First Impressions of Albany Free School Teaching Staff | IDEA

First Impressions of Albany Free School Teaching Staff

Posted by Zuleka Irvin on Sep 05, 2012 - 01:18 PM

Hey IDEA readers and bloggers, for the 2012-2013 school year, I'm back in the education scene at Albany Free School. Through an alterntive learning program at my college, I am able to take an academic gap year here as an intern. You can read more details about that here.

I've been acquainted with teachers at Free School for a little over a week. Even within such a small space of time, I've been able to notice some key things about their dynamics. Teaching staff at Albany Free School have true "ownership" of the school. Within news and discussion about education policy, the topic of teachers having "ownership" in their job is something that's very crucial. Seeing the staff in their meetings and around the school has made it clear why this is important.

First, AFS teachers, in tandem with students, have ownership of curriculum and the learning process. Instead of working based on standards imposed from above, the academic decisions at AFS are made in a more horizontal fashion. The staff have their goals and proposals for teaching throughout the year, for the firstfew days of school, students are "interviewed" to discover their interests and goals. From there, teachers work to bring student needs and their own goals to a common point. The students inform the teachers of what's important, and the teachers teach to that as well as "the basics". Based on what skill levels and goals the students have, there is a constant feedback running back and forth between the teachers and learners about how to conduct the education process. The staff also have multiple roles in the place of what is traditionally reserved for "administrators" and "school boards". I think that I will find that teachers are better equipped to make these types of decisions, because teachers tend know more about the academic environment than those who solely hold administrative roles.

Second, AFS teachers double as "staff members". We all have physical responsibility for the school. On my first day of orientation, I participated in a meeting during which we all chose various "jobs" to do around the school. These were tasks normally reserved for "aides" and "custodial workers" - breakfast set-up and clean-up, yard duty (watching the kids outside after lunch), bathroom clean-up, and closing the building at the end of the day.

After that day, we spent the rest of orientation week working on renovations of the school. We painted walls, cleaned the floors, organized the rooms, and got some help from a few parents/volunteers who had more handiwork and contruction skills. There was something very powerful in witnessing the teachers themselves be a major part of the process of maintaining the school. This is in stark contrast to more traditional settings, in which the teachers and administrators leave at the end of the day, followed by a tired custodial crew that's left to deal with the mess.

Today is the second day of school being in session, and I've learned that students also share responsibility for taking care of the school. At today's "coucil meeting" (a regular phenomenon at AFS that I can cover in future posts), students discussed being on "lunch crews" to help set-up/clean-up the main room for the noonday meal, as well as jobs for "all school clean" up. All school clean-up is a time at the end of the day where everyone has jobs to clean up all parts of the school. Part of me feels that this is a norm due to the fact that AFS isn't as big as a public k-8 school campus. But upon further consideration, I realize that even though public schools tend to be larger, there is a larger population of students and teachers that comes along with that increase in size. Teachers at large public schools, as well as students could just as well be responsible for helping to maintain their own classrooms, and for larger areas such as auditoriums and cafeterias, bigger groups of teachers can convene to clean-up together. Why is it that this is not a norm in all schools?

Part of the answer is that teachers in traditional learning settings have too many time contraints foisted upon them. They lie beneath numerous bureaucratic demands to abide by standards for curriculum, testing, and grading, to the point where it may be too much strain to add physical upkeep to their agenda. The traditional education system is not as fluid and open as the democratic and alternative models. The latter are free to develop according to the culture of local communities and student and teacher interests. The former system is layered thick with a uniform regime passed down through various time periods, government/national goals, and cultural needs that may or may not be necessary at present, or in every school district. So at the end of the day there may not be much time to clean the school? I'm sure there's much more at work here that prevents this from happening.

The second part of the answer as to why public school communities don't physically take care of their campus, is that the economic system in the Western world does not function that way. Cooperative workplaces such as the free school, where all members have a stake in how things operate, is rare in many ways. We are far more familiar with a hierarchical workkforce, where some people strive to get (or have easy socioeconomic access) to the "top", and everyone else does their best to scramble into whatever roles are left at the bottom. In a economic system based on competition as opposed to cooperation, "menial jobs" like custodial work will always abound, because there will always be "higher ups" in the workplace more concerned with administration and management. Seeing the way AFS operates leads me to ask what is the harm. or why don't we have a more cooperative workforce?