Confessions of an Ex-schoolteacher

What is the good of learning if in the process we are destroying ourselves?  ~J. Krishnamurti


I had a commonsense realization a few months into my full-time advertising career. Advertising breeds consumerism, and consumerism is destroying the world, or at the very least not helping to make it a better place. I was a writer, paid to put words together in a clever, coherent way. Yet, I was going out of my mind, hating every minute I had to sit in front of the screen and attempt creativity on call, corner office or no corner office.

So I did what needed to be done: I moved to California. Relocated my existence to Silicon Valley, of all places. There I taught yoga classes galore and supplemented my income with myriad odd jobs, including temping (very temporarily) at Google, valet car parking and substitute school teaching.

I enjoyed the experience of subbing. I would go all over the Bay area to all kinds of classrooms and schools. I spent single days with kids from kindergarten to high school. I thrived on the variety and appreciated the noncommittal aspect of the job.

Then, summer vacation came, life intervened and threw me for a loop. Next thing I knew, I was back in Austin, working in marketing again. I had a grey cubicle in a grey office in a grey building.

I was making money but drowning in boredom.

Long story short, my dad gave me a newspaper clipping of an ad (ironic) for an alternative teaching certification program to which I applied and was accepted into the bilingual teaching cadre. I had to brush up on my Spanish, big time. I learned all about classroom management, pedagogy, learning styles, lesson planning and curriculum.

Nine months later, I was released into the wild and in charge of my very own bilingual third grade classroom.

The individual is of first importance, not the system. ~ J. Krishnamurti

My experiences at that school, and the next one where I worked in Guatemala City, showed me unequivocally that the system is of first importance in a traditional school setting—not the individual. Testing took precedence over learning. Administrators admonished teachers with frequent reminders of the rules and references to the employee handbook.

Students’ needs—even basic, primary needs like hunger—were ignored until they could no longer be ignored.

My third and final school as a teacher is located in the western Guatemalan highlands and has former UN undersecretary Robert Muller as its namesake. He developed the “World Core Curriculum,” which is used by a handful of schools across the globe.

Below are two of his quotes, to give you a sense of his philosophy:

To students of political science: forget completely about any textbooks ever written, any systems ever devised, any ideologies ever constructed, for none of their authors knew the entirely new, planetary, global and scientific conditions of today. You will have to write the new textbooks, devise the new systems and construct the new ideology needed for our time. Old ideas will only confuse and blind you. ~ Robert Muller

Midway through my third year at this third school, the veil was lifted. I saw, painfully clearly, just how corrupt this wannabe utopian school actually is.

Moreover, my paradigm had shifted. What has been seen cannot be unseen, and all that jazz. New shit had come to light: school is oppressive.

School is not the answer. School is a bully. School is not the way to a good quality education.

So I got out. But in a messy, dramatic way that made me the talk of the town for a while. I literally heard strangers gossiping about me as I strolled down the street.

I missed my students, those bright, innocent, bubbly children but felt free from an unhealthy, borderline unsafe work environment.

My liberation from the school was a catalyst in our search for and purchase of a tiny cabin across the lake from where we’d lived when I was teaching. I was approached by a small group of mothers in my new neighborhood to “homeschool” their three fifth graders. I gladly agreed, and we embarked on the new project in September.

For the first month, it was like a honeymoon. The site of the new “school” was my neighbor’s lakefront house, a mere 10-minute walk from my front door. The kids would jump into the lake at recess for a quick swim. I took the plunge along with them a couple times, too. We did a lot of bonding, team building, mindfulness, free writing, and poetry. I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to them.

But by late October, it was becoming clear that the project and I were moving in opposite directions. I was wanting to get more into project-based, student-led learning while the parents were wanting more structure, formal assessment and disciplined studies of spelling, grammar and reading for their kids.

We mutually decided it would be best for another English teacher to take over, but no one was readily available, so I agreed to continue until we found a replacement. Just last week, something happened which propelled me to say, “no more.” I collected my belongings and hugged the children goodbye on Monday.

I am no longer a school teacher.

I am still, and always will be, a teacher and a learner.

[Originally published on EnlightenEd and elephant journal.]

