Teachers Who Quit to Create Schooling Alternatives

It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to experience burnout or feel demoralized by the weight of their work. Many leave the classroom and the education profession behind to pursue other careers. In fact, U.S. Labor Department data reveal that public school educators are quitting their jobs at record-breaking rates.

But some public school teachers wonder if conventional schooling may be the root of their discontent, not education itself. They are frustrated by standardized curriculum expectations, more testing, an emphasis on classroom compliance and the antagonistic relationships between teachers and students that a rigid schooling environment can cultivate. Rather than abandoning their passion for education, some of these teachers are building alternatives to school outside of the dominant system that nurture authentic teaching and learning relationships.

Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional

One of the pioneers of schooling alternatives is Kenneth Danford, a former public middle school social studies teacher who left the classroom in 1996 to launch a completely new learning model. Along with a teacher colleague, Danford opened North Star, a self-directed learning center in western Massachusetts. They sought to create a space for young people, ages 11 and up, that prioritized learner freedom and autonomy, while rejecting the coercion and control they witnessed in the conventional classroom. This involved building the learning center as a resource for peer interaction, optional classes, workshops, and adult mentoring while providing teenagers with the opportunity to come and go whenever they chose.

Using homeschooling as the legal mechanism to provide this educational freedom and flexibility, North Star members attend when they want, frequently using the center to supplement community college classes, extracurricular activities and apprenticeships. Full-time, annual membership up to four days per week is $8,200, but no family has ever been turned away for an inability to pay these fees. Some families choose part-time enrollment options that start at $3,250 per year for one day a week at North Star.

In his new book, Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional, Danford reflects on his more than 20 years of running North Star and the hundreds of young people who have gone through his program, often gaining admission to selective colleges or pursuing work in fulfilling careers. He told me in a recent interview:

I feel like I’m making an important difference in teens’ lives, perhaps the most important difference. And all this loveliness has social implications and can be shared.

Liberated Learners

Sharing this model with others was the next step for Danford. After receiving many calls and emails from educators across the country and around the world who wanted to launch centers similar to North Star, in 2013 Danford helped to establish Liberated Learners, an organization that supports entrepreneurial educators in opening their own alternatives to school.

One of the centers that sprouted from Liberated Learners is BigFish Learning Community in Dover, New Hampshire. Founded by Diane Murphy, a public school teacher for 30 years, BigFish allows young people to be in charge of their own learning. Murphy opened the center in January 2018 with five students; today, she has over 30. Full-time tuition at the center (up to four days a week) is $9,000 per year, with part-time options also available.

An English teacher, she never expected to be the founder of a schooling alternative. “I loved my job,” she says, but she quit to create something better. “The main reason I left is because the kids began showing up more and more miserable,” Murphy continues.

In my last few years, I was meeting dozens of students who were depressed, anxious and burned out at just 13 years old. More and more rules, more tests, and more competition had sucked the fun out of learning and truly broken many kids.

Granted more freedom and less coercion, young people at BigFish thrive—and so do the teachers. “Real teachers understand that our role is to support and lead young people to discover and uncover their talents, most especially to find their passions and their voice,” says Murphy. Working outside of the conventional school system may be a way forward for more teachers who want to help young people to drive their own education, in pursuit of their own passions and potential.

Entrepreneurial Teachers

According to Kevin Currie-Knight, an education professor at East Carolina University, it’s rare for teachers to recognize that their dissatisfaction as an educator may be a schooling problem, not a personal one. Currie-Knight, who studies self-directed education and alternative learning models, says that the tendency is for teachers to internalize the problems they encounter in the classroom. If children aren’t engaged or are acting out, teachers typically assume that it must be their poor teaching and that they must not be cut out for the job, rather than seeing it as a problem with coercive schooling more broadly.

“School isn’t challengeable,” says Currie-Knight of its entrenched position in our culture.

The teachers who leave to create alternatives have a really amazing ability to separate learning from schooling. It takes a higher level of thought and an amazing ability to detach.

