How My Alternative Education Freed Me

Imagine a high schooler. Bogged down by homework. Stressed. Sitting in a classroom surrounded by brick and mortar wondering how to balance her love of learning with life. That high schooler was me, not too long before I sat down with my parents to discuss leaving my highly-rated parochial school in my high school-driven Midwestern town. Once leaving the traditional school system -- first for self-guided studies aided by a tutor, then an early college program -- my life over time became lighter, open to the possibility that I could take charge of my own destiny.

Years later, enrolled in a Montessori teacher training program, a familiar thought process occurred. This time though, I wasn't bound to a desk, but chained to the order of another highly-rated school in the same high school-driven Midwestern town. Freer, yes, but still encumbered -- now by the frequently embattled United States institution of higher education. Sitting in grown-up circle time, I recall asking myself, "Is this the only way?" Montessori, a 19th century invention, was considered a radical approach to education. In some places, it still is. To be sure, Montessori was a truer fit than any method of schooling I had met before, and approaching Montessori as a philosophy for life has, for me, been life-changing. In many ways, however, the institution of Montessori is no different than any other. The respected societies and associations acting as governing bodies tell teachers they must be credentialed, with schools accredited, t's crossed and i's dotted. I survived the indoctrination, but like most young people, not without the scars of student loans.

Around the same time, I met a fellow drummer marching to a different beat. We went on to have an offbeat wedding, and later traveled an enlightening road to parenthood. During the childbirth education process, another divergence took place as I discovered the disenfranchisement of parents happens right from the start. You guessed it, assisted by the perpetually reformed United States institution of health care. Now well-practiced in thinking critically, I approached this establishment with questions, and annoyed some people along the way. Fortunately, I had the foresight to seek the support I needed from a skilled group of guides who themselves are often categorized as alternative. I found myself perplexed by the strange designation for their wisdom, perhaps unconventional but certainly rooted in science.

From the first announcement of a child, there are people who assert they know best how to birth your child, how to train your child, how to raise your child and then, how your child will learn. Authorities. Experts. Politicians. There are many motives for their assertions, but few are worth receiving without examination.

I may have digressed. You should know by now I do that often.

Today I continue my self-guided inquiry while leading an organization with an aim to empower children and their families navigating their own learning journeys. I am privileged to work with families seeking real options, not just fancy repackaging commonly called reform, families asking, "Is this the only way?" It's an important question, and each time I'm happy to answer it. Throughout my continued education and especially recently, I am grateful to have met others who question the long-standing way of doing things. Some of them, like me, find the middle ground among the chaos and promote the merging of tradition with the 21st century. Marching to your own beat certainly beats the institution, but discovering you're not alone? That's even better.

Sadly, it seems war is often being waged within the institution of education, families squarely in the crossfire. Even if it appears free, there's usually a price to pay. For some it might be difficult to believe there are allies in the offense or freedom seekers entrenched. If you're not privy to the private conversations -- teacher's lounge rants and quiet moments with administrators who lament the time they've lost with their own children for the sake of many others' -- you could go merrily along. But cognitive dissonance won't erase the writing on the chalkboard. Change is upon us, ready or not. Still, while I agree that certain systems are broken, I remain skeptical that the institution, in and of itself, is the sole problem. Going against majority makes unpopularity inevitable, and fear can be a powerful force.

Learning, unlearning, relearning. Schooling, unschooling, micro-schooling. Evolving. It may not be the most convenient way to live or learn, but it's easily the freest. Undoubtedly, it's worth noting that I had a start many do not. I was gifted with parents, both lifelong educators who know the institution of education very well. When, nearly 20 years ago, I declared my independence from traditional schooling, they could have squashed my autonomy and all that went with it then and there -- but they didn't.

So in this moment, I invite parents to consider beyond this moment to a future which will require tenacity, ingenuity, flexibility and empathy in order to not just survive, but thrive in a world constantly changing. Consider your child, his or her exceptional personality and multiple intelligences, and the options that may or may not exist for a fully grown human who cannot think outside the box or as they say, innovate. Consider the whole child. Honor the child. Follow the child, and you too might find an alternative way to a freer existence.