Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Stigma of "Alternative" Education

alternative (awl-tur-nuh-tiv)
adj. employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment:

Most of my biggest learning experiences in life have come outside of a traditional classroom.  Whether bicycling through England, living with an indigenous tribe in Costa Rica, or exploring the natural landscape of the southwest United States, the pivotal (and pinnacle) learning experiences of my youth always had one thing in common... I was never inside.  Even when I reflect back on my more traditional high school days, I don't remember tests, papers, or even riveting conversations.  I remember marching in a Spartan phalanx in Mr. Paisley's World Cultures class, hiking the sand dunes with Mr. Schuessler, or competing at the Colorado capital building with Mr. Warmack's "We The People" team.

So it probably should come as no surprise that, twenty years after I began my high school career, I find myself teaching in an "alternative" program.  Despite all of my efforts to avoid a life as an educator, (my parents both taught for over 30 years in public schools), I've naturally gravitated towards a lifetime of teaching.  And of all of the jobs I could take, here I am, working in one of the more stressful and challenging roles that exist in our schools.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

You see, given my life choices, and all of the transformative experiences I have had outside of the traditional education system, how could I ever revert back to the way things have always been done?  I know firsthand the power of an "out of the box" education, so how can I philosophically (and even rationally) ever return to teaching "inside the box" (whether that be a classroom, a school building, or a single compartmentalized content area)?

Teaching in an alternative program gives me the "luxurious freedom" to teach on my terms, at least as much as our current public education system allows.  Working in my program allows me to use my creativity and passion to help guide our work.  I am empowered to create and implement engaging curriculum in order to reel in hesitant or resistant learners.  Simply put, many of my learners have rarely (or sometimes never) experienced success in a classroom, and so I can try a wide range of strategies and tools to try to help them see the relevance of their education... strategies that a classroom teacher would never consider because they don't feel they have the support of their administration, students, parents, or community to try to implement.

And this is one of education's dirtiest little secrets.

Too often, people don't have the same expectations for students in "alternative programs".  At best, they're happy that the students are more engaged and less troublesome.  At worst, they're just happy that they don't have to deal with "those students" any longer.  With most alternative programs, it's "out of sight, out of mind".  As long as "those students" aren't negatively impacting the traditional learning environment, then everything is good.  Who really cares what they are learning as long as they aren't causing trouble?  Programs like mine were the places where "those students" (the ones who can't function in our normal system) have to go to be babysat until they earn a diploma. 

So this "freedom" that I have working in an alternative program is a double-edged sword.  Some of the "freedom" I experience is the result of the fact that many people don't ever expect much of my students.  As terrible as it sounds, I believe it is the unfortunate truth.

It is exactly these beliefs about alternative education that have perpetuated a long-standing stigma.  In most schools that I've attended, taught at, or visited, a "good" student would never consider the alternative program.  Even if they would be more successful as a student, more engaged in their learning, or happier in general, they would never commit the social suicide of leaving the traditional classroom.  Attending an alternative program often means crossing a boundary between "normal" and "different", "good" and "bad".  Sadly, it isn't just students that perpetuate this stigma.  Teachers, administrators, parents, and community members contribute to the firmly-held belief that "alternative" equals "less than".

So what does it mean to be "alternative"?
When I see the definition of alternative, and I read that it means "existing outside of the establishment", I couldn't be prouder.  I mean, what is the establishment?  A system created 150 years ago to teach young people to mindlessly follow orders?  To never question authority?  To do one job over and over and over again for 30 years without ever thinking about the meaning behind their work?  The reality of the establishment of public education is that it is antiquated.  It was designed for a different time (the Industrial Revolution), with drastically different social, political, and economic motivators.

Our reality is that it is a great big world and our classrooms are just too small- too small in size, too limited in scope; too few people and all of them are the same age; not enough interactions with our communities, and not enough relevance to the lives our students lead.

If you are a student in my school, you have seven different classes each day, each one 49 minutes in length.  You might read Shakespeare first period, then learn quadratic equations during period two.  Then you'll move on to the Holocaust during period three, and throwing a pot in ceramics during period four.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  With the compartmentalization of our classes and content areas, how is it that our students are ever supposed to "connect the dots"?  Our entire system perpetuates young people who are able to complete specific, focused tasks, but who struggle to see how the content areas connect with one another and the real world.

