Challenges of the Transition Time by Deborah Lundbech
The following article was written by Deborah Lundbech of the Red Cedar School in Bristol Vermont. One can visit the Red Cedar School’s website and review other articles written by the staff of this Sudbury Valley type school by going to www.redcedarschool.com
One of the most difficult challenges facing students entering a Sudbury-type school is the transition from another schooling structure to one in which they are responsible for their own education. Although each student and family will certainly experience their own unique struggles in joining and adapting to a democratic school, over the ten years I’ve spent on staff at Red Cedar I’ve seen some familiar patterns emerge. The purpose of writing this article is to reassure families, to the extent possible, that they are not alone in facing the challenges and upheavals of transition and that with patience and trust there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Whether the following sequence will reflect a given family’s experience or not, perhaps the difficulty will be comparable and therefore reassuring.
Typically, the student entering the school appears happy and excited to have joined up. Initially they seem almost euphoric – the weight of their former schooling has been cast off and they feel free and unburdened. Students during these first few weeks will often make a point of connecting with staff, sharing stories, showing things they’ve worked on etc. Frequently in these first weeks, the parents will comment on how surprisingly eager their son or daughter is to come to school, and how happy and relaxed they seem. At this stage parents usually feel great about taking the risk of enrolling their kids, and reassured by the ease of the transition. In short, everybody’s happy.
During the next phase it’s often as though students shut down. Many begin to avoid staff and if they do happen to cross our path or have to talk to us they keep it as brief and cool as possible. They assiduously avoid eye-contact. They will frequently choose to engage in one activity exclusively (boys have often chosen the computer, girls have sometimes chosen to read), but without any seeming sense of passion that true connection evokes. Many times parents view this as the difficult transition time we warned them about and are okay, but they become increasingly anxious as time passes.
The next phase is hardly designed to reassure parents. In fact, this is often where the real challenge comes. Students who in my view are undergoing heroic struggle and re-assessment of themselves begin to wander aimlessly. They don’t engage in anything but rather drift from room to room, constantly on the periphery of things. A frequent comment from students at this time is “I’m bored, it’s boring here”. They appear uncentered, uninvolved and sometimes angry. They avoid anything that is structured or that involves staff and they continue to avoid adult eye contact and any type of relationship with staff. It is not uncommon at this point for students to act out at school with repeated rule breaking and a testing of limits that results in numerous Judicial Committee complaints. Parents frequently tell us at this time that their child has become very rude at home and that they are complaining that school bores them.
This period can go on for a long time. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for parents (who are usually questioning the philosophy themselves) to support their kids through this. It’s very hard to see your child struggle, be unhappy, complain of boredom and yet give them the message – “You’ll make it through – I know you can”. We can only guess at what each student goes through, but certainly they are grappling with some fundamental questions of Being – “Who am I?” “What do I want to do, what is this all about?” Sometimes at this point students who are anxious or students with parents who are anxious will request a class or tutorial. As staff it’s very clear to us that the class is a reflection of worry and not true interest and that it only serves to prolong the pain of answering to others’ agendas, but we do it because they insist (though the classes seldom last more than a few sessions). Parents are often tremendously anxious at this point, not only because they see their child as unmotivated academically, but also because they see their child drifting and worry about them socially. This stage can severely test people’s trust in their child’s ability to determine their own education.
In the next phase a remarkable transformation occurs. Sometimes this transformation is gradual and occurs so incrementally, that as staff we have to think back months to remember the dramatic difference in a student. At other times, we have been amazed at the rapidity of the change. Either way, students begin to exude self-confidence. Where before they felt tenuous and lost, now they seem to come from a place of increasing strength and calm. Their restlessness disappears and they appear to be drawn into things in a new and focused way. As staff, we begin to feel the student coming to terms with the equality of power in the school. There is generally a falling off of Judicial Committee complaints, and a sense of clarity from the student about what we, as staff, will and will not do, and what they as members of this community and as autonomous individuals are free to do. They begin looking staff in the eye and developing a genuine and interested relationship with us. To see kids emerging as strong and centered after such struggle is incredibly moving. It illustrates beautifully the courage and fierce drive of human beings who, when they are free to do so, will challenge themselves unceasingly to become the best they can be.
For parents, though, this stage is often still uncomfortable. Students are not necessarily academically engaged or they are not spending their time in ways their parents feel they should. Tragically the school loses kids at this stage for a variety of reasons. It’s always immensely sad to see the great struggle they’ve gone through go unrecognized.
In the final stage, students appear completely comfortable in what they choose to pursue, whether academic or artistic, social or solitary, off beat or prosaic. There’s a depth of engagement and confidence that imbues with worth all they take on. Students immerse themselves in a great variety of pursuits, but what is notably similar is a striking absence of the hunger for adult approval that is so frequently seen in the traditionally schooled student. Some students become very involved in the running of the school, others not at all, but they all seem to have a great respect and high regard for the place that allowed them to rediscover their own paths.
In conclusion, I wish to emphasize that all students are different. Some come to us greatly damaged by other people’s agendas, others marginally so. But all students will need time to adapt to this type of school and this time can vary from several weeks to several years. This time is a gift to them and the result of that gift is remarkable, self-assured human beings.