Pédagogie Nomade is a democratically run state school in Belgium for 60 students between the ages of 16 and 21. It opened in September 2008. In Belgium, as in France, school staff are appointed from a government list, not chosen by head teachers or school communities. In its innovative context Pédagogie Nomade was at first allowed to appoint its own staff. The whole character of the school would inevitably change if the usual procedure was imposed. However, in September 2010 the authorities refused to allow one of the teachers and co-founders of the project to continue to teach, in spite of being supported by the whole school community. This struck a blow at one of the basic principles of the school; its future was in doubt.
In response, Pédagogie Nomade published a book of support, written by students, parents, staff and others. Here you can read three contributions from students and one from a parent.
I was getting more and more intensely disgusted with traditional schools. The problem wasn’t the teachers, even though I must admit that some of them were special, very special . . . throwing out good or bad marks, not wanting to explain a lesson again out of sheer laziness, never smiling but always allowing themselves to take pleasure in judging a student and refusing to help her just because this teacher thinks that no one will ever be able to do anything with this student. The worst thing was the atmosphere in the classes! I can’t accept you because you buy your clothes at Zeeman’s, I don’t like you because you hang about with her, your father is unemployed, we have nothing in common and all that sort of nastiness. Getting a football in the face just because some people find it funny or getting slapped in lessons when the teacher turns his back. I was so disgusted that I even thought of joining the army, so as to get a long way away and forget about it all. But before that, luckily, my mother told me about Pédagogie Nomade.
I admit that to start with I wasn’t all that ready. You have to say that with everything you hear about this school you have reason to be suspicious. But I told myself that it wouldn’t cost me anything just to come and see the school and get to know it. So I went, accompanied by my mum. I was very surprised.
A girl came up to talk to me straight away and offered to show me round the school. I accepted at once, everyone said hello to me, asked me how I was and smiled at me. I immediately felt at ease – you have to admit that they have the gift of making you feel all right. I liked the system a lot so I decided that very day to get enrolled. I was convinced then that I had made the right choice, and today I am even more so.
When you arrive in a new school, everyone stares at you as if you were an alien and you have a choice: either you allow yourself to be left out because to get integrated would be misery, or people come and talk to you, which, I must admit, had never yet happened to me. So I arrived at PN and was welcomed by all the students. I was convinced that this school was the perfect school. You learn plenty of things here; as well as the lessons we learn what is meant by autonomy, shared government, friendship, solidarity, frustration and also housework, cooking, how to work in the office, etc.
Perhaps you want to ask why I say that this school is frustrating. In fact, when you get enrolled – or at least this is what happened to me – you think you will never have any problems. Then in the end, after a few weeks of lessons, you realise that this school is even harder than the others. You have to learn to cope, to manage a whole list of work to be done that we are given at the beginning of the year and have to finish before the end of it. As well as the lessons. There is also this freedom we are given, so for instance we don’t have to go to lessons; when there is a lesson that you don’t like it is hard to say to yourself, go on, get involved and get in there. But you have to admit that this school is magic. There are highs and lows, just like everywhere else, that’s life, things aren’t always rosy. Everybody accepts you for who you are. And even if my friends and certain members of my family go on thinking that this school is useless and only accepts drug addicts, I will fight to the end to prove the opposite! I love PN, it is like a second family for me which I needed to survive in this funny old world.
Little by little, I am realising that this school has helped a lot of people and will help a whole lot more. It has the gift of reviving the will to learn, and the joy of learning. It hasn’t always been easy, there have been mistakes, but from them we learn only one lesson. The proverb says we learn from our mistakes, and we have a living proof of it at PN. I think that this school has every good reason to exist, and has a right to take its chance. I don’t say that as a bootlicker or someone who wants to blackmail the Minister, but sincerely. If this school had to close, ask yourself what would become of all those students that it has been able to help, and that it will go on helping to the end? Ask yourself, even if there are only a small number of us, how many students out of sixty would want to go back to a traditional school? . . . Not me, anyway, I would certainly never want to set foot there again. My place is in PN and nowhere else. And it hurts me to think of all these students, who I live with every day, going back on the streets or getting involved with their former problems all over again. I don’t want that to happen to them, I know that PN is a unique experience for all of them, and how much it means to them, how much they depend on it as their last chance.
I can’t find words powerful enough to explain what the idea of the end of Pédagogie Nomade evokes for me.
First of all, on the emotional level, it is disappointment. I have always had the feeling of not fully existing. I have always been told how to speak, how to behave, how, all in all , to exist.
Why exist, speak and act if the motivation for my behaviour is not my own?
