So, as I stated in my last post, I hated grade school, I hated high school, I hated college, and I almost failed to get my degree on time–until an enlightened professor intervened. Even this professor may not have understood the significance of his actions.
The plan was deceptively simple. He made a phone call to the academic dean and proposed to her a four-week independent poetry study with himself as my supervisor. As I began my work on this project, I found it surprising that I only had to read three or four poems per week prior to meeting him in his office for an hour to discuss them. Most of the poems were review for me, as I had already read them in my classes–some of them multiple times.
This time, however, something was different–critically different. This work involved myself and my professor–no one else. Without classmates to hide behind, without the possibility of deferring my reading of the poems until the very start of class, I had absolutely no escape.
Within four weeks, my professor had completely demystified a few dozen Victorian poems that I had previously found uninspiring. He laid bare an inviting elegance that I had for so long feared to behold. Tennyson, the Brownings, Housman, the Rossettis, and many other poets who had previously failed to reach me had now lodged themselves within me for good. I received an A minus.
And this, as any of my current students would clearly see, is the turning point in the story. I would never be the same again.
My struggles were not entirely over, of course. Within five years, I had become a teacher in a public school. I retained the memories of my struggles, endured layer upon layer of contradictions imposed upon me and my colleagues, and worked patiently with students who hated school as much as I had as a student. Regrettably, I found that in some ways, I still hated it as a teacher. I still had to struggle to understand why. Soon, it came to me.
The typical school does not exist to serve the learner. True, we read mission statements about how children come first, and all children can succeed. But we have also heard that government serves the people, and hospitals put patients first.
Some decades ago, our culture undertook a well-intended effort to question hierarchies and conventions and often to tear them down. In the social sphere, this opened up our understanding to points of view that had previously received little attention. As a society, we changed our hair, our clothes, our music, and our manners. Through all these superficial and questionable changes, some of our important institutions escaped more fundamental scrutiny.
Our educational system illustrates this. Many places of learning are built on old traditions that dedicated school leaders have sought to improve. Indeed, I received a superb education from grade 7 straight through college precisely because many of the teachers involved saw the limitations of educational tradition and intervened. My undergraduate advisor was merely one example of such an educator.
But schools have in most cases retained their essential organizational structure, and with most of the inherent flaws. Reform comes mainly in the form of burdens placed on top of that structure. In public education in particular, government entities compile and/or impose standards intended as a framework for learning, and schools must administer standardized assessments that evaluate only a portion of what constitutes true learning.
With all of this comes an educational paradigm that increasingly favors students who are compliant and cooperative. That needn’t be a problem in and of itself, but as the pressure mounts, students who do not cooperate or comply as quickly as others become an inconvenience. Growing portions of the people that schools exist to serve–namely, students–become a nuisance to the people responsible for serving them.
Then, frustration grows as more students feel alienated. Even some of the students who are said to succeed struggle to do so and feel not empowered, but constrained. Disaffection among teachers grows. Administrators desperately grasp at philosophies and strategies that amount to little more than packaged platitudes reconfigured from the last batch that came out just a few years before. Administrators at the highest levels live from contract to contract, many of them struggling to create any perception favorable to those at whose pleasure they serve–whether the perception is accurate or not.
And students who learn too slow or too fast–or in any way different from the manner favored–have categories imposed on them. Those who defy categories continue to confound the system–and the system, them.
Judging overworked teachers, bewildered administrators, fragmented school boards, and misguided policymakers is no solution to this. The true hope lies in rare school leaders who understand that humanity’s greatest steps forward have come about not from the ideas of thinkers who adhere to norms, but from the inspiration of those who cast their thoughts beyond conventions.
I work in a school where leadership has turned over during the last two years. Our current administrators favor experiences that foster curiosity, meaningful exploration, and the cultivation of constructive interests. Our principal has restructured the schedule to reflect the importance of all content areas, from math and science to language and literature to the visual and performing arts. Instruction explicitly draws on students’ personal interests and aspirations. Teachers propose ideas for courses and programs that would not have been considered just a few years ago. We even devote instructional time to interests and pursuits that have almost nothing to do with academics.
For part of the school year, I lead an open guitar studio–and I can’t even play guitar well. The students see me struggle at something I am unlikely to master, but I keep at it simply for the sake of learning something different, and they are happy to help me along. Another fascinating opportunity is my classic movie seminar, in which students sample old film trailers and choose films they would never have suspected that they would enjoy. Other teachers offer brief courses on sewing, board games, yoga, and a variety of other activities that schools are uniquely positioned to promote as “worthy use of leisure” time–a critical priority identified nearly a century ago by the Cardinal Principles report.
This all comes with encouraging results. Teachers report that students concentrate more, participate more eagerly, and exhibit more curiosity. And rather ironically considering the thesis of this post, students are more cooperative and compliant. Scores on standardized tests–to the extent that they are meaningful–may give us even more to consider. In the meantime, this transformation transcends standards and scores. Students clearly see that school is a place where growth occurs in many ways, where teachers do more than simply give out assignments, and where learning takes on a truly human element.
This all results from fundamental changes originating from within our school, not imposed from without. These changes take a great deal of effort and involve significant inconvenience for many levels of the school’s hierarchy. But they come about as a direct result of understanding the nature of our students and thinking beyond traditional academics. Room remains for improvement, but for the first time in a public school, I am witnessing firsthand the validation of curricular and pedagogical theory written about generations ago and proven in isolated laboratory schools and private schools across the nation. This should have caught on in public education long, long ago.
Looking back through the years, I now understand why I hated school. I hated it because I received a fairly consistent message that I was a disappointment. My interests and energy, my enthusiasm and my aspirations simply did not count because they usually failed to fit conveniently into a contrived and arbitrary framework.
I hated school until someone met me at the margin, engaged me, and helped me find a path forward for myself.
All teachers and all schools should seek to do precisely that for all students.