The Stranglehold of Distrust
In the last couple of years I have had my children enrolled in the neighborhood public school and subsequently disenrolled them to homeschool. Trained in Curriculum & Instruction and with classroom experience, I joined legions of former public school educators who have chosen to teach their own. Because of my experiences and out-of-the-box decisions, many friends have sought me out to hear about my experience, my opinions, and to ask me to be a sounding board for their own pondering.
Last autumn I spoke with veteran school counselors, directors of special needs schools, teachers, para-professionals, therapists, and a myriad of other interested people who all asked me about the epidemic of depression in our young people. Of course we discussed briefly many aspects of modern life that probably contribute to the problem - demands on parents, unfettered access to technology and social media, reduction in nature, lack of freedom. But as an advocate for Self-Directed Education, I chose to talk pointedly to my experience as a parent of two elementary school aged children and our experience with compulsory education.
I decided to not talk about my experience in relation to my son, who is 2e. Instead, I spoke about what I observed when my daughter, Tinkerbell, attended 1/2-day kindergarten at our neighborhood public school. Thinking back over her year, I remember three red flags that brought her down and, left unattended, would likely have grown into much more serious issues for her. These "red flags" also might shed light on what plagues many young people these days.
Three Red Flags
Red Flag #1 - Movement
"I need to move my body!" my daughter exclaimed. She had run from the door of her kindergarten classroom bursting with energy and the desire to move.
It was October and we were well into the school year. The "honeymoon" phase was over and Tinkerbell was having increasingly difficult days at home. I had recently asked her teacher if those difficulties were persisting at school. (If she was holding it together at school and falling apart at home meant one thing; if she was struggling across the board it meant another.) I was told that Tinkerbell was doing OK but the teacher had noticed small troubles...nothing terribly out of the ordinary for this time of year.
Nevertheless, I was invited to suggest ways the teacher could help if I thought of anything. So when my daughter asked me, "Can you help me ask Ms. D if I can move my body while I'm at school?" I took it straight to the teacher.
The teacher was euphemistic with her reply. "Well, we change activities every eight minutes. I'm not sure when she can move but I'll think about it." That meant, "no."
In kindergarten, the academic responsibilities were so demanding that my daughter would be expected to sit still the entire time and work (save the 15 minute recess).
Red Flag #2 - Voice
At least one time every week my daughter packed something special in her backpack to share with her friends at school. Sometimes it was a book she enjoyed or a new toy, other times it was a picture of someplace we had gone that she enjoyed. At the beginning of the year when Tinkerbell entered the room she would pause long enough to show her teacher and ask if she could share. The reply was the same, "maybe." As the year went on my daughter asked me if I could ask the teacher if she could share, to which I got the same reply, "maybe."
It turns out that "maybe" meant "no." Every day she asked (or I asked on her behalf) to share and every day she was denied.
At the end of the school year Tink brought home a summary of her favorite things about kindergarten. She had written that her favorite thing was the 100th Day of the Year because "she got to share what she had made."
In kindergarten, the academic responsibilities were so demanding that my daughter never got to speak about the things that were important to her. Show-and-tell is a thing of the past.
Red Flag #3 - Learning
The year she was in 1/2-day kindergarten, my son was homeschooling his 2nd grade year. So we were together for half of the day during which time I was doing lessons with my son. I always emphasized that my daughter could choose whether or not to participate. After all, she was going to school where she would be expected to do as someone else says. Being at home was her opportunity to choose how to spend her time.
One spring day she chose to work on math. As she was writing she said quietly, "I'm going to write slowly so it seems like I'm learning."
I asked her to pause and said, "You're at home. You can work however fast or slow as you want."
She confirmed, "really?!"
And she spread her wings and flew. At home she LOVED doing mathematics work and she dove in wholeheartedly. Working by herself she completed the Khan Academy's mathematics programs for kindergarten, first grade and second grade in a matter of months.
In kindergarten, the academic goals were so standardized that my daughter spent her time silencing her curiosity, hiding her intellect, and pretending to learn.
Slow and Steady Deprivation
In the nicest way possible and under the guise of the importance of academic achievement our children are told:
Don't move. Don't speak. Don't think.
The abuse isn't overt. But the slow and steady deprivation that comes with micromanaging everything and everyone squeezes the life force from our children. Day after day, year after year, our children are told no. It is no wonder that so many of our young people are depressed and anxious.
Why? Lack of Trust
Why all the limits? I think it is because there is a severe lack of trust across every aspect of education. These are some of my presumptions about the matter.
- Teachers must not trust their jobs are safe if they ask administrators for help with special needs children.
- Parents, politicians, and the community at large must not trust teachers to be competent and capable of teaching children what they need to know.
- Teachers and administrators must not trust parents to be competent, invested, or interested in finding the right solution for their child.
- Absolutely no one trusts that children want to and are capable of learning.
If we trusted one another then there wouldn't be such a grotesque and desperate stronghold on standards and tests. Caring in education would be easier if we trusted one another.
Trusting in Home Education
Imagine what education would look like if trust was the fundamental premise that guided our relationships and our activities.
For me, growing trust has been the single hardest and the single best thing I have done as a homeschooling parent. However, the interplay of learning to trust my children as learners and myself as a teacher has been essential so we could create an enchanted life of learning.
It started early. When my children were babies, then toddlers, then preschoolers I was delighted and amazed by how capable and how brilliant they were. I watched them solve problems, work together, and explore. They were interested in reading, story-telling, mathematics, and social life. They learned through experimenting, exploring, observing, reading, watching videos, and talking with people. Their mind-life far-exceeded their worksheet skills and that was ok while they lived and learned at home.
Children don't age out of ability and interest in learning. Just because they are now school-aged, doesn't mean their desire, ability, and ways of learning have changed much. They continue to be interested in reading, story-telling, mathematics, and social life. They still learn through experimenting, exploring, observing, reading, watching videos, and talking with people. Their mind-life still far-exceeds their worksheet skills and that is still ok while they live and learn at home. I trust that they will develop their worksheet skills as they need them. (In fact, they are working on this now. Not because I tell them to...because they want to.)
Not only do I trust my children as learners, I also believe in myself. I am ready, willing, and able to lead our group. I find the resources that allow us to dive deep into current interests; I find new topics to explore when we're in a rut. I rest easy knowing that my children have their basic needs met: they move when they need to move; they speak when they have something to say; they think about themselves, others, and subject matter as it enlivens them.
So in our family trust in home education means that first we take care of ourselves. I take care of my children and they care for me; we find our rhythms and make compromises. From that place of connectedness learning grows. No standards needed. No bribes bartered. The only stranglehold around is the one we have on our right to choose this path and the responsibilities that lie therein.