Currie-Knight explains that most teachers go into education either because they really like a certain subject area or they really like kids, or both. “In the conventional environment,” he says,

teachers are going to be in rooms where the vast majority of students just really don’t care about that subject at that point.

Many of these teachers conclude that it’s their teaching that is the problem, rather than the underlying dynamics of conventional schooling that compel young people to learn certain content, in certain ways and at certain times.

Teachers who leave the classroom to create schooling alternatives can be an inspiration to other teachers who may feel frustrated or powerless. Rather than blaming themselves, entrepreneurial teachers are the ones who imagine, design, and implement new models of education. As BigFish’s Murphy proposes:

We need to flip schools to become community learning centers filled with mentors, classes, programs and materials, and we need to trust young people and let them lead.

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Co-Working Meets Co-Learning

At first glance, Workspace looks like any other co-working environment. Nestled in a business park in Bethel, Connecticut, the entrance to the red, barn-like building opens into a bright lobby with offices, cubicle spaces, lounges, studios, and a kitchen. It’s not long before visitors realize that Workspace is used here as a verb, not a noun, and that this space is much more than a shared office. Workspacing is something families do, tailoring work and education in their own ways, while in community with others. Combining co-working and co-learning, with a prevailing spirit of entrepreneurship, Workspace Education is on the cutting-edge of innovative K-12 learning models.

For its founder, Cath Fraise, Workspace fills a void. When she launched the center in 2016, Fraise envisioned a dynamic space that would allow parents to work, children to learn, businesses to sprout, and community to flourish—all in a collaborative, multi-generational setting. “I started by wanting to make a school, but I wanted everyone to be able to afford it,” she says.

I also wanted to incubate social entrepreneurs and have a space where everyone is working and creating small businesses.

Trained as a Montessori educator who taught in public schools in Australia, Fraise spent the past decade doing project-based homeschooling with her two children, who are now 20 and 16. She wanted to create a space that would support learners with a wide assortment of educational resources, while also supporting their parents who are pursuing their own career goals and entrepreneurial endeavors.

A Concierge Model

Workspace acts on a concierge model of learning and working. In addition to a one-time $1,500 upfront fee for 10 hours of parent training and onboarding, parents pay $3,500 per year per child (with sibling discounts). This combined fee gives them access to six days a week of shared office space, WiFi, and business support, while working with Workspace staff and education specialists to tailor a learning plan for their child, who joins them at Workspace each day.

The affordable cost gives parents and their children unlimited support and access to all Workspace amenities and offerings, including the art studios, music room, research labs, gym, wood shop, and maker-space; “Families say that Workspace is just as good for the parents as the children,” says Fraise.but some of Workspace’s 80 families take advantage of additional services, such as private tutoring and weekly classes offered by outside educators.

For instance, some families use a popular Workspace math tutor, a former Morgan Stanley employee, who charges $50 per child for seven weeks of weekly, one-hour math instruction. Another popular lab class, taught by a Yale-trained Ph.D. scientist, costs families $1,200 per year for two hours of lab work and instruction each week. There is also an onsite Acton Academy ($6,800/year for full-time enrollment) if parents want a drop-off education option. According to Fraise, most parents don’t pay for additional drop-off programming and rely instead on the robust resources and supportive environment that Workspace offers each of its members. “Families say that Workspace is just as good for the parents as the children,” says Fraise. “We’re an interdependent community uniting to create the best education for the children in the building.”

Working and Learning Together

The supportive learning and working community is what attracted Melanie Ryan to Workspace. Her 11-year-old son, Justin, spent his early elementary years in a private Montessori school and then went to public school, where he struggled. “The teacher was amazing,” says Ryan, “but he does have some special needs such as attention deficits, as well as being a very physically active, athletic boy, so sitting for seven hours a day and not having a lot of options wasn’t a good fit for him.”

