Transcript #23 Nadia and Justus: Transforming the Way We Live and Learn
How could exploring alternative ways of living and learning help us to transform society into something that could help more people thrive?
In the last episode of this podcast Charles Eisenstein said “Mental illness is built into society as we know it, and therefore to heal mental illness or to foster mental health is fundamentally a social, political, economic problem. It’s not just how do we treat people better”.
On my explorations into ‘mental health’ I often find myself back exploring both community and alternative education, as two key areas that I believe can create a fundamental shift in the way we have structured society, so it was great to be invited by Nadežda Jevdokimova and Justinas Volungevicius to the DNS Necessary Teacher Training College where the focus is on both alternative ways of teaching and learning, and also community
Nadia: DNS stands for “Det Nødvendige Seminarium”, which basically means the Necessary Education and we expanded it a bit in English to say the Necessary Teacher Training College. I think the whole philosophy behind the necessity of it is that it always should respond to modernity or to the present. Also quite a lot to the future because whenever you train as a teacher, you're actually kind of trained for the future because you will work in a school with youngsters who will leave the school in 10-15 years and then they will enter a future world.
It's quite interesting to see how it can all develop and work together in this sense. Our education is based a lot on a community. I think it's one of the first principles. We collaborate and we study collectively in teams and groups and live in a community and travel with our community.
Marcus: What does living in a community mean?
Nadia: So we live in a school center. We've all kinds of different institutions inside and different people inside. For example, we have mental care institution and we have a youth boarding school with youngsters from difficult backgrounds and youngsters from an international background. And then of course we have future teachers which are holding the central stage, in a way, of this whole institution. Our way to look at it is that teachers, future teachers, are teachers from the moment they start their education. They are the people with social and mental emotional surplus, which they can share with the community. It benefits both because when teachers learn the community benefits
Marcus: Do you both like living in the community?
Nadia: Do you Justus?
Justus: Yes. In society today, living in the community for many seems like you give up your freedom or your individuality. But I think it's maybe a new sense that came with the times or capitalism or the big increase in the amount of things we do in society and production and all of this.
Because if you look to the old old days and the hunter gatherer societies, people were living in community. In groups of 50-100 people, because that was the only way to survive. You have to depend on people. And when people depend on you, you rely upon each other. And then at the same time it provides you a safety net community. And this gives another form of freedom. It gives you a freedom that you have people you rely upon and you have people that help you in our community.
We also have a shared economy. It gives you a freedom that you don't have to worry about surviving constantly because you know there are people around you that will help you out. Who will take care of you and likewise you will contribute to them by doing the same.
Regarding mental health in our society, many people strive for happiness, but I don't think you can reach this place of 'happiness' because it's a moment, something that comes and goes, but you can work towards a setting that makes you happy. Being around people gives a certain value or value of belonging somewhere. Value of being cared for, value to be heard, value to be noticed. I think that's very undermined in our society today.
Nadia: Talking about values. I think we really underestimate the value of serving somebody. Serving the community, serving the society. Because the pleasure we get from it is actually quite big. I feel it and I see it in people and this individualism which is instilled on us somehow by our parents and grandparents and so on and previous generations developed through the industrial era. When you needed it to survive and think for yourself or your family somehow. We are a product of that environment, of that era.
But now, experimenting in our community, I can see how much pleasure people get from serving each other and that can be something big and small. It can be just, you know, helping out and cooking and cleaning up after or it can be something big like providing social support to each other and listening to each other and digging up all the childhood experiences and realising them together because often you just do it alone, on your own.
Somehow a therapist is a little bit of stigmatised idea. I think often in our society if you go to the therapist then "something is wrong with you", but if you have a community whom you can talk to, which is essentially therapy, it feels normal. Just talking to the people around you and to your neighbours.
Marcus: How many people live in this community?
Justus: From 40 to 60-70 people, depending.
Marcus: How many of them are in the teacher training?
Justus: Forty two students at the moment and around eight teachers.
Marcus: So how'd you think that living in the community has an effect on people when they leave and after they complete the training? Do they often go and live in communities, or stay here or...what does that look like?
Justus: Not many actually go on to live in the community. I think many come...it's very diverse and some get interested then go for higher education, others may go back to their home country and try to either create/ establish something or look forward towards a more traditional way of learning where they could contribute with that or take part in it. Others go back to their own life. They say, "Okay, this was an experience for me and I want to go back and take these values with me, but not continue."
But it's quite diverse. But one thing I think they all have in common is that when people leave they're much more globally aware about society as we focus a lot on that in our college, about the global state of the world and the big issues of our time. Of climate change, the big difference between the rich and the poor, a possible nuclear war. I mean all these issues are relevant today. There is possibility that in the future will meet them in one way or another. So it's learning about them. It's kind of preparing ourselves for the future, but also trying to change it. So, we put great importance in that and then also I think that after leaving DNS the students continue having this in mind and working on it. So it's not just a learning to be a teacher but also to be an activist in society.
Marcus: I think over the last few days I've heard loads about what you do here and I just think it's amazing. Could you share a little bit more about the actual projects that your students and the teachers do while they're here. It's four years, right? What do those 4 years look like?