If we aim to create global citizens, then we have to get our students out into the world.

And this means that our definition of education also needs to change.  Under our current standards ("the establishment"), what we call an education is far too limited given the demands of our modern world.  Our students need to be engaged in their communities and partnered with its citizens.  They need the opportunity to truly be accountable; not just to schedule a time to make up a test, but to be an "agent of change" within their community.

As a society, we have to understand that different people need different learning experiences, and at different times.  What works for one won't work for all.  Just because our current system of education was built around the principles of conformity, obedience, and rigid expectations, doesn't mean that those skills and aptitudes will equal success in the 21st century.

But this means a lot of change... and change is scary!  It means that we have to question everything about the only system we have ever known.  It means that we have to acknowledge that what we have been doing might not be working as well as we all believe it has.  It's time that we, as educators, look "outside of the box". 

I invite you to consider that this might not be all that difficult. 

It is my opinion that some of the most progressive work in education is happening in the "alternative" programs in our schools.  Rather than continuing to perpetuate stigmas, what if we looked at our alternative programs as "hotbeds of innovation"?  How can we share the lessons learned from being able to reach our most disenfranchised youth in order to inspire the education of all of our students?

And I hope that everyone will take a genuine look at what is happening in our alternative programs to see how it might inform or impact their teaching.  What kinds of "alternatives" are already out there, just waiting to be discovered?  How many other inspired and motivated teachers like me wish that they could share their work in a way that would make their curriculum and programming more available to more students? 

Whether it means visiting your school's alternative program, or researching some of the practices of well-known alternative programs, I think we all stand to gain from opening our mind up to the alternative.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Reform or Revolt?: Confessions of a Teacher in His Fifth Year

Not long ago, I came across an idea in some reading that has really been sitting with me, especially as it pertains to my career as a public school educator.  It's the idea that in any time of massive change, there are really only two types of people - reformers and revolutionaries.  Reformers work within a system in an attempt to create changes, to modify or adjust the system to the necessities of contemporary times.  Revolutionaries see no other choice but to step outside of the system and to create an alternative that challenges it.

Now, obviously this is a familiar story if we were talking about government systems.  Our own country was (relatively) recently borne of a revolutionary movement that advocated for a drastic shift from the British colonial empire of which we were previously a part.  But few people think of these types of scenarios when they think of schools or school systems.  I do think, however, that this is the dilemma of our time as public school educators.

We are experiencing what most consider to be a revolutionary time in the world of education.  This is a time that will change the face of how we educate; that will shift us away from this 150 year old paradigm of institutionalized, industrial education, into something that is reflective of the world that we live in, and of the citizens that we hope to create as we move into the future.
But, you see, the challenge here is that in times of revolution, you need people with vision.  You need people who are driven and inspired to create change.  So when you tell me that 50% of teachers quit within the first five years of being in the profession, I wonder, what type of talent, of inspired and motivated individuals who just can't "do this"are leaving?  What are all those people then going and doing?  How do we breed a culture within our profession which encourages our people to be creative and thoughtful, and that challenges the existing paradigms of how we all know school to be?

I once had a conversation with a person who was talking about entrepreneurship in public schools; talking about, specifically, how we want to create these inspired, out-of-the-box thinkers who would drive our future and our economy forward.  His argument was that the majority of the people that they are learning from (teachers) are not the types of individuals who have cultivated those skills and dispositions.  Simply put, teachers are not creative or entrepreneurial in nature, so how can they ever inspire their students to be so?

I don't think that it's the people that are the problem... I think that it's the system.  It's not that the wrong type of people are choosing the profession.  It's that the right type of people are choosing to leave because its a system that they can't work in.  For those that stay, it is hard to continuously bring a creative and progressive vision to your work when it seems like there are always so many boxes that need checking.

And while I only have 5 years of perspective and experience with these "boxes", I've heard from countless colleagues, and my own parents (both with 30+ year careers in education), that each year seems to bring more and more to the plate of educators.  I know that, personally, there is no possible way for me to fit the amount of work that I am expected to do into my contracted time.  I also know that I'm not alone in this feeling.

