What You’re Never Taught

For a moment, imagine that you’ve been hired at a school. You arrive on your first day and are, for the most part, entirely confused about everything. It’s not because you don’t understand what the school does or what you’re supposed to be there for, regardless of whether or not it’s your first year or your tenth; it’s because you’re not sure how anything is done because no one has really explained that to you, even though you’ve been running around asking as many questions as possible to better understand the situation. 

There was no orientation day for new teachers, helping them acclimate to a school that’s new to them. There wasn’t a meeting to explain the expectations, additional duties, and what administrative tasks you were responsible for. You received no emails outlining tasks that need to be done now. No one has made available the relevant program outlines or told you where to find them, if they exist. No one has made it clear what must be done for the classes or parents, outside of the things you were planning to do (creating a syllabus for students and families, creating or organising a curriculum, and hunting down relevant materials). In fact, you find that the work you were trying to do to get ahead of everything isn’t what they want.

They want something different. Your syllabus can’t look like this. Despite there being no curriculum, you must have your whole unit planned now with all relevant materials put together. You must teach this very specific textbook and in this precise manner, which hasn’t been provided to you until that day and has never been explained.

You go home tired, unable to really focus on doing anything that you know you need to do so that you can effectively teach the next day. Every day feels like you’re just working off the cuff, as if you can never figure out precisely what your end goal is.

And over the first few weeks, small problems continually arise because no one has explained to you basic operations. A student has given you a note saying they need to go to the dentist, and you let them leave at the appointed time. They come back saying that they need a specific piece of paperwork. What paperwork? No one is there to help you because everyone is either teaching or off in the copy room. 

You leave the classroom briefly to check with someone nearby. You feel bad for interrupting them, apologising as you ask for help. They hurriedly shove a bunch of small leave slips at you and briefly explain what needs to be done. You thank them, and they rush back to their class.

More responsibilities keep cropping up: You’re responsible for collecting certain paperwork (which should be handled by the office because of privacy reasons). You’re responsible for collecting fees for something you’re not sure about and don’t know how to explain to your students because no one has explained it to you.

Along with the problems, other demands start piling up. But these demands are verbal, not written. They’re easy to forget when you’re already drowning in the other work and duties. Even when you start writing to-do lists, you don’t know where to start. Once you finally figure out what you’re doing, a colleague walks in and distracts you from what you were doing. They don’t mean to cause you problems; they only want to know how you’re settling in.

You’re so tired. Sometimes, you catch yourself wanting to give up and trying to convince yourself that you’re making a difference.

Even when you feel like you’re not.

For many first year teachers and teachers moving between schools, this is one of many experiences. Moving between different schools in different countries (for work-related reasons), I’ve had this experience multiple times. It’s always been strange to me how often this happens, and it’s always struck me as weird how many aspects of a school are entirely unspoken and unwritten. Some schools have ‘staff handbooks’ that outline expectations, though they’re often pretty vague; other places just have nothing, expecting you to inherently understand the processes.

It’s bizarre, it’s inaccessible, and it’s ludicrous. Why structure a system that stresses out the people who are meant to “educate the minds of the youth?” How do they expect their staff to focus on what needs to be done when they’re running around trying to figure out how everything works? And what about people who aren’t good at understanding or figuring out hidden rules? Why should we develop a system that is entirely ableist and dismisses people because they don’t fit in?

It’s just one of many things that lead to burn out. It’s like the first few years are intentionally designed to ensure that you’re as tired as possible so that they run through teachers as much as possible, keeping only the most tolerant of the absurdity and losing those who just cannot stand the system in which they’re placed. The whole school system is designed to weed people out who just can’t fit in, holding onto its bigoted values.

Now add, for example, ADHD to your imagined scenario.

You’re tired, and you’re forgetting things. People are just rattling off tasks for you to do and information related to your job, and you’re trying to remember or organise it as best you can. You’re writing notes on everything only to misplace them as soon as you get to your desk, and you never know where to look for them. Sometimes you end up throwing them out, thinking there’s nothing important on them. Other times you keep things you don’t even need, hiding those you do.

