[At Village Free School, educators] rediscover their passion to work with kids and reconnect with their individual skills.
Q: How did your experience as a learner in the conventional system inform the difference you wanted to make within education itself?
Rachael: My path as an educator started with my family. Three out of four of my grandparents were teachers. In particular, my grandmother on my mom’s side was a huge child advocate. She taught preschool and Kindergarten, fostered many children, and adopted one child five years before I was born. I spent a lot of time around her during my summers off, which had a big impact on my desire to be an educator.
As I went through my own schooling experience, I did really well in the traditional system. However, I often felt unfulfilled. When I went to college, I had one of those “red pill, blue pill” moments where I realized this type of educational experience wasn’t what I needed in order to be a successful person. I spent so much time investing in this institution that all-too-often left me feeling dissatisfied and unmotivated. I felt I needed to stop going down that path and figure out who I actually was as a person.
After three years in college in the Baltimore area, I dropped out. I needed a big change, and Portland, Oregon felt like the place to go. I had spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest because this is where my family is from. Portland felt like a good fit for my lifestyle choices.
When I arrived in Portland, I began thinking about where my interests truly laid. One of the many majors I thought about pursuing in college was pharmaceuticals. I had worked in a pharmacy for six years starting in high school all the way through college. I took that experience and began teaching at a vocational college for their pharmaceutical program for Pharmacy Technicians. It ended up being a really disheartening experience.
My badge of honor was knowing I was going to simply make it through.
It was a for-profit college, and people who were trying to better their lives ran up against punitive measures that weren’t lifting them up. I felt like a really bad employee because I would break the rules for my students so they wouldn’t have to pay additional fees to take a test while they were trying to pay the medical bills for their sick kid. Eventually, I quit. It was not a good situation for me.
I spent some time thinking about what would be next for me, and that’s when I became a nanny. It just so happened that one of the kids I nannied went to the Village Free School. And, if you have an older sibling who attends Village Free School, you can hang out there during the day as long as you have supervision.I ended up being that supervisor, so I began spending more and more time at the school as the younger sibling got older.
As soon as I began spending time at VFS, it really resonated with me. I had never learned anything about democratic or free schools or any of the things that correlate with those ideas of schooling. I just dove right in, and it felt meant to be.
After a little while as the nanny, I got involved in an Assistant Teacher Program and as soon as the school had an opening for an Advisor, I applied and received the position. A few years later, there was a cultural and community shift due to a financial crisis at the school. That’s when Kathy and I took over as the Directors of the school.
Kathy: My story starts all the way back when I was in elementary school. I enjoyed school during this time. But, once I got to junior high, I thought, “Well, this sucks.” I didn’t like people telling me what to do. My badge of honor was knowing I was going to simply make it through.
It’s not that I performed poorly as a student, but I hated every moment because everything felt irrelevant. I never had words for it during that time. School was just the thing I needed to do in order to do the stuff I actually wanted to do in my life. I just put my head down and drove my way through.
In college, I shifted gears to education when I took a class that required me to spend time in the classroom. Through that experience, I wondered if the classroom was a place where I could make some change. Although college was the same old “forcing my way through” experience—all about a means to an end—I came out on the other side with a teaching degree and a job.
For nearly 10 years, I taught 7th grade in New Hampshire. Overall, I was pretty unhappy with my job. But, my happiest moments, and what kept me going over the course of that decade, were when kids were choosing what they were doing—any kind of extracurricular thing (e.g. drama club). I would always tell teachers, definitely do an extracurricular because it is so different spending time with kids who are choosing to be there. Even though I saw myself as part of a system that was beating them down, I had a deep connection to my kids through those experiences.
Shifting our perspective and cultural narrative from “this is how we’ve always done it” to actually addressing the bigger issues that are going on in the world is paramount.
I thought a lot about how we group kids by age—it just seemed stupid because that’s not how life is. I became more and more disgruntled to the point where I needed to get out of teaching completely.
So, I joined a crew that was doing wetland restoration, I did research in Africa, and many other science-related jobs. Over time, I felt a calling to get myself back to school. I thought, “Maybe there is a school that does things differently.” Luckily, I found the Village Free School and learned all about it. At the same time Rachael was getting hired, I was applying for another position.
I didn’t receive that job and had another personal crisis on my hands. I volunteered for VFS for an entire year before some shifts occurred, I received a full-time position, and a couple years later, the two of us took things over with another co-worker, and here we are.
