The River School Experience
Interview conducted by Didi Ananda Tapomaya’, edited by Alieta Belle
These two smiling young people are Lotte Butink (20) and Isabel Wingert (27), who came to the River School from Stenden University in the Netherlands, where they currently study international teacher education for primary schools (ITEps). ITEps is a recently initiated course that prepares students to teach at international schools.
Lotte and Isabel completed their teaching practicum at the River School in the first nine weeks of 2019. They were supervised and guided by the River School’s class teachers. Before arriving, Lotte and Isabel had done some research into Neohumanism and the school’s values. As they expressed in their introduction letter, they were ready to embrace the philosophy and the school’s teaching vision. As the last day of their visit was drawing near, we were eager to hear what was their ‘River School Experience’.
Natural surroundings; the beautiful creek, of course!
Lotte and Isabel both expressed that they loved the natural rainforest surroundings and the school grounds, where most children run barefoot. Lotte was thrilled about how many additional activities were a normal part of the children’s time at school, such as going to have a swim at the school creek, going by school bus to the town pool, and going for an excursion in town. She delighted in the atmosphere one can experience when living in a small village; people knowing each other in the community and the outdoors in easy reach.
Isabel found it fascinating how amazingly the school has managed to combine the demands of Australian National Curriculum and the nature approach and community of the River School. She did her practice with Year 1, Pademelons, with class teacher Trudi Cauley. Isabel was glad to find out not only that children had enough time to play, but also that the school reinforces learning by play, playful learning.
“I think it’s very important for the children to grow up by building their knowledge by playing. I think these days we forget children are still children. We expect a lot of them, without realising that it is important for them to have a break, go outside, have a play in nature, and even have a few minutes of meditation. I loved how here you see every student as an individual human being, and not only as a number. In a lot of schools, you see that teachers and students don’t work as a team anymore, and I am a strong believer in teamwork between students and teachers. I saw that it was possible at this school,” Isabel reflects.
Socio-emotional dimension in teaching – and in being
When asked how this experience has become part of their formation as a teacher, Isabel tells about her previous teaching practice at a school in Germany. She explained that it was a very strict and structured school, where a lot of emphasis was placed on academic skills only. Isabel felt shaken by her time there and wasn’t sure anymore if she wanted to become a teacher after all. She found herself disagreeing about a lot of the teaching methods, eg. on treating children as just a number, on not taking care of their emotional needs, and just focusing on tests and exams.
Her stay at The River School and her observations of how teaching and learning can be completely different has truly opened her eyes and renewed her positive views on teaching.
“My time here helped me a lot to see how to follow my path, and that I didn’t choose the wrong studies. I got reaffirmed that it is possible to teach differently and in a human way.” Isabel feels that it has been a definite breakthrough for her as a teaching student and has been significant for her personal development.
Lotte added that it was good to see how the socio-emotional aspect to learning has been included in the teacher-centred classroom. She was positively surprised on her first days at the school to see a child being comforted and hugged by the teacher and given time to sort out feelings. Whereas elsewhere in her previous practicum placements she was told teachers are never to hug children (which she thinks is nonsense).
Values of connection and respect – inner motivation
Lotte expressed that she learnt a great deal from her Year 6 mentor teacher Kerrie Kirwan. One of the key tools she was happy to be able to use was the concept of ‘grounding’. She was surprised how the students have included it into their common vocabulary. In this practice the teacher asks children to ‘ground’ themselves before entering the class, and again before starting the lesson.
For Lotte the “best thing ever” has been making a meaningful connection with the children. She recalled times when a child had been upset and she was allowed to comfort and listen to them. She was happy to discover that amazing connections with the Year 6 Red Cedar class of 11-year-olds have grown from these moments.
During her last week, many of the children came up to tell her how it won’t be same without her. She also enjoyed being able to have humorous jokes that had grown between her and the students, eg. one boy would always start colouring his nails while in her maths class. Lotte was planning give him bright-neon nail polish when she leaves!