You have no time to organise because you’re constantly on duty. You lose your mornings to standing in a hallway, babysitting children during breaks when you really need to be putting your lessons together; you go into class half-prepared because you can’t get your schedule put together, especially because your school changes it on short-notice.

One day, you start working on one really important task only to get interrupted by a colleague who wants to talk, vent, or collaborate on something. You immediately shift focus to focus on your colleague, unable to say ‘no’ because the task you were working on was one you had to force yourself through. It was already hard to focus, and it’s even more difficult with someone else in the room. You can’t do it.

You finish talking with your colleague and start working on something else, forgetting about the original task you had. It’s hard to get organised in this situation, and no one really wants to accommodate the adult with ADHD. They’ve already told you that they can’t accommodate a single office because there’s “no space for it,” and they tell you that you just “need to deal with it.” It’s your responsibility to cope, even though you can’t figure out how.

You’re trying. It’s just not enough.

But to be fair, they don’t even want to accommodate the children with it, taking away their stim toys. They complain about how annoying that child is, and you’re trying your best to argue in their favour. Not only do you now have to do your own work, you’re forced to spend time advocating because other people refuse to allow kids to do what they need to do. You know you need to do it because you were that kid once, and that kid needs support.

No one wants to listen to you, and they don’t even really care. They want to argue that, even though a child has ADHD, they need to learn “how to behave.” You sigh because, while they’re talking about a child, you know they think that about you; they also see you as irresponsible, they see you as lazy, and they see you as annoying.

Working with those people makes you anxious, and you really just don’t want to. But you’re forced to. They fight you on everything, and you just… you just can’t. You collapse under the pressure to stay quiet, even though it kills you every single day.

You’re so tired. Days blur together, work is piling up, and you… You feel like you’re drowning.

So, to try to work, to try to focus, you leave the space that’s been designated as yours and try to hide somewhere else in the school (an infrequently used hallway, an empty classroom, an unused office, another building on campus away from everyone else), hoping no one will find you just so you can get something done. Your colleagues are a distraction. They don’t mean to be, but they are.

You’re tired of bringing work home just to catch up on what you need to do. You just want one evening to yourself so you can unwind, get your brain back in order, relax.

But even when you don’t bring the work home, you bring the comments of your colleagues back with you, ruminating on them when your brain cycles back to them.

Schools are hostile to disabilities. Ask anyone with a disability, any disability. The overwhelming majority of us have experienced abuse at the hands of the school system, as students and also as teachers. 

Some schools entirely lack accessible architecture, making it impossible for some disabled students to enter or navigate the school. I’ve worked in schools where there were no elevators, stairlifts, or ramps. I’ve watched a student with a severe heart condition be forced to walk three floors of stairs just to get to their classes and be punished for the time that it took them to get there, even though there was no possibility of him getting there on time. I saw the same kid give up on coming to school because he just couldn’t handle it.

As a child, my disabilities went neglected. It was easy to not see them in children perceived as girls because they were only looking for them in the children perceived as boys. As an adult, I’m expected to know how to deal with them all the time in a world that’s not designed for me. It’s given me immense anxiety. I’ve had a number of breakdowns and panic attacks just trying, and I’ve mostly kept them hidden from the people around me.

Few colleagues have ever seen it, and those who do know the struggle that’s gone into trying to cope with the system. I hate crying at work, but I’ve lost count of how much I’ve done it because I just couldn’t keep up with everything.

I’ve had people tell me I’m “not cut out for it,” and I’ve had multiple comments made about my “dedication.” I’ve had my colleagues tell me that I have “no reason” being in teaching because of my “problems.”

The problem is them. The problem is the system. The problem is that we simply do not exist and are intentionally hidden or pushed out. The problem is that the people who don’t fit in are gaslit and manipulated into believing they’re the problems, only to realise it was never their fault.

The system is abusive, and it’s intentionally designed that way.

Schooling in 2020: Why Bother?

Writer’s Note: Where links to Slovak news sources are included, please use Google Translate to translate them. It’s a good way to find out what’s happening outside of the American-centric bubble that is the majority of the internet, even if the translations are a bit wonky.