Q: How have your individual experiences informed your hiring practices at Village Free School?
Kathy: I think we take the whole hiring thing and turn it on its head.
My whole experience with higher education was that it felt like it served someone else’s purpose. While I would never say it wasn’t valuable to me, I don’t think it’s the requirement for making a connection with kids. That’s a policy we’ve held really strongly—pursue education in a way that feeds you as a person; don’t check off boxes for us to say you’re qualified. That has afforded us the opportunity to hire the most amazing people. We are putting the kids in contact with people who live their lives pursuing the things they’re passionate about.
Rachael: What we’re looking for are people who can be present with children—form relationships, help kids feel safe and secure, and let kids know they’re being heard and seen. So much of what we do focuses on relationships and conflict resolution, so being there with kids and supporting them on their individual journey is essential.
This is an important culture for the adults as much as it is for the kids. To show up in a multi-generational environment where the adults don’t have power over people and, instead, see themselves as collaborators is a quality we’ve been really fortunate to find in our hires.
Q: For educators who went through the conventional college path and received their teaching certification, what does the unlearning process look like once they are hired?
Rachael: It all starts with our extensive hiring practice of discovering whether or not a particular educator is a fit for our environment.
And, once they are hired, we provide them a lot of space to “deschool” themselves. We have frequent check-ins with all of our staff to see how things are going. That process is different for everyone.
However, one thing that is universal is how liberating and healing the process is. They reconnect with what brought them to working with children in the first place. Their light was dulled or their focus was shifted due to the paradigms within which they needed to operate. It’s a rediscovery of their passion to work with kids and a reconnection with their individual skills. They see that they can bring more of their authentic selves to this environment.
Kathy: We operate on the premise that kids are trustworthy and they can make decisions that are in their best interest. With that assumption in place, it inevitably makes us face our own cultural notions that if you don’t make kids do these arbitrary things, they won’t be successful. We all have to look at this old assumption that force is necessary and cultivate a habit of trusting our kids. Trust is our default at VFS, and we have frequent check-ins with our staff to make sure we are all holding true to that default.
Q: Trust as a default is a powerful message and at the same time, it seems any educator in any paradigm would say they trust their kids. When speaking to parents, how do you distinguish your learner-centered work from that of a conventional learning environment?
Rachael: There is a real wall people hit when listening to what we have to offer because unless they are open to consider something other than what they experienced growing up, there’s nothing you can say to magically bring them around to our method of educating kids. It takes time. It takes self-reflection. It requires educating yourself. You have to witness and experience it in action. There’s a whole process in “coming over to the other side.”
The easiest way in is by seeing the difference in the kids themselves. Our kids are empowered, open, joyful, curious, creative, and they’re intrinsically motivated. There’s such a big difference when a kid is doing something where they are motivated from within, as opposed to doing something for any other external reason. You can see it right away. When achievement or gratification is sought from external sources, it hollows out the experience a child is having.
We want kids who find learning that is personally meaningful to them. We’re not filling up their time with a bunch of distractions. Sure, you can fully apply yourself to a math worksheet or a literacy opportunity because that’s what’s going on and everyone is doing it, but the experience is so much more powerful when you’re the person who is driving it. Everyone can connect to that feeling.
Q: What is something you wish we talked about more within the education landscape?
Kathy: I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of this bigger idea about how we can change the world. We put that statement on our new website—”we make the world better”—and we both kind of looked at each other and asked: “Should we have done that? That’s kind of bold!” But, we truly believe what we’re doing at this school is bigger than any individual. This is a wonderful place for kids, but it’s also a wonderful place for any person who works or volunteers here.
I think about this with many organizations overall, but focusing on Village Free School, I think what we are doing is more than about any single child or sad grown-up (e.g. me) who had a bad schooling experience. It’s about changing our cultural conversation about what’s possible for people. I would love to talk more about that all the time.
Rachael: I think it’s a profound experience to be with people and understand what that means—to be present and to honor someone’s experience. To come together and do this work, knowing when we leave it will carry on, is what we’re pursuing. Shifting our perspective and cultural narrative from “this is how we’ve always done it” to actually addressing the bigger issues that are going on in the world is paramount.
We need to dismantle mindless thought and become mindful and intentional. We need to protect people’s autonomy and provide the opportunity to access their real power in this world. We need to show other people the way and bring it into the collective conscience.
We’re just over here fomenting the education revolution. That’s all.