His mother says that Justin, who had previously been a happy, agreeable kid, experienced serious school-related trauma and self-loathing, saying things like, “I’m stupid.” Ryan, a psychotherapist who has been in private practice for over 15 years, knew she had to do something to address her child’s emotional distress. She pulled Justin out of public school in December 2018 and registered him as a homeschooler in their home state of New York. It was a big leap. “My husband and I own the largest holistic health center in the Hudson Valley where I see clients during the week and run classes on the weekends,” says Ryan, who was unsure how she was going to manage working full-time while overseeing her son’s education. “I had a lot on my plate,” she adds.

Then Ryan heard about Workspace from a friend and decided to make the 45-minute drive to Connecticut for a visit. “I knew right away this was it,” she says. “As soon as we arrived, Justin was greeted by a boy that he would shadow for the day, and then he was just off for hours. I couldn’t get him to leave!” Now, Ryan spends three days a week at Workspace, doing therapy calls via Skype with clients around the world, managing her team of practitioners and handling marketing and promotion of her business, while Justin takes classes in math, reading and creative writing, studio art and cartooning, woodworking, science, law and government. While Ryan sees clients offsite one day a week, her husband goes to Workspace, where he leads a football club for Justin and his peers in between his own meetings and client work. On Thursdays, Justin joins his mother and father at their clinic.

Workspace helps to cultivate personal and professional opportunities for parents while supporting their children. Ryan has begun to see some clients during the week in the private offices at Workspace, as well as offer classes to members and the larger community. She is also taking a digital photography class through Workspace, helping her to reconnect with a long-ignored passion. “It’s really a village,” she says of Workspace.

As a working parent and entrepreneur, I can really rely on my fellow parents that I am co-creating with here. If I need time to leave Workspace for a meeting, I can easily ask another parent to keep an eye on Justin and I do the same for them.

This is one feature that has encouraged single parents to join Workspace.

Incubating Young Entrepreneurs

Parents aren’t the only ones pursuing entrepreneurship at Workspace. Brady Knuff and Forrest Anderson both left their respective high schools after their junior year to dedicate their time to building a business. Now enrolled virtually in the North Atlantic Regional High School, a Maine-based private program for nontraditional students, the duo will earn an accredited high school diploma while spending what would be their senior year immersed in their entrepreneurial efforts.

“My experience with Workspace is a little bit different than others’ because I’m not taking classes here,” says Knuff. “I’m using it as an incubator for my business.” These young entrepreneurs use the technology and business support resources at Workspace, such as video editing equipment and access to ongoing mentorship, to expand their nascent real estate marketing company, Blukite.

Asked why he decided to leave his high school for Workspace, Knuff explains:

This year I wanted to work on the business more seriously. Really it was just a matter of time. I would have to be at school until at least 3 p.m., then sports, then homework. I never had the time or the resources to devote to it.

Anderson adds:

At first I was skeptical because I didn’t know if I wanted to leave my high school, but I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I felt like this is the time.

Both boys are uncertain if they will attend college someday, but they admit it’s a possibility. “I’m going to work on this for a couple of years and see where I am financially to decide if I want to go to college,” says Anderson.

Under Fraise’s leadership, Workspace continues to add families and expand its square footage, but she is not content for it to be a stand-alone success story. “I see this as the future of education,” says Fraise, who views Workspace as the flagship model for co-working and co-learning spaces.

I want these to spontaneously erupt everywhere, and I want to give away what I’ve learned to help others to do it.

To that end, Fraise offers training programs and support to entrepreneurial educators who are interested in launching their own Workspace-like organizations.

She is also hopeful about bringing the Workspace model into low-income communities, expanding opportunity and encouraging entrepreneurship. “I have faith in families,” she says.

The key is professional development for the parents, helping them find income streams and role modeling for their children, as well as increasing opportunity through our network.

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Don’t Need Law to Dislike Something

We all have our own likes and dislikes. This means everyone likes some things other people dislike; sometimes the likes and dislikes are passionate and the disagreements get rather heated.