For the past week, I’ve been self-isolating at home while waiting to take a COVID test. I was finally able to take that test on Friday (September 25), and the results of it were thankfully negative. However, it gave me a lot of time to think and to properly monitor what’s happening where I live; it also gave me a lot of time to consider whether or not I’ll continue teaching this year.

On Saturday, I made what was most certainly a good decision: I quit, outlining my fears for my personal health and how the situation in the country is being handled.

It also felt like a pretty good decision as I received a notification from a Facebook group where my principal was recruiting for my job literally minutes after receiving my email but ignored me entirely (until Sunday, when they tried to guilt trip me into not quitting and has since ignored my latest response). But that’s not the point of this post.

COVID has, for many industries and fields, highlighted nearly all of their problems. It’s shown the absolute refusal of state systems and businesses to even consider the safety of anyone while focusing almost entirely on the economy. I don’t say this lightly; the measures that have been applied in many places have either completely ignored or over-policed those most vulnerable to the pandemic, while they’ve been encouraging others to go to restaurants or participate in tourism and local events.

But teaching is an area that has seen so many discussions about its problems in light of COVID. The response to this pandemic has shown the innate inability of schools to adequately protect and accommodate all people. While many schools quickly switched to remote learning in the beginning, most schools didn’t take into consideration the needs of their teachers, students, and families. They forgot simple things like how families share spaces in their homes, that they sometimes share technology because they may only have one computer or device available, that they may not have access to reliable internet, and that parents also needed to work while their children were ‘in school’.

This immediate switch to remote learning was made more difficult for students with IEPs (Individualised Education Plans) and undiagnosed learning disabilities because it interrupted many of their accommodations or coping mechanisms. These kids were frequently labelled as “lazy” or “unwilling” by their teachers, even though many of them were trying to participate and complete their work but were struggling to figure out how.

It was an absolute mess.

Some schools and districts learned their lesson from what happened and took into consideration the feedback they received from their communities, but many were left up in the air until mid- to late August. A lot of teachers weren’t sure whether they’d be teaching face-to-face or remotely; many schools didn’t take the chance to work with their teachers to develop programs in tandem to ensure they were available for their students, which has led a lot of teachers to be doing far more work than they would ordinarily be doing (which was already a whole lot of work). Others have refused to acknowledge that their school (or class) potentially could suddenly switch to remote learning because of one positive COVID test; they haven’t even come up with real plans about what to do with classes if that one positive COVID test happens to be a teacher.

It’s still an absolute mess, and that is infuriating.

Perhaps what has made it more frustrating for me is that the Minister of Education, Science, Research and Sport for Slovakia, Branislav Gröhling, has initially ruled out closing all of the schools. He’s told us that we need to be prepared for a “dynamic school year,” which schools essentially took to mean “do face-to-face and then scramble, if you must, to figure out remote education.” Other comments from ministers and administrators have essentially had the same impact, and it really has clarified for more people what the purpose of schools is.

They’re for babysitting.

Under the guise of education, schools are designed to teach children how to be obedient and passive workers. They are spaces that indoctrinate us to believe in the manufactured scarcity of knowledge, forcing us to constantly compete with our peers when we should be working together. They are institutions where children are taught to police those around them into following frequently arbitrary and unjust rules that have no real meaning or impact while the schools frequently overlook and enable harassment and bullying.

They’re preparatory spaces for children to grow up to become tolerant cogs in a capitalist machine that wants to exploit them and spit them out when they’re no longer useful.

This isn’t particularly shocking, as it has always been in the DNA of schools. Their history, especially in Europe and the Americas, constantly makes reference to this. The very first purpose of the school was to teach people to learn to read the Bible; while they helped many people learn basic literacy (and sometimes numeracy) skills, they were not designed as the spaces of “creativity” and “critical thinking” that many of us have been led to believe.

It’s even more clear when you realise that schools have not impacted people fairly across most demographics. Schools were often segregated places. Girls would often learn different topics from boys (something that would be challenged by the practice of co-education in the late 1800s). Black people would be segregated into schools away from those of white people (if allowed to go to school at all), starting in the times of slavery and going all the way up until today because of generations of policies ensured that would happen. Indigenous children around the globe were stolen from their families and trapped in residential schools set up by colonisers, ensuring they learned the “proper” values and the “correct” manners through cultural genocide (while countries like the US, Australia, and Canada would later apologise through lip service alone if at all).

