In previous articles, we introduced the Handbook for Teachers – Teaching European Values, a text created by the Erasmus + KA 3 project Teachers4Europe – Setting an Agora for Democratic Culture.
The handbook is specifically designed to give you as a teacher a compact knowledge of the origins, functions, policies and strategies of the European Union.
In addition, methods are included that aim, on the one hand, to enhance students’ knowledge about the EU and, on the other hand, to support an understanding of and a connection with basic European values.
This manual was developed with suggestions for learning for and through European values using student-centred pedagogies that are fit for upholding a democratic culture in classrooms and schools.
In addition, this handbook provides accompanying material with resources for teaching about the European Union and European values.
On this article, we will explore the guidelines for teachers and school leaders towards whole school approaches, at the primary level and secondary level.
In this handbook, we have highlighted a number of ways in which the EU can be explicitly addressed in the classroom.
Although Europe and its institutions are not curricular topics in all countries, what is possible in all countries is for teacher to act upon the way in which the EU values are lived in the everyday school life and in the classroom.
We would therefore like to stress the democratic school culture, as essential to develop, for all teachers including primary school teachers and leaders.
Democratic school culture is characterised by the fact that hierarchical structures within the class are dismantled and a safe learning atmosphere is created.
The teacher hands over tasks and responsibilities to pupils. In this way, students may learn to take on more responsibility for their learning and for decision-making.
It is also possible for pupils to be allowed to express themselves if they feel treated unfairly or if they notice another person being treated, unfairly, by the teacher or by other members of the school community.
Thus, students become engaged in sense-making and actions towards equity and social justice in their school.
How can this be put into practice?
The Reference Framework for a Democratic Culture of the Council of Europe (RFCDC), in its Volume 37, sets many approaches for teachers to develop democratic practices in classrooms and in the school.
Methods are presented through curricula, assessment, pedagogy and whole school approaches.
The question participation of children and youth in decision-making is at the foreground. For example, a class or school council can be established at the primary school level. The pupils themselves elect a president to chair the meeting; the teacher or the school management is present. In these councils the pupils learn to participate in decision-making, stand up for their own opinions, to argue, to engage fairly and to find fair solutions for all. The pupils can, develop surveys to explore issues of violence and discrimination occurring in their school environment and then act upon results. They may collect problem issues from which they may choose to discuss in the council. They may also, in this process, learn which problems should rather be solved in a private one-on-one discussion and which are so important for everyone that they can be discussed in the plenum. At German schools, for example, access to scarce resources such as the football pitch or the swing was regulated across classes in this way.
As a teacher, you can prepare yourself to address some of these orientations. Action research is a method that may help you to evaluate and improve your practice in a very gradual and rewarding way (see link below) while involving student in the process. We offer here some valuable questions and resources (see links below) that can help you start a reflection on ‘where you are at’ and ‘where you want to go’ concerning your role to create the learning conditions that can develop student participation and a democratic school culture.
About your role:
What are my general dispositions for this work?
What resources, personal, social professional, do I have at my disposal, and can I harness
them for the work?
What experience, attitudes, skills and understandings do I have in this field?
What theoretical perspectives can I use to guide my approach and what do I need to
What are areas in which I feel I need to learn more?
How do such actions fit into my general work as a teacher? How will I manage planning in
order manage my workload and keep it to practicable levels?
About relationship to students:
How much do I know about my students’ personal and social conditions?
What are specific conditions visible to me concerning each class in terms of structure
(gender, social and economic circumstances) needs (family support for learning, learning
abilities, safety, etc.), atmosphere or ethos?
Through what particular behaviours can I support students in taking more responsibility
for their learning and for the wellbeing of the school community?
What are the existing norms, rules, controls, duties, and other convention that already
exist and that I need to attend to?
How ready am I to accept and value students’ feedback for evaluation and improvement
of my practices?
Relationship to the school leadership and your peers:
What is the school’s mission statement, and can I relate to it to act?
How do values of justice, equity, inclusion, democracy and human rights permeate and
guide formal and informal aspects in the school?
What are my relationships to school leadership and to my peers?
Can I identify ‘allies’ and set up a team to create a collaborative environment to develop
the values in my teaching?
Am I ready for any emotional reactions that may occur as a result of making changes in
the way we interact together?
The whole school approach leads to the active involvement and commitment of all stakeholders: management, teaching staff, students, parents and local community members, in joint effort and co-operation. The RFCDC8 points to key areas of work toward democratic school culture:
Teaching and learning: curricula, planning, pedagogical methods and extra-curricular activities provide opportunities for learning about and through democracy and human rights.
School governance and culture: an inclusive and just school ethos is developed so that the school is a welcoming space, where relationships are positive (between staff, staff and students, student among themselves and throughout the school community); decision-making, policies and procedures, and student participation are harnessed towards collaborative action.
Co-operation with the community: relationships with the wider community are catered to involving local authorities, NGOs, associations, universities, other schools, businesses, media, public health institutions and social workers etc.
Finally, key principles may guide your action. Keep in mind that you will not be able to impose democratic culture; this is to be negotiated with stakeholders and built gradually by actors and citizens themselves. This means that the empowerment principle if at the front of the stage supporting stakeholders to find derive their own solutions, become aware of their needs, challenges and capacities. Democratic practices are best developed within continuous and daily interactions. Special ‘human rights days’ or events, for example, can be useful, but not only they will require the use of precious resources (they take time, budget, and commitment), they will also not address the effectiveness of the whole school’s capacity building for democratic ways of living together on a daily basis. Therefore, the integration into the whole school planning process is a major aspect of capacity-building for a democratic culture. Since transformation necessitates attention to resistance to change, it is important to understand that supporting projects – inclusive of the whole community – and initiatives over the long-term is key to achieving tangible outcomes and sustainable impact.
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