Why my sons won’t go to high school …

It’s 1.34am and I am sitting huddled under a blanket with my Mac on my knees. The air-conditioning is high because my eldest son and my husband have high fevers. They’ve got a 48 hour flu thingy. I can’t sleep so I sit and count away the minutes and hours until they are both better … or until I fall down sick too.

It is this recent bout of illness that has forced my hand on the school issue. Looking at my son all small and weak from the fever made me cry. Not a little cry, like a pansy Hollywood nose tear – nope, big gulping ‘I want my Mummy’ sobs that resulted in snot being wiped on my PJs. Here is this small guy (and my other smaller guy beside him) just so visibly vulnerable and needing the love of his mummy or his daddy and it just makes me so bewildered at how easily we give them over into the hands of COMPLETE strangers for the majority of their waking hours. It’s weird.

A couple of weeks ago I went to pick up my sons from school and only found my youngest waiting for me in the usual spot. After about five minutes of waiting and chatting idly about my son’s school day, we decided to go to my eldest son’s classroom to find him. On the way I was stopped by the front-office lady who told me my son was in the office with his teacher. She looked pretty distressed so I hurried off with her to find the cause. And there he was, crying so hard his face was red and squashed and his little shoulders shuddering with what I could only guess was fear or distress. His teacher was seated beside him and trying to comfort him with soothing words and pats on the back. How did this come about? Well he was told off by a teacher for standing up when the bell rang. He had shown and over-eagerness to leave the room and as a result had a middle aged woman grab him by the shirt and scream in his face. I later found out three boys from his class stood up for him, telling the teacher to back off.

How does this come about? How can it be that my child – who I willfully handed over to an institution that morning just like every school morning for the last 5 and a half years – is being reprimanded by a complete stranger for his desire to escape a room after 6 hours of ‘schooling’? Now I don’t want anyone to go silly over this teacher’s actions, because to be honest it’s been dealt with by the school after I was in contact with the principal. That’s not the focus of this post. The focus is the giving over of my son to this institution. His response to a bell … a behaviour regulator. Everyday, for 13 years, meeting characters like this who I do not know or know minimally. His distress was so great that he has refused to do lessons with this teacher again. This example, I am sure, is but a thread in a blanket that almost covers the world. I don’t want my child put in a situation like that again. And because he is in primary school (elementary school) I can be involved and I can make a change. This is an isolated incident that is manageable for parent and admin. When he is in high school this experience will become routine as this style of ‘behaviour management’ is much more frequent. He will encounter more teachers, more often, and more bells to regulate his behaviour and experiences. It terrifies me.

What has added to my fear? I just finished reading Gatto’s ‘Dumbing Us Down’. It’s a terrifyingly accurate portrait of schooling and what it is doing to our kids. It’s 1.58am on a Saturday night and I haven’t been drinking, so I’m not going to try to impress you with my astute criticism of his book. I just wanna be honest with you. I’ve always distrusted institutions and systems where faceless people dictate ideas and actions to the less powerful many. If you want you can joke about me being a socialist. I’ve been called worse. The book itself, in many respects, is anti-Capitalist and for good reason. The loss of family and community and the impact this this is having on humanity – our humanity, not the big thing, the unique individual thing … our humanness – is a central theme of the book which is simply a collection of essays and speeches written by Gatto. If you wanna taste, read his speech ‘The Six Lesson Schoolteacher‘ it’s disturbing in its insight and accuracy. It’s 22 years old and so relevant it hurts and makes me wanna blubber some more. What are we doing? It’s all wrong. We’re allowing ourselves and our children to be moulded into creatures of obedience and consumption. The saddest thing is when you ask a student in Year 9 what they are passionate about – you know, what they really love – and they can’t answer. They draw a blank. And you know they wanna say a celebrity’s name. They just are so disconnected from their community, from hands-on stuff, that they can’t answer that question easily. That troubled me last year when I tried to start my students ‘passion blogging’ … it was an interesting, although failed, experiment. It was just another homework task.

