Public School Pandemonium

My experience as a public school teacher


      Rachel Baxter
by Rachel Baxter

"A tax supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state." -- Isabel Patterson, The God of the Machine

Remember the movie The Stepford Wives, starring Katharine Ross?

It was about a small town where all the men, through some sort of clandestine medical procedure, turn their wives into robotic, zombie housewives. These creatures' primary goals in life were how clean they could get their floors, and how nauseatingly subservient they were to their husbands -- no matter how inept and ridiculous they were.

Ross knew there was something really wrong when her normally outspoken, feminist best friend turned into one of these Betty Crocker androids. Ross was the only one who knew the women were behaving strangely and that something was frighteningly off kilter. Her desperate attempts at trying to alert her friends to this bizarre situation fall on deaf ears.

Like Ross's character, I have experienced this Stepford Syndrome, although in a different context: As a teacher in the public school system.

Let me explain.

Being a libertarian for 20 years, particularly a libertarian woman, I've often felt somewhat apart from the crowd; certainly a contrarian in many ways. Couldn't imagine being otherwise.

Although it frustrates and saddens me, I'm accustomed to most people shutting down, resisting, or getting angry at the profound and crucial message of freedom that libertarians like myself speak of. For a variety of reasons -- lack of knowledge, emotionalism, laziness, or fear -- people shut their eyes, ears, and hearts to the insane butchery of individual rights that is taking place all around them.

Yet, I've known this for a long time; it certainly isn't anything new. But no matter what I've come up against as a libertarian, nothing (other than my own public education and my beliefs on how kids learn best) prepared me for the harsh reality of what I witnessed being done to kids in the public schools.

And like Ross's character, I was stunned that nobody -- teachers, parents, and administrators -- thought anything was wrong. These were seemingly nice people, which made it much harder to understand why they didn't see the enormous amount of harm they were causing. Everywhere I turned, kids were subjected to some sort of emotional, physical, intellectual, or spiritual carnage. The cruelty and madness of the system demanded that I treat the children as they did.

Fortunately, I failed: I lasted six months.

I taught special education to 10 "intellectually disabled" (labeled "ID") kindergarten, first-, and-third graders. A few of them had legitimate, physiological problems, such as speech disorders, but the rest of them -- God forbid, individuals that they were -- simply did not fit into a system that was incapable of recognizing and nurturing the talents they already possessed or were developing.

In fact, the system was bent on destroying any uniqueness, intellectual curiosity, or self-discovery that these kids brought with them into the school.

This wasn't just true for the special education kids. It is required that all children who enter the doors of public schools leave any semblance of themselves outside. The intention of government schooling is not to encourage kids' natural love and passion for learning, and it's definitely not in the agenda to foster independence.

The system is specifically designed to chip away, piece by piece, a child's inherent right to develop into an independent-minded, psychologically aware, autonomous human being.

This is not an exaggeration. Because I saw what was happening and was not able to stop it, it felt like I was in prison.

By the way, ever notice how schools look like prisons? This is no accident. A friend of mine calls the architectural style of some of the older schools "Gothic Penitentiary." The school I taught in had ugly yellow institutional tiling lining the hallway walls that reached above the childrens' heads. I imagined the kids must have wondered if they were in one giant bathroom.

The environment was so madly chaotic that it was virtually impossible to learn anything, let alone finish a conversation. Many times I'd be in the middle of a discussion or project with a child and a bell would blast so loud, I'd have to cover my ears. Everyone else would be oblivious to the intrusion and move to another place -- like rats in a cage.

Everybody rushed around as if something important was going on. If a child was in the middle of doing something, he'd better HURRY UP and finish so he could move on to the next meaningless task.

In his book The Underground History of American Education, former New York State Teacher of the Year, John Gatto writes, "By bells and other concentration-destroying technology, schools teach that nothing is worth finishing because some arbitrary power intervenes both periodically and aperiodically. If nothing is worth finishing, nothing is worth starting. Love of learning can't survive this steady drill."

How do public schools curtail, control, or trample a child's growing sense of self? And what are the real lessons learned by the child lurking behind the lessons being taught?

Here are some examples I've seen in the short time that I was teaching. There are many more.

* A 7-year-old boy walks into the class and finds his desk upside down and the contents dumped all over the floor. All the kids listen while the teacher admonishes this child for having a messy desk.

The child remains standing, immobilized and embarrassed, looking at the floor. He learns it is okay to humiliate someone in front of others and that his property can be gone through without his permission. He learns disrespect for the property of others.

* Children being forced to waste an inordinate amount of time waiting. They wait for other kids to finish their work; for recess; to go in after recess; for lunch; to go in after lunch; to answer a question; to ask a question; to go to the bathroom; to get on the bus; to take roll.

