Category Archives: Personal Interest

What is the Place of an Anarchist Educator in Current Educational Systems?

Most school years seem to start with the same question: What is the purpose of education? For many anarchists, we recognise that education is really important in developing the core of how social values are shared throughout our societies. Those of us working in currently existing education systems often find ourselves frustrated by a range of issues, namely the overly restrictive rules that are enforced on all people within the school ‘ecosystem’, the conflation of education with schooling, the hyper-focus on choosing the ‘correct’ educational path in order to achieve a career, and the lack of community inclusion in the development of any educational programs.

Sitting through a number of meetings taking place throughout the school year, it’s hard to figure out exactly how to function within current education systems and whether or not it’s even beneficial. There are a lot of questions that run through my mind when I’m participating in these meetings:

Why isn’t the school run in such a way that more voices are heard? These meetings are often run by someone who holds a title like ‘coordinator’, ‘principal’, ‘school manager’, or ‘educational director’; many of these people give presentations that tell teachers what they will do, even though they will never be responsible for implementing those programs or policies. It’s unclear to me what their purpose is when they refuse to collaborate and only wish to dictate, especially when they seem to hide in their offices away from everyone else.

Where are the student voices in the development of an environment that’s supposedly made for them? Why are we dictating what is best for them and how they ought to learn? How come we always assess the students in the same ways, either through standardised tests or identical assignments? Why aren’t we asking them to look through their past work and showing us where they think they improved? And how come we can’t allow them the opportunities to design their own projects and learn or showcase skills they’re interested in?

Why are we forcing students to complete subjects or participate in classes where they’re uncomfortable? One of the few things I remember from my (really bad) teacher training class for history content is that the instructor said you “need to be prepared to explain why your subject matters.” What he seemed to have forgotten is that I don’t get to choose what history is taught in my classes; that is set by the state or national curriculum.

How do I justify to my students focusing so much on cis men in our history and literature classes and seem to forget about the accomplishments of literally everyone else? How do I justify the focus on white people, the glorification of colonialism and imperialism, the excessive use of euphemisms about slavery or genocide in many materials, and systematic erasure of the achievements of Black and Indigenous people? How do I justify books leaving out the systematic displacement and murder of Romani in World War II and those that pretend nothing’s wrong today? How do I justify ignoring and overlooking the existence of disabled people because able-bodied and neurotypical people are uncomfortable acknowledging us? And what about the constant erasure of any and all queer history? Y’know, just to name a few.

I can’t justify any of that, and I shouldn’t have to. The only thing I can (and actually) do is try to add in sources that increase the range of history and literature my students are exposed to, but that doesn’t guarantee my students’ future teachers will do that or that students will acknowledge the information now. How can I teach equality and freedom when the curriculum tries to hide everything that proves we aren’t as free or equal as we’re told? How do I encourage my students to explore when the school doesn’t support it and often actively works against explorations of curiosity (either through blocks to websites or selections of library books)? 

Why do we force students into the same schedules? Teenagers often need a later starting time, but not all people live on the same schedules anyway. Why do we deny the learning that people do outside of schools, which is often more effective than what they learn in schools? Tons of students have shown us that they’re learning more outside of school, especially with regards to their own activism.

And how do I, in this current economic system, maintain my job without getting fired because I might work for the one person who hates what I do and hates me for doing it? Teachers who try to expand upon the curriculum to highlight the reality of events, to encourage students to remain curious, and help them access more information or opportunities are often the people most targeted by administration with abuse and/or firings.

So again, I have to ask, where does an anarchist educator fit in? And how can we exist if we’re required to uphold the status quo that we disagree with? And more to the point: Can we fit in at all?

That’s the crux of the debate which is one I have with myself all the time. There’s never going to be one single correct answer. I believe my existence in a school helps to normalise anarchism even if I’m not directly talking about it, as it’s better for an actual anarchist to discuss the idea when it comes up and to address confusion (like when people use the word ‘anarchy’ to refer to ‘chaos’ and then assume the same of anarchists). It’s probably better for us to exist, even if we’re doing most of our work indirectly, than for us to be completely removed from the current society.

Plus, a paycheck is helpful to continue working on other activist causes.

But I also know that I’m stuck in a system that forces me to act in ways that are antithetical to my beliefs and often invalidate my identity. The state, unless students acquire paperwork to be excused for a reason they consider ‘valid’, requires that students be at school a certain number of days or risk failing, which I don’t agree with at all.

