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Be My Guest: Am I An Alternative Ed Tourist?

greetings from utopia

Here is a new post from guest blogger Kristan Morrison. Kristan is a professor of education at Radford University and the author of Free School Teaching

If you’re interested in Being My Guest, CONTACT ME

Whenever my husband and I go on our summer vacations to various lovely locales, we always wonder about moving to that beautiful place and living there year-round. We imagine that we would love it, but then we start to think about all the ramifications and repercussions of moving to this very different place….. what will it be like in winter? What is the education world like here (would we like teaching here)? What are the utility bills, taxes, etc.? We start to pretty quickly realize that what looks like a lovely idea on the surface might be fraught with lots of problems underneath.

For over 12 years, I have been enamored with alternative forms of education. They sound so good to me – democratic, empowering, balanced, social justice-oriented, environmentally-oriented; basically, they run counter to many of the destructive practices of schools rooted in modernism and industrial-era society. They are my utopia in many ways. Alternative schools are tantamount to my summer vacation locales – when I am reading about them or observing at them in my research, it is so lovely, and I really get to thinking that I would love to stay there! When I studied the Albany Free School for my dissertation (shameless plug for my book based on those experiences here), I fell in love with the place and wanted to stay there; when I have observed unschooling families, I desire to have kids and raise them in that lifestyle/educational philosophy; and when I have observed at various other alternative education locales, I thought about becoming a teacher in that environment.

These fantasies of close involvement with (not just researching of) alternative forms of education led me to accept an invitation to serve on the board of a local contemplative/progressive school in my area. I was so enamored that I also quickly accepted a nomination to be president of said board after only about a month of involvement. I was elected (sucker!!) and began to embark on something entirely new to me: a) being on a board, b) being board president, and c) working with a vision and culture very different from any previous experiences (not that I am philosophically opposed to values of social and eco-justice, self-reflection/contemplation, and student autonomy; rather, I had never been called upon in the past to lead in such an environment). Finally, I was in a position to actually move to my utopian place, not just visit there! My involvement over the past year with this school has shown me, however, that briefly visiting and thinking about living someplace else and actually living in that place are two very different things.

In the past couple of months, the school and our board has been going through some turbulence. For example, one parent was recently convicted of being a marijuana dealer. The parent asked a school employee to speak at the sentencing hearing to flesh him out (to show that while he may be a convicted felon, he also was a good parent and involved community member). When the employee approached the board with her desire to speak at the sentencing hearing so as to possibly help reduce the sentence (and thereby help the children/students not lose their parent to the prison system for much of their childhood), the board agreed with the caveat that the employee not speak on behalf of the school. Well, long story short, the employee spoke at the hearing, but was also subjected to intense questioning by a hostile judge about a school employee speaking on behalf of a drug dealer. This is a small community and another parent at the school was the prosecuting attorney in the case. After the hearing was over, I started to receive a couple of calls from parents upset over how the school became conflated with the drug dealer when one of our school employees spoke at his sentencing hearing. All I could think was like Cathy in the comic strip, AACCK!! What do I do? What do I say? How do I keep things calm and prevent an exodus of families from the school? My gut/instinctual reactions were to quickly clean up this problem – to placate and to empathize with the complaining parents and join them in wagging a finger at the employee for not having the wherewithal to clearly state to an adversarial judge that her words were just hers, and not the school’s. Some parents and a board member wanted to see some harsh punishment befall the employee for what she had done. And I was all set to admonish, and place a notation in her “permanent file,” and alter school policy and contractual obligations limiting the free speech of employees, etc. These inclinations and initial steps in their implementation were met with resistance – from the employee, of course, but also from some other parents who argued that the issue of speaking up for a convicted felon was not a simple black-and-white one, that while we have to live in the greater community and be law-abiding, we also have to live in the smaller community of the school and support one another and help others see that people are nuanced and contradictory in their actions, and that while a person might deserve to be punished (imprisoned) for wrongdoing, sometimes the victims of that punishment are innocent (in this case, the children who would lose a father figure).

