An Alternative Teacher's View on Alternative Education

by Nancy Monson

School should create the best possible framework for kids to come to learning with joy, curiosity and the desire to find out what life is all about. But, if you read what is happening in education today, if you watch the majority of children’s reactions to school, this is NOT what is happening. Many, many children are bored, lethargic, apathetic, frustrated, lost or stressed out from pressure to achieve. There is a severe teacher shortage in most states, overcrowding, lack of funds and total disagreement from any large segment of educators as to what really does or could work in a new model of education. I’ve met many men and women who dream of being great teachers, and have the heart and desire to be shining stars for countless children, but they have their hands tied by the system; by dead curriculum, too many children, demands for higher test scores and not being given the support they need for difficult situations/students. And yet, there are many teachers who struggle on, trying their best, giving everything they have. An even greater problem than trying to find a way to support teachers is finding an answer to the question, are children really getting what they need to face the stress, complexity and bombardment of this culture through the education they are receiving?

I think that many parents who look ahead to the future feel a certain fear for their children as they grow into adults. The social, political and environmental chaos of the world increases at an alarming rate, and educators MUST ask themselves how to awaken intelligence in the student, so that the coming generation might have the alignment and consciousness necessary to stop the destruction and greed that the most powerful nations of the world perpetuate. Our present system of education is mostly based on teaching children skills, techniques and facts. What is almost completely missing is giving children a comprehensive understanding of themselves and of life, and techniques do not give us the capacity to do this. Only when education has more of a focus on internal experiences instead of external manifestations, results and test scores, will we begin to approach what Krishnamurti calls the highest function of education, which is "to bring about an integrated individual who is capable of dealing with life as a whole."

Many parents are turning to alternative education for answers. Many alternative schools swing from one extreme to another and lack balance, and most are just the same systems in different clothing. What are some of the most important features that truly make a school alternative, that could set education on a new path of teaching children how to deal with the human problems: self-centeredness, need for attention and power, greed, separation (technological problems are not so complex as the human ones) that are at the root of the world’s problems?

  1. Children must be learning primarily through experience. They must be engaging their bodies and developing their physical capacities. For young children, self -confidence, and the beginning of self-knowledge is centered in the body. The senses must be fully engaged, the ability to be receptive not just to what is visible, but to what is invisible, to qualities, to feelings and intuitions. They must have feeling for what they are learning about, be interested, curious, wanting to know. There must be time for the creative as well as for the practical. What they are learning about must have meaning in their lives, they see themselves as organically related to what they are learning. And, it must challenge their intellect, draw upon previous knowledge and require deeper thinking, analyzing, observing. This mode of "three centered learning" must be combined with integrated learning in order to prevent the constant fragmentation of most education systems. For example, if they are learning about trees, they need to do such things as have extended time with trees climbing, touching, sitting under them, painting them, building with wood, planting them, finding out how they grow, what makes them healthy or sick, what they are used for, what food could come from them, what they sound like in different kinds of weather, etc. This kind of learning in-depth presents children with every angle of learning so that life’s riches are revealed and the superficiality of our culture is not so mesmerizing and addictive.
  2. There must be time for children to be alone, to be quiet, to develop a relationship to their internal world, to silence, to hearing the whispers of truth that reside within. Almost everything we do draws children outside of themselves, whether it be constant entertainment and stimulation, praise, punishment, rewards, (grades) or never ending busy-ness. There need to be transitions during the day, quiet times, teaching children how to be still, how to listen, how to relax. All this can fall under the heading of self-knowledge, and without it, no real learning is possible.
  3. Children must be educated as to how their bodies work so that they might have the opportunity for life long health. This includes learning all about food: what the body needs, how to cook, how to eat consciously. A school should have a wonderful p.e. program, very broad, including all the basic skills and the sheer joy of having and moving the body. Children need time in big open spaces, not fenced in, to explore using their bodies in every way possible. Every body has its own capacities, and children deserve the opportunity to develop these to the fullest.
  4. Children need extensive time in nature. True ecology, or earth education, or even real science, starts in relationship to the natural world. To have a relationship requires time and experience, just like with a person. Nature is an incredible tool for children to learn all about life. All academics were born of the natural world. To move forward with a new model of education one of the steps is back to the source, nature, the place from which all true knowledge, understanding and wisdom originated. Children also experience more a sense of peace, contentment, slowing down, and integration in nature if they are outside long enough. They seem to enter more of a village type of relationship with one another, which fosters experiences of acceptance, and receiving one another’s qualities.
  5. There must be time for the individual and just as important, a focus on teamwork and community. Children must have time to discover what real communication is. Love between children, staff and family must be at the heart of a school’s philosophy, but the nourishment for that love comes from opening doors into experiences where people feel blended and merged. There is a line from a Rumi poem, "Merge yourself with the community and know the joy of the soul." A teacher must be deeply receptive to each student to understand how to help them feel safe, understood, free to express feelings of all kinds, in order to foster this kind of atmosphere. This brings me to the most important aspect of all: the teacher.
  6. The teacher must be fully engaged in the path of self-understanding. If we are educating our children to deeply know themselves as the path to understanding others and the world, then the teacher must be doing the same. You can not teach children anything you are not doing yourself. If you want them to eat healthy, be physically strong, active, confident and in tune with their bodies then you must be. Too many children lack respect for adults because adults are hypocrites. But it goes much further than this. Since most of us teachers have been educated by the system, it requires a painful unraveling and letting go of many established ideals to come to a whole new method of education. There is a great deal to be said about all this.
  7. There must be a parent education program. Teachers and parents must be on the same page, working together, to help each child develop their potential. When parents and teachers work together, all obstacles are much easier, whether they be in parenting, education or in dealing with the problems the world presents. It is almost impossible for teachers to really help children without more involvement with the parents. Bottom line: children are the most affected by their home life. There needs to be help and commitment around how to help parents create harmonious family life and how to deal with all the endless changes and stresses of every day living.

I didn’t mention academics because it is obvious that a good school teaches children everything they need to fully engage the world with a bright and intelligent intellect, with nothing neglected. Of course there are many ways to do this, but if these other aspects of education are part of the school’s philosophy, most likely their academics will be taught in a way that is challenging, exciting, and meeting high standards.

© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.

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