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The 4 Qualities of My Dream School

By William J. Tolley — December 10, 2014 5 min read
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When first asked to consider my “dream school,” I recalled the evocative descriptions of “the future-building school of 2035” described by Keri Facer in her brilliant book Learning Futures. A collection of semi-public “front of the house” areas and varied learning spaces enhanced by embedded personalized technologies, Facer’s future-building school is “where community organizations, political parties, trade unions, student organizations, local businesses, start-up co-operatives, parent’s groups, housing associations, research organizations, and others find space to work and to come together.”

This future-building “dream school” hinges on an environment where active engagement is embraced and safeguarded. The key to creating this environment is to empower teachers so that they have collective autonomy—not just in theory but in practice.

Collective autonomy for teachers to design their dream schools is a truly democratic transformation. It recalls, for me, the moment in 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that he would advocate for universal human rights. His argument, which became the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter, begins, “in the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…”

Here are four qualities that my dream school would have:

1. Freedom of Speech and Expression

Roosevelt qualified his four human freedoms “in world terms.” In dream-school terms, freedom of speech and expression means that all individuals associated with the school—teachers, students, parents, and administrators—have freedom to express their thoughts, concerns, and ambitions in an open forum of discussion and deliberation that is free from judgment. Students can speak their minds about their learning, teachers can critically assess professional development that is missing the mark, parents can voice their concerns for their children’s futures, and administrators can mediate and advocate.

In an ideal school environment, mistakes are expected. Rehabilitation and reconciliation are measures of success. Everyone gets a seat at the table and the discussion takes as long as it needs to. Not all issues are resolved, but it is expected that the community communicates openly about its issues. As Princeton professor and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah notes, “conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything… it’s enough that it gets us used to one another.”

2. Freedom of Worship

Freedom of worship goes beyond religion—it also means having the freedom to believe in the social, political, and educational ideals of your choice, and having the community’s support in doing so.

It’s one thing to keep up with professional developments in the field; it’s another to be expected to shift pedagogical gears in response to every trend. Change is sometimes needed, but transformation does not always equal progress. We need to ensure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater every time we want to freshen the tub. As John Updike once sagely quipped, “What we need is progress with an escape hatch.”

Good teachers, students, parents, and administrators recognize that a wide variety of teaching styles work with a wide variety of learning styles. Thus, in any dream school, diverse approaches and educational philosophies are accepted, modeled, shared, selected, and perfected by those who teach and learn best with them. And the products of all these approaches and philosophies should be celebrated gloriously.

3. Freedom From Want

Peter Greene captures the hard part of teaching in the phrase “never enough.” He observes, “There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.”

But in any dream school, this would never be the case. A blend of synchronous and asynchronous interaction and learning would allow everyone—administrators, teachers, and students—to learn at the pace they need to, in the ways that suit them best. Trust is the guiding force that replaces lock-step, one-size-fits-all directives imposed to ensure that training can be translated into data. Trust replaces directives with individualized plans to help everyone develop as learners and teachers, and it allows success to be measured by qualitative and authentic standards that contribute to the wonder of the real world.

When I taught in Brazil, I passed a wall in São Paulo tagged with graffiti declaring, “Num país com fome, não há crime.” (In a country with hunger, there is no crime.) I have often reflected on this statement in regard to teaching; if we make sure there is “enough” in our actual schools—not just enough money, but “enough”—we will have the starting point for our dream schools. If we don’t, we can’t be surprised by the challenges that will continue to face us.

If you were a “West Wing” fan, you might remember Rob Lowe’s character asserting, “Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position.” Mine too, and my dream school reflects it.

4. Freedom From Fear

All other dream-school freedoms are born here. School stakeholders too often are afraid to express their beliefs, especially about what they want—but it shouldn’t be that way. Consider how tenure skeptics might re-think their position if they knew how many public school teachers feared for their livelihood after expressing that they don’t have enough, or losing their jobs to meet the demands of a business model superimposed on an institution that is not a business and does not thrive on the same set of expectations.

But fear isn’t a reality only for teachers. Students and parents can also suffer from fear: to state their concerns or experience social failure. Administrators sometimes hesitate to help rehabilitate developing teachers for fear of “hard measures” advocates and corporate models of turnover and attrition.

Too often, stakeholders fear one another to the point where communication breaks down. We reach a point at which we no longer come together to “get used to one another” but remain firmly entrenched in our fixed positions. Aung San Suu Kyi observed that the “most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.”

My dream school is not only free of fear—it is full of courage, dignity, and commonwealth. It is the place where the community finds space to come and work together with teachers, to get used to one another, and to build our shared future.

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