They learn that wasting precious time is normal. They do not learn how to manage time for themselves.

* One teacher refused to open the windows or shades and kept the class in a continuous semi-darkness. The psychological impact of sitting in a dark room every day is devastating. It causes depression -- not to mention eye-strain. To not be able to look out a window can certainly be likened to a prison sentence.

* Bribery in the form of food, stars, prizes, "free time," alone time, grades, or other means of manipulation in order to get kids to learn material they found useless and boring; to get them to stop moving, talking, or anything else the teacher thought was disruptive to "the learning process."

They learn to shut down their own natural joy of learning for its intrinsic rewards; and instead, perform like circus animals in order to get rewards.

* Legally drugging kids with amphetamines or other psychotropic medications in order to control behavior. This is medicalizing and drugging normal childhood behaviors to control kids; which in turn, causes dangerous side effects and even death.

Kids learn that they have no rights with respect to their physical and intellectual well-being.

* Punishment in the form of humiliation and physical pain (corporal punishment), failing grades, isolation, prohibiting physical movement (taking away recess and making them sit in desks for hours on end), or verbal insults.I would cringe every time a particular teacher walked down the hall with her class. She always had something mean and nasty to say to some poor child.

Kids learn that disrespect, cruelty, and physical force are the means used to getting what they want. They learn to treat themselves in the same fashion and they equate learning with drudgery, confinement, and pain.

* Preventing healthy, meaningful relationships by artificially fragmenting time, separating younger kids from the older; "slower" from the "quicker"; popular from unpopular; competing with other students for teachers' attention; or teachers and administrators functioning as guards instead of caring mentors.

Kids are conditioned to have a short attention span. They do not learn to effectively socialize with varying age groups or intellectual abilities. They learn contempt for "weaker" students and fear toward those who appear "stronger."

* Making ridiculous rules and regulations that children inevitably break; such as not allowing toy guns, baseball bats and balls, and countless other fun toys and games that kids throughout all of human existence, in some form or another, have used for play.

Along with all of the above, my school wouldn't let the younger kids climb too high on the playground equipment. It was on the playground, but they couldn't use it! The learning experiences of play are severely curtailed. Instead of the exhilaration and pride felt upon mastering developmental skills, kids learn hesitancy and fearfulness.

* I was having a mundane conversation with a teacher. A child was sitting close by, timidly watching us. In a spiteful tone of voice this teacher says to him, "We're not talking to you; mind your own business."

The child immediately looks down and tries to be invisible. The child learns not to be curious about what adults are saying and doing -- which is natural for children. He learns it is fine to speak to someone with harshness and contempt.

* Kids have no privacy. There is nowhere to go to be alone -- even the private act of going to the bathroom requires permission and often surveillance, and the child had better HURRY UP and finish and get back to class!

Children learn to be uncomfortable with being alone. They have problems taking initiative without asking an authority figure what to do.

* There is no time for the child to discover what he or she loves. All time is taken up by what others deem to be useful or appropriate.

One child I know of always had a messy desk and had trouble writing neatly. The teachers were always reprimanding him for this. One day he asked me if he could read a book to me. We sat in the corner while he read perfectly from The Lord of the Rings. He was 9 years old.

The child learns that what he loves is unimportant and secondary to what others think is significant. After a while, what he loves is so buried, it is barely -- if at all -- accessible, especially to himself.

* Kids being constantly told: "You need to learn this because you may use it when you're an adult." Or: "Follow directions without questioning because when you have a job, your boss is going to expect you to do as you are told."

The student learns that for the rest of her life, she'll be a subordinant -- always being told what to do -- never being the boss herself. She learns that the present moment means nothing other than to provide for some obscure time or reason in the future.

* Creativity, self-initiative, and originality are stamped out. All art classes (or other extracurricular classes) require kids to construct replicas of what the teacher makes. Successful artists, poets, and writers are not created within the public schools -- they survive and prosper in spite of their schooling. Again, a child learns that ingenuity is not something to be valued.

Why is it that very few people are aware of what's happening to kids in the government schools? One reason is that most of us went to public schools so we don't even notice the huge detrimental impact they have on kids, families, and society. I think kids are retaliating with a deadly violence (Columbine, for example) to a system that mercilessly crushes them.

Another reason, of course, is that the government should never have gotten involved in the business of education in the first place. The vast bureaucratic system of government schooling, like any dictatorial establishment, must fail. Let's hope so -- for the kids' sake.

* References: Gatto, J. (2000). The Underground History of American Education: New York: The Oxford Village Press.