THE DECONDITIONING OF SCHOOL
Welcome to another Brick in the Wall part two. Thanks to everyone who responded with your shared school experiences. School is great and weird and exciting and also horrible. Being part of a school group is a very large part of our lives, especially at our most impressionable and vulnerable. We are but children participating in an experience roughly 7 hours a day 5 days a week 9 months a year. It’s a big deal and most of the time we really do not consider it as such. Before we get into the specifics of my contemplations here, I want to share some data.
I love data.
I decided out of my own interest to take a look at one of my local public schools to see exactly what the numbers say when it comes to one of the things I find so fascinating about school in general - the sheer lack of adults. It’s a pretty interesting thing to think about when you get into the weeds of it all.
My local high school has a total of 1,355 enrolled students grade 9-12 roughly between the ages of 14-18. To serve and guide all 1,355 students, the school is led by a total of 4 administrators. A Principal, two Assistant Principals and a Dean of Students. There are a total of 76 teachers part time and full time including coaches, learning specialists, counselors and health staff. The entire student body along with administration and teachers are supported by a total of 34 support staff members including janitorial staff and groundskeepers. That’s a total of 114 adults compared to 1,355 students. This equates to 1,469 people or school group members. This means that less than roughly 8% of the total members of this particular group are adults and in charge of fulfilling the desired outcome of this institution. What do you think of that?
I think it’s pretty weird. Given the guidance and sound container we know children need in order to learn, change and grow, the expectation that 8% of the total population of this group can effectively provide that 5 days a week 7 hours a day is really off the mark. No matter how skilled, passionate and present the adults are. This ratio is a recipe for burnout on the part of teachers, staff and administration and also for the students. There simply are not enough adults to go around. And that’s at bare minimum. Forget about well rested adults who can come to each and every interaction with patience, perspective and sensitivity. That’s simply not possible 7 hours a day 5 days a week roughly 9 months out of the year as part of 8%. If we are imagining this to be a workable or doable scenario, nevertheless one in which children and adults are provided with the support that they need each day, we are not looking at the data. Eight percent is not enough. Not even close.
I mention this because I want you to know that if your school group experience as a child was horrendous it's really not personal. There simply was not enough emotional and intellectual support for you and those around you. That’s not to say we do not have deep reaching emotional wounds from a school experience What I’m suggesting is that a space that doesn’t come close to providing what is needed to soundly and securely hold the container for a large group of children learning, growing, and beginning to understand how to process their emotions becomes a place ripe for emotional injury. It just does. It has little to do with who you are and more to do with the nature of the actual system you were a part of.
If being part of a school group worked out 100% well for you then you got really, really lucky. And this goes for those of you in school groups as adults. If you feel burnt out, frustrated, tired and hopeless about providing the expected outcomes, know that the 8% does not work in your favor either. The expectations are ridiculous for all involved.
So those are the numbers. But what about the nuances? What specifically are we learning as part of a school group that we might need to decondition as adults?
Well, there's a lot. First though, I want to be clear that for the purposes of this essay I am not diving deep into issues of school based abuse and bullying. These are awful scars to endure and many of us do. And I can say as a psychotherapist, I have seen a lot of patients work through these traumas only to have to work through them again when their children enter into school, they witness their children experience similar traumas, and if they return to a school environment as an adult student or staff. It is rarely a one and done situation, especially if you have children of your own.
Also too, bullying and abuse in a school group is so traumatic that it often impacts how we as parents encourage or discourage our own children. It can be overt or unconscious, pushing them toward one activity or another, interest in subjects and also concerns about physical appearance, because we do not want them to be bullied. Furthermore, when we return to a school group environment as an adult either for graduate or post graduate studies or as a teacher or staff, many of the same ways we acted out in our previous school groups are revisited. Adults can behave like teenagers with cool groups, outcasts, testing boundaries with management and leadership can govern with overly tight rules and boundaries that again cater to the outcome instead of the individual. It’s a rich mess and deserves its own exploration separate from here.