Nadia: The very beginning starts with this intense building of a sense of community and building of your team, of your class or your group, whatever you call it. The first two months of a program are dedicated to understanding what kind of ownership we have all our education, what ownership we have of the mental health of our whole team. Because we really need to be in balance with each other and we need to keep everybody in check and see how we feel and how they grow and then definitely build relations.
Justus: At the same time there is some pressure on because after two months they will be going for the bus travel. So there's a lot to prepare, like taking the bus driving test, getting visas, and learning about the countries.
Marcus: What is the bus travel project?
Justus: So one of the main aspects of the first year of the program is that students get the global perspective about society and one way of doing that is by traveling the world. So the students and the teachers go for a four months bus trip from Denmark crossing Europe, reaching Morocco, Mauritania, then Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. So as the students are traveling they're learning about a different kind of reality of people, as they travel through different countries and do investigations. They go out in smaller groups and take on a certain topics and try to find out as much as possible about it. Not by going to Wikipedia and reading about it, but by meeting real life people, people affected by certain topics. For example, mining in Morocco and going to the miners. Meeting them and getting to know their struggle, getting [to know] the struggle of the unions and in this way being engaged with the topic. Often you find in schools a bunch of theory that you don't find meaning in, but by meeting real people that gives you the next step for being curious because then it affects you. It affects the people you meet.
Nadia: Developing a certain emotional connection to knowledge. Because when you see, for example, the biological effect of working in a mine on a person. And maybe on his children. You really have this mental picture. You develop an emotional connection to it and even a few years later when you pick this topic up again just on the Internet or just reading a book or watching a documentary about it… the emotion is there still. So it's not just dry and senseless for you anymore. It's actually quite deep and interesting and curious.
Marcus: My experience of university, and I think probably a huge majority of people's experience of university, is that you go through...you sort of do something because you're young and you think "I have to go through university", pick something random and then you do it and it's completely theoretical. I did have part of mine as an internship but a very minor part of it. But then you drop off the end and you're expected to get jobs, but you have no experience of doing them. You just spent three years reading books and talking. This programme seems like a really hands on sort of thing... Because you were saying earlier that, for example, it's the students and the student teachers that drive the buses and stuff, you don’t have people come in to do that. So it's really led by the students for the students and I think that's amazing. I think I'm so jealous.
Nadia: It's definitely hard because basically the education that we do is 24/7 with two times for holidays in a year because that's what it takes. If you really want to engage fully into learning, it's not reading a book and then going out in the world and kind of switching off the learning process. It's actually this continuous lifestyle where you study when you feel like it… and then sometimes you need to put a bit of pressure on yourself. But when you are collaborating with the people around you you cannot just switch off learning and switch it on again. It happens throughout your day, it is in your reality. So that's somehow what we try to go with.
What do you get out of it? It's not so much about the diploma or the paper or about the knowledge but about the skills you get, because learning is also a skill.
Definitely what you need to develop is how you learn best and what? What are you interested in learning? There are many other skills, both social and practical, which you get on the way by organizing events, by working with society. Many times we have concluded with our students that basically pretty much any job you're going to do in your life, it doesn't matter if it's connected to the education sector or not, will be connected to people. You’ve got to work with people and that's what we learn here. We learn to work with people and that's the essence of education on pedagogical work. That's what we try to give to our students in a way.
Justus: Being the student in the driver's seat of the bus, that’s one way of looking at it. And the other is that you are carrying your program, you're carrying you're learning with you and you also carry the responsibility of teaching your team.
Also a big aspect when we say ‘teacher’ is that it doesn't mean a ‘classroom teacher’. It doesn't mean a specific kind of teacher that would teach maths, English. A teacher is a choice. It's an active choice. Everyday you are influencing people around you. So you're teaching people around you and then when you're in a team that also means that you're responsible for each other's development, for each other's well being and for making sure that everybody gets out of it as much as possible
Nadia: But it's so damn hard to develop ownership towards your education or off your education. Our students are from 18 up to 30. And imagine that you come here with a minimum of 12 years of schooling and often about 20 years of schooling. If you have done university or a masters or whatsoever or some courses and then you come here and then you get told that nobody will teach you. You're going to learn yourself because only you and your head are responsible for learning.
I can never put anything inside of your head forcefully. You basically need to figure it out, you need to take out of your brain, need to unlearn everything that you have learned in your previous years of education and you need to learn how to take charge and how to feel like you own your own studies and it's such a struggle and it's hard. All the four years of studies, even in the last last periods of exams, we still sometimes bump into this feeling of, why can't we take an easy way? I just put my ass in the chair and just, you know, listen to the lecture and get all the knowledge on a golden plate. But it doesn't happen like that.
Marcus: I feel like when I left university, that's when my real learning started and a large part of that learning, if not all of that learning, is really unlearning. And it's just a big process of unlearning. So what do you think you both personally have got out of your time here was like?
Justus: I think I'll say what most graduates say and that is that the most you get out of it is to learn how to be together with people. Really be together with people and basically after this education I feel like you can go to any organization to any group of people and find a way to collaborate. But when you ask the students was the most challenging thing abuot the programme they are also going to answer with the same thing!