When I present on PBL to teachers, I typically say something like ‘The HSC is a blunt instrument hacking us to death one prepared essay at a time’. And it’s true. If schooling culminates in the HSC for students … 13 years of being trapped in a box with a bunch of humans your age and typically deemed to be of equal intelligence or capacity as you and being ‘taught’ be an adult deemed to be more intelligent than you … than it is all bullshit. And so it is. I usually say something like this too, ‘The world is a pretty shitty place but if we get our students to actively engage with their world and work together to solve some of its problems than maybe it’ll be a little bit less shitty’. And I think that’s true. But we need teachers who are committed enough to stand up against the bullshit. To stand up against the fear of those in positions of power above us, or of parents – who, guess what, we can actually work with, bring into schools, learn from. It didn’t surprise me to learn from Gatto that a genius like Benjamin Franklin chose not to go to school. Self-education is so powerful, but I think our kids are losing the capacity for it. And no amount of online web-tools, digital devices or gadgets are going to change that. Only people can change that. But will we? Do we – as adults who have endured the institution of schooling – have the capacity to stand up and say no? I think parents do.

And that’s what I intend on doing. Of course I don’t know how because the ‘way of things’ (what is deemed by most as ‘the only way’) means that to survive in this world we need two incomes which means two working parents, tried and grumpy and evermore increasingly removed from their children’s lives. How do I homeschool my boys and still provide for them the ‘basics’ like a home, food, clothes and (what I believe is essential) travel? I just don’t have that answer. This is all the more terrifying in light of the fact that my eldest son is in Year 5.

Two days ago when I announced to my boys that they would not be going to high school my eldest son protested a little. He couldn’t understand how he could ‘do his HSC’ or ‘get into uni’ without going to high school. I think he was more concerned that he would miss out on the typical experiences … that ‘rite of passage’ that is portrayed to them on television and film. And guess what? Those representations are often misrepresentations but often not – how happy do kids seem in schools on screen on the whole? I’d love to see the data on that … I reckon it’d show that most representations are negative. Truth and yet the images of it are compelling enough for a kid as smart as mine to be entranced by them. And he really only watches ABC3, ABC2 and SBS. This decision, ultimately, is one to be made by me and my husband. We stand firm on it together. High school as it is now in Australia holds little worth for my boys – what you learn in a typical school year can be covered in a couple of months. The rest is all a blur or bells, bullies, textbooks, lectures, commands, restrictions and rules.

I want my boys to be educated, not schooled. I want their individual selves to be nourished by the joy of discovery and inquiry. I want them to learn from and with their family. I want them to be valued for the unique people they are and will be. I will not put them in that sausage factory. Watch me find a way.

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25 thoughts on “Why my sons won’t go to high school …

  1. One of the best things a principal I worked for me said is “Always ask yourself would you be happy for your own child to be in the class/doing the unit/doing this task etc. If the answer is no, it is not good enough for any child in our care”. This is the mantra I now use in all I do, and how my own conversations with start commence. If we all did that we could start to develop experiences and relationships that would allow our students to flourish at school.

    I feel for you and your situation and I too am getting anxious about my daughter’s journey into high school next year. I won’t be taken the leap that you are preparing (but have friend’s who have) but then she will be attending my school so I will be able to see her during the day and, if necessary, ask the question of her teacher’s – would you be happy if your own child experienced this?

    • I agree with you. Early on in my career I was given the same advice: “treat all kids as if they are your own.” I am sorry not all teachers share this. Good luck with home schooling and ignore any naysayers.

  2. Hi Bianca, I hope you do get some sleep tonight and that your boys get better soon. I hope to meet you one day… Your post showed the angst of all parents and thinking educators who want things to change. I am in a position to change things at my school and I fight the good fight, but it is hard… Continue to find an alternative for your boys, but from what I read from you, they are going to be fine men someday, as you are parents who care and want to make a difference for them.

  3. We have had the same conversations for some of the same reasons as you express in the blog. Some of your concerns about quality of life may be addressed by moving out of Sydney. I never thought I could, but after 3 years of living in South Australia I was so glad I’d made the shift. We have also talked about buying land and building in Tassie. We have decided that if we haven’t made a decision the time Emily is due to start high school then we’ll pack up and take a trip around Australia for a year.

  4. Thanks Bianca, it is courageous. I am hoping that in the 7 years to come until my eldest starts high school ‘the people we have been waiting for’ (us informed ‘educators’) have arrived fully and high school as it is today is no longer. If not, I hope to be as courageous.

  5. I am a huge believer in the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. I live that belief out every day, as an active, live-in aunty to three year old twins. As an educator myself, I question the value of institutionalised schooling. When I eventually have my own child, I hope I have enough courage in my convictions to make the same decision you have.

  6. Wow! This is so much where my current thinking is, that it is a little freaky! I’m currently thinking of homeschooling my kids, and so I will await your future blog posts with eager anticipation!

    If anyone can find a way, Bianca, I’m sure it is you! I’m so glad you will be sharing it with us. Thankyou.

