Returning to the Classroom after Self Directed Education

With the advent of COVID-19, I had to put my exploration of free schools and self-directed education on hold. Last year, I returned to Baltimore City and taught virtually at Green Street Academy, a public charter school in West Baltimore. What follows is one in a series of posts reflecting on my teaching experience in the past year.

Returning to a traditional classroom wasn’t quite crossing the Rubicon, but crossing the Patapsco isn’t too far off.

After a two-year hiatus during which I worked in municipal policy and did participant research in free schools (democratic and self-directed education), I returned to a “traditional” classroom this year – “traditional” in the sense that I taught a specific class within a public school, to a group of students who were required to attend, in which I determined the daily agenda and learning tasks and assigned grades based on how well students performed those tasks. Of course, teaching on zoom during the pandemic was hardly traditional, and I’ll share those reflections in another post.

Returning to a school gave me a fresh opportunity to reflect on my experience in democratic and self-directed education. Here’s what I’ve gleaned over the past year:

Self-Healing for Self

Working in free schools gave me time and space to work on decolonizing, deschooling, and healing myself. As a friend who works in SDE said to me recently, “I’m still just experiencing how to do nothing.” Philly Free School was the first place I’ve ever been (including work, school, home, and community) where other people did not expect me to be “productive” – i.e., writing papers, mowing lawns, making money, writing lesson plans, even producing personal reflections that met someone else’s criteria. I was allowed to sit and do nothing for the first time in my life. Not that I did that for long. I’m a busy person who likes to make projects for themselves and keep busy.

But sitting there with nothing to do for a few weeks pushed me in two ways: 1) it made me realize how busy my mind is, how scared I am of stillness, how that busyness is both a symptom and a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma inflicted by adultism, white supremacy culture, and capitalism in my childhood, and how much I can continue to grow towards peace in my life and 2) it taught me to be less reflexive and more reflective in my constant urge to “do more.” When deadlines and projects arise in my life, I am more likely to ask: Is this actually making life better for myself or others? Who and what does my labor serve? Am I doing this just because someone told me to or because I feel obligated? Why do I feel obligated? Is this something I actually want to do? I am happier and healthier for my time in free schools. I visited Philly Free School a few weeks ago, and stepping into the space, I felt myself relax and breath deeply. Even my body remembered what a happy, healthy space that was for me!

Self-Healing for Others

This process of decolonizing, deschooling, and healing has made me a better teacher. Past Haley has uncritically prioritized standards, curricula, administrative expectations, and my own value system over students’ genuine interests and personal happiness. In Dr. Bettina Love’s words, I was complicit with the American educational system in “spirit murdering” black and brown children. My role as a teacher in Baltimore City in many ways parallels the role of a white plantation overseer, in that I am paid to control and coerce young people’s minds and bodies. These are realizations I came to by being in free schools and recognizing how I was reproducing my own trauma on younger people. Being more conscious of this role is uncomfortable (taking responsibility for your actions usually is) but it allows me to shift my relation to my students and the schooling institution.

Two examples:

Work

In the past, I have pushed students to work longer and harder than is healthy; to sit and work for long periods of time without movement, rest, or laughter. There is nothing inherently wrong with working hard for a sustained amount of time, but I had never questioned that learning to discipline the body in this manner was good. I remember reading a passage of Gramsci (ironically, he was advocating for a more progressive educational program in this work): “In education one is dealing with children in whom one has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects, which cannot be acquired without the mechanical repetition of disciplined and methodical acts. Would a scholar at the age of forty be able to sit for sixteen hours on end at his work-table if he had not, as a child, compulsorily, through mechanical coercion, acquired the appropriate psycho-physical habits?” (Gramsci 1917).

Reading this for a transformative education class, while working at Philly Free School, it suddenly clicked for me. I had been taught to isolate body and mind, to make the latter subservient to the former, to discipline myself past the point of health and happiness for the sake of intellectual pursuits that were inextricably tied up in my capitalist/protestant conception of productivity. I was inflicting the same pattern on students because I believed learning to work hard, to the exclusion of joy, was the right thing to do and the way to make it in the world. I no longer believe that. This doesn’t mean I don’t push kids to work hard. There are many reasons to work hard, and this semester, many of my students would articulate those reasons to their peers: We need to rehearse this presentation more to make it smooth. We need to talk more in class so we can build community. We need to complete our research goal on time so that we have something to present for the Friday share-out. Work in itself is no longer a value for me. It is a tool to strive for other values: community, equality, joy.

Perfection

In the past, I have wanted student work to be perfect, especially student work that is on display to other adults, especially work that is on display to adults who hold institutional status, like administrators or outside experts. I have seen students’ production as a reflection of my excellence or lack thereof. And I have previously defined “excellence” within very white standards: Standard English grammar, analytical writing, etc. I have taken students’ leadership roles from them and even gone so far as to rewrite their work in order to meet my standard of perfection. Failure scared me and led me to be domineering.

Being in self-directed education spaces allowed me to see how afraid I was of failure, and how anxious I became when I had to sit on my hands and refrain from wresting control from young people. In my classroom this year, I worried much less about failure. I still coached students and gave ample feedback, but I let them stumble, stand, and try again. Sometimes breakout rooms were silent and awkward. But I kept on coaching students to facilitate discussion, and they grew in that skill. Sometimes presentations (even ones with administrators in the call) had flaws. But I celebrated the strengths of the presentation with my students and reflected with them on areas for growth. Becoming confident in growth decreased my urge to micromanage and dominate my students.

The Big Change

The Big Change – what I tell everybody when they ask me how it is transitioning back to a public-school classroom – is that being in free schools reprogrammed my relationship to young people. It allowed me to see compassionately the way I had been harmed by adults, the way I had reproduced that harm, and the path for building healthier and less hierarchical relationships. I rarely think of my work as teaching. That word has so much baggage attached. This past semester, I was more of a guide or facilitator. On the best days, I was just a notetaker and cheerleader, because the young people were running the show.

I was able to let young people lead because working in free schools reshaped my understanding of power. Nowadays I rarely desire power over young people, and much more often desire power with them. I am still learning to collaborate with young people, and I will continue to learn. It’s hard because it calls me to coach without dominating, lead without controlling, and provide feedback without preaching. But being in free schools and seeing other adults on their journey towards decolonization and deschooling has allowed me to start on that path.

The young people have noticed. My relationships with students have never been awful, but this year has been so much better. My students and I have felt joy and community in my classroom more days than not. I’ve done less “teaching” this year than ever, but this is the first year I can truthfully say I love being a teacher.

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