When I think back to when I started to become dissatisfied with my career, it’s hard to know for sure which came first, the inspiration or the disenchantment.
Had I become more idealistic and radical which, in turn, predisposed me to having less tolerance for dictatorship and backward systems and practices? Or had the poor administration, daily job frustrations, and low morale push me to seek inspiration on how things could be better? Perhaps the inspiration fed off the disenchantment and vice versa. The bottom line is, the two certainly go hand in hand.
Even though I’ve determined that I cannot confirm which came first, I’m going to begin with discussing my disenchantment so that I can end on a good note with my inspiration.
So what turned me off of teaching? It wasn’t the kids. They were the energy that fuelled my days. They kept me challenged, gave me purpose, and pumped up my ego with their darling comments, “You’re the BEST teacher EVER!” It wasn’t the planning or the marking. I got rather good at finding a way to praise a student for their fine use of a period. It was the accumulation of things that got in the way of teaching: redundant, meaningless documentation to appease the bureaucratic powers in education, cover-your-ass paperwork, standardized testing, and inefficient systems to do the afore-mentioned. But I think it was mostly the traditional education system itself, seeing its immense flaws and restrictions on children’s learning and development, and how it works in opposition to creating a peaceful and sustainable future for our planet. I knew the system wasn’t properly serving children or society as it should. I had ideas on how to make it better, but was powerless in my position to make much significant change. I could not do what I thought was right for the kids and for our future, and it was eating me up. Banging and rattling my cage to draw attention and action to the system flaws or trying to push change through wasn’t endearing me to administration, and only succeeded in getting me a collection of reprimands in my file. I’m very patient with kids and animals. I just have little patience for poor leadership and bureaucracy.
Although I cannot say for certain if inspiration preceded my disenchantment with teaching, it certainly was the more powerful and influential of the two sides. I think the first bit of media that made me stop and begin to consider some of the damaging effects of our current education system was Sir Ken Robinson’s famous Ted Talk, How Schools Kill Creativity. I remember when I first saw this video and thought to myself, “Yes, what he says is true, but OUR school is doing things right. We aren’t killing creativity.”
Later, I saw this Ted Talk presentation given by a young adolescent boy whose parents took him out of school to get “an education”. I was very impressed with his confidence, achievements, and presentation skills–and more over, his words, “Much of education is geared towards making a living rather than making a life” struck a resonating chord in my mind. He convinced me that there were, at least for some kids, better ways to get an education. I really thought this boy had a great thing going. He really had his happiness and prosperity well in hand. Don’t we all want that for our children and for ourselves?
After watching his presentation, I looked into more examples of people who “hacked” their education. I learned that great innovators such as Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Richard Branson broke free from the shackles of traditional education to enjoy the freedom to create, develop, and make great advancements in their fields (a.k.a. passions). Some of the most brilliant minds were stifled, shunned, and shamed in traditional education institutions.
I think of some of the students I’ve had in my teaching career who fit that type of description: the kids who were difficult to control, or motivate, or understand; the ones who simultaneously fascinated me and infuriated me; the ones I knew had more talent, brains, and potential than could be accommodated within the restrictive four walls of my classroom; the ones who were grossly underserved and misunderstood by the education system. Bound by rules, policies, curricula, and schedules, I felt helpless in giving these kids what they needed and craved. I cringed as I saw their lights of wonder and enthusiasm for learning and discovery be systematically snuffed out, and at the thought of all the lost potential. Later, I came to realize that really ALL kids, not just the exceptional or gifted ones, should not be confined to a desk, in a classroom, to a schedule, to a set curriculum. Children (as well as adults) are wired to learn through moving, doing, exploring, watching, communicating together with others, not in isolation sitting at a desk. Learning enjoyment and retention occur best when people are given the freedom to experiment, explore and figure things out for themselves instead of being told or directly taught. And this is where creativity happens. This is how new ways of solving problems are found or new discoveries are made.
It’s very quick and simple to teach someone the formula for finding the circumference of a circle. You give them the formula, ∏d=C, then a bunch of practice questions, and voilà, they know how to find the circumference of a circle.