    PS. I, too, am a high school teacher!

  7. Several years ago when my boys were still quite little, a friend of mine in the states asked me why I wasn’t going to home school my own kids. “you’re a great teacher,” he said, “so why wouldn’t you?” I thought briefly, but then responded that if everyone who was a great teacher stayed home to look after their own kids, who would be left to be good teachers for everyone else’s kids? His query stuck with me, though, and over time I’ve been determined to be a teacher who can make a difference for other people’s children.

    That doesn’t address the problem, as you mentioned, of handing my three beautiful kids over to strangers for 6 hours a day. Over the years I’ve been awed at the amazing way some of their teachers have celebrated their humanness, and been appalled and disgusted at the lack of humanity in others. I know my own kids can see what I bring to my students through my love of what I do and who they are. Hopefully, as tthey’d row, they can sift through the rubbish and appreciate the true and the good.

    Parents must be advocates for change, absolutely. I truly admire your strength and conviction, knowing that in too many cases I have stayed silent where my own kids are concerned. But teachers also need to be passionate advocates for change, so don’t doubt the difference you can make in the lives of your own students – and the amazing example you are setting for your own children in being the kind of teacher who is true in her practice to what she believes an educator should be. Your kids mightn’t always get the best when they’re at school, but they get more than the best from you, not only in being their mum, but in being someone they can respect and admire and look up to because you are the kind of teacher more of us should be like. (enough…hope they are all well soon and you get back to your great adventure…thank you for your honest and heartfelt thoughts…)

  8. I always love your thoughts. I do, however, don’t understand how someone working for this system won’t send their kids to it. It’s like public school teachers I know that send their kids to private school… or, public elected officials making policies/rules/laws/funding decisions about public schools sending their kids to private schools.

    If you truly don’t believe in the system, then how can you take a paycheck from it?

    Don’t get me wrong… the things you talked about are all there – especially here in USA.

    The ONLY way for things to get better is to have people like you working in the schools AND sending your kids to them.

    Some of the things you talked about (community engagement, learning your passion, etc) can (and should) be done outside of the regular school day anyway…. and, typically has always been outside of school. For example: organized sports, Boy Scouts, etc. That is where society (and parents) miss the boat. When their kids come home from school, they think/do, “well, the school is doing 100% of the job of preparing these kids for the rest of their lives; here’s some chips, Mountain Dew and the TV remote. Oh, did you do your homework?”

    We need to look at it a totally different way. (I’ve been saying this for years — to myself at least)…
    We don’t need less of school. We need MORE! As in: keep the school building open from 6AM until 9PM. The school building SHOULD be the community building. It should serve all 3 meals — look at the UNDER-utilized kitchen! It has a library (if those are even needed anymore). It has a technology lab with high-speed internet. It has sports equipment and play room. It (typically) has wood working machinery. It (used to have) home-ec equipment (sewing machines, etc). Our schools are not utilized enough! Don’t hate on the building because the 8-3 system is too boring, etc. Make it better. These buildings NEED to become our community buildings. Don’t take you and your kids from the community. Encourage other parents to come together (not pull away).

    There is a small (yet effective) movement here called New Tech Network (http://www.newtechnetwork.org) — all project-based learning using collaboration, passion, etc. They are really cool learning environments. And yes, they are public high schools. In my state, Michigan, there are TEN! I’ve visited one; it’s impressive!

    • Good point Steve regarding supporting and advocating the schools you teach in by enrolling your own kids in these schools. I fully support this idea but I also see all the issues and worries that Bianca is writing about…..I’ve got 3 years before High School is upon us. I just blogged about the “perceptions” of public schools in my area and that alone is concern enough, without having to worry about the institutional rituals/structure as well.

    • I love the idea of school buildings being the community buildings. It breaks so many molds! I love it because it creates a flexibility that all learners need…What if there was a garden for the summer? Or a cafe for teachers to meet and chat about teaching and learning, and parents could join, too? So many thoughts and option…

      But Bianca, I am not a parent so I cannot respond as one. But I hear your call. My gut tells me to be a part of the change, as you are…perhaps your children are also part of the change?

  9. This was very helpful. I feel exactly the same. Not always easy to avoid “the fear”, pieces like this help.

  10. Holy Crap! Having time away from school for the last month with my kids in the UK – and not under the best circumstances – has never the less illustrated how keen they are to learn about the world around them. They have have been taking photos, asking questions, writing, playing and exploring. it took a few weeks for the smell of school and home to wear off. I’ve felt like I’ve been bribing them with technology, trying to fill in for the lack lustre day you’re describing.