What I’m really interested in exploring here and what I see to be a factor for some of my business mentorships clients is how our learning, sense of success and failure is incredibly conditioned by institutionalized school groups.
Back in July, I had two really interesting conversations with PF Candle Co., COO Thomas Neuberger on Joy is Now (you can listen here). We discussed anger which was super rich and later Thomas shared his These Three Things one of which was getting comfortable with failure. I was amazed by the clarity with which Thomas was able to identify that the terrible lessons he learned about failure stem from school. I had not really thought about this before, but he’s right. And this can play out in really traumatic ways.
When I think about the ultimate failures that can occur at school, being expelled or left back come to mind. And these are rough. The lesson in our child aged mind becomes that if we fail enough we get banished from the group. Either permanently or we must make due with a different group of peers a different age and live with the label of being left back. That's horrendous. Maybe it sounds less so as an adult, but in a child’s mind, that plays upon every single survival based fear we have. The interpretation of that fear translates to if we fail, we are not only unloved but we are completely unworthy of the group. We are banished.
Sometimes this failure occurs accidentally. Meaning it happens even though a best effort is given, the child makes use of the support available and the like. Maybe a life crisis happens, an illness or a family emergency and a child misses school and just gets left back. That’s shitty, right? Imagine the lesson there. Ouch. If I need a break or the unexpected happens, if I need to care for myself or a family member needs help, I am punished for having to slow down. I am banished from the group if I take a time out, take rest, or need to deal with personal issues. That’s completely fucked. And we wonder why as adults we have a very hard time taking care of ourselves, pacing ourselves and taking a break from work during a personal or a family crisis. The lesson has become if we slow down and take care, we are banished. Yuck. Completely fucked.
And let’s say that the story is different. We are acting out at school. Something is wrong and we are a child - we simply do not know what is wrong. Maybe it is with us, our family, home, our learning. Anything. We do not know how to ask for help. Maybe our life is in danger if we do ask for help or tell an adult. We act out, destroy school property, tell a teacher to fuck off. We are banished from the group. We need help, but what we get is further isolation. Sometimes a break is necessary and kids need to not attend school. They can be a danger to themselves and others and need help. But help is different from being banished and the two are rarely communicated differently. And we wonder why it is so hard for us to ask for help, why mental health carries a stigma. It’s because we learn it can lead to banishment.
When it comes to less severe failure, the lesson is similar. Often even with the intervention of a passionate and dedicated teacher or staff member, a poor grade may be given that can affect our record that can even impact our future. Which is seriously the stupidest thing ever. All because we struggled. Again as a child. Why must we give 100% to everything? Even the subjects we are less interested in. Well, we learn that we must give our all to everything, otherwise there are consequences. And what does this set us up to do as adults? Everything. We overpromise, over deliver, over extend. We get good attention for doing so, we are punished when we do not.
Maybe we are just disinterested and unmotivated but also this is not something to be punished for. Why is a child disinterested? Is it a learning issue? Is it homelife? Are they in danger? These things are not always obvious.
I want to be clear that I am not questioning the talent and dedication of any particular teacher or staff member as part of a school group. Yes there are terrible teachers just as there are terrible customer service people, bosses, doctors and presidents. Anyone can be terrible at anything. What I want to illuminate is the system itself and how this impacts our understanding of our intelligence and our comfort with failure, success and simply taking care of ourselves.
What do we learn when children perform “well?” What does success look like? Does it have anything to do with satisfaction? Sometimes. But not all the time. Does a child work to get a good grade in math because they like it or do they work hard to get a good grade in math because they fear not getting a good grade? They fear the rejection of their parents and also the response of the greater group. This can be said for failure too. The group can reward or punish us for either response. It’s a mess.
