There are many promising models of education, some inspired by longstanding practices, and others brought about my new theories,discoveries, and innovations. Nonetheless, across all of these models, schooling becomes less relevant when it allows itself to become increasingly focused upon for self-preservation, monopolization, and self-service.
The self-preservation mindset emerges when those in schools become more focused upon protecting themselves and their preferred practices than upon the primary task of cultivating a rich and meaningful learning community, one where learners grow and develop in ways that are deemed valuable by a given community. Schools are at their best when they are focused on the learners and the learning community, not upon protecting the school or those in power. These exist only insofar as they serve the greater mission of the school. This is not a defense of treating people poorly or unfair wages, but it is about recognizing that personal or institutional kingdom-building is far from a noble vision for any school.
This is easier said than done, especially in times when there are attacks and strong criticisms of a school. There is temptation to dig in our heels, hide our flaws, and be guarded with our words and actions. Yet, if we give into this, our culture because one of self-interest instead of service and support for learners.
Similarly, there is nothing wrong with running a financially responsible school, but we must at least be honest about the decisions that we make that are meant to cut costs or maximize excess capital, even when these decisions are not in the best interest of individual students. There are financial realities of running any formal organization, and I don’t mean to disregard those, but sometimes we become so worried and focused upon the finances that we lose sight of why the school exists in the first place.
The moment that a school justifies decisions that benefit itself but harms or disregards real and legitimate needs of learners in some discernible way, we know that we are on a slippery slope.
Perhaps an extension of self-preservation, there is also the temptation to establish and protect educational monopolies in our schools. We hold transcripts, which are supposed to be recorded of student performance, as if they are property of the school. We set up entire systems (legal and otherwise) that limit and control who can issue degrees and academic credentials. We are suspect of those who claim to have learned outside the hallowed walls of formal schools, and rarely stand up for the self-taught learner in society or the highly skilled and competent but largely or entirely un-credentialed. We scoff at partnerships with homeschool families, external partners, or other “outsiders” whom we perceive as a challenge to our control.
There is nothing wrong with defending our convictions about the value of a given school or community, but it is an altogether different matter when we strive to use regulations and power to drive people to us and away from other pathways for learning. When that happens, then we reveal ourselves to not actually be committed to a universal value of individual growth and development. We only recognize and celebrate it if it happens at our hands. We become a medical doctor who fails to rejoice at a patient who finds a cure through a second opinion or maybe even through personal study and self-treatment.
Each of these three are closely connected, but they represent important albeit nuanced differences. By self-service, I mean to draw our attention to the school with a collective mindset, one where school and the people with power become overly focused upon that with serves and benefits the self or the school ecosystem. This can include a wide range of situations, but I offer two examples.
The school prep school – This is often called the college prep school, which is essentially a school that chooses to focus upon preparing people for more school or the next level of school. This can be a school-wide focus or even just the focus of an individual class or teacher. It is any situation where a large amount of time is devoted to equip people with the knowledge, skills, and disposition necessary to succeed in yet another school context. While I celebrate the choice of some schools to make this a focus, it always risks making the community at least once removed from real life and real world relevance. In their worst cases, I’ve come across schools that defend dry or poor teaching by arguing that it is preparing students for those dryness at the next level. Or there are schools that avoid new and promising practices because they are overly concerned about how it deviates from what will happen at the next level. These are real considerations in the modern context, but I simply argue that this emphasis is best kept in check. Schools are always better served focusing their efforts upon that which truly equips people to flourish in life, society, and a myriad of contexts. That will usually be more than adequate to also prepare them for the next level of school, at least if that next level is grounded in reality and the mission of developing people for life.
Preference – From the entire school leadership to individual teachers, there are many instances where we make decisions based upon what we prefer, what is convenient for us, what is the least threatening to us, or what we consciously or unconsciously believe to be to our benefit and advantage. While this might be entirely natural and human, it must be recognized as contrary to the mission and purpose of a good school. It must be checked and challenged. It must not be fed and nourished, or else it will become a monstrous creature that devours the true mission of a good school. It can be starved with a few choice and persistent questions, questions that challenge us to remember our mission, vision, values, and goals. A good starting point is a simple question like this one. How does _______ serve, support and amplify our mission of helping students grow and develop?
Self-preservation, monopolizing tendencies, and self-serving mindsets are almost always at work in schools. Yet, they are never useful in achieving our missions. They detract and distract what matters most. I don’t expect that any community will rid itself of these altogether, but I am hopeful enough to believe that they can be resisted. In fact, by being transparent about these when they emerge, we create opportunities to remind ourselves about that which is most important in any good school or learning community, namely a focus upon learner growth and development.