    Now ask them about witchcraft, gothic revival, Byron, why English castles were destroyed, and the answers will flow. It’s all out there – I don’t think its any more in a computer than it is in a book. Now I’m thinking exactly the same – as Mr 11 is due for his second tour of duty next year.

    Perhaps a simple life on the French/Swiss border … rock stars always need cow bells.

  11. full-on post Bianca! I hope you got some sleep. I feel for you and I understand the worry.

    My kids are young (one in Year 3 and one will be in prep/kindy next year), so I’ve got some time before the full worry of High School starts. However, I’m already thinking about it (see my recent post regarding the perceptions of our local High Schools). I’ve still got over a year of study to go before I get to teach in High Schools; hopefully teaching mainly IT subjects. I’m passionate about teaching (have taught at the tertiary level in Canada) and over the past few years it’s become clear to me that my views are very “socialistic” and I think that’s a good thing. The biggest part missing in our schools right now is COMMUNITY – I think the community will gladly pass judgement on a school but they often don’t really care enough to help it out!

    I’m the kind of Mum that takes my kid out of school for days off and we explore art galleries and science museums and sometimes just spend the day on the beach. My kids learn heaps on these days and sometimes I think they learn more than at school. I am an advocate of the idea of travel (if you can afford it)…..I plan to make sure my kids travel a lot during their high school years to allow them freedom but also to make them socialise with “other” people/cultures etc. However, I don’t think I could be OK with home-schooling the High School years because 1) I believe High School communities can be “good” and 2) High Schools are a great place for kids to make mistakes and learn from them.

  12. What a beautifully written reflection. Don’t you worry, I have the same fears. I can see being called to the school, I can see being labelled by teachers when I question ‘home work’ given or the way topics are being explored. Always politely though, as if in some way I might be able to help the ‘teacher’.
    Personally, I would get rid of bells in schools. But when some teachers can’t even get to a classroom after a bell, why should young people? Aside, about the teacher’s reaction, my wife does smack my daughter, if she is being naughty or dangerous or trying to poke her brother in the eye and my daughter smacked back. My wife has now said how can we smack her and not expect her to smack back? The school has said the bell rings when the day begins and ends, yet when your son went to leave, your son was effectively verbally smacked.
    I haven’t read the other comments, but I think we should be worried. We should question insitutions, the status quo. As I have already said to the pre-school- this is not about someone baby sitting my child, she is here for the experience, for learning.
    Over ten years teaching and I have seen so many colleagues not question the same things you are questioning, once some teachers stop questioning (aside from if they are going to get a payrise- not questioning what conditions are being sold off for the payrise), young people are going to stop questioning.

  13. This is what scares me. This kiddo I’ve got isn’t even born yet and I’m stressing about what to do when it hits school age. I have no idea how I’ll sit by and watch worksheet after worksheet simply because we have a system of government-mandated babysitting. But I’m torn, because I loved school for everything that happened outside of the classroom and because I don’t think it’s healthy for kiddo or me to be around each other 24/7 and because employment isn’t optional. If only it was viable to say to hell with you, I’ll build my own school…

    If you haven’t already, read The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Samurai-Helen-DeWitt/dp/0099284626/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340581446&sr=1-3). Brilliant, completely left-field chronicle of unschooling. It’s also mildly terrifying because I am totally Sibylla.

    Apologies for the complete lack of sage offerings in this comment – I’ve got no solutions at all, just wanted to say I hear you…

  14. Your post really resonates with me, too. It’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately. My daughter starts kindergarten next year and I am already stressing about what she might find there. I am more worried about primary than high school though, as I hope that by the time she reaches high school she’ll be in more of a position to stand up for herself and not take crap from anyone – including teachers! But I am really worried about primary, mostly due to my own experiences there which were less than positive. I was a fairly quirky, dreamy kid, didn’t really fit into the box, and didn’t have a great time in primary – felt completely stifled creatively, felt misunderstood and unsupported, and felt like I was dumb simply because I didn’t fit the mould of a ‘model student’. Utterly disengaged.

    By high school though, I had learnt how to navigate the system, and the knowledge that not only did I have parental support at home, but the kind of parents who would march right into the principal’s office to back me up, helped enormously. Please don’t discount how valuable this is, and would be, to your children. Even though a lot of things happen in schools that we really don’t agree with, I think if children have parents who value education, who value creativity and individuality and who teach that it’s ok to question things and to stand up for the things that you believe in – then despite all that other stuff, these kids will be fine.

