Thoughts about: the role of staff in Sudbury schools

The role of staff at Sudbury schools can be difficult to understand, and easy to misunderstand. I’ve heard that staff “aren’t allowed to offer classes” or even “aren’t allowed to express their own opinion.” But it’s not about being forbidden from doing this or doing that – what it comes down to is being authentic and respectful.

“Where do you work?”

“At Sudbury Valley School.”

“What do you do?”

“Nothing.”

-Hanna Greenberg, The Art of Doing Nothing

I was recently reminded of a discussion we had, more than a decade ago, when starting Sudbury Jerusalem.

The topic of the discussion was whether Sudbury staff are allowed to offer classes, and it’s one of the few discussions from the founding process which I still remember vividly today.

We were sitting in a co-founder’s airy living-room, spread out on several couches and stools, and we talked well into the night. It’s no wonder – the role of staff comes up again and again anywhere where people who went to more traditional schools are trying to wrap their heads around the Sudbury approach.

The ideal staffer

The ideal Sudbury staffer, to me, is an adult who communicates with young people respectfully, and does so in an authentic, natural way. They talk with them at eye level and don’t presume to know better just because they are older. They don’t see it as their mission to get students interested in their own areas of interest or expertise. A student’s interests are their own business, and theirs alone.

It is also very important that the staff understand this approach well, well enough to explain it to newcomers. But in this post I want to focus on staff’s role in everyday interactions in the school, so I’ll ignore this important aspect for a moment.

When explaining Sudbury schools, we often have to emphasize this: The staff’s job isn’t necessarily to offer classes, nor even to give classes on request.

A lot of adults out there feel it’s their responsibility (and their right) to take up young people’s time by teaching them, for their own good, whether or not they’re keenly interested. Such people are not ideal Sudbury staff material.

If a staff member really, truly wants to offer a class, because they would enjoy doing it, and not because they want to do something to alleviate students from their ignorance, then that’s perfectly fine. It’s the motivation behind the class that matters, and it’s the same with offering an opinion: it’s fine so long as it’s authentic.

It’s in the process

Ultimately, the Sudbury model doesn’t need a crisp and clear job description for staff, thanks to the democratic process used for hiring and firing them. Staff is typically hired by School Meeting based on a recommendation by a specialized committee; all staff stands for re-election every year, and School Meeting can decide to fire a staff member more or less at any time.

Staffers are hired by the school as a resource, and this means their areas of knowledge and experience will be taken into account. A staffer who can be helpful in running the school might be just as valuable and needed as a staffer who can teach 5 different subjects at a university level. But all of this is subject to a democratic process, meaning that individuals in the school can freely take part in deciding what the school needs at that time and choosing people who can supply it.

If the school hired someone who turns out not to be so helpful, that person can be fired for it. For example, a staff member who doesn’t help with administration, or never agrees to help people when asked, or seems to care more about personal projects than the school, may well be fired before long.

The proof is in the pudding

Ultimately, you just don’t need any fixed requirement at all – not even the requirement to be respectful and authentic. Adults who come in and can’t relate to children comfortably and respectfully aren’t likely to be offered a contract, or keep one for long if they get it. Adults who don’t respect children’s time and interests and always want to fill it up with their pet subjects will be seen as pesky and rude; they likely won’t get in either.

But staff who relate to young people respectfully and authentically; staff who have their own interests and enjoy sharing them with whoever is interested; staff who have an opinion and know how to express themselves clearly but respectfully – such staffers can and do offer activities and opinions, and they’re appreciated for it.

Sudbury schools need adults who can just be adults, all day long, without the need to constantly be teachers.

The article quoted at the top of this post, The Art of Doing Nothing, offers Hanna Greenberg’s far more experienced and better-formulated take on the role of staff at Sudbury schools, or at least one aspect of it. I highly recommend reading it.

 

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