Schooling; Deschooling; Unschooling; Reschooling
School is mostly an institution of power and control. Especially these days with constant testing, examining, evaluating, and measurement taking, kids are being broken before built up. They are given reading intervention plans in kindergarten when that is where they are supposed to learn how to read. With the mandates and requirements and measurements to meet, kids become merely a number in a system. Reduced to a test score. Daily homework, lack of recess, no more play in the early years – even the “good” schools really suck at honoring children and childhood.
I began teaching in 2003. I had never liked school as a system. Not as a student. Not as an educator. Today, I really loathe school. I have a visceral reaction when I see teachers yelling at kids - about missing homework; talking while eating; playing a game; giggling in class. I hate school. Truthfully, I think the entire school system as we know it needs to be dismantled and re-built from scratch. I have referred to myself as an educational anarchist for years now.
So naturally, the back-to-school season brings up a lot of complicated emotions from this educator. Even more complicated by my personal and professional growth of the last few years.
Last year, with a partner and fellow educator, I opened a learning center to support children on a path of “unschooling.” This became my new role, bringing play-based education and care to students beyond early childhood settings became my new life work. Children are completely capable of learning and growing in self-directed ways with very little intervention or redirection from adults. We were able to put that idea into action at our learning center known as Blue Bridge School.
Unschooling can be defined in many ways. Iris Chen, a peaceful parenting advocate, intersectional unschooler, anti-oppression activist, and deconstructing tiger mom, educates others on unschooling. If you would like to learn more about what unschooling is, find her resources at untigering.com. You can also find more about unschooling and self-directed education at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. This video from Akilah Richards of the Fare of the Free Child podcast and Raising Free People book and website also provides a succinct description of self-directed education.
My children were able to stay with me at our learning center last year. It was magical. I loved seeing them play all day in hands-on ways, naturally discovering academic concepts without pressure. It was authentic childhood at its best.
My oldest actually was at the learning center and he was also learning virtually through our neighborhood public school. Prior to discovering that we could fit unschooling into our lives, we had chosen this school for our family’s school needs. We chose it because in spite of indicators like test scores that say it’s a failing school, this school is thriving. The population of families reflects a global majority. The teachers are committed and most have been there for years. Teachers, administrators, and other school professionals also reflect a global majority. There are 17 different native languages spoken among the families at this school. The school is a short walk from our house, which meant a simpler life. The school sits on a beautiful campus with mature trees alongside the bank of a creek.
In 2019, we entered this community cautiously as we began to realize this wasn’t the typical school decision made by other white families in our neighborhood. We didn’t want to make assumptions or fail because it wasn’t the norm. We didn’t want to be “nice white parents” coming in with our own agenda of changes and improvements the school needed to make. We leaned heavily on resources from the group Integrated Schools to help guide us in this choice. Our kids are special and unique in their own ways. We want the best for them. With the help of the organization Integrated Schools we were reminded that every one of the 50 million children who attend public school in our country are also unique and special and deserve nothing but the best. The teachers at my son’s school did an amazing job of pivoting during the pandemic. My son was able to self-direct every aspect of his online learning at our learning center for self-directed education, and luckily we had very understanding and forgiving teachers who saw value beyond the never-turned-in SeeSaw assignments.
So yes, having my kids with me and watching them learn authentically was so magical. It was also extremely draining to be living through a pandemic in a place where we have very little hands-on support to be parenting all. the. time. I often felt crummy, like I could only give part of myself to this professional flame that had just been fueled within; and I could only give part of myself to my own children and their needs. Our family life was out of balance. My energy was draining faster than it was being restored. I was sorting through the deprogramming process of both school and motherhood. I was exhausted.
Seeing that this fall would begin and the global pandemic would still be ravaging communities all around us (it might sound dramatic to some of you, but do you know that 1 in 500 Americans has lost a life to COVID?); seeing that our work-life balance would still be a little out of whack because of commitments and growth; seeing that we still lack in a support network as anyone we have here is also a family with young children who is likely doing all they can to just hang in there (seems pretty universal these days, doesn’t it?); seeing all of this left me feeling utterly beat up at the thought of another year of giving too much to too many and not enough to myself. For myself to thrive, the only option was to continue with my kids in public school which brought up a lot of anxiety and worry within me.
I am now seeing that it is fine. My kids are fine. They like school. My husband and I like this school. I am grateful for the diverse community and sense of belonging I have here. We had many hard drop-offs at the beginning (probably mostly due to my children sensing my own hesitancy and anxiety) but at the end of the day they said they wanted to go back again. So we kept moving forward, one day at a time.
The hardest part has been that I find myself now alone on a new and unfamiliar island. The unschooling-for-childhood-liberation group and the public-schools-to-support-integration-and-positive-school-reform group are both full of intense and committed, passionate people. There are online forums and support groups for each side and within those spaces I see each tear down the other, mainly unintentionally.
I believe at the core of the missions of each lies the best intentions to improve childhood for all children and create a better society for all. For the moment, I feel isolated because there is little support for the small segment of people out there who believe in a both/and mindset of school and liberation.
For me and my family, continuing to live with one foot in both worlds has allowed me to accomplish professional goals because of the space created by my children attending school. I am happier and healthier as I feel like I have time to be alone as an adult again. I am thriving as a mom because I can enjoy my kids in a different way when we’re reunited at the end of the school day.
I am grateful for the wisdom of those like Iris Chen who share concepts like unschooling principles that can be applied to any lifestyle. There are ways we can push back on institutions from within. I can be an advocate and a voice for the 50 million in public school as well as an advocate and voice for the growing number of unschoolers in our country. I am coming to believe that we need both to create the positive and critical changes toward a society that truly values childhood. A childhood that is well-supported by the proverbial village creates grown-ups who can stop the cycles of trauma and abuse. Hurt people hurt people so let’s move toward a society with fewer hurt people.
I know I’m not alone in my desire to unschool and feelings of being restricted by real life barriers to accessing it. If you’re out there and need support, please reach out!
And again, for now, we move forward one day at a time.