When Students Have Real Power

24 Sep

“Who’s the principal here!? I’m the principal here!” ~ Six-year-old student

I was sitting in the computer lab at school the other day trying to fix one of the slower machines. A student (I’ll call him “Z”) sat at another computer playing a video game. A few of the boys gathered around to watch Z play and began joking with him and with each other. The mood seemed light, so I didn’t pay much attention. A few minutes later, the mood turned serious and I overheard the boys talking. “Oh, man. Now we’re going to have to go to JC (judicial committee).” “Do you think we’ll get ‘no screens’?” (“No screens” means no use of technology with any type of screen on it, a fairly serious sentence.) Curious as to why Z was no longer there, I asked, “What happened?”

One of the boys quickly responded, “We were chanting ‘loser’ and then Z lost the game and we all laughed. He got upset, so now he’s writing us up.”

“But we were just joking,” replied another.

A discussion ensued on how all people are different and how an appropriate joke to one person is not always appropriate to another. “Then what am I supposed to joke about?” came an earnest reply.

“Sounds like that’s something you need to think about,” I answered in my most non-preachy voice. Upon Z’s return, the mood was lightened again by the boys laughing over whose farts were smellier. Z went back to playing his game and I got back to my work. Then one of the boys came over to Z, looked over his shoulder, and enthusiastically said, “I hope you win this time!”

I witness these types of exchanges at our school all the time, but this one stood out for me because it provided such a clear contrast to what happens at most other schools. A few days earlier, my friend and I had had a conversation about her recent experience in middle school, including all of the drama. It brought up lots of images from my days of conventional schooling: kids taking verbal jabs at each other while the teacher isn’t paying attention, the on-going competition over who can do and say the most outrageous thing without getting caught, and the hours of boredom that are relieved by these few moments of “fun.”

As I listened to the stories of my young friend, I kept thinking, “Wow, that would never fly at my school.” Now, I wouldn’t say that our students are never mean, or rude, or annoying to each other, but I do know that this kind of behavior isn’t tolerated for very long, if at all. Sooner or later someone gets tired of it and writes it up. Students at our school have real power and they know it. I often struggle to explain how different this experience is for them compared with most other schools where the adults are in charge. I think it’s something one needs to experience for him or herself, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

Some students holding a mock JC.

Some students holding a mock JC.

1)      Students don’t feel the need to hide from the adults. Students at our school aren’t trying to evade adult control or supervision like at more traditional schools. The boys in the computer lab that day chanted “loser” with me sitting right there. Sure, I wasn’t really listening, but they unhesitatingly told me the whole story when I asked. Because they don’t see me as the “enemy,” we were able to have a genuine conversation with no fear around it. In this case, I was able to offer some advice and inject some perspective into their thinking.

2)      Students are empowered to set their own boundaries. At most other schools, there is a strong culture against “snitching,” so students often accept harassment and do their best to stay out of the line of fire. There really is no concept of “snitching” at our school. Z did not get up from the computer to go “tell” on the boys; he simply walked over to the write-up forms and filled one out. He doesn’t have to appeal to some authority figure to solve his problems. HE is powerful and he can trust that the Judicial Committee (JC) will handle things fairly.

3)      Students have time to work on relationships. Had the episode with Z taken place at a more traditional school, the teacher may have handled it by getting the boys to settle down and then getting them back to the lesson. There may not have been time for the boys to immediately begin smoothing things over by joking (especially not about farts!). At our school, students aren’t busy with adult-directed activities; they have lots of opportunities to make interpersonal mistakes and to learn from them.

4)      Students take responsibility for the school culture. With no one person claiming to be the authority at our school, students quickly realize that they are ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Z took care of himself that day in the computer lab, and I’ve often seen students taking care of each other. For example, a newer student was recently annoying another while she was trying to eat lunch. An older student stepped in, “Hey, that’s harassment. You have to stop when someone tells you to or you can get written up.”

5)      Students are really free to follow their own interests. Even at schools where the curriculum includes more choices, students are still vulnerable to peer pressure and adult coercion regarding those choices when the adults are in charge. After writing the boys up, Z went back to playing his game (and losing) without fear of the boys teasing him again. Students at our school feel safe to really pursue their own interests because they have real power and they can feel it.

7 Responses to “When Students Have Real Power”

  1. Bruce Smith September 24, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    What a wonderful balancing of the concrete experience and the implications. Thank you so much for writing this!

    • dekendiz September 24, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

      Well, thank you too!

  2. LS September 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Awesome description of how power works in a Sudbury School. Thanks for sharing this story.

    • dekendiz September 24, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

      Thanks… and you’re welcome.

  3. sontha September 27, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    This is a very well written blog!

  4. dolphus December 9, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

    I only recently learned about Sudbury schools through Peter Gray’s book. We were already unschooling as homeschooling. It’s really nice to know that there are Sudbury schools where the same sort of learning takes place. It’s also very nice to read articles like this to see examples of what everything looks like in motion. Thanks!


  1. Student Agency Resources | Educator Voices - August 19, 2018

    […] When students have real power (blog post) […]

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