And here I think I have found a place which is outside the norm, where control (of minds?) is really not a priority. A forgotten island where the word liberty has already more meaning than elsewhere. Of course liberty can be frightening, but you have to learn to live with it, not to destroy it. I am still only a new student, I don’t yet know everything about the way this school functions . . . but I do know all about the system that could not accept me as I am. I don’t hate anyone, I accept people as they are, but it is so rarely reciprocal. Adults have always treated me as if I would be incapable of being intelligent, of making my own choices until I was an adult myself, and here the teachers are already talking to me as if we have known each other for a long time, and here I am no longer afraid of being simply myself.
That’s why I came to PN, not to hang around, go crazy or do nothing but enjoy myself. I have come here to exist.
I am new and I don’t yet know the school completely, but one thing is certain
– I felt bad elsewhere, I had the feeling that I was wasting my time. That is why, on a global scale, what I learnt today desolates me.
What are we doing wrong, except for asking to learn and to exist in our own way?
Why, once again, can certain people not accept us as we are?
I am sad to see that difference is being rejected once again,.
This school releases something magical, even though I have only been here for a short time, and if they decide to reject what is foreign to them this one more time, there is no doubt that I will stop going to school. If the only place where I have been accepted closes down, I shall give up trying to believe that I shall find a place anywhere.
There are a lot of things I don’t know about myself and about my life, but I grow a little every day and what is certain is that if they destroy my difference once again, I shall only half exist.
Let us live, and accept us as we do. We are together, anyway, in a place where our differences mean something.
Why for once couldn’t we try to accept each other as we are, each from our own side?
Why should certain people have the right to be themselves, and others not?
I did not choose to be different, but I chose to accept myself as I am – why doesn’t everyone else?
I think I am going to repeat myself if I add any more.
Just understand that we only want to exist, as we are, together.
If difference became normal, it would no longer exist.
I came to Pédagogie Nomade hoping to find a school that was different. In the traditional school I didn’t have any specific problem except for boredom. One of the things that made me bored was that my class progressed too slowly for me, and I had the feeling I was wasting my time.
When I first arrived at PN I was very relieved to have been accepted, because PN was my only chance of escaping from that teaching that I disliked from every point of view. But I was also very frightened, frightened of something new, because you have to acknowledge that this school is outside the norm. Frightened of not being up to coping with this school that I knew too little about. But once the year got going my fears diminished little by little. At the beginning of the year I was this model little girl who only spoke when she was given permission. And here they actually asked me to free myself, to express myself, to dare to express myself. And little by little I learnt, and I dared, and now I dare to speak in front of the others, I dare to say out loud what I think privately without being ashamed. This step forward I have made thanks to PN, and I think that this is the only school which could have helped me to make it as well as it has done.
But PN hasn’t only taught me the knowledge that one can find in the curriculum, it has taught me much more on a human level than my old school did. And it goes on, every day, teaching me the savoir-faire that only PN is able to offer, that is to say the co-operative running of the school which taught me so much. In the office as in the kitchen, where the language lessons continue, because cooking in English is much more fun! And exceeding the requirements in certain lessons was a brilliant experience which I shall not fail to repeat during my next year at Pédagogie Nomade.
As students at PN we have real responsibilities, because we are the kernel of the school, what drives it, we decide everything with the staff, we manage everything from the telephone via feeding the boiler with firewood and cooking the midday soup to the organisation of the whole school. It really is our school because we built it, brick by brick.
If PN did close it would be horrible for me, because I adore this school, it has given me so much and taught me so much. The idea of changing schools in the near or not so near future makes me feel hostile, because after PN the return to a traditional school will be difficult: moving from ’Go ahead, say what you think,’ to ‘Sit down and shut up’ will not be easy.
He was born, and from the way he yelled we immediately realised that he was angry. All through his childhood we told him do this, don’t do that, go over there, be this, be that, and with extreme application he struggled to do systematically the opposite of what he was told. And moving on from rebellion to refusal, wholly misunderstanding what was asked of him, he ended by falling behind his friends, his friends’ little brothers and all the others who had been born much later than him.
The situation had become desperate.
Until the day when we saw a report about Pédagogie Nomade on the TV. Pédagogie Nomade is a different kind of place for living and learning, a place where you learn to learn, where you try to attain knowledge rather than every second having to prove to an omnipotent teacher that you aren’t an incompetent little shit. In short, an ideal place for an ineducable child, and since then there has been a metamorphosis! The rebel has calmed down, the blasé child has become interested, the idler has begun to work. Pédagogie Nomade is the work of a whole team of teachers who do fantastic work to save a few young people, to give them a future, to prevent them from falling back into their old ways and to help them to be responsible adults.
In spite of all this, in November 2011 MD Simonet, the minister for education, closed the school because the pupils were able to take control over their own destiny, and that was 'dangereux pour les enfants.'