You see, I want to be a public school teacher.  I want to bring my ideas, and passion, and energy for working with kids to schools based upon the fact that they often don't have the opportunity for the types of experiences that I think are fundamental to an appropriate education in this day and age.  But the more I try to bring these changes to the system, the more I feel like I'm spinning my wheels; that I'm getting burnt out. Sometimes its the bureaucracy of it all; other times its the lack of a shared, collective vision for where we want to go.  Most of the time, it is also a result of the countless things that we have to do as teachers that take away from our creative expression, passion, and inspiration.

I'm in year five of my public school career.  Before that, I worked for 7 years as a wilderness instructor and international travel guide for high school students.  In that time, I saw that the kids that I was working with (who often came from money) had so many opportunities and so many resources at their disposal. I began to feel that it wasn't fair that they were the ones who got to hike into Macchu Picchu at dawn, or swim with sharks in the Galapagos, or to take life-changing backpacking trips through the red-rock canyons of southern Utah.

I thought that every kid deserved those same opportunities; chances to explore themselves in ways that the public school system has never allowed for.  For the past five years, that is what I've been trying to do in my own program, and to inspire in other teachers and programs around my state.  But it is getting hard to continue to fight this uphill battle.  Maybe this egalitarian effort, to close the achievement gap of opportunities, is just a vision that isn't shared by enough people to actually put into motion.

But maybe there are more people who share this vision.  Maybe there are people out there that desperately want to change the way that our schools work?  There are clearly models.  But the question that has been itching in my brain ever since I went to Finland this past year is, how do we make these changes scalable?  How do we create systemic change that is real, and that doesn't just add another thing on the plate of teachers?  When do we finally start looking at the education system as a whole in a way that allows us to finally think open-mindedly about what it could, and should be for our children?

All of these thoughts can be summarized most easily by the wise words of my friend, and 2013 National Teacher of the Year, Jeff Charbonneau.  In a deep philosophical conversation about education, he rhetorically asked,
"If we could design a school today, given everything that we know about how students learn best and what they need to thrive, would it look anything like the schools that our students currently attend?"
Unfortunately, I think the answer is no.  But I think we have the moral imperative to do something about it.

When do we start taking into consideration all of the brain research and best practice that we are now aware of, and begin applying that to the school system?  Why do our high schools continue to start at 8 am, when the empirical evidence of science says that their brains are not ready to learn until 10 am?  These very simple questions are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are going to challenge everything that we have grown to know (and some of us to love) about our public education systems.

You don't need to look very far to realize that the problems that we have are big, far bigger than even our education system can address.  Across the world, at least for countries that we have data for, adolescents in the United States are the second most depressed in the entire world!  When it comes to professions, teachers are often one of the more stressed, and also one of the more disillusioned and disenfranchised.

When we think about a place- our schools- that we want to help grow and develop our future generations, do really want a bunch of depressed kids cycling through a bunch of stressed and disillusioned teachers?  I don't think so.  I think we have a much bigger problem that goes beyond our education system and right into the culture that we currently live in.

I've always been the type of person to think that the grass is always greener.  For many years, I've battled this part of my personality, which thinks that there always must be something bigger and better out there.  Some other project or idea where I can utilize my time and energy more effectively and efficiently.

I also firmly believe in a quote from Mother Theresa, which says, "The grass is always greener where you water it."  I'm trying to set down roots; I'm trying to water my grass.  But I'm struggling.  I'm struggling because, many days, I show up to work feeling optimistic, energetic, and hopeful.  But by the end of my work day, I'm feeling beat down, frustrated, and tired.  That's not a way to live a life.

For someone who has always prided himself on being eternally optimistic, this is really hard, because I feel like I'm losing that part of myself; like toiling in this system is taking away my positivity and enthusiasm to create change for the better.  And this is a part of myself that I'm not willing to lose or to give away.  That's a part of myself that I will keep for my wife and for my kids, for my community and for my passions.

Simply put, for this teacher, in year five, right on the threshold of committing to this career, or possibly turning my back and walking the other way, I have to wonder - do I reform?  Or do I revolt?  Do I continue to toil in a system for an entire career, potentially never making the impact that I so desperately want to make?  Or do I seek other opportunities to respond to the challenges of a revolutionary time?

This question keeps me up at night.