Perhaps the most heartbreaking outcome of the current systematization of education is the way that it unintentionally dehumanizes. Reduced to scores, we too often become pawns in a global game of competition. We seek to be valued while forgetting that we are already valuable. Worthy. There are a distinct collection of experiences in my own school journey that left me wondering if I was worthy. After educating hundreds, I’ve come to realize that I’m not an anomaly. Every child longs to know that they are valuable. This longing isn’t dependent on social economic standing, family, or history.
It is part of the human condition, this desire to be known and seen as valuable.
In first grade I received the first inkling that I might not be enough. In my school, kids were nominated by their teachers for VIP awards. Each month the whole school gathered in the auditorium for an assembly where students were called on stage and handed their VIP award, because they were a Very Important Person. What I didn’t know in first grade was that every child eventually gets this award. I waited every month to be called, waited to see my parents sitting in the back of the auditorium revealing that this would be the month that my teacher would notice me.
That she would really see me. Value me.
Each month that my name wasn’t called, I felt a little more invisible.
It wasn’t until the last month of school that I received my award, followed by some cookies and punch. I was assigned the “leftover” VIP award. In an effort to elevate students by labeling them “VIP,” the system failed to make me feel valuable. In first grade the leftover VIP award was proof that I wasn’t enough. That I would have to work harder, be more perfect so that I would be noticed.
In second grade I was placed in the advanced reading group with 4 other children. Initially I felt important and superior in this group. I was allowed to read chapter books! Ralph. S. Mouse. A book burned into my memory not because I fell in love with the story, but because it was the first time I realized that I could fool my teachers. I often volunteered to read aloud because I was praised for my annunciation, my cadence, and the voice I put into reading. I focused on reading each sentence perfectly. The problem came when we stopped to discuss the chapter, I had no idea what the book was about or why my fellow “advanced” readers enjoyed it so much. I was worried that if anyone found out, I wouldn’t get to be in the advanced reading group. That I wouldn’t be important any more. That I would lose my value. I quickly learned the unspoken rules of the system. If I volunteered to read aloud every time, I wouldn’t get called on to discuss the content of the story. I would have already taken my turn and could delegate the heavy lifting to my “smarter” classmates. I had them fooled.
I could be valued as a good reader but felt like a fraud.
I wasn’t really worthy.
By the end of third grade, I had mastered taking tests, the bastion of the education system. My third grade teacher revealed that school was a game, and that if you understood the game, you could figure out how to win. We discovered that test taking was directly related to winning this particular game. We learned how to use glossaries to look up the bold words in our textbooks. To my surprise, the bold words are often the answers to the blanks on the worksheets. You didn’t even have to read the book to answer the questions! You could skip the hard work and go straight to the bold words, look them up in the glossary, and fill in the blanks. Instant gratification. I got to be valued as smart by my teachers, classmates, and parents. I discovered, that if I studied the answers that I wrote on the worksheets, the test was a piece of cake. This revelation was like knowing the cheat code for a video game. I could master the game and the test; I knew the secret. I could be valued as “smart” but still felt like a fraud.
Again the message, I wasn’t really worthy.
My passionate focus for the remainder of my school career became success. I ardently believed that success inside of this system was a worthy passion, and that belief was encouraged every time I got the praise, the “A,” the 4.0. I didn’t stop to consider if I was actually learning, that wasn’t my goal. I was the easy student working to survive in the system by aiming for the perfect score. Like all kids I was longing to be known, to be seen as valuable. I believed that if I played the game well enough that I could earn that value. Instead, I became invisible. Forgettable. I was left wondering if I had anything special about me. Any gifts or talents.
I was left wondering, am I worthy?
In the current education landscape, kids are routinely forgotten because the system isn’t really about them. The system values competition. It values being superior. But it doesn’t really know the individuals who comprise the whole. Embolden by being ‘the best’ it is blind to individuals. It exploits kids for the bragging rights of being at the top. We begin to believe this myth ourselves, that academic superiority (the best test scores) will make our country strong, that we become relevant in this global economy by touting our collection of high scores. We pontificate that this “race to the top” will bring us success and make us happy. All the while we lose.
We lose ourselves, our identity, our uniqueness, and our voice.
Apathy wears many faces. Some encounter this apathy as I did, in playing the system’s game. I believed that attaining the “A” was success, so when I achieved the “A,” my quest was over. There was no reason to push in, no room for curiosity or learning. The system told me that I was already “successful.” Already smart. So, even though I often felt like a fraud, I figured out the game and gleefully accepted my honor roll certificate. My apathy looked like a 4.0.
