time to get free

spring break was two weeks ago, and during a quiet moment of my week off I reflected on the Friday before break and the hours leading up to dismissal. everyone, the kids and I both, were really watching the clock — sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. to lighten the mood and ease some of the excitement and pressure around the upcoming break I joked with the kids. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m keeping track of the time, too, and we won’t forget to leave — trust me. We have 2 hours and 26 minutes to go, and in all my years of teaching I haven’t forgotten to leave school on time. Plus,” I paused, “we always have the dismissal bells to remind us.”

a few of them who were repeatedly looking at the clock or asking their watch-wearing friends about the time seemed a little sheepish that they’d been caught, but I understood. sometimes, even as a teacher, I just don’t want to be in school. and why not?

sometimes school seems like prison, a place we file away all kids for the day with a few adults to regulate their time and activities, and then when the working adults finish work, we pick them up and shuttle them home. back and forth, back and forth, sometimes with a bit of variation in the routine for outside play or lessons, but overall that’s it for nine, 10 months of the year.

but you’re the one in charge, you say, why would you feel like you’re in prison? well, if the kids are the prisoners, that makes me the jailor. and I can’t tell you how much I hate that role, how often I start every day with bright hopes, imagining all the interesting discussions we’ll have, the engaging hands-on activities, and the moments to read and reflect, and to just talk, get to know one another, and spend time together. but that’s just not how it goes. there is so much pushed into the classroom from the outside by people  who work at varying distances from me and my students and who I’ll assume are well-meaning. but whatever their intentions, they’re micromanagers to be sure. they create hard deadlines to meet, a quota of scores to record, grades to file, paperwork to submit, referrals for behavioral and academic issues, standards to meet, and on and on and on and on. my days are scheduled to the minute, which means the kids’ days are scheduled to the minute with an underlying pressure to keep up and for all of us to do what we’re told. and this is not the way education should be — paperwork and rule-following was not the reason I became a teacher.

so, if school is like prison, then it’s time to get free. because as a teacher I’ve wanted to create freedom through education, through giving kids the tools to question, to think deeply, to reflect and take action, to self-discover and self-determine, to be so knowledgeable of self and the world and so free-thinking that their very existence was a radical act of freedom, and that their radical freedom would inspire others to get free — and that eventually we would all be moving towards that freedom.

and freedom from what? freedom to do what? well, freedom has been written about and thought about for centuries and I cannot address all that I think and feel fully in a few paragraphs, but in short:  freedom to choose and to be. freedom to live a life with purpose and meaning, to live a life of self-understanding and a with a broad perspective on humanity and an understanding of the interconnectedness of life on the planet. freedom to know that there is a balance we must respect and maintain as a member of the living planet and to know when the demands of personal freedom must be mitigated for the good of the group — and to be secure enough in our personal freedom to know that it constantly flexes and bends within different contexts. there are no absolutes — movement and change are constant — just as the need for honest reflection and continuous education is constant.

so as I move forward, looking for moments of beauty in my daily life, I also search for moments of freedom, moments I can amplify and then stretch into minutes, and then hours and then maybe full days. let’s get free.

experiences that inspired this post:

The Hoodoisie — a Chicago-based, live news show podcast.

Educated, by Tara Westover

Chicago Teachers Union Foundation — professional development for Chicago Public Schools teachers

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