Friday, November 18, 2016

A Long and Emotional Introduction to Starting a Sudbury School

I've been staring at a blank page all day.

I've been trying to write about the two weeks I spent in another state visiting a Sudbury school, and I think, instead, I'm letting my perfectionism control me. I wanted to write up a sweet, little blurb about the school that they could add to their list of things cool people have written about them. I wanted it to be a positive, little thing that we could all share around and be happy and proud about.

But the truth is, my experience there and my thoughts about Sudbury aren't entirely positive.

The reason I can't write is because I haven't been true to myself. I've been trying to hide. I've been trying to hide all of the real-life, potentially negative aspects, both from myself and from everyone around me. I've been trying to convince everyone that there are simple solutions and that I trust myself to make positive change happen.


Okay, back up. You deserve more context for all of this emotion I'm spewing at you. I've been writing a lot about how teaching high school went last year, but I haven't mentioned anything about what I'm doing this school year.

Well, I'm not teaching.

For years I've been entertaining a daydream about creating my own school. That's the logical outcome for this entire blog, right? Surely that's why I've been exploring so many aspects of education, right? What else would one do with this knowledge?

And yet it's remained a dream for so long.

Almost two years ago now I started seeing a therapist. It has been an incredible journey of self-discovery and insight into the psychology of humanity. I've grown more than I ever expected to, difficult as a journey as it was. I've found parts of myself I didn't know existed, parts of us that we all have in common but never speak of, parts of humanity that make us flawed but beautiful. I've discovered how to embrace the parts of life that are uncomfortable and learn from them. I feel like I am foundationally almost a different person, continually changing and growing and learning and living--intentionally.

I've learned that my life is my own, and I am in charge of how it goes.

Subconsciously, I've been living in the pattern, the system, that modern society has created. It's not a bad pattern. It does very well for most people. But that doesn't mean that I have to be confined by it.

That school doesn't have to remain a daydream. I can bring it to reality. It's a lot of work, but I  can make it happen.

There are people out there that do great things. They are real human beings, just like I am, and I, too, can do great things. I know I can because they can. We are fundamentally the same. We are all made of star stuff, after all.


The journey to create a school still probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground if it weren't for the random happenstance of realizing that Joanna, an acquaintance, a friend-of-a-friend, also had daydreams of creating a school. We come from different backgrounds--I'm an unsettled teacher; she's an unsettled parent--but that unifying desire to make something great was all it took. Neither of us were going far on our own, but as partners, we pushed each other to accomplish more. It's her children I think of now when I start to question myself.

My research, having gone through a Montessori phase, was now travelling through the land of Sudbury. We hesitated but then went all out on a successful internet fundraising campaign to raise $675 and purchase a School Planning Kit from Sudbury Valley School.

The first goal after receiving the kit was supposed to be looking through the material more thoroughly to determine whether this was, in fact, the path we wanted to be on. It was roughly timed, though, because Joanna got caught up in other aspects of life, and my brain simply refused to look critically at the material. Every time I sat down to ask myself, "Is this what you want your school to be?" the immediate response came, "Uh, well, of course. We spent all this money, and it seems like the right choice." Our progress stalled. At least I had set up that two-week visitation to one of the schools I had been in contact with! I allowed the dust to settle while I waited for the trip. "Everything will be better after the trip," I told myself. "You'll go and see how perfect it is and come back motivated and eager to keep going all the way to the finish line."

But nothing is perfect, after all.

I am so incredibly thankful to the school for hosting me for two weeks. It was a fantastic experience that I still haven't completely unpacked yet.

Again, mostly because I'm afraid to. I'm afraid to come to terms with two major points. But we don't move forward without difficulty, so here we go.


The first point is partially an issue with my own expectation. I had built myself a little bubble of how I imagined Sudbury to be, and I was unsettled when I didn't find it to be true. Or, more accurately, when I found it to be truer than I completely realized.

"It's the atmosphere," I told everyone who asked my first impression. "It's an atmosphere of literally doing whatever you want and not feeling any amount of judgement for it. It's one thing to know that, conceptually, but it's another thing to actually witness it."

What I meant to say was, "I'm happy to see the littlest ones running and playing in the main room where they have a lot of space; their bodies and minds appreciate all the physical movement and activity. I'm also happy to see the group of kids playing video games in the computer room; they're learning to solve complex puzzles and be efficient and control technology. However, the teenagers just hanging out and talking make me uncomfortable."

