Cometa, Oliver Twist School in Como. Something fascinating happened during the 2nd transnational Meeting for the European project called Leadership for Learning. We had the opportunity of being observed by a group of teachers and team leaders from Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Hungary. There were five main aims: developing a transnational network between leaders in VET; exploring, describing and exchanging different types of leadership of learning practices; identifying leaders and teachers’ leadership skills; discussing visions for future leadership in VET.
Why was it interesting? In Cometa, we are trying to develop a feedback culture -unusual in our country- and as a teacher I know how stressful it can be to be observed while teaching. But being seen through other people’s eyes can be a powerful source of deep understanding of what you do and who you are. Especially through foreign eyes. What struck me was the expression used by a colleague from Finland. He said that our school seemed “somehow old fashioned and reinvented…and it works!”. What did he mean by that? After some discussion, we understood that he meant the traditional relationship between the teacher as the leading and the students as the active followers. This emphasize our approach as exactly what the founders wanted the school to be: a place of “welcoming to educate”. What do we mean by this? To say it briefly: a school should be like a family. This is the very root of the educative experience of Cometa.
To understand better: the whole experience of Cometa began with two families who after their conversion to Catholicism, wanted to live together in a community, to help each other live this new and strange but rewarding life. One day Erasmo Figini, one of the two brothers, received a phone call asking him and his wife to foster a child infected by the HIV virus. They decided to take him into their hearts and home, treating him as if he was their own child. So they started to welcome more foster children along with their own. In a family, we have our first experience of a clear authority. In Latin this word means “he who allows you to grow”. That means that even if we don’t want to be seen as directive, authoritarian, domineering, children will always see us as adults, as the ones in charge, as grown-ups, as role-models. This is not cultural but natural. We are their role-models, and inevitably they will always compare themselves with their “elders”, even, possibly, to rebel against them. So we have this responsibility to be aware of. However, in our post-truth culture, since the revolution of 1968, we have lost the concept of authority. It’s something forbidden: the figure of the Father who embodied the Law has been “erased from the horizon” (as Nietzsche would have said), and adults seldom dare to reprise this role. We in Cometa think, based on our experience, that as teachers, educators, fathers and mothers we can only educate in a meaningful way by bearing witness to the good, the truth and the beauty we have experienced for ourselves. On this topic I would suggest reading Massimo Recalcati’s The Complex of Telemachus, Parents and Children after the Father’s Sunset. Like Telemachus we hope that someday a figure will come back from the sea, to tell us that the world has a meaning. What is the significance of this in a school environment? I refer again to my foreign partners’ words: in Cometa it seems that “individualism is not encouraged”, and “there’s a belief in tradition” (what a critical word!); “teachers and tutors are authorities” (as we explained the concept): when a teacher talks students are expected to listen, and the classroom is “the teacher`s office”, his space to take care of, to set the rules and to create the working environment for the students.
But, another element arose during the visit: these “traditional” features seemed to have been “re-invented”. What does that mean? First of all: the teacher is not a “king” but a guide, someone who pushes you for your own good and helps you find your own way. Thanks to this defined role, expectations are clear for the students. The teacher knows where to go, but he needs the students’ full participation to get there. Students do the “hard work” during the class: they are involved in a learning process that starts from their questions and experiences. The institution is “customer-oriented”, meaning that the main aim is to allow students to grow and find meaning in their lives. As the co-founder of Cometa, Erasmo Figini, says “Everyone is unique and irreplaceable”. This is a sentence you can always hear echoing through the corridors of Cometa. “Everyone deserves to discover why he or she has been created and put onto this world, because if you exist, you have a meaning”(Figini).
Life here is not always a “walk in the park”. Many times we have had to struggle to manage students’ behavior, but our intention is not to “bring them to heel”, but to show them a different way of behaving and relating to people and situations. We want them to understand different contexts and react to them considering ‘what, how and why’ people, including themselves, do or say the things they do. This is what we at Cometa call “thinking while acting”. As a vocational school of textile design, carpentry and hospitality management we “learn by doing”. Another unusual practice in Cometa is that there is a tutor assigned to each class. Here the tutor and the teacher work together like a father and a mother in a family. Like in a family, it’s the relationship between the two adults which creates the most favorable environment for education to take place. There is an open line of communication between these two figures and they constantly share information about the students. Tutors manage all documents and data concerning the students, communicate with the parents, give students extra help after normal school time, take part in different meetings with students, teachers, and psychologists and organize the internship and placement of the students. Tutors have the opportunity to see every student as a complete person and to personalize their educational journey for them.
During a “speed dating” exercise (interviews) with students the visitors noticed that «students told stories about finding their identity at Cometa, they spoke of important values such as friendship, and becoming aware of their own self worth. They told their own stories about their “desire to go abroad and see and experience the world”. The fact that we provide bespoke solutions for the students comes from the idea that we respond to the different needs of the individual students. Like being in a family: not everyone needs the same thing, but everyone is (we hope) welcomed as unique and loved without expecting anything in return. The school itself was built with students who struggle to complete their education in mind, to help them learn a trade, become autonomous, and develop their self worth…Maybe this is what the expression «directive but customer-oriented» means?