I Never Imagined…

The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē, the Greek word for ‘leisure.’ ‘We used to teach people to be free,’ he said. ‘Now we teach them to work.’ — Benjamin Hunnicutt

Lately I’ve been imagining a student who is free to learn whatever and wherever (s)he likes whenever (s) is ready.

I imagine it will be my responsibility to see that this student has ample support and resources and plenty of space to play.

I imagine local and international field trips and multi-aged community projects.

I imagine a self-directed curriculum that combines life lessons with Waldorf, Self-Design, Reggio and Enki principles (and Enlighten-Ed tenets and resources, of course).

I imagine an ongoing course in self-study, including mind, body, spirit and shadow work.

I imagine (s)he grows up to become not merely a professional but a whole, loving version of him or herself.

I imagine (s)he finds freedom in whatever (s)he chooses.

I imagine this student is my child.

And I imagine this child is my teacher.

As a former teacher and woman who didn’t know if she wanted children, I never imagined this is what I would be imagining. Regardless, this is only a vision, my vision. Perhaps the circumstances of our family or society will change. Perhaps my needs will change. Perhaps my child’s imagination will take us to some other place. Who knows, maybe (s)he will ask to go to school. If that is the case, (s)he will be free to go.

Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me. — Paulo Coehlo

In what ways are you learning to be free? In what ways can we give others freedom in learning? Is it possible to teach freedom? 

Our Human Right to Education

Imagine a world in which all humans had the right to free, quality, lifelong education that develops our personalities to their fullest potential and promotes human rights and freedom.

Education is the foundation of us as individuals and society. What we learn, do and practice colors our experiences, relationships, communities and cultures.

I am a teacher and a mother. My daughter is just 2 and a half now, but soon enough she will be “school-aged.” I want her to make decisions about her own learning, so I will most likely wait until she’s six or seven before sending her to school, and then only if she wants to go.

I myself went through the Texas public school system and came out alright, but as an alumni and a former teacher in that system, I would not consider putting my daughter in public school in the US. (And here in Guatemala, the public school system is way worse.)

Even most private schools seem unappealing to me as a parent. I don’t want my kid confined to a classroom all day and conditioned to be a sheep. Although we live in rural Guatemala, there happens to be a Waldorf school in the nearby village. I could send her there to start. I might.

And yet there are other options…

I am excited about a new initiative I’m undertaking beginning in September. I’ll be teaching English/Language arts to a small group of four 5th graders here in my neighborhood. Two hours a day, four days a week. Mindfulness, reading, writing, literature. It should be fabulous.

My hope is that with time, we can expand this project and create a little home-school of sorts for children of various ages who live in this area and whose families are seeking a different form and paradigm of learning. We shall see…

I’ll leave you with some inspiring excerpts on education from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

 Article 26

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

(4) No one may be compelled to belong to an association

(a) Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all;

(b) Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

(c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

(d) Fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education;

(e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.

(5) The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

(6) No part of this article shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions, subject always to the observance of the principles set forth in paragraph I of this article and to the requirement that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards as may be laid down by the State.

Article 29

1. Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;

(c) The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;

(d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;

(e) The development of respect for the natural environment.

2. No part of the present article or article 28 shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions, subject always to the observance of the principle set forth in paragraph 1 of the present article and to the requirements that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards as may be laid down by the State.

Too Cool for School

My career as a school teacher lasted a decade, as it turned out. I started as a sub in California, spent three years at a public, “Title I” (e.g. underprivileged) school in south Austin, three years at an elite, private school in Guatemala City and almost three years at a small, community school in rural Guatemala.

I did a good job, and I loved my career. I had, once upon a time, thought that I would teach forever, and perhaps I will, but clearly not in the context of a traditional school.

What has been seen cannot be unseen, and I have seen how the school system doesn’t work for a majority of students or for teachers.

Now, school is through with me.

And I am through with school.

I’m through with the classroom. I’m through with traditional curriculum and pedagogy. I’m through with testing and grading, competing and categorizing, patronizing and criticizing.

I’m through with behavior management and being an employee.

I’m through with rules.

I’m into freedom.

I’m into projects. I’m into passions. I’m into going with the flow.

I’m into learning what I want to learn, when and how I want to learn it.

I’m into mentoring. I’m into facilitation. I’m into integration, cooperation, collaboration.

I’m into learners. I’m into learning.

I’m into the present moment.