Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Doing Education With The Children

Last week, I wrote a post about how I got into teaching. My main objective, honestly, was to express gratitude for my most important teaching mentor, Chris David, and to give voice to the opinion that apprenticeship is an under appreciated educational model, especially when it comes to teaching. Not many people read the post, but it did spark a thought-provoking discussion on Facebook.

One reader in particular felt that I was "throwing the baby out with the bath water." I confess, I was rather dismissive of the value of "academic" teacher training, and she was concerned that I was suggesting that we don't need "educated teachers" in the classroom. Lest there be any doubt, I most certainly do believe that classroom teachers should be well-educated, but I'm far from convinced that our current model of "academic" preparation is sufficient. And while I don't hold any official certification or degree as a teacher, I do feel that I have been well-educated, an education that largely came from working side-by-side, day-after-day with a master teacher: what I call my apprenticeship. But I should explain . . .

The Woodland Park Cooperative School at which I'm employed is one of 43 cooperative preschool programs scattered throughout the north end of Seattle that operate under the auspices of North Seattle College. Each of our schools is owned and operated by the parents who choose to enroll their children. A cooperative is a legal model of incorporation that is recognized in most states. In our case, we are a non-profit. With few exceptions, the only paid employees at these schools are the teachers. The rest of the the jobs required to make a school function (e.g. administrative work, enrollment, marketing, maintenance, custodial, bookkeeping) are handled by the parents who own the school as part of the "price" of ownership. In addition, every family must provide an adult (typically, but not always, a parent) once a week, who will serve in the classroom as an assistant teacher working under the guidance of the paid classroom teacher. It was in this role that I spent two years working with Teacher Chris.

I don't know if it's true today, but at one point every single paid teacher in our system was a former cooperative parent, folks like me who were educated through apprenticeship. Today there may be a few from outside the system, but they are in any event few and far between. The same can be said for the dozen or so parent educators who work with us through the college: most are also former cooperative parents, either from our system or another one. Many of us do have formal degrees and certifications, but as far as I know, every one of us spent at least a year, if not more, learning at the side of experienced cooperative teachers. Several of my own former parents have gone on to become teachers in cooperative schools when their children moved on to kindergarten.

In other words, our system doesn't just employ educated teachers, we create them.

Another of my mentors, Tom Drummond, joined the Facebook discussion: "The dynamics of a cooperative education are complex to define. It's more like aspiring to do the best together with children the group all knows in a joyful, systematically reflective, loving community . . . Why not organize education that way?" The education author Alfie Kohn has written that progressive education is "marinated in community." That is our model's great strength: our schools are more than a mere institutions, but rather communities of like-minded individuals who have come together around the common goal of raising our children together, like a purpose-built neighborhood or village. As individual "teachers" we might lack some of the finer points of pedagogy, we may not all be fully aware of developmental stages, we may not completely understand brain development or child psychology, but as we create our community, day-after-day, through love, commitment, and reflective practice, we become a community of learners, all of us together.

If human existence was a twelve hour clock, we stopped being hunter-gatherers at around 11:59 and our brains are in many ways still the brains of hunter-gatherers. We have evolved to learn within the context of small communities, young and old together, figuring it out, engaging not in the top-down hierarchy that characterizes normal schools, but rather through the kind of deep democracy that is rarely found in American educational institutions. This is what anthropologists tell us characterized the educational lives of our most ancient ancestors: we are not doing education to children, but instead doing it with them as members of a community.

One of the most important things I learned from my cooperative mentors is the habit of being not just a teacher, but a researcher. Yes, I sometimes read scholarly books and articles, I sometimes attend lectures, but most of what I do is make a study of our cooperative community, including both children and adults. Much of what I write here on the blog is the story of this practice. I may not be educated in the sense that I'm fully conversant on my Vygotsky, Dewey, Montessori, or Piaget, but I am the world's leading expert on how children are learning within the context of the Woodland Park Cooperative School, in the spirit of the great Vivian Paley.

I once read the story about a well-respected mycologist, a scientist who studies fungi. He was not formally trained in any way, but each day he would go into the woods behind his house and make a close study of what he found there. He did this for years, then decades, making observations, studying, developing theories, then testing them. Day after day he would examine the same patch of woods. He may not have been an expert on all the fungi, but he was the expert, the undisputed expert, on the fungi in his backyard. In many ways I identify with this mycologist.

I hope that I don't come off as being dismissive of anyone else's path in this profession. My wish, however, is that we never standardize it. I know that puts me at odds with many of my fellow educators who seek to raise the profile, pay, and esteem of our profession by creating more "rigorous" educational standards for classroom teachers. I get it, but worry that in our drive to be like all the other professions, we risk leaving behind what makes schools like ours special: I worry that in doing so we will be serving our (fundamentally un-democratic) system rather than the children, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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