Volume:1, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2009

School as a Model of a Civil Society
Gritsai, Julia V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: constant-developing environment; a model of a civil society; call for dialogue; school co-management; school life>

SYNOPSIS: To be a school principal is a complicated task that demands strength and commitment, especially if this is such a famous school as Moscow “School of Self-Determination.” The author, who is the head of this school, shares with the reader a number of primary ideas and principles of how to build a truly educational and democratic environment for students and teachers, how to involve everyone in the process of co-management, and how to make dialogue an essential part of school communication. The article provides challenges for educators interested in creating a genuine school oriented towards students’ academic achievements and their personality and character formation.

School as a Model of a Civil Society

In our school we claim our main principle to be education that originates from a child and “comes” to a child. Changes are the norm for us. They happen everywhere, especially in situations of various contradictions that are quite common in a constant-developing environment. Imagine we have a new student or a new teacher, any of them will bring something new and unique to our school, and we have to deal with it. Obviously, there are a lot of changes in a school community as a whole. School is a vibrant living thing; it is not a static model that is able to reproduce itself from year to year and to be transferred to any other school without any tailoring. School has to persistently change itself to remain sustainable; it cannot survive as a static model.

Alexander Tubelsky2 had a vision of a school as a model of a civil society, where one can gain experience in interacting with others, in expressing his or her opinions as a citizen and contributing to the overall decision-making process.

Dialogue and School Co-management. Democracy, as we understand it, is a way of life, a certain culture, and an environment. It is, in the first place, a dialogue where it is crucial not only to speak up and state one’s opinion but also to make an effort, to step forward and try to understand your opponent’s life situation and position.

It starts with understanding oneself and reflecting on one’s own life situation and circumstances. I believe the world works in a way that something has to happen to you before you become aware of it. Teachers should not present students with ready-made solutions because it is dangerous for their independent development. In such situations they will easily accept everything for granted and get used to having things decided for them.

Our aim is the opposite, we try to consider and exploit every situation in a way that it promotes and increases our school community development as a whole and each student in particular.

I share John Dewey’s point of view on a social life when he says that it is always about social interaction and communication3. To be a subject of communication means to have a constantly expanding and changing experience. When one shares ideas and feelings of another person, to a certain extent, it reshapes his or her own opinions and social position.

Let us have a look at our first school law, which is called Honor and Dignity Defense Law. It was originally developed as a possible way-out of some conflicting life situations, which happened in a temporary community of teenagers and adults in a summer camp. At that time, after lengthy discussions and debates we came to an obvious conclusion that we were all different, and for us to live together, even temporarily, we had to learn how to negotiate and agree on some rules. That was the situation when a school law served as a record of certain agreements.

I have come across various attitudes towards our ideas and practices. On the one hand, some educators critically say that we have established a totally free community where everything is allowed. On the other hand, some pragmatically ask us to share with them our methods and techniques… to apply at their schools. But what do we understand by “techniques” here? Do we speak the same language?

Speaking of sharing experience, we have to realize that the majority of situations in education are fragile and totally unique. I guess, education is mostly about relationships among people; and students’ experiences are created by interaction, building and maintaining links.

A student, when first at school, finds oneself in a system of existing relations and a certain life> adopted by the school community members. This shared and accepted life>

Until we fully accept the fact that we all “live” in a system of certain school relationships, which reflects the school life>

We are constantly in search of better ways to build, maintain, and enrich school environment so that it reinforces our efforts to reach our goals. In other words, we are in search of the most effective “tools” to utilize the school life>

The specific school environment mentioned above is a network of relations and an aggregate of values. Is there a way to define and describe it as a technique or a pure model? I seriously doubt it.

Many schools proudly announce that they have both School Councils and democracy. However, on many occasions when I talk with teachers at these schools, it turns out that such “democratic bodies” have no actual power and no effect on a school life. Very often this type of “democracy,” co-management, and School Councils are affecting students' extracurricular activities and have no effect on classes. We believe democracy cannot function only during school breaks and after classes. But if it happens, it is more like playing a game of democracy, and then students easily sense and recognize hypocrisy.

In the legislative process that provides for co-management it is essential for every student to become a co-author and a co-creator. Otherwise, students will not feel that they are part of the school’s educational process, and this process will not be an effective tool to influence their development. Any school law, for us, is a system of contractual relationships among students, parents, teachers, and graduates.

