How does it make you feel when you take your child to school or when you attend parent-teacher conferences, special events, or when you are there for some other reason? Are the memories of your own school experience all pleasant? Do you feel anxious there? Do you feel completely comfortable and that you are as welcomed there as a parent, as they keep reassuring you?
Are you ever made to feel that you know less than the educators know about the school experience or is there ever a hint that you aren’t quite as qualified to exercise discretion with respect to your child’s education as they are, and therefore you should trust their judgment implicitly and not say too much or try to become too involved? Do you see real evidence that they are living up to the promises and the hype, or does it ever seem that the learning that goes on there isn’t truly making the grade for your child or making a difference in the lives of students?
WERE YOU INSPIRED OFTEN IN SCHOOL WHEN YOU WERE A STUDENT?
Looking back at your own school days, did you and your friends develop a love of reading, of learning, of things intellectual, and of exploring for new knowledge and understanding? Or, were you frequently bored and disengaged in classes? Do you read now for pleasure or to learn new things outside of your job, as an adult, or did school turn you off and kill your sense of wonder? Was your curiosity frequently piqued and encouraged when you were a student? Were you ever made to feel lazy for your tendency to put off homework or when you didn’t get assignments completed on schedule, and when you did complete assignments, did it feel as if you were just faking it or playing to the teacher's ego or playing a fruitless game?
DO YOU SEE ANY SIGNIFICANT CHANGES, OR DOES SCHOOL LOOK THE SAME TO YOU?
For many generations the image that is presented to the public is one of constant improvement and innovation in schooling. A phenomenal number of new ideas have indeed been invented, promoted, debated, tested, and presented to the general public as splendid solutions to a wide variety of problems and conflicts. Teachers often cynically refer to these as the “flavor of the month” or as “pet projects”. Some are initially embraced and praised by teachers and some are the immediate object of criticism and scorn, but none have actually endured over the long term or spread to the majority of schools? There are good reasons why this is true which we will be analyzing here on a regular basis.
WHO SHOULD BE BLAMED WHEN CHILDREN DO NOT DO WELL IN SCHOOL?
Parents sometimes blame teachers when their child doesn’t get good grades, acts up, or doesn’t seem to be “performing up to their potential”. Teachers, on the other hand blame parents quite often, claiming that they are not involved enough in their child’s academic development or supportive enough of their efforts to teach, and some claim that many parents are not adequately supportive of their own children in general or of their progress. Most often however, the student gets the brunt of the criticism when things go wrong. You surely remember that.
When “work” doesn’t get done or especially if there are problems with behavior or attitude, the responsible adults are most commonly convinced that the entire fault lies with the “irresponsible”, “immature”, or “poorly motivated” student. The trend has now been increasingly more toward labelling children as “learning disabled”, or as having ADHD, “hyperactivity”, or some medical or psychological condition that affects performance, learning, attention, or behavior.
This is called “Blaming the victim”.
Yet, pointing fingers does nothing to resolve issues, and in a majority of instances, the school has the primary responsibility and duty to deal with the reality within their institutions, whatever that happens to be. Rationalizations, denial, and evasion do not lead to any useful changes. But unfortunately, regardless of the approach or strategy taken, the causes of dysfunction and failure remain, because features built into our schools under compulsory attendance profoundly stymie reasonable and rational changes.
It isn’t possible to dictate by law that children WILL attend school, and to consequently establish the rules, restrictions, guidelines, and parameters for everything that will and will not occur in the school, and to then operate the schools as if teachers and students get to decide all of those crucial things on a daily basis as if they were in control of the process and of their own lives (except in the small minority of token “experiments” or model programs known as alternative schools or free schools and such where rules are relaxed in order to pacify critics, but where results are never determined to be definitive justification to expand and perpetuate the program).
Parental rights are usurped by the state when they are compelled to send their children to school. It quickly becomes the reasonable and traditional expectation of parents and everyone else alike as a result that the state and its schools now have the obligation to provide, not just schooling and training, but a superior and beneficial education. Likewise, the personnel of the schools come to believe that they are the official educators and too begrudge too much involvement of parents, all the while urging them to participate and criticizing them when they don't oversee and micromanage the entire process from the outside and after school hours.
One frequently hears the explanation that school is preparation for life and that kids must experience the unpleasantries of work, study, punching a clock, taking orders and boring drudgery, in order to be better able to deal with these things later as adults. What hogwash! No credible definition of education includes confinement, massive standardization, bureaucratic gridlock, subjugation, the memorization of trite and trivial factual material (for the sole purpose of passing tests) or the confusion of behavioral demands and discipline with academic discipline and excellence.
If life were like school, we’d surely all require antidepressants long before reaching adulthood. One doesn’t “prepare for life” for twelve years by suspending their developing personality and humanity. Youths do not become cultivated or enlightened by being made to feel imposed upon or by feeling like victims of injustice and abuse. They don’t flourish by comparing themselves to competitive workers in a dead-end, unproductive factory.
SELF-ESTEEM – IS THERE TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON MANUFACTURING IT?