What I notice most prominently with my clients is a desired deconditioning around how we work and attend to tasks. Most of us in school spend little to no time understanding how we learn. And how could we? Learning is individual and as I mentioned last week, schools are institutions that cater to desired outcomes. In order for these outcomes to be met, schools work the averages, teach to the middle, engage the masses. And when it comes to learning styles, school encourages what is easy for the entire group. Children and adults. And that’s not individuality. Again, only 8% adults, 92 % children. The data doesn’t support catering to individualized learning styles as being a consistent possibility, even though many private schools boast that they do - unless they are running a vastly different adult to child ratio I’d ask for a lot of proof.
So generally we learn that when it comes to homework or an assignment, we want to do a little bit at a time over a long period of time. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Well not always. And if you are creative, rarely. That’s not the way most creative minds work. Having a different response to stress and needing an event or assignment to be more immediate in order to respond is also the right answer. There is nothing wrong or right about slow and steady. And there is nothing wrong or right about working on an assignment for 8 hours straight to get it done in one sitting. Each style works for some, but not all. Maybe you have an entirely different way of getting work done. It’s helpful to understand and examine how we learn while in school instead of after. What’s more valuable, learning calculus or learning how we best learn calculus?
School is where we get the twisted idea that our worth in this world is based on our achievements. For many kids this is reinforced at home with praise or punishment for good or bad grades and academic performance. And we wonder why as adults it is hard for us to slow down be intentional and trust our inherent worth without proving ourselves.
Hey everyone, many of the ideas that we wrestle with as adults are born from school.
As parents we often end up enforcing these school based ideals at home knowing that in order for our kids to not be banished from the group or left behind or lack future opportunity they must reflect these institutional ideas of success and failure and learning. In result, we take away the very essence that makes them who they are and as adults, I think you know, we spend a long time trying to get it back. The thing is, it’s not lost. It’s taken from us.
So how do we get it back? And better yet how do we correct for and help prevent this institutionalized messaging? I’m not naive enough to believe that the system will change. Education is not a priority in this country, nor are children. We often like to think that we make decisions that benefit education and the welfare of children but when push comes to shove we prove time and time again that other things take priority. And that angers me, but also, let’s be real about it. If we know going in that it is unlikely the system will change in any major way, we can discover ways to mitigate as best we can. And I’m actually hopeful that there is a lot we can do.
Like all things, change begins with acknowledgment. A simple noticing that the system helps instill these limited ideals and definitions is really helpful. Even in schools, of which there are many, that stress growth mindset and the like are encouraged, the greater rules and structure still support the opposite. And that’s important to make note of.
As adults we can begin to think about our school experience a bit differently. Understanding that we were children doing our best in order to avoid banishment. We can invest some time and energy in better understanding how we learn, work, and what we really think about success and failure. Creating our own definitions and own styles.
As parents, we can acknowledge with our kids what institutionalized education means. That the definitions of success and failure are a product of a system. And while we might have to exist in the system, we certainly can know that we disagree with the definitions. We can actually do both. We can exist in the system and know that we disagree with it.
A lot can happen at home. Communicate about what your family definitions of success and failure are and acknowledge these and rest upon these definitions when reflecting on school assessments, praise and punishment. Ask questions and focus on the learning and education, not the rules of the greater group. These are just a start but can go a very long way in encouraging both ourselves and our kids to be active advocates in our education and learning.
Education happens at school. Learning happens at school. But school in and of itself is a separate living organism. One can love learning and hate school. Hate learning and love school. Love both. Hate both.
Allow for that. Start there. Breathe deep. It's just school.
It is rather often that I hear from a HD client that they booked a reading because they were intrigued that someone who spends a lot of time thinking about and measuring the science of things would be swimming around in the mystical landscape. This always makes me giggle, mostly because I can appreciate the unexpectedness of someone like myself entering into this realm. I LOVE science. I consider myself a scientist, and ultimately I think science is a lot of fun. But I also know that it's not enough. Not all the time. And maybe it seldom is.
