Unother Radiateing Glow

Note: The author is a staff member at Diablo Valley School, in Concord, CA.

When I first applied to graduate school in education six and a half years ago, it did not cross my mind to become a teacher. I was much more interested in developing curricular materials that would teach kids about Asia and all of its glory. In the months before I actually started my program, one of my eventual faculty advisors convinced me to become a teacher before moving on to other things in the field. If you are going to do anything in education, as she explained, you have to become a teacher first. So I became a teacher.

One thing that nagged at me while I was in the program (and now rankles me almost five years out) was the absolute lack of discussion about one’s philosophy of teaching and education. Lawyers and doctors take classes on ethics that cut right to the heart of decisions that they are to make in their day-to-day work lives. In her or his race to become a “professional” teacher, however, the silence surrounding why a person would come to make the decisions she or he would make in the classroom was deafening. After an intensive and expensive year of graduate school, I was no closer to understanding what I or the others around me were really hoping to achieve with a master’s degree in social studies education.

It took one horrible semester at a public middle school for me to realize that even though the principal knew what he wanted me to do, and the kids knew what they wanted to do, I did not have the slightest clue how to reconcile the principal’s demands, the kids’ desires, and what I thought I wanted to accomplish. I left.

“‘A’ and ‘an.’”
“Not ‘an’. . . it's ‘un.’”
“It's ‘an.’”
“No, it's ‘un’. . . you know, like in ‘another.’”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I'm sure.”

In this my full first year at Diablo Valley School, I have felt much like some of the new students at the school, walking in and out of rooms, observing, talking, thinking, and always wondering about what it is I should be doing at this unusual place. Many students who transition from a traditional school to a Sudbury school inevitably face boredom in their own wanderings in this new environment. I, though, have been staring face-to-face at life choices, skeptical friends and family, and the complete opposite of my own almost 20-year education and the couple of years of teaching I have completed in other schools. Anyone like myself who starts as a new staff member at a Sudbury school will eventually have to ask her- or himself some difficult questions. A school with no classes? No instruction? No curriculum? No adult supervision? Is this why I got into education? What exactly have I gotten myself into here?

I never dreamed that it would be like this. In the weeks after my public school resignation, when I first read about “deschooling” and “unschooling” and found Diablo Valley School, I was merely looking for an environment that was very different from the one I had just abandoned. I thought that I would find some answers to my questions about what was supposed to take place at a school. Spend some time at the school, see what it is all about, and then make a decision about the next move.

The problem, of course, is that you can not go to Diablo Valley School or any of the two dozen or so schools modeled after Sudbury Valley School and think about education in the same way. It goes way beyond whether or not there should be any kind of testing of knowledge or skills or aptitude, or whether or not there should be any kind of academic requirements, minimal or otherwise. Rather, you walk in the door, and no matter your role as student, parent, educator, or interested bystander, you begin to ask, consciously or otherwise, the fundamental questions in education that are rarely asked for mysterious reasons. How does a living, breathing, intensely individual, one-in-six-billion person really learn? Out of the infinite body of things known and unknown about the human experience, what, if anything, is going to click with that person at 11:27AM on Tuesday morning on a half-empty, growling stomach? Considering our libraries, the Internet, family, friends, movies, media, and the potential teacher in all of us, why does a child have to go to school in the first place to learn about the world?

For the staff member, there are other gnawing questions. You walk into a room of kids, or maybe just one, reading, talking, or playing, and you ask yourself: what now? Do I open my mouth and join in? Do I leave the room and let whatever was going on continue? Do I harp in at well-placed moments where I might actually “teach” something? Do I just keep quiet and wait for something to happen?

What now, indeed!

In less than five minutes, I had unwittingly stumbled onto enough problems to keep any elementary school teacher tossing and turning at night. It had started with the spelling of a single word, one of the estimated 600,000 or so in the English language: “radiate.”

“R-A-D-I-A-T-E,” I said. Too fast. I gave the last three letters a second time in slower succession. “A. T. E.”

“Radiate,” like all of the other words on the page kept in the orderly blue binder, eventually had “-ing” appended to the end. I looked at the sheet. “Radiateing.”

That was all I needed to pique my interest in the other words on the paper.

“An.” One of the simplest words in the English language. “An (as in ‘can’),” one kid said. No, “un” as in “another,” the writer corrected the other, giving this seemingly solid response. Back and forth. In the end, “un” had won, from what I could tell.

Then, the interest in another word on the page, “glow,” and how the word “low” was most likely spelled L-O-W since “glow” was G-L-O-W. Immediately, the words came to my mind: “how,” “now,” “cow,” and others that I am sure would have spewed forth as fast as I could think of them.

