My instructors were right when they stressed that gaining respect was crucial to being a good teacher, but they were wrong when they implied that respect was best gained my “being tough”. Maybe that is true in conventional schooling, where competition and distrust is the law, but in the alternative models that provide the most potential for a better future, I found that the teacher best gains respect when they publicly humble themselves and intentionally decentralize power so that the students have a greater say in their school lives.
I knew that the little bastion of democracy I was teaching at couldn’t be the only place where these positive methods of fostering trust and respect between students and teachers were being practiced. So I scoured the internet looking for similar schools and learning communities, and found many closer than I would have imagined in conservative Texas. Toward the end of my time teaching at that first school, I started a network of schools called North Texas Progressive Schools (NTxPS), based on the confederal models advocated by Abdullah Ocalan’s Democratic Confederalist ideology. I recognized that there were small schools all over my area that had non-adversarial relationships between students and staff. But all these like-minded schools were each taking on the weighty conventional education system alone. If we could join together on broad common principles, then we could promote our progressive education alternatives as a united front. We did not have to agree on everything; we could be “a world where many worlds fit”, allowing each interested child or parent to find an education option that best met their needs. Most importantly, we would all preserve our autonomy, while being able to collaborate on shared projects like sporting events, skillshares, education conventions, and the like. I called up founders of schools that I thought the democratic free school I was working at shared something in common with and we had our first meeting. Some of the schools were highly structured but more project-based so that students weren’t just constantly listening to lectures all day but learning hands-on. Some were like ours, fully democratic and self-directed, where every student had the freedom to choose what interests they wanted to explore. Through a consensus process, all of the schools’ delegates came to the following Points of Agreement:
- Testing is optional or at least de-emphasized
- Students take ownership of their education through exercising choice
- Adults focus more on mentorship rather than authority
- We focus on competency, mastery, and holistic evaluation
- Our learning styles are experiential (learning by doing), based on collaboration/cooperation, and building social skills
- Student-centered, rather than teacher-centered education
A couple of years into the existence of our network, I got a call from the head of a member school. I was told that her students wanted to have a conversation with me about our shared interests. Knowing the way things work at that school, I knew that the students were wondering if I could teach a class there. This was a school where the students choose their teachers! I walked in the building and immediately saw about eight middle and high school-aged students sitting in a circle. I was admittedly nervous but the circle formation made me feel less of the center of attention. The mentor who had called started off by explaining how our discussion was going to go, and asked me if I would share with them some topics I was interested in. I told them about my love for history, world cultures, and even my interest in niche things like pirates, foraging for wild foods, the science fiction show The Twilight Zone. Those would have been geeky interests for me and my middle school buddies to laugh about behind the teacher’s back when I was a kid, but my contributions were only met with respect by these students. Then, each student said their own interests in turn.They brought up diverse passions like other cultures, architecture, documentaries, outdoor skills, and food. So together we came up with a new class that I would teach: “Anthropology Through Film and Food” and I promised that I would try to bring in architecture and outdoor skills whenever I could.
When the new semester arrived and it came time for me to introduce my completed plans for the class, I made sure every student knew that this was their class as much as mine and that we would shape it together. I reminded them that I didn’t want to be an authority, but a participant in an exchange of knowledge, and that I was only leading the class because I had more time to study such topics. That didn’t mean I knew it all or that they had nothing to teach me. And to show them I was really serious, I told them that I would institute a regular process where each student can publicly criticize me in front of everyone, whether they wanted to criticize my methods of teaching, any biases I unknowingly brought into the class, or anything else. I based this criticism and self-criticism component off of the tekmil process in Northeast Syria, just one of the cultural movements I planned to discuss in the class. Thanks to my friends who live there and who practice this system daily, I had a good idea of how it worked. My students were absolutely shocked. Here I was, an adult, allowing children to openly criticize me in front of everyone, and promising to listen and take in the criticisms, not to respond or get angry! Such a process is a violation of every conventional norm of the American education system. If any student tried that in a conventional school setting, they would have been immediately reprimanded, probably sent to the Principal’s office, and in the old days, physically beaten. My students had never had an adult actively give away their position of power over them before, and that is what gained their immediate respect.
The whole school (all 10 students) signed up for my class and three students who didn’t even attend the school came once a week for two hours, just to attend my class. I can honestly say that I never had a single behavioral problem the whole year. Sure, sometimes kids talked longer than I wanted them to, but I was always able to intrinsically motivate them back into focus, reminding them that they created this class, they signed up for it, they have the power here. That was always enough. And when I wasn’t capturing their attention, they let me know through tekmil. At first they were a little shy when giving criticisms. Criticism in America is typically seen as a bad or hurtful thing and they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. But when I assured them that I would not get mad as long as they were not malicious, they eased up. I received some excellent criticisms that I will carry with me into all my future classes. For instance, I was told that I didn’t have enough variation in activities since we tended to have a lot of discussions after we watched the documentaries, but not as many hands-on projects. I was forced to get creative and came up with storytelling activities, imaginative writing exercises, and games based on this critique. Most importantly, the students took ownership over the class and cared about it the more I decentralized power and gave it to them. The other mentors at the school noticed it too. Soon enough, the mentors at the other school I taught at were getting calls about the tekmil process I borrowed from the Kurdish Freedom Movement. They were all wowed by the process and the effects it was having. Of course, they were already open-minded teachers. I told several friends in conventional State-run schools about the method, and they all proposed a million what-if scenarios, imagining the ways that the students could take advantage. And I suppose they could, if taking advantage of their teachers was in their interest, like it so often is in conventional schooling.
Critics of this method are right to say that this would be very hard to translate into an American public or conventional private school. Maybe it is best meant for a very small class size like the one I have. Maybe it wouldn’t work well in a school where the adults are supposed to be the authorities and the kids are supposed to listen and not talk. But if the education system is supposed to teach the values we want to see reflected in our society, and if Americans really do want a democratic society, isn’t a democratic education the only sensible way to reconcile the hopes with the outcomes? The outcomes we get in education are a reflection of the culture we teach and learn in. Teachers are strict and mean because they expect students to rebel. Students rebel because they expect teachers to be strict and mean. If sometimes the teachers are so strict and scary that the students seem to respect them, that respect is actually a facade, a survival strategy. The student who lives in fear of their teacher is just saving their disrespect for when they get home, or bottling it up and turning it into disrespect for themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when teachers can operate in environments explicitly designed to foster collaboration and shared decision-making between teachers and students and between one student to another, they have the potential to establish real intrinsic desire of the student to go to class, learn, and to respect the teacher. Of course, the teacher has more agency in this type of environment too, and it is their job to take the values of that culture seriously and make sure they are doing them justice. If all goes right and all the components come together- the participatory school culture and the humble teacher not afraid to give up power- then we will have a truly revolutionary education system where children freely embrace their natural instinct to learn.