We all want schools to be welcoming places. What better way for students to learn than when they feel comfortable and safe. But schools have become less welcoming as education gets more mired in the mandates of Common Core curriculum and high stakes testing. The pressure is on for everyone–students, teachers, administrators, even parents–to meet these requirements or risk severe consequences (such as being labeled a “failing school.”) Although schools, especially in the higher grades, in one way or another have always had a culture of competition and conformity, things seem worse these days. Catherine Gobron, today’s contributor, knows all about young people’s reactions to that culture. She is the program director for North Star, a center of “self-directed learning for teens.” I love their slogan, “Learning is natural. School is optional.” It says it all. Just because a kid stops going to school doesn’t mean that she or he isn’t interested in learning, isn’t curious about the world. As Catherine explains in her piece, teens say “no” to school for a variety of reasons. Many are just looking for a few adults who have the courage to listen to them and to guide them wherever their interests take them. Catherine is one of those adults and North Star is one of those places. You can read more of Catherine’s writings on Huffington Post.
“Learning is Natural. School is Optional”
I left high school when I was 17. My GPA was 3.9, but I was failing due to excessive absences. I had friends who were content and thriving, but I hated to be there. I felt constrained, disrespected, and uninvolved. My discontent was a negative experience for everyone who had to deal with me.
I eventually found my way to a diploma and college degrees and decided on a career in teaching. I wanted to be the teacher I didn’t have, the one who would see me through my anger and believe in me despite my negative relationship to school. But one semester into my standard track Masters in Education program and I was exhausted by frustrations similar to those that drove me from school as a student so many years earlier. Rubrics, standards, testing…these suffocated me as a youth, and as it turned out, I still felt that way as an adult.
I changed programs to Creative Arts in Learning and set about finding ways to serve students outside of traditional school.
I now direct a program where teens who are unhappy in school are supported to leave school to pursue self-directed learning. We tell teens that not thriving in school is not indicative of anything. It’s just a bad match. There are other routes to happy and successful futures, and we support each of our students to pursue his or her unique path.
Every day is an adventure in our strange, new universe, and every day something beautiful happens. Kindnesses occur between students who would not have spoken to each other in school. Students re-imagine themselves as artists, or readers, or public speakers in ways that seemed unthinkable before.
Two years ago Jacqueline arrived fresh from school, shut down and incredibly small for such a tall young woman. She had various mental health diagnoses and was taking several prescription medications. Our environment is safe, welcoming, and accepting, and Jacqueline spent the first six months alone in our comfortable library, reading, sitting, thinking. At some point she became interested in dancing and confident enough to join a community dance class. Some time after she began comfortably spending social time in the noisy common room downstairs. She also stopped taking and stopped needing her medications. By the end of the year, Jacqueline identified herself as a dancer and at 17 she moved on to a dance program at a local community college, where she is now thriving.
A few years ago we gained a student who was a passionate activist, concerned about human rights. School was dominating his time and schedule, and keeping him from what he already knew was his life’s work. The stability of our program helped convince his parents that he could and would continue his education outside of school. He did. He also began writing for various publications and working on several committees with adults on human rights issues. He has been accepted to prestigious universities, but is currently choosing to live in a city away from home, interning for an established human rights organization. Our program helped set him free and allowed him to focus on his life’s work.
My job is not easy, of course. But nine years in, it still feels like a gift.
A parent of one of the teens in our program once said to me, “It’s like he is a little sapling that was crushed by a boulder. Now that boulder has been removed, and slowly he is looking up again at the sun.”
I seem to have become the teacher I didn’t have after all. What a joy it is to remove boulders from little saplings.