School Within a School fosters close student-teacher relationships



School Within a School’s (SWS) democratic structure encourages teachers and students to function as equals.

A group of students approach School Within a School (SWS) teacher Jen Martin about a test she assigned. “We don’t feel ready,” one says. “I don’t think you prepared us enough,” another adds.

In SWS, students are encouraged to challenge the traditional structure of classrooms and offer feedback to their teachers. Martin sits down with her students and attempts to reach a compromise. According to Martin, receiving this honest student feedback is one of the most exhilarating parts of being an SWS teacher.

In democratically-run SWS, classes are structured such that students can challenge the curriculum. The nature of SWS leaves students more room to speak out and advocate and allows students to have relationships with teachers on a more personal level.

According to SWS teacher Zac Brokenrope, SWS functions on the principle that administration is not all-knowing and that students can critique lessons.

“Good teaching is about good self-reflection. I have gone to school, I’ve been teaching for 10 years, I’ve learned my material, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to be perfect every day,” Brokenrope said.

Senior and SWS student Claire Gallion said teachers in SWS not only accept student feedback, but actively push for students to advocate for themselves.

“Teachers, from the beginning, tell you they care about your opinion. That matters, having a teacher ask what you think about things and having open discussions makes you feel free to say if you have a problem with something,” Gallion said.

According to Martin, this student advocacy stems from hard work bringing students and teachers to a more balanced footing.

“We have times where we spend the entire day together doing fun stuff that has nothing to do with school. We have lounge shows. We have a talent show. There are structures and those are all intentionally built in order to break down the wall between adult and student,“ Martin said.

Senior and SWS student Helen Ives said the barrier between the teacher and the student is also eroded by calling teachers by their first names.

“They’re still your teacher, but they also view you on the same level. Being able to call them by their first names fosters a relationship. It shows that they’re going to take you seriously and they’re going to take your opinions seriously and give [your opinions] weight in the classroom” Ives said.

According to Brokenrope, SWS provides an alternative approach to student-teacher relationships than mainstream education that is more effective for certain students.

“SWS provides an alternative resource for students who want a different thing. SWS is not perfect for every student. It’s perfect for people who want that experience. I don’t necessarily know that there is a problem with relations between students and teachers in the mainstream. I think it depends on what you want,” Brokenrope said, “I really appreciate the fact that this school gives the space for those programs to co-exist. It really all depends on the needs of the student and one is not necessarily better than the other.”