Much of our attention in recent months has been given to the politics of the American presidential election. We have watched speeches and spoofs, seen debates and debacles, and listened to reason and rhetoric until we are mentally exhausted with the effort of discerning the difference between a “maverick” and a “candidate for change”. Regardless of whether you were elated or disillusioned with the results, the historical significance of this election cannot be denied. But the topic for this blog does not come from the platform of either candidate. Instead, it originated with an interest in a job title found on one of the resumes: “Community Organizer”.
Before going to the Senate, Barack Obama spent several years motivating people to step up and do something significant for their communities. His ability to unify people under a common belief was astounding, as was demonstrated in his record-breaking collection of nickel-and-dime campaign contributions. Whether or not one agrees with Obama’s ideals, I think there may be something worthwhile for the Mason community to glean from his example: He realized that true reform rarely takes place from the top down. Politicians, whether they are local or national, have a tendency to follow the status quo in their work, as they try to make decisions in the ways which are most likely to get them re-elected. Sure, there are some who are more radical thinkers, but those people are often ostracized (and even undermined) by career politicians, and therefore they are not usually very effective. True reform takes a grassroots effort. When the people of a community are educated about issues and empowered by numbers and a sense of belonging to something great, the politicians must pay attention or else be voted out of office.
Now let’s turn our attention to an issue we all care deeply about: Education. I spent the first four years of my teaching career in the public school system, and by the end of that time I felt so exhausted and defeated I doubted I would ever teach again. The system seemed oppressive to an “outside-the-box” thinker like me. I had not yet been introduced to Mason’s philosophy, but I was already beginning to develop some similar ideas of my own about how a classroom should look and function, and I worked very reflectively. What I wanted was a professional learning community with which to pool ideas and experiences in order to refine our practices and best serve the children in our charge. What I learned was that established communities (such as schools) will often resist change because the results are unknown. This, of course, is a natural human inclination because we are all most comfortable with the things and ideas with which we are most familiar. Enormous pressure is placed on new teachers to conform. Those who do are accepted, while those who do not often leave the profession within their first five years.
Since I have never been very good at conforming, I took my son out of school and taught him at home for a year before going to work (our of financial necessity) at a new school trying to implement some of Mason’s ideas.. The six years I spent at The Village School of Gaffney were growing years. I read the Mason volumes, studied for my Masters degree under the mentorship of Dr. Carroll Smith, and gradually worked out the Mason pedagogy with the students in my classroom. Things were going so well that it was arranged that I would take over as Director when my supervisor retired. And just when I thought I had found my niche, God made it plain to me that The Village School was not the end; it was the means—a stepping stone to my next phase of ministry.
When I left public school, I was angry and my heart was hard. I was quite content to “take care of me and mine” and let the rest of those people continue to do whatever it was they were doing. But at the beginning of my last year at The Village School, I felt compelled to tell our director I would not be back the next year. I questioned God. “Public school? Are you kidding?” This, to me, was the equivalent of God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh. But over the course of the year, my heart softened. I read The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondley and saw Mason’s compassion for the school children whose minds were not being fed. God began to impress on me that if this kind of education was good for my own children and those whose families can afford private school tuition or to give up a salary for one parent to stay home, it is even better for those who cannot, because they are the ones who need it most. My children would be ok anywhere, because they have two Christian parents in a stable home who love them, nurture them, and provide rich experiences for them. There are so many children who are not that lucky.
When my husband got a new job in Columbia last March, I forgot all of this for a moment. I thought maybe God had changed his mind and was going to allow me to home school my children while working on my PhD at the University of South Carolina. We listed our house in Gaffney with a real estate agent, who assured us that it would sell very quickly because it was so unique and desirable. We stashed some money in savings to live on until our house sold and we began home schooling in August. Now, while I am not willing to take complete responsibility for the housing market crash, I do believe God has used it to steer me back onto the path I was supposed to be treading, because I soon found myself in the belly of a whale. With our house still on the market and our savings almost depleted, I was forced to go back to work. And guess what? I am working in a public school.
Since the school year was already underway, there were no elementary teaching positions available. The only job posting in my district was for an Instructional Assistant in four ninth-grade science classes. On my first day of work I felt as though I had been dropped on a foreign planet. The students were huge and loud and did not seem to care about anything. There were so many textbooks and worksheets and lectures and exams. Worst of all, after years of being the one in charge of instruction, I was reduced to making copies and entering grades in the computer. Determined to learn the lesson God was trying to teach me, I came to the conclusion that this job does give me an extraordinary opportunity to simply sit back and really observe things reflectively. I am discovering that students do indeed care. Doing well in school is important to them, though they sometimes are unsure of how to perform in the ways they are asked to. They crave real relationships with caring adults and respond when they detect sincerity and authenticity. They cry out for mind food and find ways to protest when they are given sawdust. I have started a journal of my experiences which I will share another time. But the purpose of this blog is to attempt to begin some community organization.
