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Is it a cop out to drop out?

Hi Coop Cat community,

As this is my first post at Coop Cat, I feel I should use it to serve as a bit of an introduction.  First, I want to say how blown away I am by the thoughtfulness and commitment I have found in reading the posts and comments on this site.  More than anything I am impressed by the diversity of voices and the amazing consistency in finding respectful ways to speak your truths and articulate both points of agreement and difference in ways that are extremely respectful and powerful.  What a refreshing change from so much educational discourse.  I commend your efforts and pledge to do my best to live up to the wonderful model you all have set.

I feel moved to write about the decision point in my life to drop out of public education and subsequently to work for change in education from a different angle.  Is it a cop out to drop out?

Through most of the 90’s I taught elementary grades in “excellent” public school districts in California and Oregon.  At the beginning of this time I was eager to enter what I hoped would be this incredibly democratic kind of institution (the public school) and make a difference in individual kids’ lives and learning.  Towards the latter years I took on more leadership roles and did my best to work for modest changes in my school and district while always trying to keep my classroom a small oasis of humanity.

Despite many moments of magic with students, parents and colleagues, over this time I felt the absolute crushing weight of standards, “achievement” and bureaucracy.  Examples of this weight would fill a book, and have, of course (Kirsten’s Wounded By Schools is a good place to start.)  But here’s just one example:

I was working with 3rd and 4th graders in a mid-size suburban public school and felt depressed by the setting.  The typical large brick one-story building contained classrooms with banks of overhead fluorescent lights and a 10-year old industrial carpet that smelled like rotten milk, especially when wet.  My class had a single tinted window (to minimize solar heat gain – apparently the architects had previously designed schools in southern Arizona) that looked out on a vast flattened play field.  The kids were moved in lines down enormous hallways to these rooms and then twice a day released into the easy to supervise play space that reminded me of a prison yard.

At one point we were studying pioneers and had read about the fertile Willamette Valley that attracted thousands of westward moving families along the Oregon Trail because of it’s amazing ability to grow anything.  Perfect, I thought, let’s try it out.  We are right in the heart of said valley!  Let’s plant a garden, right outside the classroom window.  So the work began, the kids and I removed turf and sod.  We carried in bags and bags of compost (of course this little part of the fertile valley had been scraped and bulldozed and compacted during the school site prep twenty years earlier and contained none of the richness and fertility it might have a century earlier.)  We carved out beds, chose seeds to start, built a fence, etc.  What a terrific experiential learning opportunity!

Oh, was I not prepared from the backlash from every element of “the system.”  Parents concerns: how can you have time to play in the dirt when The Test is coming up and last year my kid scored in the 73rd percentile in Reading Comprehension?!”  (This was a high achieving district and many families had purchased homes and structured their lives around the assurances that would result from good test scores derived from living in this school’s attendance area.)  From the administration: “I just don’t see where this kind of experience aligns with the State Standards.  We are going for a School of Excellence Award this year, you know.  And you are a Team Leader, what kind of example do you think this sets for other staff?”  And most importantly from the groundskeeping staff: “How the hell can I mow the lawn around this?  My mower blade is 30 feet wide!  I can’t be navigating an obstacle course.  You want to pay my overtime?”

I think the saddest part for me was seeing the vandalism.  This seemed to come mostly from alumni of the school.  Now Middle school and high school age, these kids returned to my elementary school on weekends to play and hang out.  Much of the play equipment was “vandal proof,” but our small garden became something of a target.  The fence was repeatedly busted.  Plants ripped out.  The scarecrow destroyed quite gruesomely.  The apple trees we planted had branches broken.  It was just too much.  Apparently these young adolescents had so much hostility toward their former institution and so much angst and boredom in their lives that a primary source of entertainment was in the form of destruction aimed towards the symbols and structures of their own oppression (more power to ‘em!  But not in our garden!!!)

Just one example of many that could graphically illustrate the lack of humanity in industrial schooling.  And I taught at really “good” schools.  This was privileged public education.

Still, I continued on and tried to make the best out of the soulless drudgery and infuse the curriculum and classroom with a bit of life, humor and creativity as I could.