I’m required to teach certain topics because they exist on a test or a state curriculum. If I overlook too many of the rules I disagree with, I get targeted for harassment (affecting both my mental health and financial stability). And it’s not always safe for me to be an open non-binary queer person or to talk about my disabilities, and I’ve received complaints for “indoctrinating children” for simply recommending novels with openly queer characters and “scaring” them for including stories centered around disabled people.

In Slovakia, they openly segregate disabled children from mainstream schools. While they have developed schools specifically for children with disabilities, many public schools don’t even have the proper equipment to accommodate physical disabilities, such as a stair lift or elevator (and I’ve been told about public schools where the parents had to do fundraising to get an elevator installed instead of the state doing the job it claims to do).

I’ve visited another school in the country that is split into two, segregating Slovak Roma children from “Slovak” children because the “Slovak” parents retain anti-Roma beliefs. For the Roma students, almost none of their teachers are Romani or have connections to their community, forcing them to participate in the dominant culture and ignore their own (or risk getting in trouble). And, by the way, this segregation is illegal. (And while the European Commission called on Slovakia to desegregate their schools? It’s not like anything happened, which would only be shocking if anyone expected states and “political unions” of states to do anything useful to protect all people.)

Working in education systems requires some form of a desire to want to reform them, to alter them while still maintaining what’s “good” about them. But how do you improve schools like the ones above? How do you make them work for everyone when they were never designed for all people? COVID-19 has shown that a lot of our whole system is inaccessible and broken; students (along with their parents and communities) have found alternative ways to learn and work together, but we’re still pushing everyone to go back to normal.

And so I keep finding myself in a predicament: Do I continue working in schools and hope that I influence the next generations to continue pushing for gradual change? Or do I find another avenue, as an educator, to work towards organising a philosophical shift that just isn’t happening?

Because I don’t feel good in the schools, and I don’t feel good out of them (for as long as they exist).

I guess I’ll just have to keep doing both. For now.

Rethinking My Place in Education: Teachers with Disabilities

Today, I started work at a new school. It’s the sixth school I’ve worked at in ten years, and that… feels heavy. It feels like I’ve worked in too many places and haven’t been able to actually find a place to stay put, to be part of the community. And when I finally find a place in the community, I feel like I have to leave for some reason that’s usually related to the school’s administration: obvious mental abuse, genuine corruption, and willful ineptitude.

Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that I’m a teacher who is “special needs” (a term that I loathe with every fiber of my being). I have ADHD. I’m dyslexic. I have an audio-processing disorder. I also deal with depression and anxiety. Accommodations for a range of disabilities are almost never met for any students in the building, and they’re definitely not there for teachers who require them.

So unlike neurotypical (and able-bodied) teachers, these are concerns that I often put front-and-center. What are we doing to ensure all students’ needs are met? What are we doing to improve access for all students (especially those often overlooked in the school)?

And the answer is… not a lot. The COVID-19 pandemic has really made people more aware of the inequitable situation for disabled students everywhere. In the United States, we’ve seen 15-year old Grace, a black girl with ADHD, who was arrested (not supported) for not doing her homework; a week later, Mary Ellen Brennan, an irresponsible judge in Michigan, refused to free her because she “would be doing [her] a disservice.” Not once was she given the support she needed to succeed. This is probably one of the most extreme of recent examples, and it’s unlikely that Grace would’ve been detained had she been white.

There’ve been other cases in the United States (like a teacher who abused an autistic student last year because he wouldn’t do what she wanted), but it’s not limited to that one country. In Australia, a 2019 government report showed that at least a third of disabled students had either been restrained or secluded while at school (not to mention almost half were bullied by their peers and the school staff). Only a year earlier, in Victoria (the state where Melbourne is), ABC reported that disabled students were discouraged from enrolling or turned away from mainstream schools. A teacher in Somerset (UK) was banned for abusing disabled students earlier this year, Slovakia was still “struggling” with segregating Roma and disabled children in schools in 2018 (and based on personal experience, still is), the European Schools (which EU staff can use for free) denied the enrollment of boy with a learning disability three times in 2018, disabled students in Canada face a higher risk of abuse than their non-disabled peers, and it was found earlier this year that nearly one in three disabled children in New Zealand were denied enrollment at schools.

There are way too many examples.