Marcus: What does it mean to really be with people?
Justus: It is about being in the community in a way but it is also about striving for the same goal. It’s like I mentioned before. It’s about respect, support and solidarity with each other but but also about going on the same road. Because for us our program is a mutual agreement. Saying this is a journey that we are taking and regardless of how tough it is we have to find a way because that's kind of our framework for being together. When you have graduated and you go into a project, it also gives you like this knowledge of how to create such a framework.
In the YIP Conference that we just attended they mentioned this aspect of having a sacred space. That's an important part for having a healthy lifestyle is being able to freely share with people your emotions, your feelings and being able to reference what is on your mind. I think before I started here, I would not talk with strangers outside the family or people who were not close friends. But this opens those doors. If you want to help society this is one of the aspects that we need to have.
Marcus: What about you?
Nadia: So much. It's sometimes really hard to name them because it's kind of a gradual process, but one thing which very concretely comes to my mind is that I don't need to compete to feel good about myself and to exist in society. I remember from childhood that feeling of only feeling good when you win and others lose. But here, working together and actually trying to feel the sense of victory in the victory of others in a non competitive atmosphere… although it's still quite competitive quite often, but still like this process of trying to eliminate competition from your life is so meaningful. I’m not saying that it's not there anymore, but I know that I can live without it. I can get pleasure without it. I can feel victorious or successful without it. And that was a big thing, a very big thing. I think I also learned who I am in a sense. I came here young. I was 18. I was like most teenagers, who don't know who they are. And then going through this process of self discovery with other people around me and other people helping mr understand who I am and my strengths and my weaknesses. That my weaknesses are not like a death sentence but that you can work with them and you can grow and become better and love both sides. Weak, strong. And that was very empowering
And people working with people. Definitely that.
Justus: Adding to that, another aspect I think is that throughout the program you do many different things here. You're traveling in the first year and seeing all these different places. In the second year trying out the European reality fields, moving into a city as a team and getting simple jobs with the purpose of meeting working class people. With such elements, you get to experience many roles in the team. You try out many skills. This also makes you sense out what you want to do in life. What kind of teacher you will be at the end? What’s your field of interest. Maybe it will be to combine clowning with teaching, like Nadia did. Maybe it will be a bus mechanic teacher or or you'll discover that the actually the classroom setting is best for you or maybe you'll be a teacher that goes on journeys with students.
Marcus: Cool. Well I've really enjoyed my time here. It's really inspiring and I love that. I'm very thankful I got invited and took him up on the offer.
Justus: Thank you for coming.
Marcus: Is there any. Is there anything else that you would like to add more?
Nadia: If you have another two hours, maybe two hours.
Marcus: Okay. Everyone sit comfortably.
Nadia: Is there anything else you want to ask?
Marcus: I have one question but maybe it's one you can't answer.
Nadia: Oh, that's a challenge.
Marcus: Maybe you can. You probably spend a lot of time thinking about this. The program you have a DNS seems amazing. It seems everyone I've spoken to seems to have got a lot out of it and really see the value in it. I can see the value in it. It seems like a really great way of engaging with an education system and the world at the same time. Why don’t more places like this exist?
Nadia: That's a killer.
Justus: I have a clue. I don't know if it is the answer, but in the 1960s and 70s there was a big rise in community living. This Hippy era gave rise to a lot of communities in the world and especially in Denmark. Many of those communities don't exist anymore. And I question what makes us as different? And I think one of the aspects of it is that it didn't just share our time and space in a community, but we also shared our economy and also many communities distanced themselves from the society, becoming like islands, but we chose that we wanted to be engaged, we want to be an island, but also a possible role model for others to get inspired through our ideas. So, I acknowledge capitalism exists, money exists and we need to survive. So it's also to make sure you have some kind of income and at the same time sharing this income with the community. That's a very tough boundary for a community to surpass. My money is my own, why should I share it? But it gives a very big value to the community and for it to continue. I think that's one of the aspects
Nadia: As for me, I would rephrase the question to be why are they appearing so slowly because there are many alternative places out there. I don't know all of them, but I already met a bunch and there are many people popping up with a little projects and we see our graduates popping up with their projects, small and big. Maybe the participants of those are only 10 people or so, but it makes a big difference. What keeps us going is often reminding ourselves that if you educate one teacher that one teacher can advocate over 10 teachers and so on and so forth and it's a growing movement. Most of the countries on earth have at least one or more of some kind of alternative education school or something.
My naive perspective to that is that if we manage to connect between each other and actually work together instead of competing about who does it better or whose ideology or philosophy is better then instead of being an alternative education we will be The education. It will be the thing which people want to do. Not just an alternative to the mainstream.
Justus: Because it is one thing being able to try out and experiment here, but the main idea of course, is that you bring this education to everybody to give them a possibility to have such an education.
That's the main goal, to compliment what you're saying.
Nadia: Thank you for complimenting me.
Marcus: It's a lovely compliment. Thank you very much. That's good. We got to half an hour.
Justus: Shabam! Can we end it with that word
Marcus: Okay, shall we do a big Shabam together?
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