A parent suggested an informational blog post on "what staff do at HVSS." He added that when he explains the school to people they often infer that, because no one has any formal teaching duties, the staff members are essentially "babysitters." That tickled me, because when I worked at a public school I used to joke that, due to bureaucratic restraints, sloppy scheduling, and copious testing, I was often merely performing a minimal social service akin to - yes - babysitting.
To begin, here is a phrase in our "Staff Expections" which summarizes the role of staff very well: "Staff members at Hudson Valley Sudbury School ensure that the day-to-day environment and operation of the school reflects the school’s educational philosophy; act as role models of successful adult behavior; facilitate student access to resources; and perform the administrative and maintenance tasks required to run the school and care for the school property."
For those unfamiliar with it, here's a brief outline of the structure of staffing at HVSS: All staff members at HVSS must be reelected by the School Meeting (comprised of all students and staff) each year. When an applicant runs for staff, they are not running for a specific position. The administrative, maintenance, secretarial, PR, and other duties essential to running the school are organized in sets under titles called "clerkships." After staff are elected, they - along with any interested students - may run for clerkships of their choosing. Each staff usually ends up with several clerkships, so it doesn't make much sense for any particular staff member to be referred to by any title other than "staff," except within the context of a particular clerkship ("tell the Office Clerk we are out of copy paper"). Ideally, duties are spread fairly equally among staff so that everyone has time to be available for students to "use" as they will, and on any given day you can find students and staff working, playing, and running the school together.
So far for me, I'd say that being staff here has been a similar experience to what we offer our students. For each of my clerkships, there are lists of duties, policies, and assorted other materials gathered by my predecessors, and the veteran staff are my most valuable resource, but there was no formal training program: I was allowed to figure out in my own way how to perform my functions, make my own routines, and learn the system of the school. The lists of duties for each clerkship outline the minimum requirement to keep the school running, but it's possible to expand or improve on duties. In other words, like our students, who create their own school experience, staff are able to a certain extent to "create" their own jobs. And also like our students, staff are not answerable to any single person, but only to the School Meeting. I like that a lot, because the varied perspectives in the community usually total a fairer assessment than any one individual could.
Most days I spend some time "hanging out" with students, and sometimes I guess that actually might look like babysitting, except for one crucial difference: I have no authority over anyone I'm hanging out with (or any other person at the school for that matter), anyone may leave for another part of the campus at any time, and I have no obligation to entertain, feed, supervise, etc. anyone at school. In other words, we interact in an authentic, honest, and respectful way, as fundamentally equal. This kind of "hanging out" is a very important part of school life here. It's loaded with potential - anything can happen, anything can come up, and anything is open for discussion. It's also important because, generally speaking, students will only engage staff members for more focused activities if they have built a strong relationship with them.
Sometimes, I have gone through my morning routine, and I have an open window of time. I'll prowl around the school peeking into each room, looking for something to do, something to join, someone to connect with, anything. Sometimes everyone is so engaged already that I can't find a place to fit in; sometimes I don't know what to do. That can be uncomfortable, but it's important for me as a new staff (just like it is for our students) to face that: no one is going to tell me what to do, or how to proceed. Life, for the moment, is open, and it's important, so what am I going to do?
To conclude, here's a quote from longtime Sudbury Valley School staff member Hannah Greenberg:
The process of self direction, or blazing your own way, indeed of living your life rather than passing your time, is natural but not self evident to children growing up in our civilization. To reach that state of mind they need an environment that is like a family, on a larger scale than the nuclear family, but nonetheless supportive and safe. The staff, by being attentive and caring and at the same time not directive and coercive, gives the children the courage and the impetus to listen to their own inner selves. They know that we are competent as any adult to guide them, but our refusal to do so is a pedagogical tool actively used to teach them to listen only to themselves and not to others who, at best, know only half the facts about them.
Our abstaining from telling students what to do is not perceived by them as a lack of something, an emptiness. Rather it is the impetus for them to forge their own way not under our guidance but under our caring and supportive concern. For it takes work and courage to do what they do for and by themselves. It cannot be done in a vacuum of isolation, but thrives in a vital and complex community which the staff stabilizes and perpetuates.