Then my first child became preschool age.  During those first three years of parenting as well as the many that have followed, I have grown so much.  I began to see the world through my son’s young eyes.  Among many things that shifted for me was the welling up of deep disgust for the work I was doing, the curriculum, the setting, the damn standards – I was not going to be handing over my child to become a Standardized Mind (P. Sacks.)  Then the realization: oh, wait if this model stinks for my child, do I really think it’s okay for others?  Sitting for a while with this incredible internal dissonance, ultimately I left the system.  I could no longer be complicit in the system.  I left public education and later found a different path.  I continue to work passionately and tirelessly towards realizing a vision of humane education. More on that in a future post…

An aside: for those that are interested there is a brand new book out by Josette Luvmour.  The lengthy title is: Adult Development: Emergent Wisdom in the Family Context: A Study of the Developmental Experiences of Adults Who Actively Work to Meet Their Child’s Developmental Imperatives.  It is the first real study I’ve seen on adult development and transformation resulting from mindful, holistic parenting and educating rooted in child-development theory.  It fills a great hole in the literature, I think.  Parenting can be such a strong impetus for shifting our perspective and radicalizing our thinking.  How many schools have been founded by parents wanting, in part, to create a better learning environment for their own children?

Anyway does my struggle sound familiar?  Is it a cop out to drop out?  What is your story?


About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


17 thoughts on “Is it a cop out to drop out?

  1. I can definitely relate to your story. I have had a landscaping class the last two years at my middle school. The first year the students made concrete pavers which “someone” smashed into pieces over the summer.

    I thought I would fix that by having last year’s class pour a concrete sidewalk and embedded the broken pieces. This past summer someone pulled out most of the plants.

    I did have the support of other teacher and my administration, but I have given up on the class because of the lack of effort from my students and the vandalism.

    Posted by concretekax | November 12, 2010, 8:34 pm
  2. yes – i think it’s a cop out to “drop” out..
    but are you? dropping out? and of what?
    doesn’t sound like you’re out… doesn’t sound like you dropped…

    i guess we need to ask – what is the it…
    things aren’t always as they appear.
    maybe an apparent drop out – is actually a digging in.. no?


    Posted by monika hardy | November 12, 2010, 10:12 pm
  3. I wish I had your courage. Although the school I work at now does not see itself as a factory where we import miscreant children and export model citizens, I have worked in those schools and I understand where you are coming from.

    The first thing that bothers me about these kind of learning spaces is the mindless adherence to the dogma. It’s like it’s a crime in these systems to be reflective and to experiment with your practice. “You can’t try anything new because it might negatively impact your students’ learning!”

    What also frightens me about these systems is the endless list of rules and regulations that have to be followed. At one school I worked at, students were not allowed to chew gum, wear earrings if male, wear pants if female, have long hair if male, have torn pants, and on and on and on. Sometimes even a beautiful campus (which we had) can be made barren with the restrictions on how it can be used.

    Posted by David | November 13, 2010, 8:25 am
  4. Thanks so much for the comments.

    Monika, the dropping out was from public school teaching in it’s current form – never to return. I definitely have not dropped out from education, from trying to make a difference in young people’s lives, from helping kids to find their voice, know themselves, and build community, from nurturing their capacities for creativity, compassion and caring, and from working for change and transformation. In fact leaving public school was the first step on a long journey towards realizing what is possible and what education can mean.

    But my question still, and I so appreciate your gift of the label “courage” for this move, David, is have I abandoned children in need and left them for the wolves? I have gone on to explore and try to create “counter-hegemonic visions” of education, which feeds my soul (and which I’ll post about later). But is this essentially a selfish act? Would a really courageous change agent stick it out and work ever closer to the belly of the beast – even if this work were at the direct expense of his/her happiness? I felt the meager fight I put up while within the system was laughable, really. I felt overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of problems to be fixed and my own powerlessness. So I split. What if thousands of public school teachers did the same – would the bureaucracy fall to its knees and recognize the need to start over, or would an equal number of less critical “scabs” be hired in replacement, and the machine simply grind on?

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 13, 2010, 9:56 am
  5. I think we all have the natural right to do what we believe is right.

    All I would ask is that the folks who have left the system return from time to time (by posting here, amongst other actions) to help rally communities in support of the wolves about to be culled for refusing the hunt – or perhaps to help cover the more critical scabs as they try to heal.

    It would be valuable for me to have someone outside the system Skype into my class, perhaps, for an observation and to give feedback on whether or not I am doing right by my students.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 14, 2010, 9:32 am
  6. Paul,

    I think there are many ways to be involved in educating children, advocating for kids, and positively affecting the education system. I don’t think that it’s a cop out to leave your job at a public school. As Monika alluded to—what was this noble and good cause you dropped out of? Sounds like a pretty oppressive situation. I too, left the public school classroom–after ten years of teaching. I felt many of the same feelings you did, and yes, was no longer willing to be complicit with the system. Too many times I was questioned for trying to think outside the box or enhance the curriculum for my kids. I was questioned for questioning the status quo, and I felt pretty much alone.

