The people’s school – for and with each other

Publiceret 07-09-2020
Story

STORY Monika Andersson, principal at S:ta Maria Folk High School in Malmö, tells how they create "The people's school - for and with each other" in this story from the book “Become a people” volume 10 in the book series 10 Lessons from the Folk High School.

By Monika Andersson

“It’s the best day of my life,” one of the students at S:ta Maria Folk High School burst out with tears in her eyes. The school is on an excursion to Skäralid, a national park in Skäne in southern Sweden. Our walk through the for­est gives rise to many conversations about the questions life poses, both great and small, that bring people together from all over the world from the most varied backgrounds and circumstances.

It is easy to take things for granted. Things that can be self-evident for us staff at the school can be a com­pletely new experience for those on our courses. Our cul­ture’s unquestioning relationship to nature and the Swed­ish right to roam, which involves an unconditional right of access to woodland and fields, is something that many have never experienced before. The opportunity to set off on a walk and move freely in conversation and in the encounter with others provides a fresh sense of freedom that is highly valued. Furthermore, it brings an increased self- confidence for students, if they can set off in their lei­sure time into their immediate surroundings with family or friends. For us at the school seeing life through their eyes for a time means that we grow together in our desire to create a better and more understanding world.

Through dialogue and curiosity and by confirming everyone’s right to be who they are, the school can provide safe and familiar surroundings, where support, comfort, joy, laughter, togetherness are qualities that spread natural light across daily life.

Through dialogue and curiosity and by confirming everyone’s right to be who they are, the school can provide safe and familiar surroundings, where support, comfort, joy, laughter, togetherness are qualities that spread natural light across daily life.

Monika Andersson

Confirmation of diversity

Students at the school come from many different back­grounds. There is everything from the woman from Soma­lia with seven children and three years of school in her own country to the doctor from Syria who has fled the horrors of war and torture and is trying to create a better future for himself and his children. Among those attend­ing the school there are also a large number of unaccom­panied young people, who often feel betrayed both by their family back in Iraq or Afghanistan and by their new life in Sweden. In addition, among our students there are several young people born in Sweden, some with a sense of being marginalised for various reasons, and some who have finished school but have been unable to start in upper secondary. A number of the school’s students are children of refugees from the Balkans and several are stateless Pal­estinians living under the constant threat of being sent home. The school also holds courses for people with neu­ropsychiatric disorders.

What those attending the school have in common is that they are living in vulnerable circumstances and many are marginalised. They need help and support to move on in their lives. A number of them are struggling with severe trauma, which means that any activity involves particular challenges. The school’s pedagogical staff are given regu­lar opportunities for in-service training, and furthermore the school is special in having student and business guid­ance counsellors, supervisors, social workers and a psy­chologist among its staff.

Together, we find what unites us as people, regard­less of background and faith. With solid roots in that, and safe in the knowledge that we can be what we are, all knowl­edge about others can only enrich our own lives. Based on our own individuality, a new diversity can be created that spreads outside the boundaries of the school.

By listening to each other and being curious about each other’s backgrounds and cultures, we can increase understanding and tolerance for different ways of living and acting in society.

Being and living our values

By describing the diversity of the student body and their backgrounds, it is easier to understand how being employed at S:ta Maria Folk High School requires a particular approach to life, and that what we use as a human being outside the world of the school also has to be used in our work at school. Being able to work with concepts such as qualifications, edification, experience, good will, memory, memories, imagination, creativity, respect and empathy is an evident requirement for being employed at the school and for social pedagogy.

The task of every social worker is divided into three equal parts, the first two of which are made up of teach­ing, preparation and evaluation. What makes the folk high school unique is that staff have set aside a third of their time for working with social pedagogy, which means that each student can and must have individual time with their mentor or class teacher every week.

Students’ individual needs have to be the basis for everything and permeate everything that goes on at school. Supported by underlying principles of Catholic social teaching – human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity – all staff at the school try to employ the ideals of enlightenment of the people to create a folk high school with a difference. All the work at the school, regardless of who carries it out, must have respect for the symbols of the cross, the rosary and the sacred heart, and must result in giving each par­ticipant the best possible conditions for finding their way into the future.

Sweden is a secular country, where religious qual­ities are seen as something people ought to cultivate in their leisure time. In the school environment, with a reli­gious set of values and Christian symbols, many of the students feel comfortable with the idea that God exists in their lives, here, now and always. We often hear them say something along the lines of, “At least you believe in some­thing”, which is apparently a quality valued by those who seek out the school.

Sweden is a secular country, where religious qual­ities are seen as something people ought to cultivate in their leisure time. In the school environment, with a reli­gious set of values and Christian symbols, many of the students feel comfortable with the idea that God exists in their lives, here, now and always.