But they haven’t learned the concept. They don’t understand that pi is the ratio of the circle’s diameter to it’s circumference, just like a side of a square is 1/4 the length of its perimeter. They don’t know where pi came from except from the pages of their math text. They need to go and discover pi for themselves. They need to get out of their seats, even their classroom, and go and measure the diameter and circumference of a large collection of various circles. Then they need to look at their data and search for patterns. Aha! Curiously, the mean circumference seems to be about 3.14 times bigger than its diameter. Not only have they learned the formula, they found it themselves, just the way the Ancient Greeks did long ago. It’s not just a random number (though indeed irrational) they have to memorize now. They understand what pi is and where it came from. Not only will they be able to apply it to calculating all sorts of lovely things having to do with circles, they have learned how to investigate. With more and more practice of learning through investigation, people will have the skills to solve the problems we haven’t even seen yet, to crack the mysteries that have been stumping us for years. Frankly, as Sir Ken Robinson clearly pointed out, we have no idea what the world will be like in 50 years time, what kind of jobs people will have, and what sorts of problems will need solving. We need people who can think creatively and learn what hasn’t been taught.
This type of learning is hard to get in traditional education systems because it takes time, and goodness knows schools must keep to what they deem age-appropriate learning deadlines known as scope and sequences. Teachers have to get through the curricula of their various subjects by June every year or they are deemed incompetent. The time constraints imposed on students’ learning serve to kill inquiry, understanding, enjoyment of school, and of course, creativity. Countless number of times, I had to tell my students, just when they were highly engaged in a learning activity, to stop or to hurry up because we needed to move on to the next thing. So many students missed learning opportunities that were sacrificed for “education”.
Learning can’t be set to a time frame. We learn best when we’re ready and at our own pace. This article, Are you Ready to Join the Slow Education Movement? addresses this issue and gave me inspiration and reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who thought this way. Why are we in such a rush for everything, especially for our kids to enter adulthood and the work force? Childhood needs to be protected and nurtured if the ensuing adulthood is going to be of any quality. How many adults look back on their lives and think, “I wish I hadn’t played so much as a kid or built so many tree forts with my friends”? I can’t name one, including myself. When I think about all the wonderful potential for development, breakthroughs, discoveries –and most importantly, HAPPINESS– lost to imposed conformity, I shake my head in sadness and frustration. What the hell are we doing? We can achieve such great heights if only we are given the confidence and freedom and time to be ourselves.
There are some schools that have clued into this and demonstrate this understanding in their mission statement, teaching practices, and curriculum. Summerhill School in Suffolk, England is the flagship for this educational philosophy. Oh how I would love to teach and have my daughter learn there! There is also a growing number of children who are being home schooled in order for them to enjoy a meaningful, custom-fit education, and escape the stunting and damaging effects of the traditional system. I shall expand upon my discoveries and experiences with home schooling in another post.
Sustainability is a popular buzzword of the 21st Century as we’ve slowly figured out that good things can come to an end if we’re not careful. It’s an important and complex lesson to learn, and certainly it has to be a mindset and lifestyle nurtured from infancy. Hence schools play an essential role in securing our society’s and planet’s future by educating for sustainability. Many schools plug this into their marketing schemes and welcome speeches, but it’s rare to see educating for a sustainable future in full practice. This film explains what this education looks like. In my teaching experience, I have seen schools and their administrators talk a fine talk, singing the praises of developing critical thinking skills, social/emotional intelligence, and interaction with natural environments. At the end of day, however, it’s the familiar, prescribed, one-size-fits-all education system, designed to feed a capitalist economy, that wins. Parents and governments still want to see test results, linear progress in valued skills (not usually in the arts), and assurances that students will be able to be active participants in the free market.
Do we not value integrity, ingenuity, compassion, individuality, initiative, or happiness? These values are what will sustain us, our societies, and our planet for the future. People who are healthy in mind, body and spirit, who have developed self-knowledge, and are living and working in accordance with their values, passions, and strengths will sustain themselves and their contributions to society. Those who are stuck in poor-fitting, meaningless jobs are unmotivated and disheartened in making the world a better place. A person who enjoys a task will be far more productive and produce higher quality work than someone who is in it simply for the money. So why don’t schools teach kids to be happy?
For as long as we pursue and support a monetary economic system, globalization, and a competitive spirit, we will never achieve sustainability. I got tired of fighting a losing battle and being forced to give in to the Dark Side. I’ve seen the light, and can no longer participate in a system that fears what I value and negates what I strive to achieve.