We establish laws to regulate our common life, and not as a threat of being punished in case of misbehavior. In education any punishment that is a tool of individual humiliation should be forbidden and considered unacceptable. Only rules, which were created jointly and shared by everyone in the school community, can work and educate.

Yet, when framing our school laws, we take into account that at school there are very few, if any, standard situations, every new one is a call for dialogue. It is an opportunity for developing patterns of democratic behavior.

At times we have to review some of our laws and regulations again if they stop being effective for some reasons. Unfortunately, from my experience, it is rather common that schools place their set of laws somewhere on the wall and never touch them for ages, so children tend not to perceive them. These norms do not belong to the students. In reality, people create laws in certain situations but at some point these creators leave the school, or these laws become norms of behavior, and stop being topical, then they should be changed. This is another reason why we need to reconsider school laws every three to five years, and this is exactly what our School Council does.

Renewal of legislation is not an urgent, technical, or superficial process. It is always an exploration, a research, and a discovery. A proper work might take several months or even a couple of years. It has to be a genuine adoption, not simply voting for, or against. It is common when laws are written by the school administration, and councils automatically vote for them. Thus, a law is no longer an agreement but a set of fake proclamations with no connection to reality.

When we notice that a certain law does not work any longer, that it stops being a regulatory norm for relationships among students and adults, and is often violated, we start analyzing the reasons. We hold all types of discussions and debates in small and large groups. Last year we introduced a new format – law trial period. It is more efficient as after a while we all have some experience to support our opinions on the future of a particular regulation.

Nowadays, it is a turning point for us at school, and it is all about School Constitution and Laws. Many of them were ratified a long time ago; the wording and content badly need renewal as they do not meet modern criteria. Besides, none of the currently-enrolled students and teachers has ever contributed to the old legislation. Our former Council formulated and announced this problem, and we have been considering different ways to solve it for over half a year. Finally, in March 2009 we discussed it at a Council plenary meeting.

The challenge was to plan this work in a way that not only the Council but also all students and teachers would be involved in the process. Here are some basic questions to start with: “Does the school currently function according to our laws? How to raise civil awareness? Why do we need laws?” And even: “Do we still need them? If we do, why don’t they work?” The next step was carrying out a school discussion that aimed to let people talk openly and search for solutions together.

At this stage something provocative happened which we almost missed. We, educators, were challenged to reconsider our own vision of the school civil society system and assumptions of why laws sometimes do not work with us in the first place. It turned out not to be an easy job to do, to agree on common concepts and figure out our own strategies to actualize the issues and work out a plan for renewal. An idea occurred to hold a Teachers’ Plenary meeting. This meeting was supposed to focus on clarifying teachers’ positions about School Constitution and Laws, highlighting preferences in school activities and planning for certain strategies that would allow us to emphasize the importance of school laws to everyone within the school.

Sixty teachers spent a whole day discussing the plenary agenda issues. As a result, they agreed to start different activities, which would show the importance of updating laws and the whole school “legal environment.” Later on, there were many more ideas of how to fulfill this type of work. I am not absolutely sure of the results but I am positive about the necessity to arrange this kind of work, and to do it truthfully without any misleading intentions or actions.

…Today, when thinking of connections between schools and educational bureaucratic bodies in Russia, I see, at least, three reasons when a school can attract attention of district and other authorities:

1) Parents’ complaints. Authorities are afraid of any disputes and conflicts. If there are many, this school can hardly be considered effective.
2) Results of the Unified State Examination4. But how can anyone measure students’ self-development and self-determination? We often set long-term goals, and the result might not be easily detectable The Unified State Examination mostly measures the capacity of one’s memory. The best example here is tests on literature that, in general, monitor remembering insignificant details, but not ideas, concepts, or meanings as before. It is hard to believe that now students would only need to keep in mind numerous details while reading.
3) School participation in significant projects, city events, regional and national conferences. I suppose, it is the only indicator that might, to a certain extent, show efficiency and progress in school activities.

For us, a student is successful after reaching the stage when he or she can say: “I did it myself!” The School of Self-Determination is in the process of constant objective and natural changes. Every day something is new, something is happening, and the school today is different from yesterday, which sets new questions and promotes a search for never-ending solutions.

We are sometimes reproached for being unable to solve our problems, though claiming that we are experienced educators. Moreover we are constantly looking for new challenges ourselves, and feel proud when we find them. Some people wonder: “What kind of school would claim to find a new challenge every year?”

