School Meeting & Morning Circles
by John Baker
The word democracy comes from the Greek words "demos", meaning people, and "kratos" meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as "power of the people": a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.
West Cork Sudbury School (WCSS) is a democratic school. This means that our students and staff have a much greater say in its governance than most people are used to.
Culturally we are out of practice when it comes to making decisions together with many of us disillusioned by approaches such as majority rule - where, once a decision is made there can still be a high proportion of the community that remains unhappy with the outcome.
At WCSS, we have responded to that issue by learning and practising an innovative and highly creative approach to decision-making. We will explain more about this in one of our next blogs!
For now, let’s set the scene and give you some background:
Decades of involvement in community projects have shown me how when we diverge from a top-down model of leadership towards one which is radically inclusive and democratic, many new and interesting problems can emerge. Most of these problems are related to the idea that modern society does not prepare us well for taking on and sharing power.
Working together cooperatively and inclusively is not easy. It takes good processes and plenty of practice along with focus, courage, concentration, commitment, honesty, and the ability to balance one's own needs with the needs of the group or project.
It was recently reported that that 90 % of intentional communities and 90% of start-up businesses fail. WCSS is both a start up and an intentional community.
This is not a reason not to begin.
This is not a reason to give up!
We are determined.
We have seen that the benefits gained from including marginalised voices, skills, mindsets and viewpoints are many. These benefits are not just ethically important but also lead to greater engagement, shared understanding, better internal communication, better group cohesion and more effective solutions.
The problems our societies are facing are diverse and interlinked. Our solutions must be too. Reaching decisions that integrate the widest range of viewpoints is essential and requires stepping outside of our boxes and into creativity.
So-called soft skills like communicating and listening well, taking others’ perspectives, being supportive of team mates, being a good critical thinker and problem solver and being able to make connections across complex ideas are becoming increasingly desirable in the modern world/workforce. These are skills students learn when they direct their own education, are encouraged to work through conflict and make truly democratic experiences throughout their schooling.
The School Meeting
The School Meeting is a core part of our school week: taking place every Wednesday during the school term, starting at 10.30am. Here, our students are introduced to the practices and qualities of inclusion and democracy from an early age.
Through the meeting, students learn that their voices matter, how to be heard and understood and how to listen to the voices of their peers and make workable compromises. They have chances to take on responsibility and gain an understanding of the running of the school, which is also an organisation and community, and to take a central role in planning their own education.
As staff members, our job is to pay attention to each individual student and support them in these processes, neither overloading them with responsibilities they are not yet ready to take on nor hiding from them the challenges of life in an innovative educational environment.
How the school meeting works
The school meeting works together with the weekly staff meeting, which students can also come to. Items often get passed between the two before a decision is made.
At present school meetings are not mandatory though all students are encouraged to attend. Many students have learnt the consequences of not engaging in the community processes when decisions get passed that they do not like because they were not paying attention to the agenda and were not at a meeting.
Anyone can bring an item to the agenda by writing it up on a whiteboard kept in the lobby. Students who are learning how to write can ask staff or another student for help.
Meeting roles are filled by students or staff to help each meeting run smoothly.
This can be a complex role requiring quite a few attempts to master, with duties including:
Keeping track of the meeting and keeping the conversation on track
Encourage collaborative and creative suggestions
Making sure everyone gets heard and whose turn it is to speak
Maintaining a neutral stance on controversial decisions. When a facilitator has a stake in a decision they are encouraged to stand down and hand the role over for the duration.
The secretary writes and prints out the minutes which are read out the following day at the Morning Circle.
The Morning Circle
The morning circle is a short gathering that happens on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Rather than a decision-making meeting, the Morning Circle is a chance for everyone to see each other and share their plans for the day.
However, sometimes people will bring forward issues or thoughts for consideration that may be passed on to the school meeting if necessary. On Thursdays the school meeting minutes are also read out, giving everyone the chance to keep track of what decisions have been made.
The school meeting, the morning circle and the staff meeting as well as other parts of the school processes all work together as part of a whole, exchanging information, planning and generating educational opportunities and looking at different aspects of the running of the school.
Staff make decisions as equals and students can be as involved in the process as they want.