There’s a secret trick I discovered, which seems to be unseen by most people; one which seems nearly impossible for them to even consider. Here it is, presented for (maybe) the first time you’ve ever heard it: It’s OK to dislike something without wanting a law to ban or control it.

Seriously.

It really is OK.

There are things I’m not a fan of; some things I dislike a lot. I don’t dare list my dislikes since such a list would offend just about everyone in some way. I can almost guarantee there are things on my list you like. Don’t worry. I have no wish to use laws to force you to change or stop doing what you like.

Most of the time I don’t want to make someone feel bad for liking something I don’t like. Even if they like something I think is ethically wrong there’s usually no point making an issue unless they want to make an issue.

As long as you aren’t violating anyone’s life, liberty or property, what you do is none of my business, even if I don’t like that you’re doing it.

When I was a youngster and was exposed to something I didn’t like, my first thought was along the lines of “They should make it illegal.” Such a childish mindset. I’m glad I’ve grown up in the years since then. I wish everyone would.

“For your own good” is not my style anymore. Nor is “but it’s offensive.”

Now when there’s something I don’t like I just don’t join in. If it’s bad enough I consider it unethical, I try to stay far away. I may let others know why I think it’s wrong and try to convince them to join me in avoiding it, but I’m probably not going to try to stop anyone from doing things I don’t like on their personal property. Not unless they are violating the rights of others — and I don’t mean offending them — by doing so.

Since there’s no such thing as a right to not be offended, we can all keep our offended feelings in our pockets where they belong. Let people like what they like and suggest they extend the same courtesy to everyone else.

It’s the civilized thing to do.

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Buddhist Anarchism and Nonviolent Communication

Here are some pieces that I wrote up for two episodes of the Anarchy Bang podcast. One episode was about buddhist anarchism and the other episode was about Nonviolent Communication & anarchism.


Buddhist Anarchism

It’s hard to really know where to begin with Buddhism, given that there are so many different ways that people relate to the thing. Buddhism can be seen as a religion, a philosophy, an approach to psychology, a personal practice or a culture. And then there are the infinite different sects, traditions, branches and sub-branches within Buddhism. It all can very quickly become very overwhelming and confusing.

That all being said, the way that I like to begin to make sense of Buddhism is by studying some of the renowned lists within Buddhism. What better way to organize one’s thoughts on something than to use lists? One list in particular stands out to me the most, it’s called “the three marks of existence”. Basically it lists the three qualities that mark life as we know it. The first quality is that change is constant and inevitable, that nothing lasts forever. The second is that everything is comprised of many different interacting components and forces acting on it, that nothing exists on it’s own, in and of itself. Basically, “anti-essentialism” is how I like to look at it. And the third is that suffering exists, it’s an experience that we all have.

This then goes into perhaps the most famous list within Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. The first one is what I just mentioned, that whole “suffering” thing that we all have. The second is that there is a root cause to this suffering, and that is craving or clinging to our ideas of what we want. The third is that it is indeed possible to overcome this kind of attachment. And the fourth is the way to go about doing that, which is itself another list, the Noble Eightfold Path.

…And as much as I love the Noble Eightfold Path, I won’t go into that list here.

So what does this all have to do with anarchism? Well, as I see it, that whole “suffering” condition that we all experience makes us all crazy, it makes us all desperate and frantic, even if we are able to put up a good front and present ourselves as being mature capable thinkers. Our lack of dealing with our own suffering head-on deprives us of our own personal power.

Buddhist practice is all about developing one’s own personal power, self-mastery, cultivating one’s ability to choose and act on one’s choices, rather that letting one’s own old habits, old beliefs and emotional reactivity dictate one’s life. It’s also about getting more peace and contentment in one’s life. You are not always going to get what you want, anarchists will always disappoint you, your dreams for an anarchist world will never happen, and if you do decide to embark on a Buddhist practice, you will probably fuck that up too. But the paradoxical beauty of Buddhism is that even with that all being the case, one can come to acceptance of all of that, and still keep on going. At least for as long as this life you are living now exists.


