A new definition for back-to-school

About this time each year, the back-to-school photos start popping up on my Facebook feed. Kids everywhere from Phoenix to Maine smile into their moms’ cameras from bus stops and front walks, dressed head to toe in shiny newness, oversized backpack not yet faded, torn, or doodled on. But for the first time, I’m noticing another mid-August trend: the teachers among my Facebook friends–of which there are many–voicing concern over curriculum, school politics, and schedules.

These posts range from general inquiries to other teachers–what’s up with Common Core?–to complaints–there go student-teacher conferences–to genuine worry–I don’t understand any of this math workshop, or how it will help anyone!

I don’t remember this trend in years’ past. There’s an intensity to my feed that worries me, even though my own elementary-aged child won’t be attending public school this year. Maybe it’s an echo from our horrendous teacher strike from last winter, which affected so many of us. I don’t know.

What I do know is, more and more people want change in our educational system, myself included. And even shifting my thinking to accommodate this idea has been a big thing. I grew up in a family of public teachers. Our public education system has always felt as American to me as democracy, as wholesome as Little League baseball or national parks. Thinking, maybe this doesn’t work required my brain to make a huge, scary, painful leap, one I still can’t believe I made.

The teachers I know are good at their jobs. They care deeply about making a difference in their students’ lives, and when they hit wall after standardized wall, they feel the pain. When they worry, I worry. I can name three teachers in my own circle of friends who have taken either early retirement or a leave of absence this year, citing an inability to teach the way they want to teach as the reason for leaving. Others are struggling along, or trying to find ways to work with the system..changing schools, changing grades, attempting to squeeze their own teaching styles into the required protocol in uncomfortable, impossible ways.

Ideas like extreme unschooling are starting to appeal to more and more people. I get it. I agree that traditional school is too rigid (for teachers and students), and I can see for myself that the standardized model fits…well, hardly anyone. Add bureaucratic tape, school district politics, school violence and bullying, and digitalized learning with hours logged in front of screens, and I am certain my own children need less time in a classroom and more time investigating their world on their own. I am thankful that Tobias will spend almost as much time outdoors during school hours as inside.

Whatever you believe, the ability to restructure the way we educate our kids is liberating in the way daydreaming about living off the land is liberating, or chucking it all and moving to a tropical island is liberating: there’s a giddy appeal in throwing off an accepted way of doing things and pioneering one’s own path. And at the end of the day, nothing is more American than that. So if my Facebook feed starts talking about a new way of looking at education in our country, I’m listening.

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