Perhaps it's because I'm still stuck in the current societal system of, "Okay, you're going to be productive now, right?" In the Sudbury framework I had built for myself, it was okay for the children to play all day because they are learning in their own ways, and when the appropriate time comes, something will click inside of them, and they will produce something. They will become something. They will have something to show for all of the work they did when they were younger. They will prove to all the adults watching with scornful faces that freedom is a shortcut to a happy, productive adult life.

How could these teenagers just sit around talking when they had so much to do? They should have been well on their way by now. What happened? Did they join the school at too late of an age? Did they not get what they needed out of their younger years? Was the system failing them?

Boy, did these teenagers have something to teach me. And, in true teaching fashion, the seeds they planted in me when I met them at the beginning of the month are just now starting to sprout. I suspect I won't be harvesting fruit from them anytime soon, but for now, the sprouts are reminding me what trust is all about.

Trust is the backbone of the entire Sudbury model. Again, it's one thing to know, conceptually, but it's quite another to actually practice it.

Because teenagers, you know... Teenagers like to hang out and talk. That's true of teenagers everywhere, and it's true of Sudbury teenagers. I know, logically, that they're getting a lot out of it, just like the others running around in the main room and playing video games in the computer room. They're learning what is socially acceptable. They're learning how to treat others. They're learning empathy, current events, and how to have a conversation. They're learning how to interact with others. They're learning connection.

It doesn't matter that the girl with the sketchbook couldn't draw every day with all the conversation buzzing around her. It doesn't matter that she admitted she doesn't "get any work done at school" and does most of her drawing at home. She chose to stay in that room and participate in the conversation instead of finding a quite space to be by herself, and I'm choosing to trust that she's getting what she needs.

The oldest teenagers were actually the ones that had been there the longest, and, as difficult as it was for me to see at the time, they were serving as impeccable role models for the younger students. They were the ones who ran the weekly school meeting and judicial committee that met whenever a problem needed to be solved. They were the ones that scolded the younger ones for running in the halls and kept the school running smoothly. Sure, they didn't do a perfect job, but I'm choosing to trust that they are getting out of it what they need.

I can tell it will be a long journey to actually embracing this. It will take a long time and a lot of struggle on my part, but if I allow myself, I can form myself in this way. I've had 28 years of society forming me, so that it will take effort and patience to unlearn is to be expected.

But how can I also convince parents to trust their children if I am also struggling?


Which brings me to my second point--I'm still not convinced Sudbury is the model I want to follow.

I am hyper-aware of my tendency to, as my husband puts it, follow the novelty. I'm the type of person who likes to explore everything. There's always something new to look into. Who's to say that in one year's time I won't feel the same about Sudbury as I do about Montessori. Goodness knows the Sudbury community is rife with drama.

But even more than that, settling down with one model for what, at this point, seems like the rest of my professional career... That scares me more than anything else. It almost seems like a compromise of my own values. In the aforementioned "list of cool things people have written about" the Sudbury school I visited this month, I found links to where two other visitors like me had written of their experiences. Two other people who explored alternative education. Two other people on this endless quest.

I don't want my quest to be over. I don't want to settle down and decide, "This is the best. There's no reason to keep looking." And that's the biggest reason I'm hesitant to commit to the Sudbury model.

Joanna and I have played around with the name of our future school, which we're still planning to open September 2017. Nothing seems quite right. We almost settled on Wichita Creative Learning School but then decided it was too ambiguous. Immediately upon returning home, I decided we had to commit, at least partially, to Wichita Sudbury School so that we could open into an already existing community. We could keep our business name as Wichita Creative Learning, Inc., but the school itself needed to completely comply with the Sudbury model so that we could have support that came with it.

Now again I'm questioning that.


There are no easy answers. Life is not that simple.

I'm fully aware that this school could fail. I'm also fully aware that even if this school is successful, it's not necessarily the only thing left in my professional career. I'm hoping that it can grow and change with me, but I'm not quite sure how to let it.

And that's where I stand now, eager to proceed but nervous that I'm going in the wrong direction.

But I can trust myself.

One thing I've learned from therapy is that there is no right direction. Any direction I choose to go is fine. Regardless of what happens, I will continue to grow and learn. If I let fear of failure control me, I won't do anything great. And I know that I can do great things.