The day I officially got hired at the public school where I currently teach, right before I signed the final paperwork, I told the principal, “I am not a believer in the American education system.” He pulled back the paperwork for a moment with a look of slight shock on his face, “But you are the American education system now.” He asked me to elaborate.
My work with youth is rooted in social work and activism, and education through that filter. I do not have loyalty to or belief in the structures and systems—white-supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, patriarchy—that the American education system was founded in. In my opinion, our public school system is based on an outdated Victorian model of education, young people don’t need to know a vast majority of the things that are highlighted as important for them to learn, the way those learnings are assessed on broader levels is ineffective and stifling to creativity and individuality, while other important subjects and life lessons are being neglected.
I’m not saying it is all bad and nothing good comes from it. I just believe it could be so much better.
However, despite my feelings towards the American education system, education is a means to an end in our society—if not the means to an end—and there are pockets of youth who are not obtaining their “end” because they are being denied equal access to this “means” for various different reasons—whether it be (dis)ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, geographic neighborhood, and/or other social constructs conducive to structural and systemic oppression. So, as long as education remains a means to an end, and there are some young people struggling to access that means towards achieving their end, I want to be a part of fighting for better access to that means.
After that explanation, the principal ended up hiring me, and, as of today, has not expressed remorse or regret about that decision…at least not to my face.
So far, it has been interesting, challenging, and frustrating—to name a few—working within a system I am not fond of. Don’t get me wrong, I love my school, student body, and coworkers. Yet, as an educator, I often feel I am caught somewhere between how I would like to see education and the limitations put on me by the broader system within which I am an educator. I try to facilitate the type of education I would like to see, as much as possible, with constant reminders that the system I am working in is in direct opposition to many of my fondest beliefs and ideals about education. Because of this, I am constantly inventing my “dream school” in my mind.
Last night at dinner, my 13-year-old neighbor—who lives with the realities of the intersectionailty of a handful of the previously mentioned forms of structural oppression—described going to lunch in his school cafeteria as feeling like “being trapped in a cage.” He also described his education and schooling experience, in general, as feeling joylessly laborious, “like slavery.” Though that comparison is extreme, the look in his eyes when he said it showed that he was not trying to make light of the atrocities of slavery, but rather, that his education experience feels more painful than not.
I know him well enough to know this is true.
Whether he sincerely understands the depths of pain and suffering of slavery—which he obviously doesn’t—or not, I could see he was neither joking about his feelings nor trying to give little weight to the horrors slavery; I have personally seen some of that pain and frustration he has felt when helping him with his homework, school projects, and reading. The frustration is real, it’s deep. Instead of experiencing “education as the practice of freedom,” like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, bell hooks, and other great education reformists have described, my young friend is experiencing education as the antithesis of freedom—slavery, imprisonment, confinement, incarceration, detention, captivity.
And he is assuredly not alone in his feelings.
AP Photo/Jose F. Moreno
This is extra sad to me concerning him because, though he is a struggling reader and finds most of the core curriculum subjects to be overwhelmingly challenging, he has an extremely inquisitive mind, is very imaginative, loves learning new things, loves telling me new facts and vocabulary words he has learned, and is always asking me questions. Yet these strengths of his are rarely tapped-in to with the traditional education structure he finds himself in. And, simultaneously and cruelly, he, and others like him, are labelled as the “problem.” And drugs, and services, and punishments are created to help them fit into the cookie-cutter mold of education, rather than recreating a unique mold to accommodate them.
I am not trying to underplay the reform—most specifically and especially with special education—that has taken place in more recent years. We are living in a time where it seems that education decision-makers are beginning to see that not everyone learns the same, that there is no reason most special education students can’t be integrated into mainstream classes, and there is an emphasis on special education students learning in the least restrictive environments possible. However, most of the services offered to those students, accommodating as they may be, still have the intention of helping that student fit into the mold of traditional education and access equal education within that very specific mold. And beyond that, the quality of those special education services depends on the quality, or lack thereof, of school that young person attends. Beyond that, there are plenty of general education students who are equally disengaged, whose unique education needs and ways of learning are not catered to.
Back to dinner…
When my friend—who happens to be a college professor in education—asked my young neighbor what he wished school and education looked like, his answer was not the silly or ridiculous answer—like, “recess all day” or “never read anything, EVER“—that I expected him to say. He articulately said his ideal form of education would be learning through hands-on projects, using fun and humor to teach things, and “not sitting in the same chair all day.” This reminded me, once again, how quick we are to diagnose a kid for attention deficits and hyperactivity, before we diagnose the environments we put them in—environments that can feel restricting, limiting, claustrophobic, like cages, like slavery.
I don’t believe we were created to sit in one chair in a room in a building all day.
Some people would disagree with that and would argue that we are “preparing young people for their future work.” Their rebuttal is based in the assumption that I agree with the structures and work environments that the average adults find themselves in, which I do not, but that’s another conversation for another day. Others would use the argument that “this is the way it has always been,” that “this is the way we were taught, and look at us—we turned out fine!” As with any type of historical norms and practices, I do not think that just because something operates in the way “it always has” means that it is immune to change; I, contrarily, believe that as the times change, so should our systems and structures change, supporting, embracing, and reflecting that change appropriately.
Now, I do know amazing educators who embody education as the practice of freedom, teaching in the exact ways that my young neighbor describes. Nevertheless, for the most part, even those teachers find themselves within a broader system that is not favorable to them or their methods, and their “success” is still limited to how their students perform on standardized tests, and not who they are helping those students become. Some children have the privilege of having a teacher, or several, like that, whilst others may never experience it. And it remains that many young people, for whatever individual reason, are completely disengaged in the education process.
But why does it have to be this way?
With all the opposition to standardized tests, the general admittance that our education system is still based on an ancient model that is not necessarily relevant to our times, and all the talk of education reform, I’m just wondering, when will we see actual reform? When will the vast majority of our youth experience education as the practice of freedom?
For some hope, watch this (Updated August 8, 2014):