Isabel has discovered how important the value of respect is. In some schools, she notes, they want the children to show respect for teachers, but they don’t really give respect back. “We are role models and we should all respect each other,” she says. What Isabel really appreciated in this Neohumanist school was the teaching of values; showing everyone respect and treating everyone how you want to be treated. Isabel stressed her belief in this ‘Golden Rule’.
Isabel thinks we should teach values and behaviour in our schools and has sadly seen in her practicum placements that there has been little focus on values. She understands that it can be a point of contention, eg. some parents wanting to teach values at home and other parents seeing it as an important part of education. She takes a firm point of view asserting that “we definitely should teach values at school especially in early childhood settings.”
Lotte shares Isabel’s thoughts on which one of the inner values she finds most important in education. “What I find really important is Respect; respecting others, respecting nature, respecting yourself, respecting all things.” Lotte continued, discussing her line of thought, “…giving others space, space for yourself just to be, becoming aware of what you need and fulfilling your own needs, being able to take care of yourself, realising your own autonomy.”
Lotte feels strongly that in education the ownership of learning should be given to the children and that they should have the chance to be in charge and manage their own learning in a responsible way. She agrees that the model of giving children their own stewardship in learning requires trust in children’s abilities. “In many education models we are taught not to listen to an inner guide, and so often we don’t know what we actually need or want and have lost our ability to follow our own curiosity. We rather choose to follow ‘outer motivation’ which is learning because we are told to, in order to pass exams and advance.”
Lotte passionately articulates that, “The only education we should have is learning with the heart because with it comes being able to work with curiosity and inner drive, only then true learning can happen.”
Child-centred vs. teacher-centred
Lotte has experienced many different forms of education and is very fond of student-centred education. She was very curious to see Neohumanist Philosophy put in practice at The River School. She believes learning at The River School is still teacher-centred. She is grappling with the issue of being ‘progressive’ and ‘teacher-centred’. Lotte appreciates the socio-emotional practices she observed at The River School and saw it as a sign of progressive education. However she observed ‘teacher-centred’ practices, such as the teacher deciding what is learnt when and how much time is spent on it. “How do I feel about that? I’m still looking at this question, “ she says and laughs. She prefers children to have them follow their own inner guidance, their own curiosity in learning.
For Isabel some challenges were realising how much hard work a teacher puts in to differentiate their teaching practice, in order to meet the skills and talents of children. Isabel commented that, “teachers are expected to reach out to every child, and challenge them with academic skills, even though there can be a big gap in abilities and knowledge.” She thinks teachers in general are very harsh on themselves, because they always try the best they can and question what to do better the next time. “Reflecting on one’s own actions at lessons can be challenging, but it’s important for one’s own growth.”
For Lotte a challenge has been finding how far to go with listening and giving space for emotional needs of children, without dwelling in the feeling too long.
When asked how they saw the cultural differences in parent participation here and elsewhere, Isabel comments that parents at River School are quite engaged, since they are allowed to be part of the school. She really likes the concept of letting parents be involved and has seen them quite often in lessons helping out. In Germany Isabel barely met parents, because the rule was for parents to say goodbye at the gate. No parents were allowed in the class. Isabel thinks it’s good for children to see that the school and parents work as a team and are connected.
Lotte didn’t see many parents assist in the Year 6 classroom, but met them helping at the tuckshop, at bake sales and other school events. “The fact that they have chosen The River School for their children is an act of being involved in the philosophy already,” she mused. Lotte also perceived most of the parents as open and free-spirited.
Isabel absolutely loved her time at the River School and being mentored by Trudi, from whom she learnt a lot. “You really feel the loving, kind and caring community here. You really feel that, while you teach here. I love that. “
Lotte expressed how much she enjoyed her practicum placement at The River School. She saw how nurturing a connection with children is given lot of importance at this school. In her previous teaching placements she didn’t always agree on the school’s teaching methods. “But here I have seen how it all makes sense; fostering inner values. I’m very much on the same line,” she shared enthusiastically.