My Stint at a “Democratic” School – A Horror Story

My Stint at a “Democratic” School – A Horror Story

I had been a teacher for five years, and I was weary of the coercion inherent within the public school system. If a student didn’t want to learn, I tried to find engaging methods to draw him in. At first it was exciting.

As a student teacher, I had designed lessons around a 6th grader in a hypothetical science class who only wanted to draw dragons. I suggested assignments on the history of dragons, the chemistry of breathing fire, the physics of flight, the anatomy of mythical flying reptiles, the geology of the dragon’s treasure.

But I had seen, in both public and private schools, that these options were just creative routes to telling students what to learn and when. If they refused, then the system would use force till the child succumbed or failed. This was coercion, and though more teachers were uncomfortable with it than in the past, pretending that the student had freedom and choice was an illusion.

I quit my job and took a position at a democratic school. Welton was a private K-12 school founded on the principles of democracy and choice. Students were not required to learn anything or even attend classes. It was the teacher’s job to cater to students’ interests, and make the subject enticing.

Decisions were made at weekly meetings of the entire school body. Students’ and teachers’ votes were equal though certain decisions were restricted to certain groups. For example, a lower school student couldn’t vote on an upper school issue. And only teachers made decisions about the management of the school in lieu of a principal. The absence of a strong leader was crucial later when disagreements about the philosophy arose between teachers.

I loved what I saw when I visited Welton. There was a relaxed atmosphere with an appearance of equality that I had never seen at a school. Teachers and students chatted about current affairs. Others were working on independent projects. It seemed like the ideal education where students could learn what they were passionate about. I talked with teachers about what to do when a student didn’t want to learn.

At Welton, it was anticipated that students coming from public school would rebel for a few months – play computer games, draw dragons, chat with their friends all day. They would then get bored, and pursue their passions.

I took the job and almost immediately ran into a lot of students who didn’t want to learn. They were lethargic, and spent hours playing computer games or chatting and reading magazines. It looked like the students at my visit had put on a show.

I expressed my concern to the staff, but was reassured that it was normal and that they would soon get bored and come around.

I was new to democratic education, so I decided to focus on the students who wanted to learn. I expected them to be self-motivated and innovative thinkers who didn’t need me to tell them what to do, like the students I had seen at my visit.

I felt excited to cater to individual interests, challenge my students, and get creative. But my expectations weren’t met. I was surprised by how low their academic standards were. I was teaching 7th grade Math and Science to 10th graders. And the new 12th grade Math teacher quit because his students had the mathematical abilities of 9th graders, and he knew he couldn’t get them caught up before their final exam.

A handful of students confided in me. They told me they were scared. They knew they were behind in a lot of areas. They wanted to learn from textbooks, and they wanted quizzes and grades. I obliged.

One morning, when I was easing them into the world of quizzes with an optional, open-book quiz with no time limit, one of my students asked if she could go tell the class next door to be quieter. We could all hear the sudden change in volume after she said, “Would you guys be quieter? We’re doing a quiz next door.”

Word spread that I was a traditional teacher and not suited for Welton. The other teachers started to worry that I was encouraging students to be motivated by external standards. They were strongly opposed to grades and textbook teaching, and wanted me to teach using fun methods that relied on the students’ internal motivation.

The next problem I encountered was that many students had not experienced overcoming learning challenges through persevering. They had been told that they should learn only what they wanted to learn. So they stopped wanting to learn when the work got hard.

This wasn’t a problem I could tackle alone in my classroom. It was a systemic problem, and it showed that something was fundamentally wrong with the founding philosophy or with how the philosophy was being practiced.

I found two allies among the teachers and we started challenging the others. They didn’t like our questions. They saw only two options: the authoritarianism of the public school system that they had left, or the permissiveness they now offered.

We found holes in the founding philosophy on issues such as low staying power because the founder had been a strong, inspiring and charismatic woman who hadn’t let the students just quit. Without her vision and presence, the school had sunk to the lowest common denominator of permissiveness. It attracted passive teachers and adult alpha teens who didn’t like being told what to do and they encouraged the students to rebel against anyone resembling authority.

Since my allies and I were getting nowhere at these meetings, we opened up the discussion to parents. They were unaware that their children were learning so little and with such a cost to their self-esteem and development, so then they started asking questions of the teachers too.

But there was still too much resistance and obfuscation. The school needed strong leadership and a cogent philosophy that all were committed to. It seemed unlikely to happen so I quit my job and within six months, enough parents had pulled their children out of school. Welton closed.

I taught at a few other schools after Welton. My favorites were when I could just acknowledge the lack of freedom to my students and work with them to give them some choice, or when I had complete freedom to write a curriculum based on students’ interests given my scientific background. But when I had children of my own, I knew I couldn’t send them to school.

I am now a full-time homeschooling parent, and I am in charge of my children’s education. The model is based on the Non-Aggression Principle – there is no coercion and all interactions are voluntary. My children have a lot of input, but it is not democratic. I am responsible for providing the best education I can, by my informed standards, not theirs.

I recognize that they are rarely motivated to learn because it might help them at some distant point in their future. So I find their current motivations and offer them appropriate incentives and consequences for their best effort when the internal motivation isn’t there. I am intentionally creating an environment that supports healthy choices. My system works well and my children are engaged and advanced learners.

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