Nonviolent Communication & Anarchism

Nonviolent Communication (also known as “NVC” or “compassionate communication”) is a set of conceptual tools and a general worldview that a number of anarchists have found useful and at times have adopted. Some have found it to be a how-to guide for living without hierarchy and domination, whereas others have found it to be a series of tips for approaching conflict in ways that are hopefully more productive.

NVC can be used as a way to do conflict resolution, which is what it is best known for, but it can also be used for meeting facilitation, counseling & therapy, and some would say for social change work itself. The crux of NVC is developing one’s ability to make distinctions between objective observations vs. subjective interpretations, bodily-felt feelings vs. cognitive evaluations, and fundamental human needs vs. the infinite ways that needs can be met. The ultimate goal of NVC is for it’s practitioners to come to embody a way of being that the psychologist Carl Rogers said is most helpful in relationships: heartfelt authenticity, empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard. The idea is that through such qualities being present in a relationship, that relationship will eventually and inevitably become stronger, autonomy-respecting, collaborative and conducive to those involved realizing their own personal power. Anarchy, baby!

Some related readings

The Basics of Nonviolent Communication

Key Assumptions and Intentions of Nonviolent Communication

Compassionate Anarchism

Can the Social Order Be Transformed through Personal Practice? The Case of Nonviolent Communication

Person-centered Therapy

 


I will begin with a quote which has always been the touchstone for me and my anarchism, that famous quote from Gustav Landauer:

“The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another… We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.”

With this in mind, I immediately ask: what are the different kinds of relationships that would comprise anarchy? What would these relationships look like?

The answers that I come up with is that these relationships would, generally-speaking, acknowledge and respect the autonomy of everybody involved while also enabling people to cooperate, collaborate and make decisions together as equals, with no one person or group of people bossing everyone else around. All of this stuff is easier said than done, which is why I eventually started to look for some guides and pointers for how to actually do this, practically-speaking.

This lead to me eventually discovering something called “Nonviolent Communication”, or “NVC” for short. NVC generally lives in the self-help/self-improvement world, and the demographic that is mainly drawn to NVC is middle-aged middle-class 1st world white women with liberal/progressive politics. In short, NVC is not at all something that originates from the anarchist scene, yet as soon as I started to study I immediately saw the connections and correlations with anarchism, and I got quite excited about that.

For about five years I was a zealous missionary for a kind of NVC-anarchist hybrid that I tried to develop and promote to anybody who would listen to me. For the next ten years after that I had more of a low-key involvement with NVC lasting until just last year when I decided to end my involvement with the NVC milieu altogether. My overall takeaway message from the whole thing is that while some maps, guides and conceptual schemas may be helpful for actualizing anarchy in the real-world, ultimately human beings with all of their complexities, foibles and psychoses go above and beyond anything that we can come up with.

To quote our anarchist daddy, Mikhail Bakunin: “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system. I am a true seeker.”

This leaves me with a belief that Nonviolent Communication is something that can be useful and helpful for anarchists, if one cares to spend the time & energy to seriously consider it. I do not think that NVC is something that anybody “should” do, and in fact I think that the moment that one looks at it that way the whole thing becomes completely worthless and a waste of time. But if the sincere interest and desire to learn NVC is there, then the time spent can be worthwhile. So let’s talk about Nonviolent Communication.

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Don’t Underestimate the Resilience and Resourcefulness of the Homeless

You can say (people do say) many things about homeless people. But a fact that is under-appreciated is just how resilient and resourceful they often are.

There’s a woman who lives on an overpass near Atlantic Station. For some time, I assumed the poor woman needed help or aid of some kind, so I brought her things on a couple of occasions. And often when driving home or driving to the grocery store, I’d see her camped out next to the solitary tree on that overpass.

She has lived on that bridge for at least over a year now. She’s acquired a tent, goes around the area scavenging with a shopper’s cart, and otherwise can be seen sitting in a chair watching the traffic. Rather than being in an emergency state, she (almost) seems to be OK with it.