Monika Andersson

There are particular issues that arise when you work with people in vulnerable situations and in isolation. In this kind of work, it is important to avoid helping them from above and leading students into paths that we, as social workers or other staff, believe to be right for them. This can, rightly, be seen as lacking in respect and under­mining their self-determination. It is important, on the other hand, that we as ‘fellow-travellers’ listen to the stu­dents dreams for their future, make it clear to them what is required for them to attain their goals and where they currently stand in relation to the goals that have been set, both the goals the school has set and those they have set themselves.

Sarah (not her real name) is a good example of pre­cisely this. She came to Sweden on her own from Soma­lia with three children. When she arrived, she was 22, and she is now 29. Her entire life fell apart when she witnessed with her own eyes her parents and her husband being murdered in cold blood, and she was forced to flee for her life with her children. Trailing a terrifying story of people smuggling, an exhausting journey with rape as payment with regular attempts to remove her children, she arrived in Sweden, where the local Somali association helped her to apply for asylum. She had been at a state school for six years in Somalia but speaks fluent English. She arrived with a dream of giving her children a future and being able to look after herself.

Sarah has the ambition to become a lawyer. She has heard from friends that this is a possibility and, after taking her sfi Swedish language course for immigrants, she applied to S:ta Maria Folk High School initially to complete her basic school education and then her upper secondary. At best, this will take 4-5 years and only then will she be able to start her university studies. The social pedagogical part of work at the school starts the moment she applies. What is her dream? What is realistic? What has Sarah brought with her from her own country when it comes to studying techniques and learning capacity? Will she be able to work in the evenings doing homework and learning the language? In addition, Sarah often suffers from nightmares and anxiety attacks, which are a direct result of her traumatic experiences earlier in her life. In which ways can the school help her cope with rehabilita­tion? One of her children has problems adjusting to the Swedish school, and Sarah needs help to understand what is involved in attending school in Sweden. Our support team in the form of an adviser, a psychologist and a study and business counsellor are brought in at an early stage to make a realistic plan for her studies. Several of the sub­jects at the school are related to helping participants with various problems and increasing their understanding of the Swedish system. In addition, she is given carefully considered guidance in what she needs to achieve in order to take the next step – and in planning for her future. All this is designed to give individual students the best oppor­tunities to arrive at considered and substantiated deci­sions about their future.

On the basis of these assessments, it is up to the individual staff member to find their own unique way of working. Diversity and the staff’s various ways of working are a strength and factors that have to be supported and respected. By listening to and getting help from each other we create an organisation that inspires safety and trust.

Listening to those who are not heard

The motto “Listen to those that are not heard and see those that are not seen” forms the basis for many activities that centre around the participants’ stories and individual viewpoints. The students’ voices and experiences influ­ence both teaching strategies and subject content.

One example of the way in which this finds expres­sion and contributes to the edification process is that every other year students have to write a letter to the princi­pal with the title “What is S:ta Maria Folk High School?” The task is no more specific than that, and answers vary accordingly. By giving students responsibility for a wide-ranging task, we create the basis for them being able to respond to the question of how the students at the school perceive its work. Several of the letters are about the school having become their home and about their feelings of security and harmony with their studies. The daily assembly in the hall is very important and the sense of community can make them feel as though they are part of a family they have left behind earlier in their lives. The sense of being able to retain their own faith, culture or background plays a particular role at the school, and most of the letters mention the fact that everyone is respected for the person they are.

Many conclusions can be drawn from the letters we take in, but the overall picture indicates without the slightest doubt how important the familial togetherness of the school is for its students. The opportunity to be themselves, to develop the person they are, to show and to be shown respect

Monika Andersson

Many conclusions can be drawn from the letters we take in, but the overall picture indicates without the slightest doubt how important the familial togetherness of the school is for its students. The opportunity to be themselves, to develop the person they are, to show and to be shown respect, and to feel that everything is based on humankind’s underlying need for consideration and togetherness is the search for a common platform – the unity – on which the school and thereby the students can partake in the construction of togetherness. When that unity exists and is well rooted and people feel secure in it, diversity among us can be established and experienced as something fantastic and exciting.

On Monika Andersson

Graduated as Master of Law from Lund University in 1989. Assistant lecturer in Law and legal counsel for the folk high schools. Entrepreneur in the area of leadership and management training. Committee member of RIO, a folk high school pressure group in Sweden. Now principal of S:ta Maria Folk High School in Malmö.

S:ta Maria Folk High School has departments on two sites in Malmö and is characterized by the city’s diversity and by a family atmosphere. The school is a religious foundation and also runs religious courses and cultural programmes.

10 Lessons from The Folk High School

This story is published in "Become a People" by Iben Benedikte Valentin Jensen, volume 10 in the book series 10 Lessons from the Folk High School, 2019.

 

10 Lessons from the Folk High School is a series of 11 short books published in the occassion of the 175th anniversary of the danish folk high school movevment celebrated in 2019. Each of the subsequent volumes examines one characteristic of the folk high school – its origin and its relevance for the past, for the future, for Denmark and for the world at large – and shows how it finds expression in folk high school practice today.

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