When I was in private practice as a psychotherapist, I worked primarily with adolescents and older adolescents in crisis. I also had part of my practice dedicated to young women working through various kids of trauma. Different populations but generally what all my patients had in common was deep suffering, sometimes suddenly, and they very much wanted to be free of it. And for many of them that was possible. Yet for some, the work became about processing the grief of never truly being as free as they hoped they could be. This can be a reality for those struggling with more acute mental health concerns. What I learned is that when working with people processing this reality I never wanted to suggest something to my patients or the family of a patient that I hadn't tried myself. New things can be scary and traumatic all on their own. I wanted my patients to be able to spend some moments in receivership. Letting them know I had tried what I was suggesting, for me was part of my job.
I soon found that receivership was a really important part of the work. The process of therapy when one is in crisis or not is very demanding. That's why it's called work. And while we are working through this process, it's really important to include things that just feel good. Ones that help hold us in ways we need to be supported outside of the work. Where the processing sits different. Where we can just receive.
One day while sitting with a family who's son had just experienced his second psychotic break, they mentioned to me that they all really missed their dog. It had died several months earlier and on top of everything else the loss just felt like a kick to the teeth. They couldn't conceive of getting another dog at the moment. Things just felt too uncertain. Combined with everything else the grief just felt enormous. It wasn't moving or changing. It was concrete. The were surprised to hear my suggestion was to sit with a psychic. My main motivation at the time was, why not? In this kind of crisis, why wait? If talking to someone who can be present with your grief in a different way, communicate that your dog is safe and still with you energetically, what's the harm in that? Were they waiting for the zombie apocalypse to feel better? The time to employ a little magic was now. They laughed and asked if I knew of anyone. Of course I did. I let them know that there was of course no guarantee that they would receive any messages about or from their dog, but also that the mystical has a way of holding us in different ways and that often that difference can really help hold us up when it just seems impossible to stay standing on our own.
Long story short, they visited with the psychic. It didn't change their life, but it did make it better. They came away from their experience with a new found location of support from far away relatives and ancestors, along with their sweet dog that they could choose to access and rely on whenever they wanted. But what really stayed with them was just having another person hold their pain with the certainty that there were people and energies out there in the world who were looking out for them. Holding them. Supporting them. It didn't mean their son wouldn't need to be on medication for the rest of his life, but somehow they felt better all the same. And that deep feeling of care and ease cannot be underestimated. It's really, really important.
So when I say that the mystical has a clinical application, it's because I mean it. Is it treatment? NO. Hell no. The mystical is not treatment. Not even close. That's where science comes in. But, we shouldn't deprive ourselves of the support the mystical can offer. And just because it isn't science doesn't mean it isn't as powerful in it's own way.
Have questions about what Human Design can do for you? Send them my way here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes you just need a good dance song. One that puts a spring in your step, makes you sing out loud, and moves your body. I love Remi Wolf for that. The song WOO! ins a champion of the feel good. The beat, harmony, all the things bring me to my feet with a mellow that makes me think I'm melting. It's a vibe.
I hope you enjoy it too. Hit listen to get a taste.
Love, where does it go?
And do you wake up without any control?
(Woo!) Love, it's not the answer, it's the mindset
The question's not about who, it's how you find
It's your mother got me hatin'
'Cause she told me that you're crazy
And I know I couldn't cure you
When you talked about your feelings
(Woo!) Goin' telling all your secrets
Ooh babe, I won't believe it
You got nothing but a feeling
You got nothing but a feeling for your love
You're so hot, got lost, got weak in the knees
Got botched like a f- up lip surgery
And the dentist always telling to floss my teeth
And I'm running out of oxycontin
Yeah, and I'm running out of good options
Yeah, and I don't know what I really wanted
Yeah, and f-, I think I lost my wallet
F-, I think I lost my wallet
F-, I think I'm getting hotter
Woah oh, where does it go?
And do you have the answer to my question?
Baby, I don't know…