A Typical Day at Houston Sudbury School
I arrive around 8:40am. Several students are already at school, having arrived before we even officially open, but this is the quiet time, the calm before the beautiful storm of kid energy and activity. A student is playing Minecraft in the game room, another noodling around on the piano, a 3rd is talking to a staff person about solving ring puzzles. I make coffee, talk shop with another staff person, answer a few emails, and sit down in the dining room to drink my coffee and watch “Pick Up Sticks” while 2 students and a staff person play this “newly discovered” game.
The conversation veers in several directions, including talking about future metalsmithing projects. A student has brought chocolate kisses to sell and we chat about business and profit margins. Another staff member and I discuss repairing one of our picnic tables which has become warped and wobbly. I talk with a student about asking his dad to look at it. I spend some time ordering supplies that the school needs.
A student arrives asking for help with her camera, but immediately gets caught up in playing with her friends. I file it away in my mind to be ready for her whenever she is ready for me. I work on revising the HSS transcript form, email a few parents, message our 3rd staff person about ideas for a blacksmithing workshop in the fall at the school, tweak and print our brochure, and then I am called in to Judicial Committee to testify. We must pause JC to meet quickly with a parent, and I water the flowers in front during the break. JC takes about an hour, mostly cases of messes that I wrote up the day before. One student, age 7, reminds JC to include him in the report since he left a mess. His sweet honesty is touching to all in the room.
After JC, I grab my lunch and head outside to enjoy the nice weather. About 10 others have had the same idea. A few are on the wobbling picnic table, so I get help moving it and paint a sign for it to ask everyone to stay off it until we repair it. Several have organized wrestling matches, including setting some strict rules. I watch a few matches, then jump in and challenge my own kid. She doesn’t hold back and I rethink that idea and laughingly concede. I keep an eye on things, since I can see some of the sibling matches heating up, but no one ever crosses the line. Our oldest student, 18, comes out and organizes a game of “Bull Dog” which most of the students (and I) have never heard of. I sit outside, taking photos and videos, while the students run screaming and laughing for about an hour. Sitting outside, listening to this sound makes me so happy to work here.
I go back inside to work and a student comes in soon after with a large splinter from the fence. I give her supplies and sit with her while she works on getting it out. Several students come by to offer advice and encouragement. She eventually removes the splinter herself, but I realize we need better tweezers at school and make a note to bring some.
A staff person leaves with a small group of students who have requested to walk to Five Guys for burgers. One of our volunteers arrives and we chat for a minute about her life. A student has a sentence to stay away from another student, which prevents him from getting his shoes, so I help with that. Another student needs a password for one of the computers, and the littlest one chats with me about why he wants a tent at school. A few phone calls come in, and I’m still trying to print the brochure so I can hand some out to parents at end of day pickup. I straighten up a few rooms and run the vacuum on a particularly messy patch of the floor. A younger student spills dried ramen all over the floor and needs help cleaning it up. He jokes and laughs the whole time and afterwards I let him listen to some music on my headphones and he giggles even more at that.
Once the Hamburger group returns, I take a few students to the corner store for snacks and drinks. We do this almost every day, so everyone knows the routine. We chat about our new school building, the move, the democratic process of Sudbury, and chickens. Neighbors greet us. They know the kids and enjoy seeing them.
When we return, I try to get with the student who wants help with her camera, but she is still engaged in an intense game of pretend with 3 other friends. I sit down outside to work again on my computer, and a student sits with me to have a long conversation about all she is learning in her cheerleading classes.
As I’m sitting outside, watching students run in and out, each in charge of their own day/time/self, listening to students have 1000 little conversations everything from boy bands, to politics, to the future, to food, art, YouTube, doctors, friendship, manga and play in a 1000 imaginary worlds, I’m struck by how ordinary and extraordinary this day is.
I start to write this all down, but stop to help with chores, pitching in with assigning each student a chore while our other staff person deals with a stray dog on campus. Students line up, asking for chores, a student offers to help me with the assignments (he knows more about how to do it than I do), while I take a phone call from a parent concerned about her teenager staying up all night.
Time is a funny thing in a Sudbury school. The days fly by. In this school, age doesn’t matter, they are just people. There are no grade-levels, no “freshmen,” no units, no midterms or finals. No slow learners, no fast learners. There are just days. Relatively stress-free days filled with playing, talking, doing, trying, working, learning, being. There is a flow, a light structure, based around Judicial Committee and School Meeting and being open certain hours to coincide with parent’s work schedules, a flow of seasons and holidays and change, but it is light, not the heavy, plodding rigidity of traditional school.
The processing of all that we do each day only comes later. It comes in conversations I have with my own daughter who attends HSS (who I barely see all day) each night (“How were things on the student side today?” “How were things on the Staff side”). It comes in conversations with parents and the public, in Staff meetings where the 3 of us relish noticing, discussing, caring about it all. Brewing underneath these “typical day” moments are big things: children learning that they are valued, that they deserve (and have the right to) agency in their own life, that they are fully human with rights and responsibilities. There are big things like children growing up with their curiosity intact, their creativity undamaged, their confidence in their ability to learn, grow, and adapt cemented in their psyche. They grow up knowing that they are agents in their own life, that their world is what they make of it. They learn that people older/younger than they are friends and resources, not judges or enemies.
We are often asked what the role of Staff is at a school where students are in charge of their own learning. We describe Staff as being “resources” and “elder advisors” rather than instructors, but this is too simple a definition. HSS Staff must deeply understand, trust and believe in the rights of children and their powerful, innate ability to learn. Staff must fully support the democratic model and hold fairness, the rights of the individual and the rights of the community as sacred, always modeling the best of civil debate, gracefully losing, and thoughtful/logical governing. Staff must be always ready to respond, engage, and discuss whatever is needed by all the students, staying sensitive to and observant of what they are interested in, without interfering, judging, or directing. We must be friends to students, but not overly “bossy” friends. Staff must be ready to teach a skill, a class, but also be totally OK with students finding their own way. Staff must be “Jacks-of-all-Trades” able to fix a toilet, help with Minecraft, tie a shoe, conduct an interview, create an ad, reassure a parent, listen to a complaint, work with official authorities, and manage any project required. Staff take on whatever students do not want to do, holding the space for them to pursue their interests, but they must also be totally OK relinquishing their authority, (never buying into the adult-ist idea of being in charge) when a student does want to take over. It is always a delicate balance of being fully available and supportive, while holding the space for students to problem-solve and do for themselves. And Staff must be able to do everything they need to do while dozens of kids of all ages swirl around them, being loud and active.
Many adults in our culture rarely have the privilege of experiencing children being their authentic selves — curious, capable, responsible, energetic, open, healthy, compassionate, and ethical. Staff at Sudbury schools are in the unique position of seeing kids as they are and in the privileged position to support and help kids, with no judgement and without inflicting harm. It is a very special job.