Segregation still happens, which should surprise exactly no one. In the US, it takes the form of segregated school districts based primarily on income (which more frequently impacts Black and Latine families). In Slovakia, Roma and disabled children are still segregated into different classes or schools, excluding them from the very society in which they live (despite the fact that the EU has opined that they should stop). These countries are not alone; segregation continues to occur globally.

And while residential schools are no longer in common use, we still see the same troubles in other systems. Foster care in both the United States and Canada removes a disproportionate amount of children from Indigenous and Black families, while Australia appears to have a highly disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. The UK has a history of prejudice against Roma families and has removed their children from their care at higher rates, and they’ve also taken children who “don’t look Roma enough” out of their family’s homes. Meanwhile, there are Latin-American children who are currently detained in places along the US border where they have been separated from their families or are being sent back to potentially harmful places.

All of these are remnants of the same systems being used in different ways, finding new paths via different laws and structures. Among all their other intersections, these are all education issues.

But back to COVID-19.

This pandemic has really put spotlights on every negative aspect of capitalism, pushing some people to recognise it for the harmful system that it truly is. It’s shown the school systems for the charade that they are, though most of the calls have been asking for reform. This system cannot be reformed, as many people continually put forward; it is yet another system of abuse that is built upon nothing but reform, and it doesn’t seem to matter where you are. Sometimes the government or administration change things just enough to get people to be quiet long enough for any movement to lose steam, but the improvements made are often more difficult, more opaque, come with a lot of strings attached, and are less accessible.

Nearly all of them are things that no one actually asked for, even when they’re addressing problems that have been outlined.

None of these problems are new, though; we’ve seen them before across the globe, but they just keep finding new ways to update. We know that there are major discrepancies between children of different races and ethnicities, even within the same school; we know that the curriculum intentionally avoids topics and subjects that the ruling class finds “uncomfortable,” going as far as to see people call for the banning of different materials, such as the 1419 Project in the United States and any material or organisations believed to be anti-capitalist in the UK. We know that disabled children are more often overlooked and underserved, frequently being segregated into separated classes even when it’s not necessary. Similarly, students from other-language backgrounds are often moved into “special education” classes because of their lack of fluency in a target language.

Seriously, none of this is new at all. Well, except for maybe the fact that schools across the world no longer seem to care if teachers, staff, and students get sick or die just to ensure that there are full-scale childcare facilities in service of the economy. And I wish that were hyperbole.

There are so many more issues with what we’re doing, ranging from schools trying to set rules for children in their own homes (don’t wear pyjamas, don’t eat, eyes forward at all times, record your surroundings while you take a test, show us your lap to prove you’re not cheating). Parents have been told that they’re expected to participate in the classes to ensure that students are paying attention; they’re also being left with the sole responsibility to implement any accommodations they can for their child, if they need them, without the support of the school.

No one is learning

Well, I take that back. People are learning. Many are slowly waking up to the reality of what schools do and how they try to control the lives of the people in them. Others are recognising that schools are nothing but busy work, piling packet after packet on their students who can’t access the online material. And more still are recognising the dehumanising nature of the system. Students are finally openly questioning the methods behind their grades, asking their governments and curriculum organisations why and how those grades are generated; some have even been loudly asking what the point is in being graded at all (something of which I whole-heartedly agree).

That isn’t to say that there aren’t people trying. There are a lot of teachers, in small groups or individually, attempting to put forward change that can improve the lives of their students, families, and people in their communities. It’s small and not enough, but they’re trying to change the system from within.

Then there are those of us who have burnt out and can no longer support the system, even if we did so in the most minimal of ways. There are those of us who want to change or abolish schools, to put children back into the culture they come from instead of removing them from it for hours every day, to encourage transdisciplinary education, to provide more flexibility and opportunities to connect to the local community, and to learn from those around us.

And if we’re burning out in record numbers? The kids are, too.

We’re all tired, we’re all exhausted, and we know this isn’t working.

So I have to ask: If this is the reality of many schools right now, why are we bothering to try and keep it?