An American family Escapes, Explores and Exhales for one year in Southeast Asia
Warning: Innocent career story turns rant.
When I was 16, my dad left an incredible book on my bed called Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing by A.S. Neil about a democratic school in England where kids govern themselves and have control over what they learn. I went to college for Elementary Education with gusto! In 1998, I got a job teaching in a suburban public school where class size was small, curriculum was open, administration was hands-off, and although state testing existed, it hadn’t permeated the younger grades (yet). My students and I had freedom! I LOVED my job. In 2004, I left my dreamy teaching gig to be a stay-at-home mom (also quite a dreamy gig).
I’ve been out of the classroom for 10 years, and sadly, I question whether my old job exists anymore, for anyone, anywhere. Things have changed. Whoever replaced me in that small, suburban school does not have the same freedom to follow their students’ hearts and minds because they have to follow the top-down, content-heavy curriculum that will yield the best scores on The Big Tests. There are some brilliant, skilled teachers in our schools, but they have to work their magic under the weight of a political agenda that is rooted in standardization and fill-in-the-bubble data.
The history of educational policy is not my thing, so I won’t pretend to understand how it all “went down.”
All I know is that when Big-sis hit kindergarten in 2009, I could not believe how little recess she had, how much desk work she did, and that she had homework. When she hit 3rd grade, I could not believe how intense the projects were, that the homework took over an hour, and that months were spent preparing for the state test. I must admit, Big-sis handled it well (aside from the chronic stomach aches) and got great grades (which is not the same as thriving).
When Bro hit kindergarten and could not sit still or keep quiet for hours on end – because he is a silly, social, scrumptious boy – my anxiety increased. How was this kid going to fit the mold? When that squirmy boy got to 1st grade, and I requested that his class of 33 kids be given more than 15 minutes of recess in a 6 hour day, the response was, “They are in 1st grade now, and there’s a lot to cover, but we’ll try to give them more recess when we can.” I don’t know if I was sadder for the kids or for their sweet teacher who had to blaze through curriculum with all those 6 yr olds.
I polled my teacher friends and fellow parents whose kids went to other public schools in PA – some urban like ours, some suburban, and the general consensus was that the situation was similar. My kids attend an excellent urban public school and have had phenomenal teachers…this is not a commentary on school or teacher quality. Unfortunately, schools and teachers are evaluated based on test scores; many public schools do the best they can in the current environment.
Summerhill was the first of many books on education that I hold dear. When I pick it up now, 24 years later and with three kids, its message rings louder than ever: True, meaningful learning is cultivated through the freedom to learn and responsibility to learn. Education is the field that feels like home to me, no matter where I am.