School is child abuse — yeah, not really

Last summer, I was on a silent meditation retreat where one of my work assignments (everyone does some work to help keep the center running) was to clean the glass doors into the meditation hall. One afternoon, I was washing the windows and trying to be mindful of washing the windows, but of course, my mind has its own ideas and wasn’t so interested in the window washing. I started thinking about my dilemma of the month (of the year, actually): am I a bad person if I go teach in a private school instead of in an inner city school with kids who really need all the good teachers they can get? I also started thinking about my math students, and how much they struggle to maintain lives and identities in the face of never-ending, often mind-numbing school days and homework. Out of the blue, the thought popped into my head: “traditional school is child abuse.”  For the remainder of the retreat, my meditation mostly consisted of metta practice for schoolchildren (and a lot of crying). (Metta or “lovingkindness” meditation basically consists of repeating well-wishing phrases like “may you be happy” over and over and is intended to develop sincere kindness towards all people.)  I came home from that retreat having gone from thinking I probably wanted to become a Montessori teacher to knowing that that was the next step in my life.

I’ve avoided telling this story for quite a while, because I anticipated getting quite a lot of criticism for claiming that school is child abuse (assuming anyone read it at all). I expected to be told that I’m overly prejudiced against traditional schools and they aren’t really that bad, and that I’m excessively committed to Montessori and not all Montessori schools are perfect. Or that I’m belittling the suffering of children experiencing real child abuse. Or that I’m insulting the many amazing teachers out there who have a wonderful impact on their students’ lives. Or that I’m just plain exaggerating. (I did look it up, and no, the official definition of child abuse, at least in the US, just doesn’t stretch that way.) More importantly, I’ve avoided telling this story because I think those are all valid arguments and I don’t really believe that all traditional school is literally child abuse.

What I do really, deeply, genuinely believe is that the one and only thing that matters in education is whether teachers are willing and able to see and connect to the humanity in each and every one of their students. As I see it, a teacher’s central task is to help each child recognize their own worth and give each child the tools and the space to grow into the unique human being only they can become. Everything else is extraneous. Students who can see (and even shape) their own role in the world, have the potential to be forces for good, no matter how routine and basic, or complicated and innovative, their work and their lives are.

There are lots of traditional school teachers who accomplish that task. Many people have stories of that one teacher who made them feel like it was okay to be themselves, or like they could really follow their heart’s desire, or like they had some value and some right to exist. Those people are not child abusers, neither by the official definition  nor by my meditating monkey mind’s definition. But here’s the thing, the traditional school system puts all sorts of goals and values front and center, but not the goal of recognizing and connecting with the unique nature of each student. That means that it takes a truly extraordinary teacher to accomplish their central task with any, let alone all, of their students. The need to meet the demands of a tightly structured curriculum, to judge all their students by one standard (which can’t possibly take into account the all the nuances of human nature), the need to keep all students together on one page…all those pressures can make it very difficult to respect the individual circumstances of different students.

I’ve actually had this happen to me. I teach standardized test prep classes (yes, really), which run on a super tight schedule because there is way too much to cover in the amount of class time we have. In my SAT classes especially, I nearly always have a few students who don’t do the homework, which totally screws up my scheduling. Every time this happens, I want to strangle the students involved for messing up my schedule, and potentially getting me in trouble for not covering everything, and yadda, yadda, yadda. It takes conscious effort on my part to remember that most of these students have been signed up by their parents and don’t want to be there (at 9am on a Sunday morning no less), that college and the SAT are still fairly abstract ideas for them, that they are already overburdened with too much schoolwork, and that they are desperately trying to maintain some semblance of a personal and social life in between all those pressures. Remembering that helps some, but usually all it does is keep me from taking their heads off, because I’m still worrying about how I’m going to make the class “work”.  Add to that the fact that I have essentially no time to get to know my students beyond what’s absolutely needed for the class, and I end up dividing my students into the cooperative and the uncooperative, the good scorers and the bad scorers, and seeing them as representatives of their categories, not as people. I’m not a traditional classroom teacher, but I’m pretty sure most teachers experience that sort of pressure every day.

A Montessori environment, on the other hand, puts the task of connecting with each child front and center. A Montessori guide’s first job is to observe her students — a crucial task, since it is difficult to connect with what is unique and valuable in each child if you can’t see what that is. As much as possible, externally imposed goals and arbitrary deadlines are removed, so the guide is free to focus on the needs of the actual children in front of her, instead of trying to make them be who they are “supposed” to be. Since the students are free to interact and cooperate, they can often find what is valuable in each other, and the class environment itself allows children to discover their own value without anyone “giving” them their self worth. There are certainly bad Montessori teachers out there, but the system makes it much more likely that teachers will really be able to find a connection with each of their students, because it’s all built to help make that happen. The environment also makes it likely that children will accomplish the really important task — recognizing their own value and competence — even when their teacher fails to make a connection.

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