To Transform Work, Start with Schools

student sleeps on desk

By RUBEN ABRAHAMS BROSBE, originally published by Yes! Magazine

Not long ago, before the pandemic, I was teaching fourth grade. One of my students, a quiet boy who wore his hair in a long ponytail, hated school. Much of the content felt overwhelming for him, and so he would often run out of the classroom. 

While the boy’s experience is an extreme example, it’s not an uncommon one. Many children in this country hate school. According to a 2020 study by the Yale Child Study Center, 75% of high schoolers self-reported having negative feelings about school. Some of the teens’ most common descriptors for school were “bored,” “tired,” and “stressed.” 

Our current conventional model of schooling inculcates young people in the United States to not expect pleasure or joy from a place where they spend at least 1,100 hours a year. These negative attitudes toward school continue into the workplace. One Gallup study from 2017 found that only 33% of U.S. workers were engaged at their jobs. 

What exactly makes school terrible for young people can vary somewhat from setting to setting. Many poor Black and Brown students are forced to experience curricula that don’t represent their experiences, taught by teachers who don’t look like them, in buildings that are under-resourced and overpoliced. Amanda Latasha Armstrong, in a research paper published by New America, pointed out how educational materials are routinely unrepresentative of people of color. That lack of representation has a negative impact on Black and Brown students.

Meanwhile, in private schools serving wealthier, White students, a culture of competition can lead kids to develop anxiety disorders and depression, even at a young age, as per education expert Peter Gray, writing in Psychology Today.

There are several common characteristics across school settings that mirror adult workplaces. Most schools do not offer young people autonomy, work that feels meaningful, or enough time for rest or play. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries without guaranteed paid time off. Daily breaks vary from state to state, but generally workers earn 10 minutes off for every four hours of work. Meanwhile, as Sarah Jaffe describes in her book Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, U.S. workers are increasingly dissatisfied with work while at the same time it’s failing to cover their bills

Educator and organizer Paolo Freire described the dominant model of schooling as a means of maintaining oppressive power structures, calling it the “banking model” of education. In this model, Freire describes students as passive recipients of knowledge who do not develop creative and critical thinking skills that allow them to disrupt oppressive social systems. 

French philosopher Michel Foucault also pointed out that a defining characteristic of schools is the maintenance of power. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault describes schools as a means of isolating students from broader society in order to bring them under control. The ranking of students based on grades and other criteria is a further example of how schools exert control over them. 

Reflecting on my 12 years as a public school teacher, both Freire and Foucault’s analyses resonate. Students, particularly Black and Brown ones in under-resourced schools, are rarely treated as knowledgeable or expert. Curriculum and pedagogy in these schools tend to emphasize “foundational skills,” i.e., procedural understanding, rather than cultivating curiosity and critical thinking. The curriculum not only de-emphasizes asking questions, but often punishes curiosity if it is viewed as critical, tangential, or disruptive. 

Meanwhile, “productivity” in schools remains a constant priority—just as it does in the American workplace. During a typical school day, my students were expected to engage in academic tasks for a little more than five hours out of a six-hour school day. One of the most common offenses teachers complained about (and punished) was “off task” behavior. In other words, if kids daydreamed, goofed off, or displayed other unserious behaviors during time meant for learning, or even the transition between subjects, they were disciplined.

Thankfully, there’s a range of alternative models for schooling that schools—and workplaces—could learn from. Perhaps the most radical is “free schooling.” Free schools first emerged in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s and offer students a “self-directed” model of education. Generally, there are no required classes, tests, or grades at free schools, and students participate in democratic decision-making. Many such schools prioritize social justice in their mission; however, most cater almost exclusively to middle- and upper-class children.

Montessori schools are more widely known than free schools, but also too often serve wealthier and White children. This is in spite of the model’s origins as an educational model serving poor and working-class children in a tenement building in Rome. Montessori schools are somewhat more teacher-centered than free schools, but still emphasize student choice. Montessori school days generally give students more control over how they spend their time and use longer unscheduled blocks of time in their day as opposed to the high-paced, fragmented schedule my students experienced. 

It is exciting to imagine what would be possible if these models were freed from their exclusive silos and made more widely available to all young people in the United States. Imagine a generation of children given the chance to practice autonomy and creativity at school. 

With different schooling experiences, how might young people transform their workplaces as adults into places where people care about their work? What demands could they make for workplaces to care about workers? Perhaps they would ask for more input into decision making. Or they might demand more frequent and longer breaks. 

There is potential here for teachers unions to make a difference. It is often said that students’ learning conditions are teachers’ working conditions. However, until recently, most teachers unions have focused their bargaining power to negotiate salaries and contractual obligations rather than transforming the education system, and subsequently their own work.

Recent teachers strikes, like the one in March 2022 in Minneapolis, are signaling that there may be a shift. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers won stronger job protections for teachers of color and pay raises for paraprofessionals who are majority workers of color. They also demanded increased funding for school nurses and mental health professionals in school. By doing so, the MFT, following in the footsteps of the United Teachers Los Angeles union in 2020 and the Oakland Education Association in 2019, showed a growing effort by teachers unions to tie students’ well-being to their bargaining power. 

It would be a profound shift if teachers unions began to also demand control over curriculum and the structure of the school day. It is not an unreasonable step either. As a public school teacher in New York City, I was contractually guaranteed a “duty-free” lunch and one planning period each day. This time was often insufficient. Nonetheless, it offers an example of the benefits enjoyed by educational workers that students ought to expect for themselves. 

Why not bargain for our students to have a minimum of 60 minutes of recess, or demand a school day that includes opportunities for student choice and leadership? Carrying out a strictly regimented curriculum takes a toll on students and teachers alike. Creating a school day with more free time for students would undoubtedly make work more pleasurable for their teachers too. One promising example is Seattle teachers’ successful negotiations in 2015, which won students 30 minutes of guaranteed recess. With burnout in the profession at breaking point, the urgency of this shift could not be greater.

Ultimately, schools are microcosms of our society. The structures that make schools oppressive to children—particularly kids from historically excluded communities—are shaped by capitalism, patriarchy, White supremacy, and all the other forces we face in the larger world. However, transforming these structures is possible if we begin by addressing the mindset of education. 

In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, visionary thinker and author bell hooks writes, “To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. … To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” 

Centering schools around the well-being of our students (and their teachers) is one path to positive change in the workplace. We need to respect students as full human beings worthy of dignity, honor their ideas, and give them space to explore and play and the power to shape their days. Such schools could train young people to expect more meaning and joy from the work they may spend the rest of their lives doing.

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