Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Confessions of a Former Elementary School Teacher

This will be a 5-part series that offers a description of some opinions I have formed, based on my observations of schools during my teaching career, 1996-2004, and 2007. It is not my intent to offer commentary on the issues that even my teacher union is opposed to, such as standardized testing, or the lack of resources and teachers in the areas of arts and health, or the immense need for increased access to children's mental health services. Such issues speak for themselves. Rather, I discuss my observations of what is absolutely implicit in public education, and which I have rejected in favour of homeschooling.

Part 1: The social atmosphere in schools is toxic, it does not reflect 'the real world' and it is hard enough to navigate as an adult, let alone as a child.

Everybody's big concern about children who are homeschooled is "How will they socialize?" My own family and friends have shown concern about whether my children have or will have friends and what I am doing to provide them with opportunities to be around children their age. Before I started to study child development (after I became a mom, not while I was in Teacher's College) I too believed that children needed to be with each other to learn how to behave in socially acceptable ways. What I now understand is that it would be impossible for a group of immature beings to help each other achieve maturity. Social skills and socially acceptable behavior are learned from people who exhibit the skills and behaviours that we want children to adopt, namely their parents or other adults who we hope our children will emulate.

Gordon Neufeld explains in his book Hold on to your Kids how 'getting along' with others does not occur because of peer contact but from the gradual development of authentic personality and from having developed both self-respect and value for the personhood of others. He also explains how children who have spent time in daycare before attending school initially seem to have an advantage over children who have not attended daycare. This is because the children who had been to daycare had been 'socialized', which is to say that they were more comfortable around large groups of children and interacting with adults whom they had never met. In other words, their shyness (which is what naturally repels children from people to whom they have no attachment) was gone. However, this so-called advantage is an illusion: Neufeld sites research that the longer a child had been in daycare, the more likely they were to exhibit defiant or aggressive behaviours, the opposite of socially acceptable behaviours.

My observations back up Neufeld's research. Sending a child into school who has never been to daycare is throwing a sheep to the lions. School is not a level playing field, whatever that means. Rather, the school system is hierarchical, and that does not just include the principal, vice principal and teachers. In every classroom there is a hierarchy, and each child finds their place. It is never the smartest child who is at the top of the hierarchy. In fact, the most intelligent children are usually treated with disdain by the other children, and as a nuisance by the teacher. It is the loudest child who gets the most attention, not the nicest child. And if a child has any attribute that makes him or her 'different', the child is ostracized completely.

So many negative social interactions occur in a day with 20-30 children, that a teacher cannot possibly assist in finding a solution or creating a balance every time a dispute or problem occurs. In fact, a teacher is more likely to settle a dispute by siding with the aggressor, in the hopes of appeasing him or her and having fewer behaviour issues to deal with, at least in the short term. The pecking order is cruel and random and it can change daily. The children are always vulnerable to the whims and moods of the teachers and to ever changing power dynamics amongst their peers. Nothing can ever be taken for granted.

The 'power' exhibited among 25 children who are all the same age has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with playing a 'social game' with rules that are constantly changing. Is this the way we want power to be gained in the adult world? And is it what is really happening? Is Obama the President because of merit or personality? Is Harper the Prime Minister because of merit or because of limited competition? For me, it's all too complicated and if I can't figure out the 'social game' (this, from a chick with virtually no friends) how can a 5-year-old figure it out? School is an ever-changing popularity contest, and if that's a reflection of the 'real world' then I definitely choose to opt out.

Does this mean that I'm not sending my kids to school because I'm afraid they won't make friends? Not at all. What I'm afraid of is that their brains will be so stressed out trying to navigate the game that there will be very little of it left for actual learning. Besides that, nobody needs to be with people 5 days/week in order to be their friend. Most adults would say that their best friends are NOT the people they see at work everyday.

My friend Mike experienced this frightening social order that I have observed in schools. Being significantly smarter than his peers and possessing a strong need for social justice, he was almost always rejected and ridiculed. His creativity was thwarted and his natural authenticity was put down. One time he planned a huge art project--a mural--but was told that he couldn't complete it because the school was focused on literacy at that time. Another time his personal property--a math text!!--was confiscated because it was different from the style of mathematics being taught at the time. Incredibly, he was even sent home for refusing to be in the same room with a student who had told him to f*ck off, and he was subsequently told (by a person with no authority or training to make such an assumption) that he had an anger management problem.

Now, re-read that paragraph with the new knowledge that all of those things happened to my friend while he was a teacher. If an adult can be treated with such arbitrary and contrived 'rules', imagine how difficult it must be for a child to exist authentically in the same environment? How can a child possibly learn the rules of 'socially acceptable behaviour' when they change every day? And when the adults who are supposed to be modelling them for the children do not apply them to their relationships with each other?

For me, raising authentic children is my highest goal, which really means that I must act as a guardian of their authentic selves. In school, their authenticity would have no value, and would certainly not be protected. They would be expected by their peers and teachers to conform to a pre-existing standard. A standard that probably doesn't have anything to do with the values of our family. That's not what I want for them.

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