In the first segment of Building Blocks, I talked about the importance of time for children to develop their interests and become responsible members of our democracy. The second Building Block is trust. Trust is more difficult to achieve than time because it requires special effort from all the adults in the child’s world: both staff and parents. Most adults did not experience a trusting educational environment as children. It is hard to give what they didn’t receive. The interpersonal work of learning to trust students to make their own choices takes extra effort from the staff and parents in students’ lives.
The democratic structure of The Highland School rests on trust as a foundational element. If students don’t feel trusted to make their own decisions and pursue their own interests, the process of becoming an independent, responsible person is undercut. Students quickly perceive lack of trust from their parents or staff. It is particularly problematic if parents don’t trust their children’s ability to learn from their own choices. The bond between parents and children affects almost every aspect of students’ lives. Students’ ability to participate fully in creating a life at school is enhanced or limited by their feeling of being trusted.
Staff members also have an impact on the environment of the school. However, staff members can be challenged in staff meetings, in General School Meetings, and during judging if they behave in ways that interfere with students’ rights to make free choices. In the end, staff can be removed or not re-elected if they cannot trust students. Parents, in contrast, have fewer opportunities to confront the doubts and insecurities arising from their own past educational experiences. After school meetings with the school community can help parents share their difficulties in trusting their children. Talking one-on-one with other parents or staff members can also help. Perhaps the most effective method of learning to trust students’ process of development in the new paradigm is to observe the changes in the children themselves. As discussed previously, time can play a big part in these observations. It takes time for students to discover and value their interests and learning abilities. If parents are willing to wait, to suspend judgment, and trust their children, adults can see students grow more responsible as each year passes.
As parents, remembering times when we were trusted as children can be very helpful in recognizing how important a part trust plays in the learning process. For many of us, driving a car was the most memorable experience of being trusted. The physical skills of operating the car were the easiest part. Being trusted to use our own judgment out on the road required a huge leap of trust from our parents.
As a young child, I spent much of my time on the farm. I learned to drive a tractor at 10 years old. My selfconfidence greatly increased when I was trusted to mow the fields by myself. Other farm kids of my generation also learned to do farm work, driving, and hunting at a young age. Aside from skill based learning, I was trusted to explore outdoors on my own returning only for meals. I created kingdoms and secret gardens in my free outdoor time.
The current generation of students are also eager to pursue interests independently – although more do it through computer exploration than through outdoor activities. Having the opportunity to create and explore in a variety of arenas allows students to develop their own skills and learning processes. At a democratic school like ours, the new paradigm values trusting students in all facets of their school experience. If parents and staff members can trust students to make decisions, learn from their mistakes, interact with other school members of different ages, and pursue their passions, amazing growth takes place. It takes extra effort for adults who experienced a traditional education to let go of their fears and expectations. However, learning to trust students reaps rewards in terms of increased confidence, responsibility, and skills in our children.