What challenges do teachers face in schools where ethos is everything?
At 2pm sharp students stream from the 12th century castle down to the seafront. You won’t find a single teacher marking books at the end of the day at this school in Llantwit Major, South Wales. Instead, they’re donning wetsuits for lifeguard training or collecting spades, ready for an afternoon of hard work planting vegetables.
This is Atlantic College (AC), founded by educationalist Kurt Hahn in the 1960s. His mission was to create a rounded individual and an educational system founded on the ethos of peace, friendship and solidarity. Students have to show their devotion to the school’s ideals before they are given a place, many of which are scholarship funded. There are long application forms followed by thorough interviews with national committees to help the teachers determine who fits the bill and who does not.
Those who attend AC share dorms with their peers from Tibet, Israel and Palestine, and the school is committed to “nurturing peace”. It is, however, the staff who drive the school’s spirit by how they teach the curriculum and run extra-curricular activities.
Ray Silkstone, a retired history teacher who used to work at the school, explains that when he worked at AC the syllabus included subjects like political thought and peace studies. “These topics create a sense that the ethos informs the curriculum and [when I worked there] we had occasional in-service training days where we discussed the college’s mission statement.” Students also play a large part in embracing what the school stands for, says Silkstone, adding that an international student body ensures this.
The principal of AC, John Walmsley, says that the aim of teaching at the school is to get students to “challenge dogmas that inhibit positive change in the world, and to make them activists, both globally and within their communities”.
There are no set bedtimes either, and the student body is encouraged to be as autonomous as possible.
Walmsley hopes that the college’s culture is a yardstick by which all their activities are judged. Teachers are called by their first names, and running events, such as house meetings. As well as their lessons, students are encouraged to take part in a service, lifeguarding or helping out at the on-site special educational needs school. There are no set bedtimes and the student body is encouraged to be as autonomous as possible.
Summerhill is another school where ethos permeates every activity. Founded by educationalist AS Neill in 1921, it is known as a school “with no rules”. However, it prefers to call itself a “children’s democracy”, where pupils only attend lessons, exams and activities if they want to.
Simone Padur, who teaches art and design at Summerhill, says that the school believes in empowering kids with choice. Angela Neustatter, granddaughter of the school’s co-founder, explained in a Guardian article that the system works because after hours spent climbing beech trees, you yearn for a formal learning environment.
But what are the teaching challenges of working in a school where ethos is all-important? Padur says that Summerhill is one of the most rewarding environments she has ever worked in. “It gives students and staff the freedom to pursue avenues that are closed off in the regular school system due to lack of time and curriculum restraints. One of the challenges is combining what I know students require for further study, such as GCSE’s and A-levels, into fun lessons. But this can be exciting too.”
It’s important for Padur to combine the school’s philosophy of an open education with her curriculum: “In formal lessons I give kids
as much choice as possible and encourage them in self-discovery. I also support the school’s ethos by having open studio time where students can work on their projects. I’m there as a facilitator rather than a teacher.”
Walmsley says it’s good not to be too dogmatic: “I don’t think the school’s message gets in the way of the curriculum, but of course we teach students to challenge ideas and in turn they challenge us. This is a good thing and keeps us on our toes - but sometimes makes for lively conversation.”
And life isn’t always easy at these schools. The split between funded students and the ultra-rich, who help to pay for the scholarships, sometimes means that students are admitted on a financial basis, which has the potential to create tensions.
Teachers also have to create democratic and peace orientated learning space while trying to reconcile the ambitions of a few who come to the school to maximise their chances of getting into top universities. As in all institutions, the staff don’t always agree with how the school is run, but they work there because they advocate its values
Sanjana Varghese, who studies at AC, says that how the ethos is implemented varies: “Younger teachers tend to be more idealistic and open to letting students take initiative and take the reins. A lot of senior management are coming around to this idea and seeing how it can be implemented within the existing structure.”
One of the greatest challenges of teaching in a regular school was watching the students being talked down to.
Padur, like Silkstone, has taught in “regular” schools in Canada and the Middle East, and feels that the way of life at Summerhill means that children are respected more: “One of the greatest challenges of teaching in a regular school was watching the students being talked down to by many of the teachers. It was also disheartening to see so little choice given to kids in the direction of their learning.”
Silkstone says: “It may have been possible to go back to teaching at a ‘regular’ school, but it’s not something we would happily choose to do.” Walmsley agrees: “[Few of our teachers at AC] go back to the traditional exam factory-type schools. Most go to other like-minded international schools.”
Zaffie Cox, an alumnus of AC, remembers having a conversation with her teacher and lifeboat leader Alun Wood on why students called teachers by their first names: “He said he couldn’t contemplate letting people who came out with him on the Inshore Life Boats to rescue people calling him ‘Mr Wood’; that he had to give them the respect that their actions deserved and part of that was to be on an equal footing. For me at least it was a demonstration that teachers interact with students very differently than at other schools.”
- This article was amended on Wednesday 21 January 2015 at 5pm as AC’s syllabus no longer includes political thought and students are no longer responsible for locking up the school every evening.
- This article was amended on Tuesday 27 January 2015 to this quote – “The split between funded students and the ultra-rich, who help to pay for the scholarships, sometimes means that students are admitted on a financial basis which has the potential to create tensions” – which was wrongly attributed to Ray Silkstone.
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