Through these Covid times with school shutdowns and everyone trying to homeschool their kids and make sense of each subject and ask their children to sit down and be quiet and listen as the teacher talks to them through the screen, we may start to be reminded of our own education.
And how we never really understood what education was about.
As schools remain closed, the parent unknowingly becomes the school master who ensures obedience from their child. They may feel shame if their child’s head is lolling around from boredom and they find ways to make them re-engage, maybe through the threat of punishment or the offer of a reward.
You may find yourself surprisingly acting like a teacher you had yourself in the past who you never really liked and who made you devalue yourself, and you may still carry around the messages that that teacher taught you that went along the lines of “you are not smart enough to be in my class” or “the world would be better if you were just silent” or maybe “oh what a good child you are, sitting there so quietly waiting for instructions, here is a gold star for you”. You might remember those times as shaping your identity to become the adult that you are today, without realising that those messages were given to you by a system that is inherently flawed. You were not the problem.
Maybe this might be because you haven’t given yourself a chance to think about the system that you were in for at least 12 years of your early formative life. You might carry around stories of great teachers, or mean teachers or that gross teacher who used to look down the dresses of girls as he helped them with their computer work (yes, I remember you, you old perve). You might remember hanging out with your friends and you may still have those same friends and you are grateful for your time at school because of those important relationships.
You might carry the messages that you learned at school about your value to society.
Stop and think for a moment; what did you learn all of those years at school. How did you feel about going to school yourself? How did your schooling categorise you? Smart or dumb? Did you shake off those categories?
Maybe you got As at school and so you were taught you were smart and valuable.
Maybe you failed a class and so you thought you were dumb.
Maybe you had a terrible art teacher who told you that you would never amount to anything, so you decided that you were not a creative person.
Maybe you had an English teacher that loved reading your stories to the class so you felt that you might become a writer some day.
Maybe you are over 80 and you still remember what those teachers said.
People have so many memories of school and those memories which may shape your identity may need to be re-thought. Maybe you need to start thinking about the system that a school actually is before you allow it to be what determines your identity. Maybe you need to think about the government curriculums, and the exams that are created to test your knowledge and decide whether you are smart. What about the reems of boring worksheets that you completed over and over again? What about how much you hated science as you read a chapter each day and answered questions on forces and atoms and you memorised the periodic table for your test? Did you ever actually realise that science was about discovering the universe? How did your school make discovering what makes trees grow and stars shine and the power of energy so damn boring?
Every day we send off our children to this thing called “education” and depending on our own experience we may value this education highly and ask that our child is praised within it. You hope that your child is learning and is keeping up with the program and that they listen to the teacher and do the work and be kind to their friends and learn and learn and learn all the good stuff so that they get a good report and then get more good reports and then get grades that get them into university and then study to become something and then fall in love and marry and buy a house and have children and get old comfortably and die surrounded by loved ones. Maybe this is the wish for your children and you have the life planned out for them which is regarded as the best life in the culture that you are a part of. So you put the child on the track and cross your fingers and hope for the best.
But what happens to your child when they are at school? You are starting to get a glimpse of it as you watch them in online learning as their eyes glaze over as the teacher speaks and as they ask you repeatedly what the time is as they are waiting for the break, and you might remember yourself watching the clock in your own classroom waiting for that moment when you can get out of the room and go outside under the sky and be with your friends and chat freely. Even my 5 year old daughter tells me that what she missed about school is the play equipment. If I ask her what she learned that day the best answer she can give me is “I can’t remember” and she wants to move on to what is doing NOW.
Often a school may work as a mini dictatorship. Every time a child walks into a classroom, they have to learn the rules of their teacher. Possibly those rules are co-created to give your child some power over what happens in the classroom. Possibly not. The classroom revolves around the power of the teacher; this includes the teacher’s training and confidence and level of empathy, their ability to be creative, to be inclusive and whether they ate enough for breakfast or had a good enough sleep to be able to deal with a situation that could appear to be out of control from a sleep deprived mind. That teacher may be controlled by the system over their head which tells them that they have to cover a certain element of the curriculum before a certain date so that the kids can be tested on it, so the teacher has to work to get the kids focused and learning. This pressure that the teacher feels is brought to the children and in order to get the information into their brains, the teacher may need to draw on the tools of authority; creating silence and controlling the behaviour of the children, using discipline and punish methods for those who are distracting others, letting children know whether they may go to the toilet at that time or whether they need to hold on because she is about to say something important that she knows will be on the test.
All of the methods show how small the journey has been from the origins of schools in creating obedient workers for the factory system. A child’s time is controlled, their voice is controlled, they have no power to choose what they do with their time outside of a small window each day, they are often denied their feelings and told to “shake hands and forget a problem”, they are shaped and moulded into a person who will sit quietly in class and do whatever the teacher tells them to do, without complaint, even if the task is totally mundane and destroys their creative soul. This could be a whole book full of worksheets, or a History textbook created by a national government that tells half stories of national heroes. If you want to get that good report, you have to imbibe these stories and believe they are true, and you have to listen and sit still and listen and sit still and put your hands on your head and clap your hands when you are told.
You could feel yourself slipping away.
A school system is packed with so many layers that often the layer of what education could possibly mean might be lost. There is a government or organisation that makes a curriculum, there is the management, the teachers, the parents, a whole business and economy set up around financial gains including creating citizens who are ready to enter into the economy once they graduate and contribute to their society. The children then enter into these institutions without any idea of what they are getting into.
The kids go without these stories and without the ability to critically assess what is happening to them. They may trust that the people around them have their best interests at heart.
Now it may be you who is control of their education and we do have the best interests of our children deep within our hearts.
Take a breath. Take a moment. Step away from the screens together and take time to reassess. What is the school asking your child to do? Is it important? Is it interesting? Are they engaged? This time at home is a moment for you to grasp and remember what you went through each day as a child through a more informed lens. Do you still remember the periodic table off by heart? If your child doesn’t learn it and gets a bad grade on the test, will they not follow the trajectory that you have planned for them? Is there anything that they could be doing that would provide more meaningful learning?
Take a breath.
Staring at screens all day can be depleting even if you are staring at a screen doing something you are passionate about. Staring at screens all day and learning about colours through flashcards or screen sharing on zoom may not be the only way to learn.
As a parent, trusting the system is doing best for your child may not be the only path you can take. You can realise that you have power in the system. You are a key player. You can rewrite the curriculum. You can question the teacher. You can tell your child that they don’t have to do the homework. You can give everyone a day off to watch old episodes of Lassie, or better yet, introduce your children to the movies you loved; Dirty Dancing and Footloose, Steel Magnolias and Beaches. Ah the sweet emotions. Maybe they can learn to cook a meal and spend days preparing healthy food and cleaning up. Maybe they can do a project that is about what their passion is that takes them in a direction that you never would have expected.
You can take a deep breath and understand that the education system isn’t the only way to educate your child.
We need to educate our children to have a voice, to make their own decisions, to stand up for themselves, to be creative in a million different ways, to problem solve. Our children already have so many of these things inside them. They are born scientists and creators of art and they know how to play better than we could ever teach them.
They can work out their relationship issues with only a small amount of guidance, they are born to make noise, to scream with delight and to laugh until they cry.
They are the ones who come into our lives and remind us of these things. They remind us of how much we contain ourselves and how damaging this could be. The systems we are living in teach us these things.
Our children don’t know the system. They know if they are happy they laugh or scream, if they are frustrated they cry or hit something, if they are enjoying doing something they are sitting quietly and wondering. We just need to let them be.
So just stop and prepare to be educated by your children.