I didn’t love school as a kid and it didn’t love me. And here I’ve dedicated my whole life to teaching in a school. Go figure.
But it makes perfect sense. Ever since reading John Holt’s How Children Fail in my junior year of high school, it occurred to me that schools could be better than they are. And I was blessed to fall into a school dedicated precisely to that mission. 43 years after I arrived at The San Francisco School in 1975, I’m still figuring out how to do a better job cultivating the “intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise” (part of our mission statement) of each and every child. And so are my fellow teachers at the school. Always a work in progress.
I think part of what makes such ventures successful is a healthy distrust of what normally constitutes success in a student and/or success in a school. Often the criteria is measured in right answers on tests and good behavior in the students. I believe in both—but only up to a point. I’m as much (if not more) interested in vibrant questions not easily answered (or ever answerable) in tests and behavior that reveals the deep character and the soulful needs of the child. Schools prefer the desks in rows, the margins aligned, the neat and orderly lines of children walking quietly in the halls, but some of the best moments in my classes come in exuberant outbursts of choreographed chaos.
I recently was asked to fill out a questionnaire from a therapist working with one of my students. This was a boy I actually kicked out of class the first day of school, so yes, he needed some support and attention. His behavior at times was making everyone miserable, including himself and the therapist and the test were one of the ways we listened to his call, knowing that “behavior is the language of children” and we had to de-code what he was trying to tell us. (And FYI, he made some impressive turnarounds and that's happy for everyone.)
But reading through the test that was attempting to corral his wild impulses into a graphable profile, I just had to laugh. Below are 10 out of 28 questions and be honest, how many of these apply to you on any given day? And how many applied to Einstein, John Lennon, Louis Armstrong, Steve Jobs, Paula Poundstone and host of other crazy geniuses who couldn’t walk between the narrow lines set out by schools? If we are truly to meet the needs of children, holding them to the standards of civil group behavior is essential, but not enough. We need to dig deeper and find ways to affirm their wild, restless, distractable, defiant, excitable selves, find the right containers—like music, art, drama, for example—and pay them some courtesy.
Here’s the test. Not much room for “exuberant outbursts of choreographed chaos.” How do you measure up?
CONNERS’ TEACHING RATING SCALE Mark: Never/ Sometimes/ Often/ Always
1. Easily distracted
3. Restless, always on the go
4. Forgets things he/she has learned
5. Argues with adults
6. Only pays attention to things he/she is interested in
7. Lacks interest in schoolwork
8. Poor in arithmetic
9. Fails to finish things he/she starts