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?