Background: I work at a progressive independent school in Seattle called Puget Sound Community School. We offer a full slate of classes that can help students earn credits towards a Washington State diploma, but we do not require students to take any academic classes. Some observers have a problem with this.
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On the last day before Winter Break, the teaching staff at PSCS scheduled a special fun activity for students. A few blocks away, there is a “museum” that showcases a variety of pinball machines dating all the way back to the 1930s. The machines have all been refurbished, and the cost of playing is very reasonable. We convinced the owners to let us rent out the space for an hour.
We kept the activity a secret from the students until the last minute, with the idea that it would be more fun to make it a surprise. After the announcement, a few students asked, “Do we have to go? Is it required?”
“Yes,” I said, “Everyone is going!”
One student wanted to talk to me about this decision because very few activities at PSCS are mandatory. She wanted to express her opinion that this should not be a mandatory activity. Instead of having a fun social time a few blocks away, she preferred to have a fun social time on campus. I was feeling worn down, exhausted from the pre-holiday madness, and got lazy. I said, simply, “No complaining, we’re all going to go and have fun together.”
On Monday, the first day back from Winter Break, this student approached me. She wanted to talk to me about the mandatory “fun” field trip from two weeks ago. It was not consistent with PSCS philosophy, she argued, for this kind of activity to be made mandatory. More importantly, she felt that her efforts at engaging me in a dialogue at the time were dismissed.
We had a really interesting back and forth exchange in which she respectfully and articulately shared her perspective. After asking me a question, she would listen actively to my response. In the end, we came to healthy mutual understanding of each other’s position. I apologized, admitting that I should have taken the time to process these thoughts with her at the time.
By the way, she’s 13 years old.
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In talking about PSCS, people often challenge me, “How will your students cope when they get out into the real world?” The question implies that students who are educated in an environment that’s based on respect and kindness will be unable to deal with the harsh realities of society. The answer is clear. Every day, the students are internalizing a sense of what it means to feel respected. When they encounter a situation in which they’re not feeling respected, they have the self-awareness, confidence, and poise to stand up for themselves. It’s really that simple.