And all this without mentioning the state of the buildings for some schools, potential access to interpreters and assistants, and the technologies or materials they choose to implement. A lot of disabled students have been heavily impacted by a lack of inclusion in their classes because of COVID-19. Many of these places are the most physically, mentally, and socially inaccessible places I’ve ever experienced. It’s beyond ridiculous.

But all of this is literally focusing on just the students. If this is how we’re treating our students, how is it that we treat their teachers? For starters, where are the disabled teachers?

For a lot of my students, I have been the only disabled teacher they’ve ever encountered in their schooling; I’m usually the only disabled teacher in the room, and my disabilities aren’t immediately obvious. Many people call them “hidden disabilities” or “invisible disabilities;” I prefer to call them “overlooked disabilities,” putting the onus on someone else. For me, they’re neither hidden nor invisible; people usually recognise there’s “something wrong” with me (and that is how they phrase it, not me), but they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.

When I ask for accommodations that help me to be better at my job, people often tell me that I’m “being difficult.” I’ve asked for my own classroom, office space, or to share an office with someone who really likes being quiet so that I could sit down and concentrate on my work while having as few distractions as possible; I’m told this is unreasonable and that I should “find my own quiet place to work” (which are often student areas that are traversed by students and in hallways). I’ve asked people to make sure I have a week’s notice of events or changes so that I can plan accordingly (and get myself used to the idea of it); they tell me this is inflexible and that I should adapt easier. I’ve asked people to stop using two-column handouts for lots of text because I get confused about the flow of text; they tell me they’re “conserving paper” (because apparently it’s too difficult to use one column and print it double-sided). I’ve asked for a different (but similarly priced) set of organisation tools for my classroom to keep myself on track only to be told that “others might get jealous” and that “everyone needs to be the same;” I was told if I wanted the system (rather than needed it), I’d have to buy it myself.

And these are the small things I’ve asked for. I’ve never had the courage to ask for anything else because I can’t even get the basics.

We spend what amounts to zero time thinking about disabled teachers, but we do exist. Frustratingly, the few times I see calls for more disabled educators in schools, it’s always in relation to “special education” teachers. (By the way, I hate that phrase, too.) Why don’t we consider that disabled teachers need to be everywhere? In all the subjects? That we’re not relegated to caring only about disability because we can also love and be passionate about history, science, maths, or whatever while also bringing our own perspective to it?

I am that person, but I mask that when I interview at schools. I have to because I usually won’t get the job (because I’m “too difficult to deal with”). When I enter the school, I tell people so they know what to expect; my colleagues expect me to be an encyclopaedia on developmental disabilities, as if my being ADHD means I know everything about autism or OCD. (Note: It doesn’t. My being ADHD doesn’t even mean I know everything about being ADHD.) They expect me to be their go-to for everything “special education” because I’m often the only person who seems to care or advocate for the needs of disabled students in my schools.

Not to mention, it’s exhausting. It takes such a toll on my health. And mentally? There are days where, even if nothing really bad happened, I’m still constantly frustrated by the people I work with because my brain will cycle through things that they’ve said: comments about me, comments about students, or passive-aggressive grievances about how difficult a situation (involving a disabled person) is. And, to top it off, as a person who was diagnosed in an entirely different country, my diagnosis doesn’t travel across borders like I do; I can’t even get treatment for it without being re-evaluated because my evaluation isn’t considered valid. 

And I’m not alone.

While this is one of the many reasons I want to stay in the teaching profession, it’s also one that makes me want to leave the teaching profession. Despite all the changes to disability policies and laws, our governments and societies are still doing disabled people everywhere a massive disservice.

I want to stay for kids like my friend’s daughter: a dyslexic person who said she “couldn’t read books,” but started trying after she had me, a dyslexic language and literature teacher who loves books. I want to stay for kids like one of my students last year: a boy who was described as lazy by everyone else but was inspired to research ADHD more after hearing about how it affected me and recognising elements of it in himself (and then working with me to figure out which coping strategies helped and which ones didn’t).

Kids need to see us. They need to see all of us. We need more disabled teachers in every school in every subject and every position.

But this also makes me want to leave schools, to stop working in them and find another path in education because I don’t believe in any of this; I don’t believe things will change through the ‘normal’ channels (because they’ve already failed us before). And I don’t want to continue wrecking my health for a system that doesn’t care about people like me.

(And, y’know, we really need to abolish schools. Please.)