We have never had a hierarchic management structure. What we have, I prefer to define as a networking management administration. We have certain small communities, long-term and temporary teams with its leaders and individuals working together. This year we have approximately two hundred educators and two hundred activities and events of different scale. My job is to balance them and to manage the collaboration of the networking process.

It is important for us to learn about the achievements and failures of our teachers. This knowledge unites us as we learn who is who, and what all of us are able to do. It is clear that one could be a wonderful initiator of creative activities, another – a great organizer, and still another can be talented in establishing partnerships with children. We should know of all the pros and cons of our instructors to be able to use the synergy of our efforts and to strengthen the capacities of every individual teacher.

I believe in a “database” of teaching techniques. It might be called a collection, a resource pack of methods, strategies, and techniques based on our combined experience. But it is not a technique itself. There are more challenges we face at school than we are capable of working out solutions for. At times, these challenges seem so familiar, while at other times they are very new, and this is another reason to have such a database of techniques. It works as a repository of our cumulative educational experiences, and as a substantial back-up which every teacher can rely on.

When a constant creative search is needed, it is crucial to reflect on one’s own work, to be ready to analyze and formulate challenges, to describe one’s own experience, to design a new program, etc. It is important to record what has been planned and done, what was happening to students then and what is happening now. At annual teachers’ conferences I often hear presentations, which are full of meaningless pseudo-research terms and which barely show how a presenter has achieved actual results.

We consider reflection and introspection an essential part of our professional development. In our school we have a mix of veterans and new teachers but we are trying to provide for the best possible reflective conditions for everyone. This year we have received meaningful help from Dr. Alexander M. Lobok, a prominent psychologist, who observed a teaching process in the school, evaluated it and made an attempt to analyze various approaches, which we use at the school.

It is very important how anyone analyzes and interprets our work. It happens that an outside teacher will observe for a time but will never notice the core elements because of the way he or she experiences the educational process. Surely evaluation and expertise are largely subjective, and I hardly believe in pure technological effectiveness in education. Pedagogy is not about recipes, it is based on a case-by-case basis.

Eight years ago we launched a joint student-teacher’s expertise and made it a common practice, we have always aimed to use it widely for understanding the mechanisms of how democratic processes work. The fundamental principle of such an expertise was to concentrate on the content of activities and not on their written and presented results. Later on, we also participated in an evaluation process of many school program documents of development. After reading some of them, I felt an immediate urge to go and see how it works, and how they have managed to achieve such great results. In my imagination I either saw certain pictures or questioned the possibility to do what they claimed. There is a clear need for an open dialogue and mutual analysis among educators.

The school’s daily routine is complicated and diverse; it is difficult to describe, and even more difficult to reproduce in another school environment. Only by being an experienced teacher, one could fully realize its complicated nature. That is why I am always amazed when requests come from different teachers to copy, replicate, and use our technologies in their schools.

School is neither a door to culture, nor a road to other people. School is an important social environment where a growing human being acquires a unique experience of understanding what he or she is; this is a process that is happening in a constant dialogue with oneself and many others around. Acquiring cultural concepts is only a superficial goal, which every school has to achieve. There is much deeper work on determining the borders of oneself in various cultural contexts.

Any school, if it is genuine, preserves a continuous search for its own identity, figuring out what it is aiming to do and what it is actually doing. Due to its very nature, a school as an educational establishment, should not be considered a well-designed bureaucratic machine, predetermined in its results, but rather as a “human being” experiencing existential choice and self-determination.

1 Grizai, Julia V. [In Russian: Юлия Владимировна Грицай], Principal, Education Center No. 734 “School of Self-Determination,” Moscow.

2 See: Tubelsky, Alexander N. Is It Easy to Be a School Principal Russian-American Educaiton Forum. 2009. Vol. 1. No. 1. http://www.rus-ameeduforum.com/content/en/?task=aut&aut=2000009&iid=1

3 See: Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Perigee; Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan; Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier.

4 Traditionally, Russian universities and colleges conducted their own admission tests regardless of the applicants' school records. In 2003, the Ministry of Education launched the Unified state examination (USE) program. The set of standardized tests for high school graduates, issued uniformly throughout the country and rated independent of the student's teachers and principals, akin to North American SAT, was supposed to replace entrance exams to state universities.

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