Let’s begin at the top. George Bush’s No Child Left Behind has forced states to rely almost exclusively upon standards and standardized tests for teaching and assessment. The states, in turn, have forced it upon districts, who have forced it on administrators, who have forced it on teachers, who have forced it on students. I like to compare the current educational paradigm to manufacturing: The government wants to maximize production and minimize cost. In the classroom, this translates to cramming lots of content into a single year of school. Of course, the most efficient way of covering all this content is through lecture and tests, even at the elementary level. The problem is that when the process is sped up too much, the quality of the product suffers. Students are not allowed adequate time to form relationships with the content. What is worse is that this environment makes it extremely difficult for good relationships between administrators, teachers, parents, and students to be created and nurtured. I believe the answer to this problem begins with placing governance back in the hands of local authorities. Parents, teachers, and administrators who know the children in their schools are in a much better place to make decisions concerning those children than a group of bureaucrats whose primary interests are political. Once power is back in the hands of the people, we can begin meaningful dialogue one parent, teacher, and school at a time.
Yes, public education is a huge machine. Yes, this is a tremendous challenge. But we have a moral obligation to help give the nation’s children (and indeed the world’s children) an educational system which serves them instead of asking them to serve the system. We already have some things going for us. Parents are concerned. They know something is wrong, though they may not be able to put words to the problem. They only need education and direction. We have good teachers who really care about their students. They are on the lookout for a way to appease their superiors while being true to their convictions. We have students who are hungry for meat and meaning. And we have a sane solution in the writing of Charlotte Mason. We have been given a light for the darkness. Let us not hide it under a bushel.
I will be coming back to this topic soon. In the meantime, my hope is that everyone reading this blog will spend time reflecting and praying about this issue. I realize that not everyone will have the same calling I have. Many of you are squarely inside the will of God in your home school or private school. But we all can do something to help improve the state of public education. Here are some ideas I have, most of which begin in the local church. Please feel free to add to this list.
1. For parents: Start a Bible study at your church which focuses on the nature of the human and its relation to parenting and education. Maybe you could do a book study on For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and talk about some of the elements of Being Human by Ranald Macaulay.
2. For teachers and administrators: I would like to see a book published entitled, Christian Teachers in a Secular World, which would outline biblical principles for education, including the personhood of the child. (This is on my ever-growing “to-do” list!) Of course, two simple things anyone can do are to purchase copies of For the Children’s Sake or When Children Love to Learn to give as gifts to teachers and administrators and invite them to the ChildlightUSA conference. Now I am not delusional enough to think that this would make every teacher an ardent Mason follower, but at least it might plant a seed of thought in some, which the Holy Spirit can then cultivate. Remember, this is really His cause, not ours. And please remember that this particular group of people may be on the defensive because they are the ones who take the bulk of the blame for the situation as it is. Our goal should be to support them, not bash them. We are all on the same team working toward the same ends.
3. For students: Home school families can invite public school children to accompany them to places like the art museum or concerts in order to awaken their senses. Sunday School teachers can use Mason’s methods instead of published curriculum. (You know, the one which you do not like anyway because the stories are twaddly and the activities take too long to prepare?) How about actually reading the Bible together, studying great works of religious art and music, learning about church history, and creating a book of centuries?
4. For politicians: Be ridiculously pesky. Write letters. Organize petitions. Make phone calls. Do some research and give solid facts to the people who have the most power and, ironically, are the farthest removed from the situation. Most of the time, policy makers have no education training or experience, and therefore they tend to look at the school system as a business. They want “objective evidence” such as standardized test scores so that they can create the most efficient system at the lowest cost. This model makes sense to them. We need them to understand that building a system of education on standardized test scores is like building a house on the sand. While numbers may make us feel like we have objective data, these tests really attempt to quantify something which defies quantification and are therefore not useful in policy making.
5. Some home school moms may be reaching the end of their children’s school years. You have spent much time and energy learning Mason’s philosophy and methods. You are particularly well-positioned to help because you have a wealth of knowledge and time. Each year when I go to the conference at Gardner-Webb I am newly impressed by the depth of your understanding and your tenacity. If you have a teaching degree, why not go back into the public system and give to others what you have given so beautifully to your own children? If not, you could work as an assistant or a volunteer or even help organize a Charlotte Mason charter school.
I am sure many of you will have ideas which are much better that the ones I have outlined here. The point is to get involved on some level. Public education is worth our attention because it involves so many precious children. If we give it up as a lost cause, then we are consequently writing these children off as lost causes. That idea goes against all we believe. Find your voice.