t see their mistakes anymore or simply don’t do much at all. In my mind (and this is something I’m still trying to figure out for myself), they need the occasional teacher-centric lesson to have a focused input and some new motivation. I’m constantly working on how to improve that system. But again, this is a problem that can be fixed and the basis is just so far away from the centralized lesson structure I’ve seen in regular schools. Another advantage is that you can allow good and bad students to not get bored or left behind. That idea alone is alien in traditional schools.

I’ve gotten to know the teachers here more and more too. What still amazes me, especially with some of the higher-ranked people, is how open-minded and deliberate most of them are. Most of them don’t stick to strict rules or traditions, are willing to change their plans if the general opinion is against it and really want to build something good. There are exceptions too, teachers who are very narrow-minded and only want to get their own ideas through, who are unhappy and frustrated or simply lazy. That can sometimes be annoying but I have to remind myself that I’ve worked for seven years at a school where this is the norm. But you often feel this notion of having to fight against our culture’s common assumptions just because we’re all so used to that. But for the most part, this works out well. One reason is that, unlike my past experiences, if you actually talk about issues that bother you to people, these are often solved. The depressing thing is that this is exceptional.

Overall, the most satisfying aspect of working here is that I really feel like being part of the change. I’m not just an outsider, complaining, observing or doing my own thing all by myself. I’m actively working on things to make the school better. After being the rebel for seven years, fighting windmills basically to not much avail, I’m now part of the establishment here. The rebels are the ones who feel uncomfortable with too much experimentation and alternative ideas. There are reasons for that because there can be a lot of chaos and overtime for everyone involved, which can be stressful, but I don’t believe that the solution is scaling back on innovations and being open-minded. There are a lot of discussions here all the time about how to do things and that can be tiresome but I know one alternative, which is never talking about anything and just doing what you’re told. There probably is something in between and there are really only few people who actively fight this system here, but it goes to show that conflict and debates can actually be productive. And that feels great.

Just recently there were some teacher’s trainees here for a one-day visit, future teachers who have been taught how to work at a regular school and it was horrifying to talk to them and see their reactions. They treated everything here like some kind of weird experiment that clearly isn’t what school is supposed to look like. “Yeah, it’s interesting, but in my class I want everyone to do what I say when I say it. Don’t you lose a lot of lesson time by doing this? How much of your 45 minutes is actually left for the real lesson?” I wish I was making these quotes up but that this the perfect representation of what most teachers in our culture (at least in Germany) are taught and what they follow. They weren’t really interested in what we’re doing here because it put them too far away from their comfort zone of regulations and institutions. If you told them something good about this school, they openly said that you’re just trying to advertise it and that you can’t take it seriously. Their minds were inherently unwilling to accept this as a good, functioning concept.

But I seriously believe that this concept will prevail. It has its flaws, its fits and starts, but they can be worked out. As someone told me recently, in comparison, the traditional schools are like enormous ocean liners that can hardly ever change their direction because they are so strictly regulated that there is not much room left for innovation. Not unlike the flying contraption in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, I feel like their crash is inevitable but the hope I’ll see is that we could literally jump ship to a system that’s working better, that is working for the students and that allows them to be themselves much more. As long as traditional schools don’t want to realize that, they are bound to fail. I’m still happy as that I’m not part of that crew anymore when that happens.