    David—to your point about people not wanting teachers to try something new because it might negatively affect their children—I’d say, yes, I think there is huge resistance to trying new things, and this resistance arises mostly out of fear of what will happen, and lack of understanding of what exactly the new idea is! I also think that a lot of schools want teachers who will not think creatively because in a way, it’s sort of a threat. What do you think?

    Paul, I am saddened by the story of vandals ruining your garden. I am wondering if you had other teachers in your school who had similar outgoing personalities and original ideas they wanted to implement. Did you have any support? Was anyone else rooting for you? Do you think you could have stayed if you had had more collegial support for your efforts? I realize that swimming upstream gets pretty tiring after a while.

    Thank you for telling your story.

    Posted by jengroves | November 14, 2010, 1:13 pm
  7. Thanks for these thoughtful comments my friends.

    Chad, once again I so appreciate your perspective and am challenged by how it diverges from my own instincts. Again you draw out what I’m realizing is my technophobia. Yes, I feel the need to build community and stick together – watch each other’s backs. But my vision of disembodied skype-heads looking in from the periphery of my classroom is weird and scary to me. Maybe I’ve read too many dystopian novels, but it kinda’ creeps me out. I know it’s way more possible for me to skype into your classroom than hop a plane and come visit. Still I resist. Thanks for challenging me to explore my own fears.

    Jen, yes, my school included diverse characters and a lot of supporters and to be fair, my principal was a terrific guy too. We were just all so overwhelmed by the monolithic bureaucracy in which we worked. I would get together weekly with like-minded colleagues and we’d have silly tea parties and acknowledge the absurdity and hypocrisy at work in our building. Many were doing their best to instill little bits of humanity into their classrooms, but it all seemed so futile. I did enjoy a cohort of supporters.

    As in a middle grades novel, my best cheerleader was a grumpy overweight custodian named Jed. He has graduated from the same district a few years earlier and now as a young adult he was already reigned to a life of custodial work in this industrial building and he was pissed off about it. No one liked to ask him for anything for fear of his attitude and anger. Yet somehow he really got behind the garden project. He chased off potential vandals. He mended fences. he smoothed things over with the groundskeeper. And over the summer he watered the couple of struggling fruit trees we planted and looked after the herbs and perennials. I saw him as a gruff bear, with a tender heart. We shared some amazing moments over that project. I don’t know if anyone else in that building ever got a glimpse at Jed’s tender side. Ultimately I abandoned him too, I guess. Guilt, guilt, guilt. (I’m still not going back, though.)

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 14, 2010, 3:01 pm
  8. Thanks, Chad. I appreciate where you’re coming from. Jabiz’ post is terrific. I’ll be thinking this through and puzzling out my own insecurities.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 15, 2010, 10:07 am
    • Paul, I continue to work out technology insecurities on a daily basis. Technology is a tool, but there are also behaviors that people develop with it. I’m constantly trying to evaluate and manage my own reaction to student use – what’s productive? What’s not productive? What’s innocuous? What gives comfort? What contributes to our community? What keeps us from it?

      I tend to err on the side of seeing what happens with tools that don’t seem harmful – my instincts tell me otherwise, but I don’t quite trust them – being honed, as they were, in school.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 15, 2010, 10:04 pm
  9. Oh Paul! Such a wonderful post! I’m sorry I missed it when you first put it up. (I was with David Loitz at an IDEA meeting in San Francisco and he said, Paul just put up a post at the COOP! Hooray!) It’s beautiful, evocative, full of the thoughtfulness that makes you so wonderful to read. Thank you for joining us here. As Chad and Adam and Monika note, the really really amazing thing is that you’ve joined us here. This seems so hopeful and suggestive to me. That those working in “alternative” environments have much to say to those working to transform public school environments–we are not in opposition to each other but can feed each other and support each other.

    I’d love to hear a practice conversation between you and Chad. Now that would be some knock out professional development. You two talking thoughtfully about some issue in the classroom, and what you two make of it…

    Maybe you’ll Skype us all in?

    Posted by Kirsten | November 18, 2010, 10:00 am
  10. Wow, Kirsten, Thanks. You’re so sweet.

    I have a sneaking feeling Chad and I may be having some “practice,” as well as some “real,” conversations about classroom issues right here!

    Funny, I am talking these days with David Marshak and Brent Cameron about a new graduate program they are proposing to WA state regents. (A very cool program by the way, offering an MA based on Brent’s model of “Self Design” and also offering a concentration in school starting.) I have signed on to serve as faculty, teaching elective courses in school founding to distant learners VIA SKYPE!! I guess I better get over it, huh?


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 18, 2010, 10:25 am


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