One hears a lot of complaining nowadays about how school kids are too generously given pats on the back and constant praise merely to boost their self-esteem, despite their not having done much of anything to actually earn the praise. This ostensibly leads to a false sense of self-worth or competence, unrealistically high expectations of admiration and favors from others, and less incentive to work hard and long for rewards and praise. While some of us are not inclined to lose too much sleep over issues that seem a bit frivolous or petty, this is one that should be examined for hidden meaning.
Some people see this as a compromising of precious moral values or principles. But, regardless of the motivations behind the criticisms, there is every reason to think that giving praise when it has not been earned is teaching a bad lesson and is likely to devalue sincere effort, hard work and exceptional talent or skill. It’s hard to disagree with this logic.
Here again, we see the significance of studying the history and dynamics behind this practice, however. There are specific reasons why this practice has become so popular and there are substantial and constant factors within our schools that contribute to low levels of self-esteem among many students that need boosting to enable them to engage and that frequently profoundly de-motivate them.
If our school environments weren’t inherently inimical to the identity, ego, self-esteem and sense of competence of a significant fraction of the students in many classes, teachers and others would feel no need to artificially create self-esteem and self-confidence. We will address the issue of how and why these dynamics exist elsewhere on this site or at a later time, but we will briefly summarize here again for clarity.
The list of things that potentially undermine self-esteem is quite lengthy. The list of things that are almost guaranteed to make many students feel devalued or unappreciated or inadequate is nearly as long. To begin with many children feel overwhelmed and neglected in classrooms in which they would have to be exceptional and somewhat aggressive to get the attention they crave. Secondly, there is competition for much more than attention. They compete for approval and to satisfy expectations and pointless grades or gold stars (which they naturally adopt as their own expectations, regardless of how unrealistic or lacking in intrinsic value).
Thirdly, when they act according to their ordinary urges, inclinations and needs, they are at serious risk of humiliation in front of their peers and the teacher or other authority figures. If they have too much enthusiasm, energy, curiosity, anxiety, or aggression, or if they feel a need for greater stimulation (i.e. they become bored or fidgety) they are sure to be chastised or disciplined or lectured. Not a few are labelled as “hyperactive” or as having “ADHD” and drugged, and many are regarded as troublemakers and habitually misunderstood and mistreated.
As with all of the problems that are identified in schools, this conundrum is one more challenge for teachers, students and administrations that has no effective solution. We hate to be Johnnie-one-notes, but we are persuaded that ending the compulsory feature of school attendance would lead to circumstances wherein some, if not all, of the factors mentioned above would be mitigated. To eliminate the entire self-esteem deficit, we would have to design learning environments that allow much greater one-on-one attention and that avoid the problems of excessive competition and inordinate occurrences of scolding and punishment. That may sound impossible or utopian but we certainly could do much better than we do now, with the same budgetary restraints.
Schooling is an antiquated social concept that has unfortunately been confused with and equated mistakenly with study and learning. Schools are for fish! School is not a fitting place for study and learning. It is a miracle that they can manage some training and socialization.
Individuals must decide that they wish to study and learn as individuals, toward their own educational goals. Ideally, each has their own specific subject matters in mind, rather than merely a nebulous goal of “getting an education” or graduating and preparing for college or life. Teachers are absolutely essential at many points along the way, of course. They are often found in schools. Schools do indeed serve a number of valuable functions, such as training (not the same as education), socialization, indoctrination or enculturation, babysitting, etc. However, to the extent that groups are in attendance and subjected to regimentation, learning is likely to be compromised and profoundly diminished.
Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, was a headmaster of a small school who adamantly opposed compulsory school attendance. He spoke in his many essays very plainly about what to expect. His prognostication has been ‘spot on’ for multitudes of students, never losing its relevance. He said about the student, “Schools present themselves to him as an institution for torturing children, --an institution in which they are deprived of their chief pleasure and youthful needs of free motion; where Gehorsam (obedience) and Ruhe (quiet) are the chief conditions; where he needs a special permission to go out “for a minute;” where every misdeed is punished with a ruler…or by the continuation of study, -- the more cruel condition for the child.” (Essays on Education, Tolstoy, 1862).
Earlier he says, “”Not only does such a school breed loathing for education, but in these six years it inculcates upon these pupils hypocrisy and deceit, arising from the unnatural position in which the pupils are placed, and that condition of incoherence and confusion of ideas, which is called the rudiments of education.”. Indeed! It is always about an agenda that the child is unlikely to identify with or have any intrinsic or authentic passion for, because everything comes from external sources.
The following essay was written months ago and was recently rediscovered in a document:
HOW DO WE GET PARENTS MORE INVOLVED IN EDUCATION?
One hears this question being asked so often that there has never been any doubt that all school administrators and teachers want every parent to visit often and to take a very active role in the daily activities of the school. But, honestly, do parents fit in there? Do they REALLY want parents to show up and participate actively? Can parents be trusted and are they competent to provide useful help to teachers?
It turns out that parents are only welcome in many schools if they show 'proper' deference to staff and are somewhat invisible and only for a particularly limited amount of time. Parents are an unknown quantity and other than bringing cookies and sodas for a pre-holiday party and being around briefly to show support and interest, they actually seem to have no place in the classroom. This is true for several reasons.
