Schools – Rules and membership of communities

All communities need rules to operate by, but rules are by their very nature generalisations which will need interpretation unless we are prepared to go to encyclopaedic length to explain what we mean by each one. In schools we are dealing with a community of people which comprises newly forming personalities who, in order to shape their very growing, will want to challenge the rules of the community in which they are obliged to belong. They will do this for a whole spectrum of reasons: because they are curious, because they push in order to experience being pushed back, because they are inexperienced in how to deal with rules, perhaps because there are very few rules at home, or even rules at home about breaking other rules.How is it that we can involve young people in the rules of a community to which they are obliged to belong until they are 16? After that point they are in school voluntarily, which changes the whole power dynamic. Perhaps this word ‘power’ is a starting point, and any honest discussion of rules would involve finding ways of drawing attention to the power dynamic which defines the relationship between people in communities. Teachers, as people principally responsible for running schools, have a responsibility to define the rules and explain the values that underpin them. However, they also have to find ways of engaging others in this defining process in a continuous way so that community members will experience, not just learn about, what is being talked about. So, for example, the word ‘respect’ features a lot in many organisations’ value statements, and a number of rules will follow to try and create an environment where we practice respect towards each other. But respect will be experienced by young people in the way that the rules are applied. If we apply rules in a peremptory and high handed fashion, or perhaps unthinkingly in ways which take no account of the specific context of the person we are dealing with we will be talking on the one hand about respect, but on the other treating young people in disrespectful ways. What do we mean by being consistent about the application of rules? We all have to come to understand that our actions have consequences and we are right to look for fairness of treatment. But our understanding of ‘fairness’ is also conditioned by our particular circumstances and the particular context in which we find ourselves acting with others. Unthinking application of the rules despite the context will sometimes also feel ‘unfair’ and rigid to us, like the recent story about the coastguard who responded spontaneously and immediately by rescuing a young woman clinging by her fingertips to a cliff edge, but was sacked by his bosses for not following the correct procedures.

So, rules yes, consistency yes, but also a way of continuously engaging young people in the process of being ruled that leaves room for them to experience respect. In an asymmetrical power relationship, how do we continue to engage them in ways which increase their autonomy and their sense of belonging? This will occasionally involve encouraging discussion about the rules and what we mean by what we say. It is important to have values but we may also have values about being able to discuss values: this is what we might mean by being interested in people’s continuing education. We can educate ourselves and others by experiencing the continuous opening up of possibilities. We can be explicit about finding ways to admit to having legitimate power over others, but also to involve those others in the continuous legitimisation of that power.

Continuing with our theme of recognition which manifests itself in every act of human interrelating. Young people will feel they belong in a community in which they constantly experience being recognised. This manifests itself in small everyday acts, from the simple ‘hallo Kylie’, through to being consulted about how the community might be run. Bodies like the School Council are important, both symbolically and politically, but if this is all the recognition that students feel they can get one might understand why they could still feel largely unrecognised. We ourselves seek recognition in the work that we do and sometimes the scale of recognition that we seek outstrips the possibility. This might lead us to take on more and more things seeking recognition which is still not forthcoming in the form and quality in which we feel we need it. This can lead to burn-out. Coming to terms with this potential for continuous disappointment might lead us into developing better judgement about how we are recognised by others in a continuous way in everyday acts: a class that visibly goes well, a compliment from a colleague, a thank you from a boss.

It is important to understand that recognition is not necessarily positive; that is sometimes why young people act up, because any recognition, even negative recognition, is better than none. Repressing our feelings in our practice can also be experienced as a form of lack of recognition by others. This is not a recommendation to emote uncontrollably in class, but it is an invitation to point to the role of our feelings in enabling or constraining our ability to do what we’re doing. So, for example, maths is not about feelings, but the teaching of maths is. If, despite agreements, students do not hand in work that is expected, then drawing attention to your feelings of disappointment may make a difference to whether they do so next time or not. If I feel I enjoy the respect of someone who is teaching me, and I reciprocate that respect, then I need to know that what I do matters to that person and vice versa. Expressing disappointment can be experienced as a form of caring. If failing to hand in a piece of work elicits no response, how do I know that what I do, and don’t do, matters? Of course, there is no guarantee that expressing one’s disappointment will necessarily lead to what one expects to happen: for some it will serve as a provocation to disappoint you some more. Nonetheless, the acknowledgement of our feelings arising in the day to day hurly burly of dealing with others is one way of finding ourselves in our practice, otherwise we may invite the possibility of not taking ourselves seriously and thus inviting others to do the same.

The self and the other
We know we are ‘I’ through dealings with people who are ‘not I’. However, we are encouraged in the West to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals that come into the world pre-packaged. The very common phrase ‘realising our full potential’ carries with it this idea that there is a fully formed self inside which we just need to unfold with the right tools, a bit like an IKEA flat pack. We have an essential me ‘inside’ which relates to lots of other individual me’s, an understanding which one sociologist called ‘thinking statues’. Another way of thinking about how we come to be is that we are born into a world where there is already an improvisational play going on, and we are invited to take up particular roles, constrained and enabled by our genetic inheritance, our society and our family history. We become ourselves in finding differing roles in the play, but always in interactions with others. The social process individuates us. If we think of ourselves as somehow split off from others, there is me and my opinion and the other with their opinion, then this only presents us with a dualism: we can either be totally ourselves, or we have to become totally the other, rather than being in dialectical relationship with them. How is it possible to remain true to what we believe at the same time as remaining open to the otherness of others? This is different from saying either that there are fixed truths (modernism and pre-modernism), or that all truths are equal (relativism), but that I have a truth but not an infallible one. Because I am who I am I have to stand somewhere, but if I cannot recognise others in a continuous way (see paragraphs above) then I risk remaining inflexibly who I am and not fully recognising others. This will be experienced as a form of disrespect. I have to be able to widen my sense of self to include the recognition that there are other selves. This suggests a form of continuous engagement with others in a paradoxical dance: we cannot entirely let go of who we are for fear of losing ourselves, but if we cannot engage with others then we are cut off from them. Continuing to engage with others becomes a form of ethical action, for the benefit of others and for the benefit of ourselves.




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