Talk about discomfort for me! I was torn between two very different world views. The biggest part of my discomfort stemmed from not being able to fall back to default or rely on instinct in dealing with issues. My communication style, what I value, how I think, and what I assume about situations are all rooted in the hierarchical, product-oriented, punishment-oriented, impersonal, efficient, and rarely self-reflective world of modern society. I was raised by a very conventional family, in a white, middle-class suburban area outside of DC, attended “good” conventional schools where I excelled in the most valued and rewarded of areas- academics, and ultimately reaped rewards for this upbringing and inherited gifts, in the form of a medium/high-status, secure job, and a middle to upper middle class lifestyle. So, when I am faced with difficult issues connected to my role as board president of this very different school, my first instinctual reactions are often not right; or, rather, they are “right” for a different world – the world in which I was raised and in which I mostly inhabit now (especially in that I am still in a career connected to the field of conventional education), but those reactions are not right for the different culture and set of values that exist at the school/community I am working with as board president. Relying on instinct has led me to make some major mis-steps and assumptions that have caused discomfort for me and for those around me on the board and in the schools.

Now, my reaction to these “failures” could be to just give up. Alfie Kohn’s research has shown us that people schooled in conventional education, like myself, tend to like to stay with safe tasks – tasks that we think we can succeed at and that do not pose major risks. I could just say that being board president here is too tough a task for me, but that I gave it the old college try. OR I could go the unconventional route and practice what alternative education preaches – that there is no such thing as a failure – that we need to re-frame such things as learning and growing opportunities, and that we should embrace discomfort because it will lead to rewarding changes in who we are and how we relate to people.

The tourist in me just wants to go home. It is easier to read, observe, and talk about alternative education. It is WAY harder to actually participate on the ground floor of altering paradigms. But I don’t want to just be a tourist in this cultural change; I want to be involved, but I have to work on myself a bunch to make sure that I am living and breathing the culture and changes I want to see in the world.

So, my New Year’s resolution has been to do that – work on myself and my role as board president. I have been doing daily readings about the role of boards, and I have been engaging in some readings and discussions about how to live the values of this very different school. I have invited the rest of the board to take this walk too, as some of them are in the same shoes as me – they, too, were raised in a conventional setting; but, like me, they recognize the many flaws of that setting and value trying something different. So, board meetings going forward will look less like business meetings in which we deal with micromanagement and minutiae, and will more resemble book discussions, trust-building retreats, and the like. We will still need to get our business done, but hopefully we will all begin to more deeply embrace and live the world of contemplative, progressive thinking that we are working so hard to instill in the children in our charge.


7 Comments Post a comment
  1. m.i.l. Bunty Ketcham #

    I am interested in your article on Chris’ blog for I too have been in uncomfortable situations as Board president. What I am wondering is: what were your instinctive reactions that “were not right for the different culture and set of values” in your alternative school?

    Why were they right for one school setting and not for the other?

    Bunty Ketcham…a supportor of free schools, former teacher in more conventional (and very good) school…and supporter of Chris!

    January 28, 2014
    • Kristan Morrison #

      Hi Bunty-

      One instinctive reaction I had was when anything about drugs is concerned is that we must deal with the person as if he only had one dimension (e.g. drug dealer, rather than an involved parent who happens to deal in marijuana). Or jumping on the reactive bandwagon with those parents who wanted to jump to punishing the employee without really diving into the nuances of the case. Another instinctive reaction that comes about for me (not necessarily in this drug case, but with this school) is priviledging academic learning over the social and emotional. I can think of others if this does not clarify!

      What about other readers – do you feel sometimes your instinctive/gut reactions might be wrong headed/hearted in different cultural situations?

      January 30, 2014
  2. Sheila Trask #

    Great article, and so true! Loved your book, BTW.

    I’m a mom always looking for the best educational environment for my son (now 15) and have definitely done the “tourist” thing! So many alternatives look promising, but the truth is they are not perfect and can also be hard work. I agree that those of us brought up in the conventional school system find it difficult to deal with things that are, frankly, messy!

    FWIW, what we do now is a “hybrid homeschooling” that involves classes at an alternative school, unschooling at home, a wilderness program, and sports with the public school. Never a dull moment in this quest!

    January 29, 2014
    • Kristan Morrison #

      Thanks, Sheila!!

      January 31, 2014
  3. Tim McClung #

    This article has a lot of fine points for me. It smacks very close to home for me. Why don’t I just start an alternative school and take on the culture that is required? For all the reasons you mention but more importantly you have made me really challenge some under the surface issues that I need to think a lot about. could I reach out to you to discuss?

    January 29, 2014
  4. Jennifer #

    Really appreciated this post. Those of us with professional lives in traditional schools who have taken a non traditional path with our own children can end up feeling we have split personalities. Wishing you and your school all the best!

    February 13, 2014

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