Even parents that are professionals can’t find an adult sized chair in a classroom. It is supposed they lack the sort of specific training that would make them competent to actually act in any teaching or supervisory capacity unless they happen to be teachers. Their own child might be embarrassed by their presence and some uncomfortable moments are too likely for certain teachers when outsiders are there to witness the regular routine as it unfolds somewhat unpredictably.
The parent who shows up in class (never without warning, since nearly all schools require advance notice or have sign-in rules now) will quickly notice that there is almost always a degree of unnatural and uncomfortable orderliness, regimentation and discipline that doesn’t allow for the interruption of distracting persons and deviations from the prescribed flow of activities. One may be helpful in passing out papers or in arranging chairs or a special activity during an exceptional or rare visit. But the teacher is in charge. Every minute is scheduled, organized and committed to the assigned tasks. All the outsider can do is observe silently, or possibly read to the class at the request of the teacher on infrequent occasions, or try to intervene with a child that requires special attention (never their own child and seldom in a meaningful or coherent way).
If parents are discouraged from too much direct involvement in the classroom itself, then perhaps they can become involved in encouraging their child, in monitoring their progress and in supervising homework assignments, readings and project completion at a distance. This is all easier said than done. But the parent does indeed have a great deal of responsibility and ideally should remain actively engaged in the process. Ideally. Still, there are several factors that are frequently overlooked in all of this speculation about what parents should do.
First, one cannot deny that there is a presumption built-in with mandatory attendance that the school has the expertise and the primary obligation to supervise (i.e., control) and provide the education to the student. They are the professionals. They get paid to do a job. They are specially trained. They interact with the child in the prescribed place and manner and the parent truly is removed for the most part, essentially as an outsider. One can try to participate and one can talk about the need for the parent to know everything that affects their child. But parents generally have things to do. They feel a wall of separation that is usually not at all imaginary or easily scaled.
If the mother has been coming regularly to the school and doing whatever volunteer work that can be found for her, what happens when she is suddenly divorced or depressed and develops a problem with alcohol or prescription drugs? What happens if there is a charge of favoritism? Why should one parent be the only one who shows up and gives all her time, when others are attending to other priorities or slacking off in a coffee clutch? How does the teacher tell the parent that his approach doesn’t fit in when he is too abrupt, rude, paternalistic, or lenient? How many parents can a classroom hold, when there are barely seats enough and there is barely space enough for the students and all the necessary paraphernalia?
This, in reality, is a non-issue that is too often used to make parents feel guilty and to make excuses for failures or to blame parents when there doesn’t seem to be anyone else to hold responsible. Most parents do feel completely inadequate because their own “education” (or, we would say, miseducation) in similar schools didn’t begin to prepare them for teaching their own kids academic material, let alone those of others. They were never quite comfortable in school and despite sometimes experiencing great nostalgia, they have little desire to go back to be reminded that it wasn’t as great for them as they have convinced themselves. Let’s be truthful; twelve years was more than enough for most of us!
A more appropriate question might be to ask; why school? Homeschooling is an option for the small minority of parents that have enough free time and the patience and fortitude to meet all the qualifications and responsibilities. But if parents do not really fit in and schools don’t serve the purposes they were ostensibly designed for, then maybe other alternatives should be rigorously examined. Maybe more kids should be in vocational tracks. Maybe our social structures and philosophies will be forced to change. The place to start, however, is in removing the element of coercion and starting to talk about authentic education in place of the indoctrination now substituting for education in institutions beset by endless problems caused by the natural reluctance of children and opposition to their forced attendance.
Managing a large number of students who are easily distracted or not fully engaged is an impossible task for any significant period of time. Trying to convey meaningful information to one, two, or three dozen children all with a different orientation, understanding, or perspective for six hours a day is masochism at its best. Parents should appreciate how difficult the teaching mandate is for anyone, but they should also understand that education is to be found elsewhere for the most part. When more people figure out that we have mythologized schooling and that education is not something for the state to provide or control (except by funding true and proven educational opportunity) we can get started on the road to change. The first step will be striking down attendance laws, I say for the one millionth time.
ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: This website is not about teacher bashing or blaming teacher unions or for that matter the denigration or criticism of any individuals or groups for the obvious problems in schools. We have all had our share of good teachers and even some great teachers whom we have loved. While there are reasons why the public schools have become havens for those few teachers who are not well qualified, the vast majority are highly competent professionals, dedicated, caring, and willing to learn all they can about their field or their special subject matter. The chronic problems are structural and built into the framework that establishes our institutions as top-down bureaucracies. Teachers are typically victims of a systematic assault on autonomy and on organic processes and normal relationships because of external factors caused by the legal framework that dictates arbitrary conditions.
Note: This website will be evolving and expanding for an indeterminate period, depending on time, resources, and the amount of assistance available. Currently, it is the product primarily of just one principal author and one or two technical assistants. Some pages will clearly not be completed or have a conclusion or satisfactory summary until time allows. It has been decided however, that the message as it exists so far is important enough and well-enough organized to date to merit publication in order to inform and involve others who may find it inspiring and motivational.