Mere hours after my part-time job as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher in the morning, so far deep in the “teaching moment” that I could barely see the surface, I started to open my mouth.

And then. . . I said nothing.

I said nothing about that rule we have to drop the “e” at the end of a word before adding “-ing.”

I said nothing about how we have five vowels in English but at least 15 vowel sounds, and how “an” is really “an” and “another” is one of the thousands of exceptions in this crazy language that millions around the world and a few dozen students I teach at a time are trying to learn.

I said nothing about “how” or “tow” or “now” or “row” or “cow” or “how now brown cow.”

On the inside, I said everything.

And at the end of those five minutes, I finally had learned something about being a staff member that had eluded me for the last five months. I learned how to trust a child.

A lot was going through my head in those five minutes, thoughts and questions that have been keeping me up at night during this past school year. A year’s education in my graduate school program. How interesting that this child had “radiate” in their vocabulary. Wouldn’t it be good for the child to have some spelling and punctuation rules tucked away in their brain? How the two other children standing there might have latched onto what came out of my mouth. What either one or both of the parents would have done had they been sitting at that table. Would they have been disappointed or frustrated or angry with me had they known that I did not chime in? Indeed, what was I doing at a “school” if I was not “teaching” something?

This is why I did what I did. I trusted that somewhere, somehow, someway, this child would eventually learn about “-ing” and about “an antidote baked in another bran flan” and about “how now brown cow” and “why we do what we do when the grass is dewy and John Dewey and Tom Dooley are due in Duluth” and all kinds of other interesting things there are to know.

I trusted the child.

Simple, and yet not so.

Even though a teacher in a regular school may trust her or his students completely, the deck is stacked against her or him. When that cold, blustery day in February comes when a teacher has to teach that we drop the “e” at the end of a word before we add “-ing,” she or he does not have the luxury of going around the classroom and either whispering in each student’s ear the “drop ‘e’ and add ‘-ing’” rule, or “Sure is cold outside today,” because she or he knows deep in her or his heart that today is not the day to talk with that child about dropping the “e” and adding “-ing” because that is the last thing on that particular child’s mind. There is no way to do what is necessary and meaningful for each and every student in the classroom. She or he must say the rule aloud to everyone whether they are ready for it or not; therefore, “drop ‘e’ and add ‘-ing’” hangs in the room like a dusty chandelier that a few gaze upon and wonder where it came from, and some think it would look great in their house, while most others pass under it on their way to the punch bowl.

Ultimately, “drop ‘e’ and add ‘-ing’” does nothing to strengthen the bond between two people in a learning environment that should be a hallmark of education, but which is grossly lacking in our nation’s schools. It would be wonderful if every person even remotely associated with education insisted on a strong, lasting bond of trust between educators and those they educate. Yet every day in this country, unfortunately, for whatever reason, most of us insist that “drop ‘e’ and add ‘-ing’” is far more important than cultivating fruitful relationships between two interesting and independent, yet still somehow connected individuals.

Is it that we are all too afraid?

You can read all you want and discuss with others until kingdom come what it means to trust in children. And yet, when you have that three- to five-second window where you either open your mouth or keep it to yourself, that is where a “teacher” and a “staff member” show their true mettle.

This year, I have realized what it means to be a “staff member” at a Sudbury school. The proper title on your fictitious business card would be “revolutionary.” (Though in deference to A.S. Neill and the original founders of Sudbury Valley School, perhaps “Johnny-come-lately revolutionary” would be more appropriate.) The reason for this designation has to do with trust. A staff member, new or old, has to trust that children, and not adults or the curriculum or schools, belong at the center of education, and has to believe that she or he can and will do everything possible to put and keep children front and center. Radical ideas, even in the year 2000.

In five minutes, however, I learned how amazingly difficult this business about learning is for a staff member. There is no doubt that “drop ‘e’ and add ‘-ing’” has its place in life; it and the vast store of academic knowledge humans have assembled help us to learn about the world and expand the mind in the process. Yet the acquisition of academic knowledge is not the be-all and end-all of “education,” as some would have us believe. “Education” is such an inherently personal, private, of-the-moment experience. It is not the “education” of impersonal, mass schooling to which most Americans have been subjected, and for which the acquisition of academic knowledge has secured a place of preeminence out of all proportion to other pieces of the educational picture.

The educational model put forth by Sudbury schools relies on trust. When a staff member trusts a child and the child trusts her or him, and each person trusts her- or himself, many things are possible, even learning the “drop ‘e’ and add ‘-ing’” rule. Until that trust is in place, however, the potential for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development lies dormant in both parties, waiting for the moment to awake and blossom into a vital and lasting relationship.

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