When I was in middle school, my friend Artie shocked all of us by shooting spitballs at the vice principal, Mr. Salvatini. It was an incredibly daring move because Mr. Salvatini was a stern man who didn’t tolerate any nonsense. We all got a big giggle from it.
In high school, I had a track coach who was very tall and had long red hair. One day, an older student named Tony walked into the locker room and greeted the coach by saying, “Hey Big Red!” We couldn’t believe his boldness!
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In schools, there is a distinct gap between the students and the grownups. Teachers are set up to be distant authority figures—dispensers of facts and knowledge, but not real people. They’re not supposed to share any parts of their social lives. If they relate to students personally, they’re chastised for being unprofessional, for trying to be “friends” with students.
This never made sense to me in my 10 years teaching in traditional schools. And now that I’m working in a progressive school, I’m gaining a broader perspective on this dynamic.
No student would ever shoot a spitball at a teacher in my school—not because they’d fear punishment, but rather the act would make no sense given the nature of the relationship between staff and students. Staff members at PSCS do not demand respect from students based on their title or an uneven power relationship; they earn their respect by treating students with the same dignity and respect that they treat any other person.
They ask students for input in solving problems, share little details about their personal lives, and apologize to students if they make a mistake. Accordingly, the students respect the staff—and each other—because they’re immersed in an environment that’s based on mutual respect.
Still, many traditional schools prefer an environment of distant, formal relationships over authentic, personal ones. I’m not sure what advantage this offers.
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