It does seem to me that of her available options, this is what she considers the best. Without what I’ve learned about her own resilience and resourcefulness, I might assume I need to “help” her find a shelter or something. I’m sure she’s already made her decision to go it alone.

There’s a lesson in here.

Be compassionate to a difficult challenge. But never patronize by assuming that homeless people are helpless and in need (or want) of full rescue. Leave some room (if merited) for admiration: some of the world’s homeless people are also some of the world’s hardiest and most resourceful.

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Why so Many College Students Are In Mental Distress—And What Parents Can Do about It

With college classes underway for the fall semester, parents may worry about how their children will navigate campus life, balance academics and social pressures, and find their pathway to a meaningful career. While parents of college students have long shared these common worries, they now confront new concerns.

The number of college students experiencing mental health issues has soared, with survey findings from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors suggesting that 41 percent of college students are anxious and 36 percent are depressed. So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people?A 2018 survey by the American College Health Association found that 63 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety over the previous year, 42 percent said they felt so depressed it was difficult to function over the previous year, and 12 percent seriously considered suicide. Add to these findings the data showing that the suicide rate for US teenagers and young adults is the highest on record, and parents are right to be worried.

So what is causing this mental health crisis among college-age young people? There are undoubtedly many contributing factors. Greater awareness of mental health issues and more willingness to seek help are positive steps forward that may drive some of the increase in reporting, but there could be other, less favorable explanations, as well.

Too Much Coddling

Some of the emotional turmoil of college students could be linked to a coddled childhood and adolescence that limits young people from developing the resilience necessary to deal with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt trace some of the increased fragility of today’s college students to padded playgrounds, constant adult supervision and structure, more screen time and less authentic, in-person interaction, and an overall emphasis on safety. They write:

On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations. (p. 160)

More supervision and less autonomy, combined with social media influences, could be making college students more prone to anxiety and depression in young adulthood. According to Lukianoff and Haidt:

Both depression and anxiety cause changes in cognition, including a tendency to see the world as more dangerous and hostile than it really is. (p. 161)

In other words, the normal stressors of college may be perceived by some of today’s students as disproportionately dreadful.

Campus Victim Culture

A key focus of Lukianoff and Haidt’s book is that the fragility of today’s college students leads them to demand protection and security on campus, including the call for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Discomfort may be confused with harm, leading more college students to report emotional distress. In his new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, Robby Soave explores the victim culture on college campuses in greater detail. He explains that on some college campuses, the focus on mental health has reached an extreme.

Soave describes a visit to the University of Arizona campus, where signs such as “Breathe in. Breathe out. You got this,” and “44% of ASU students report having difficulty managing stress,” are ubiquitous and direct students to the college’s mental health services. Soave explains:

People who need help shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. But at so many campuses, it has begun to feel like mental instability and trauma are the norm—that students are encouraged to see themselves as sick and vulnerable, and so they do. They have fully appropriated the language of mental illness. (p. 495)

Encourage Self-Empowerment

Given the trends and statistics on college students’ mental health, it may seem like there is little parents can do to help their college-age children. But a key step parents can take is to shift the narrative of victimhood and helplessness and encourage their grown children to take control of their own happiness and success. Borrowing the language of FEE’s Director of Entrepreneurial Education, T.K. Coleman, parents can help their children to see themselves as the “dominant creative force” in their own lives.

These students can set their own path. They can avoid dwelling on obstacles and instead embrace possibilities. They can find their passion, incubate innovative ideas, and build new enterprises that are personally meaningful and societally valuable. They can see themselves as agents of change in the world rather than victims of it. They can be the Revolution of One, as the following brief video spotlights:

It is a scary time for parents of today’s college students, as this cohort experiences rising rates of mental illness and a prevailing college culture that emphasizes fragility over self-empowerment. Fortunately, parents can encourage their college-age children to be strong, resilient, and focused on being active change agents and value creators in their own lives.

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