Apathy can also look like failure. It can be the student who tries hard, but hasn’t figured out the system. The one who gets so many red marks that they believe that it isn’t worth pushing in. These are the students who are convinced that they are stupid. Who believe they can’t attain success. Then there are the students who fall somewhere in between. Maybe memorization comes easily for them, but they aren’t interested in playing the game and jumping through the hoops. Their apathy looks like rebellion. They have little interest of proving what they already know.
Apathy can also wear the face of defeat. Of beginning with a disadvantage because of the neighborhood you live in, the family you were born into, the expectations of your community.
Regardless of who you are, what your social economic status is, this is a system that breeds apathy. Feelings of fraud, being stupid, defeat.
Of not being worthy. Of not being valuable.
This is a system where we learn how to be students, but we have no idea how to use our minds. Many, like me feel like a fraud. We know how to win the game, but it feels like cheating. Every time we are called, “smart” we feel like a con artist. The system isn’t made to honor our humanity. It can’t bear our vulnerabilities. It can’t cope with our failures. Even in my ‘perfection’ of good grades, of playing the game and being the pleaser, there was a very real fear of “what if;” what if they find out? As William Deresiewicz says in Excellent Sheep, “we aren’t teaching to the test, we’re living to it.” And in the end, even if the United States sells it’s soul to perform higher than every other country on a test, we still aren’t competitive. We’ve just created a population of excellent sheep. The temporary praise of playing within the rules of the system can be intoxicating for a time, until you remember that none of them know you, not really.
In education, we are dealing with humanity. We are working with individuals who are unique in the whole of history. We are teaching those who have gifts, passions, talents, and purpose all their own in a system dedicated to making them all look the same. This focus on perfection and competition is at the expense of individuals with names and purpose in the world. Ignoring who a child “is” misses the core of what it means to be alive as a learner. The system is culpable in forgetting and overlooking that we are actually teaching individuals who have names. We’ve lost the plot in education and made it about competition with the rest of the world rather than recognizing that the population is made up of incredible individuals.
Who are worthy.
Who are valuable.
Penelope (not her name) was a student who believed the system when it told her that she wasn’t worthy. She struggled in school, was labeled as dyslexic, and was utterly defeated. You could see it in her posture and lack of eye contact. Hunched shoulders as if she was folding into herself. She wouldn’t speak up in class for fear of failure. If she dared to raise her hand, it was barely noticeable, tucked into her side with fingers hesitantly stretched up next to her ear. If you called on her, she would whisper so that the teacher could edit her answer before it reached the ears of her classmates. Penelope is BRILLIANT. She makes connections that others miss. She is kind, empathetic, and funny. She struggles to fit into a system that wants to use her to compete for top score. And so she believes it. She believes she isn’t worthy, that she isn’t valuable. You could see her wear this burden like a cloak. An amazing thing happened when Penelope learned that there was more to learning than the system. It was as if she was set free. As she discovered the beauty in her unique outlook on the world, her gifts and talents, that she was valuable, Penelope began to sit up straighter. She looked teachers and classmates in the eye. She spoke a little louder for others to hear. She challenged herself to break free of the fear and connect with others. She began to see herself differently. She embraced her worth.
At Anastasis, we have the audacity to step outside of the system that forgets the individual. We leave the perceived comfort of false data that tells kids they are smart if they learn to play the game. We recognize and know each individual. We honor them in their humanity and not as a means to an end to compete for top score. We know that they are valuable because they are uniquely created with gifts, talents, and purpose. Just like Penelope. We know that the world desperately needs the unique contribution that they alone can add. Kids are worth more than a score that contributes to the GDP. Learning as a human endeavor is too big and too beautiful to fit into the tiny, meaningless data battles we insist on to prove how competitive we are. At Anastasis we recognize all are valuable. With that as our premise, we’ve created a school, a model that chooses humanity every day. We choose to know kids’ names and help them recognize their worth.
Anastasis is Greek, it means “stand again.” This is what we desire for students: that they would be able to stand again in who they are. We prepare students to engage the world from a place of worth. To find their unique purpose and pour into the world accordingly.
There is a sense of urgency to get this right, to make the best decisions for kids. The kids in our schools right now? They keep growing. Keep waiting to be seen as valuable and worthy. We have a choice today, are we going to define kids based on scores and competition? Or, are we going to seek to know them?
Will we ask them to all look the same as a result of their schooling? Or, will we help them discover their identity and place in the world?
Will we make them feel defeated? Or, will we show them that they are valuable and worthy?
Anastasis Academy is here to pave the way as a champion of students with names. A model for what school looks like when it values individuals above all else. An example lighting the way for all of education to follow. This is a commitment that we can all make, a commitment to value and dignify the humanity of the individual over meaningless data. To show kids that they are valuable and worthy independent of their performance and scores. To help kids #standagain.