    Recently I have moved and have fallen in with a crowd of more ‘alternative’ parents – most of them are homeschooling or considering homeschooling for future years. The thought has crossed my mind to do the same – and if I ever felt there was a need for it, I would do it, without question – but ultimately, I really just think I want more for my life than that. I want to follow my own dreams. I love my children – fiercely, passionately – but I don’t want to give up my own chance to be an educator, in order to provide for theirs. Raising daughters, I am also keenly aware of the need for them to see their mother out doing things with her life, and not sacrificing her own dreams for the sake of another person. I wouldn’t want them to do that, once they are grown, so I don’t want to model it for them while they are young.

    There are positives to mainstream schooling. There are negatives too, definitely; but for us, we are going to see if those positives outweigh the negatives.

    Good luck with your decision. It isn’t an easy one, but if anyone is equipped to make it then I think you are – but also remember that a lot can happen in the next 18 months and you don’t need to make a definite decision now.

  15. Lordy, do I have a book for you. If we can find a way to make our paths cross in the next couple days, I’ll give it to you as I’m traveling with it: “Now you see it,” by Cathy Davidson.

    For you and your commenter above, to be powerful in this profession it is vital you never come to “believe” in it. Education is not Tinkerbell; clapping in approval will only succeed in making your hands hurt. As a district-level colleague of mine said recently, “Let the revolution begin.”

    I truly love how your perception of your boys and your profession so intimately and powerfully inform the other. If the tracks the train is on only go one way, it needs to be wrecked to get it on a different course. As a teacher, especially at the high school level, I found myself spending a good deal of time addressing the gamesmanship of schooling, to give them tools to hack their way through. When I was done with that, we did science. There was little relationship between the two.

    Thank you, Bianca. Travel well. May your family heal quickly.

  16. Reblogged this on Class(ic) Stories and commented:
    Blogposts/messages like these make me think harder on a decision that I have been contemplating over the last one year: get my kids out of school and make them explore the world (with a little help from us parents)

  17. Big hugs! Its so hard to be a parent and a worker. Imagine if we could just focus on both well. I have been very fortunate. There have been times my children have felt ‘schooled’ and other times they have learned and been excited.

    Big hugs! And you are in my thoughts. I have one that just graduated and I am so excited for him in college…one with 2 years left of high school and one in Year 5 next year. There have been moments…but overall their experiences have been good.

  18. The more people I meet who homeschool, the more I’m convinced that it is a fantastic way to educate. One surprise was finding out about a friend who home-schooled her 2 children with the eldest just finishing with honours and about to study Chemical Engineering – how all that worked is beyond me. Strangely enough, if you’ve met us both back at uni, you’d have thought that I would be the one to home-school, not her. The reality is, I chickened out, ie, I didn’t think I could do it – I din’t think I could teach high school kids either, yet here I am.

    So, here’s to you, find a way – I’m sure there are several to choose from. My friend found a way and, not only did she make it work, they all flourished! I should add her kids are accomplished pianists as well – what with all the time they have to practice, not cooped up in classrooms. 🙂

    My eldest is now in year10 and the youngest, like Hotdogs, is still in year 5. I doubt that I will homeschool either of them, even for a year as someone else I know had done to spend more time with her kid. But, never say never, I guess.

    I don’t expect all their teachers to be inspiring but the wish is for them to have at least 1 who will see them for the individuals that they are – Ms15 has her Music teacher. Ms10 has JoKay. They are lucky – as am I (I say this more often nowadays as I hear more sob stories about students)! We’re also lucky as a family to have so much time together (we have breakfast and dinner together, at normal times, and mealtime convos are de rigueur as are annual family hols, etc) and NOT really NEED two incomes (we make adjustments). And as a teacher, I try to be that teacher, when I can…. and this is my reward.

    This has turned into an epically long reply. woops.

  19. Pingback: Fins, First Days, and Fearful Flight | thefreshmanexperience

  20. I feel exactly the same. After seeing number one son lose his confidence and self esteem in year 7 I was ready to home school him. I moved him to the local school and he is slowly rebuilding. I still believe he would learn far more at home with me but he enjoys being with his friends and doesn’t mind school. Educationally there’s not much challenge but he’s in a good place mentally so I’ll stick with it. In my dream world, I’d start the school I want for my kids and be the teacher I want for them and other kids. How about a new school for the NB? We could run it ourselves in the style of John Marsden…

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