Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

January 13, 2010

New study demonstrates that autonomy increases well-being

“Weekend Effect makes people happier regardless of their job, study says”

This article describes the results of a study which indicate that people tend to feel better mentally and physically on the weekends, when they are free to spend their time as they like.  This holds true regardless of the status of the job, how many hours they work, “how educated they happen to be,” whatever their marital status.

If the feeling of autonomy improves mental and physical well-being for adults, even those with ‘interesting, high status jobs,’ when are students supposed to recuperate?  They are not only told what to do, where to sit, when to eat, and when to go to the bathroom for seven hours of the day, they have to work on all their homework on evenings and weekends, in the free time left over after extracurricular activities. This would indicate, in the terms of the study, a high level of feeling ‘controlled,’ which correlated to negative feelings. As the researchers were surprised to learn, “the analysis also found that people feel more competent during the weekend than they do at their day-to-day jobs.” (Emphasis mine.)

Please allow me a small extrapolation from the results of this study. It’s kind of ironic that although School purports to “educate” children to make them more competent, the very act of controlling what, when, and how they learn, could make them feel less competent. It’s almost like School ends up convincing students that they’re too stupid to ever amount to anything without constant instruction and supervision. I once had an employer who never said outright, “You’re incompetent and would single-handedly ruin my business if I ever took my eyes off of you,” but she implied it. She never let me (or anyone else) make a decision without first consulting her–even if the decision was as small as what part of the store to clean first. She was a kind and generous boss in many ways, but the total lack of autonomy made me miserable.

However, I at least got to escape once my shift was over. School extends its control into one’s “free time” via homework. When I remember my time in school, the strongest sense memory I have was that feeling of my stomach sinking. Yes, the bell had rung and I was out of class, but as soon as I’d had my afternoon snack, I had to finish reading assignments, study for quizzes and tests, complete worksheets, write essays, work on projects that would take a month to complete… There was never, really, any free time. There was always something to do. And even if I did manage to finish everything on my plate–well, you know, a good student always works ahead.

I touched on this briefly in a response to a New York Times op-ed piece that suggested lengthening the school day and eliminating summer vacation. I hope this study helps Harold Levy and other like-minded administrators to understand: Free time is essential to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of all people, “regardless of age.”

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January 5, 2010

You heard it here first: I am Deeply Unqualified to talk about this stuff

I thought very long and hard before starting this blog. I knew that I was passionate about education: I have been a fan of the unschooling movement since high school, and I love the books of John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Alfie Kohn, and Paulo Freire, among others. It’s a subject that I never get tired of talking about (as many of my friends can attest). Quite simply, it lights me up.

And since my friends have learned to avoid the topic of education around me, I wanted to find another outlet for my enthusiasm, where I could develop my ideas and start conversations with like-minded people.

But who was I to open my big mouth on the topic of education? Sure, I’ve done some tutoring, but I haven’t studied to be a teacher. I wasn’t homeschooled myself, and I don’t even have any children to homeschool now. But some of the most famous and successful personal finance bloggers (JD Roth, Adam Baker, and Trent Hamm, to name a few) don’t have degrees in finance. In fact, many of them started out as the exact opposite of financial experts: each writer I linked to was in a mountain of debt when he began blogging about the topic. They began it because they wanted something in their lives to change, and they felt that blogging was a good way to not only immerse themselves in learning about the topic, but to create a community where others could turn for advice and support.  These men have helped so many people with their blogs, and they inspire little ole’ unqualified me to do the same.

Saying that a person’s opinions on School and education are invalid because they were only a student and never a teacher is like saying that an adult, who no longer practices the religion she was raised in, should not be taken seriously when she criticizes that religion because she was never a member of the clergy.

I was there. I did the student thing for 14 years. I was deeply influenced by the experience. I think it’s important to critically examine the role that Schooling has played in shaping our lives, instead of just believing what are told about it: we’ll never be able to cope with adult life unless we are forced to do unpleasant things; degrees and credentials are the only tickets to success; if we don’t get good grades, it’s because we aren’t trying hard enough.  You know what?  I call shenanigans!

As John Holt said:

“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”

By publishing this blog, I claim my right to “think about [my] own experiences” and “find and make the meaning of [my] own [life].” I’m no longer afraid to say or do things just because I haven’t been certified and judged worthy to say and do them. It seems to me that the root of the mortgage crisis was a population trained in allowing “others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives.” We hadn’t thought we could afford such an expensive house until the man behind the big desk told us to trust him: he’d run the numbers, and we were going to wind up wealthier than ever!  Oops.  I guess it doesn’t always pay to let somebody else do our thinking for us.

As John Taylor Gatto points out,

Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers. The choices are theirs, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.”

Paulo Freire further argues,

“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”

I should point out that John Holt was a teacher for 20 years before becoming an advocate of educational reform and inventing homeschooling. John Taylor Gatto taught in the public schools of New York City for 26 years and was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Paulo Freire was appointed Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in Pernambuco, Brazil. So the ideas expressed on this blog do not belong solely to one angsty, unenlightened college drop-out.

This blog is not where I expound on the infinite wisdom I gained in a few years of tutoring.  It is where I comment on the national conversation about education, share the revolutionary ideas of some very insightful writers whom I admire, and talk about my personal experiences as a student and a teacher.

This blog is not about criticizing teachers. It is about criticizing the institutionalization of education.

This blog does not debate what Schools should teach. It debates the heretofore unquestioned idea that we should allow a complete stranger to tell us what, how, and when we should learn.

I will close with one last quote from John Holt:

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow.”

I share his belief, and this blog is just my small contribution to helping the minority grow.

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