Our school story
Updated: Feb 17
I am 33 years old. I have been in school my whole life.
I started Kindergarten in 1991 and have never left school.
I have never taken a year off, never taken a break.
I went from high school right to college. After I graduated with a double major in elementary education and English, I started teaching at the same middle school I am still at currently.
After three years of teaching, I decided I needed more ‘school’ and earned my master’s degree in 2013.
I have only ever been a student, teacher, and coach.
I now think of my 'schooling' as my past life. In that past life, I graduated as the high school salutatorian, from college with cum laude honors, and graduated with my masters by giving a damn exciting experience when I presented my thesis.
I have believed in the system of school for a long time. It has served me well. My parents believed, or maybe I believed, if I got good grades, did all the stuff, and went to college, I would have a good life. And for me, this has been pretty much true.
However in my current life, I no longer believe our school system is necessary for children today. It took me six years to accumulate this mindset; and 25 years for the other. I was only able to come to this conclusion through my experience of school with our son.
None of my schooling has made me rethink my beliefs about school more than watching my son start kindergarten. This experience will remain with me forever. While I am so grateful I had to go through it because it has forever changed me, it was one of the darkest times of my life. I questioned my entire being, my choices, myself. I did not believe myself to be a good parent. I wondered what I had done wrong, how I could fix it, and blamed so much of it on myself. The only person I could change was me; so I did.
Brayden is our oldest child; he is eight as I write this. He started kindergarten three years ago, 2016. He had already had two years of preschool and would be six years old so we felt he was prepared to enter Kindergarten. We decided to send him to a smaller school in our large district, only about 50 kids per grade. Josh and I both come from small schools and saw this as a great benefit. We wanted him to feel connected to his school and from what we knew, we weren’t sure if he could get this is in an elementary school that had five classrooms per grade. We briefly discussed leaving him at the private school we attended for preschool but believed he needed to attend public school as we both work in the public school system.
We met his teacher at open house. There were parents and families everywhere; I looked around at the desks and posters as I waited my turn. I introduced myself to her; she introduced herself to us by giving us handouts and packets of words Brayden could begin studying. She explained kindergarten students would be learning 100 sight words this year and then she moved on to the next family.
We stayed for a while, found Brayden’s seat, checked out the room. There were no toys or play houses like preschool. Brayden had went to preschool for two years. I’m not sure why he did. Since he is the oldest, we did things by the 'book', followed the rules: go to preschool at three and four years to be 'ready' for kindergarten. Whatever 'ready' was, he was not and we were even less so. It all sounds so ridiculous now as I type it.
We didn’t hear much as he started school. Brayden told us school was good every day and gave no other details. He seemed happy, seemed like himself. I emailed the teacher after a couple weeks to check how things were going. This email triggered the beginning of our reality check.
After hearing her explain that he was having trouble following the rules, sitting still, and listening, the teacher and I agreed he should do a daily behavior chart. The teacher would judge his compliant behavior and communicate it to us on a color chart. Over the next few weeks, we saw his behavior worsen, increase, and escalate. I saw a broken child at home; defeated, he would bang his head against the floor and repeat how he was a 'bad' kid.
We pulled back and made it a weekly progress update instead of a daily one. We used a color chart, cubes, and other ways to try and control his behavior. I got emails saying he was walking across tables, pinching/hitting a friend, playing too rough at recess and getting fix-it plans that had vague information about disrespect or disruption.
By November, the teacher was referring our child on to the problem-solving team. He had now become a problem to solve.
I felt defeated, exhausted. I cried almost every night. Sometimes I cried in front of Brayden; sometimes I was able to wait until all the boys went to sleep. I yelled too much. I could no longer control my own behavior let alone my child’s. I felt helpless. The more I tried to control things, the worse it all became.
I wondered why was school so hard for him? All he had to do was listen to his teacher and do what he was told. It’s easy; I did it my whole life.
I knew this wasn’t working. I was living in a state of constant pressure. While problem-solving was scheduled for early December, we had already taken so much action on our own.
Brayden had seen a natural path doctor, started going to the chiropractor on a regular basis, and we increased his vitamins. We worked hard as parents to be consistent with our discipline practices: time-out for every instance of insubordination or not following our directions. We met with the principal and teacher multiple times: what were our options? I asked if he was really that bad, what wasn't I seeing in the past two years of preschool that had now come to the surface? The principal was kind and listened, but still, we found no solutions.
Meanwhile, I saw so many problems with the system that I could not control: he had one recess, one. There were 23 students in his class, 16 of which were boys. He had gym twice a week. There was an expectation of 90 minutes of reading and 90 minutes of math each day. None of these problems were my child, yet no one was willing to discuss them.
The tipping point for me happened eight days before the Christmas break. The teacher called me to explain Brayden was hiding under tables with two other boys and she had removed all the other students from the classroom. She asked if I could come to the school and see it.
I came there. He was doing exactly what she said. The teacher wanted to talk to me about what was going on while my son laughed with his classmates under the tables. I wanted to get him (and me) the fuck out of there. I assertively told her I would need to talk to her about this later and I took him and left.
I did not say a word to him in the car. I don’t even know what I did. I must have taken him to daycare and went back to work. I remember him curled up against the passenger door, like he was trying to get away from me. I remember having tears in my eyes, trying to hold them in.
I felt like a terrible mom. The system had made me feel like I had failed at the utmost important level in life: raising another human being.
Josh and I had long conversations for the next few days, more crying on my end. We decided he would not return to this elementary school. We contemplated options: pulling him from kindergarten all together and starting again next year, homeschooling, or just skipping kindergarten and starting again in the fall for first grade.
We settled on going back to our other old school that we had been at for preschool. We based this decision on our experience the past two years there. We had mostly positive and kind reports from Brayden's previous teachers. I never intended for my children to attend private school; seems crazy to pay for school when it is free.
Brayden’s schooling is better now but certainly not perfect. He participates in five recesses (before school, morning, lunch, afternoon, and after school), he has a small class of 15 students, his school has an art teacher, and art is a main focus for the school. He has a lot of freedom at recess to play with many different students and make mistakes during this social time. There is a sense of community through faith.
We have found success here. Brayden is happy. We received our first positive parent teacher conference this fall (2018) for both our boys. I was shocked when I walked away from that. I never expect overly positive things to be said about my boys.
Zander is in school now too: he is smart but so much like Brayden was in kindergarten. The difference this time around with child number two is me. I understand this a system that I have to work with, but also work to change. My boys will go through it so I must do what I can. All I could do at the time was change myself.
Re-reading my emails from his kindergarten teacher from 2016 - it is now 2018 - makes me sad for who I once was. I was part of the problem for my son; I was caught in the system of compliance and academics at too young of an age. I do not blame the school or teacher for this situation, it is the system that is not working. It was not a matter of private or public; it was a matter of what was happening there.
I understand the system so I no longer feel a need to control it. I am not blind to it; I am not fearful of it. It is what it is. Since I no longer feel a pressure to conform to it, I am able to be free. I do not feel a need to comply to society’s standard of education because I understand that education is so much more than school.
My goal is to help others realize this. How do we change the system of school? We don’t. It's too big, an institution. Instead we change how we view it and work on ourselves. That is what I continue to do every day so my boys will understand this system and themselves.
As an educator and mom, I am grateful for this turning point in my life as I am so much better for it. I feel sad that I did not learn this lesson sooner so I could have maybe spared my son. Nevertheless, we are all stronger, smarter, and calmer today and continue to be free while living within the system.
(Follow up note from 2020: our boys and myself have found an alternative school. See my other blog posts for the rest of our story.)