We had the good fortune of connecting with Christen Parker-Yarnal and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christen, what’s something about your industry that outsiders are probably unaware of?
Education is so often associated with forcing children to do things that I believe force has almost become synonymous with education. In graduate school, we strategized how best to “motivate” students to follow our particular educational agenda. Too often, even with the greatest intentions and most creative efforts, this drive to motivate is without regard to a child’s actual interests, development, or the relevant contexts that would make whatever they’re learning something naturally interesting instead of forced work or an expected performance.
Most of us take for granted that our experience of schooling, whether positive or negative, is the natural order or requirement. I thought this myself for a long while. When I started teaching in 2006, I worked my tail off to be as innovative and compassionate as I could, to make more palatable and hopefully more effective the subjects I taught and the system I was working in. I was teaching English, Spanish, and Environmental Science to high school girls because that’s what young people need, right? We adults believe without question that it’s up to us to define exactly what a child should be forced to listen to and engage with. We define what counts as sufficient performance, believing that it demonstrates growth and will lead to future academic and life success.
I think so many are unaware that our industry, education, could actually look completely different. Education could be less about forcing an agenda and more about providing a safe space for discovery. Education does not actually require external reward and punishment, meaning it does not require grading. In fact, a child grows much more effectively without it. I believe we’ve all been trained to think of this as impossible or overly idealistic, yet I now see it with my own eyes working quite well in my new role as a Sudbury school staff member.
Instead of forcing a particular academic agenda, my job within the industry of education is no longer to make the factory system nicer. I discovered that education doesn’t actually require such a factory. As an educator, my real job is to be curious and supportive. Children are people – one might say this goes without saying, but the personhood of a child isn’t usually the guiding force in the systems that define most schools, mostly insofar as people are deserving of rights and respect. In the name of marching forward with “core” academic curriculums, school systems too often demoralize young people, often to the point of depression or anxiety, and more often into a mindset that they are incapable of making their own decisions and learning things for themselves.
Education should not mean the sacrifice of individuality, internal drive, curiosity, and creativity, but there is simply no room for it in most systems of schooling.
I didn’t realize my field could exist without the trappings of school as I’d known it until I picked up Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray and started learning about self-directed education and democratic schools. I could come alive again as an educator in a different educational system – one in which the driving force really is the growth and development of the individual. As people, children are naturally curious and social and they learn best through play and contexts relevant to their lives and interests. This does not involve desks, academic curriculums, or grading of any kind – and I am absolutely still speaking about education.
I think we may all have found in our lives that while we learned to obey, memorize, and please in school, our real educations started when we found a passion for something and pursued it. Perhaps some of what we were forced to learn helped us pursue that passion, but more likely we had to discover new tools and new knowledge. While we worked very hard at pursuing this passion, it likely didn’t feel like “work” but rather like effort freely given. We probably didn’t need a test or a quiz to measure our progress. Sitting in front of a teacher is in fact not the sure path to learning.
I know that educators like me are seen as iconoclasts, but this is true of all people who take their industry in a new direction because the old one simply isn’t working. Shaping and grading preplanned academics is the most common model of education, but it’s neither the most effective way for children to learn nor any assurance that the child put in that system will emerge ready to explore the world as a confident individual. Giving children respect, time, and space to grow and learn – that, I believe, should be our obligation to children and our dedication as educators. Children deserve space to grow and if providing that is considered radical, then let’s get radical. Before long, the radical will seem common sense, because it works.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I love being engaged with people, especially young people. I find young people incredibly fascinating and almost universally delightful to be around. I wanted to learn languages and skills that would help me more fully engage. As soon as I could, I volunteered to work at summer camps or homeless shelters for women and children. I knew I wanted to be involved in education in some way and after volunteer teaching in Haiti, got my first job as a paid professional at a working-class all-girls high school in St. Louis, MO.
The learning curve for me was steep, as I think it is for most first year teachers. I came to realize I needed to think even more “outside the box” to reach my students on a level they could relate to as people. Trying to reach classes full of students as individuals in a system that demands constant grades was challenging – and exhausting. Like many teachers who attempt to personalize an impersonal system, I was close to burn out after 4 years. I took a break from the crushing pressures of high school teaching to pursue my masters degree full time, teaching undergraduates while I did so. I still had the feeling that my students were more interested in their grade than the subject I was pouring my heart into. How could they not be? I’d watched how students were trained from an early age to chase the grade, do the bare minimum, and figure out how to please the instructor enough to pass. Yet, I knew that, especially for the subject I was teaching, Spanish, real learning and mastery only come with internal motivation – a real need or a real passion. Manufacturing that was a lot of effort that didn’t seem to yield proportionate results.
Right after graduate school, my husband and I adopted our three amazing and high energy children. This soon led to wondering how they would learn best. I dabbled in Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and homeschooling. As an educator, I wanted a better theoretical understanding, especially of this idea homeschooling friends were discussing: unschooling. I read Free to Learn by Peter Gray and it blew the lid off the house I thought all schooling was confined to. The more I learned about self-directed education, the more it meshed with my professional experience of the essential nature of internal motivation and the detrimental effects of external grading.
I knew I was venturing into an understanding of education that would be hard for many friends and family to join me in exploring. Even if these friends and family members had negative school experiences themselves, stepping away from the familiar and into the “unknown” can feel vulnerable and scary. But I could feel in my bones that for young people to really come alive they had to be given the opportunity to practice living and the support to make decisions within the framework of an actual community, not a dictatorship (as kindly as many of us who have been in that dictatorial position may work to be).
I was told by many people that I could never open a Sudbury School in Miami – it was too “radical” for a city that was largely conservative in approaches to education. I still knew that this space was needed. Especially in a culture where childhood is largely seen as a competitive sport and parents start building children’s resumes in kindergarten, there had to be an oasis where children were appreciated for who they are and encouraged to discover their interests and strengths. In this, I had to learn to let go of “teaching” in favor of providing the space and systems for them to create internal structure and interpersonal skills.
I still get many families who look at me like I have three heads when I tell them we don’t force an academic agenda and we don’t grade at our school, but those who either understand the philosophy or who are brave enough to try something new for the sake of their child’s wellbeing see the positive difference. In fact, it was learning about the amazing success of graduates over the past 50 years of Sudbury model schools that initially piqued my interest and it’s amazing to be part of that success now. It’s definitely been a LOT of work to get this up and running in Miami, but heading soon into our 5th year, it’s still just so exciting and gratifying for me to be part of providing this unique opportunity for growth for young people and their families in Miami.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I would definitely bring them to Matheson Hammock, Fairchild Gardens, walk around and eat on Calle Ocho, Monty’s in the Grove, our favorite local restaurant The Titanic, and of course wherever else they might be interested in visiting!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
The book Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray has been a huge inspiration in my evolution as an educator (and as a parent and even just person). I’ve also been shaped and supported by so many good and curious people over the years. I know this has helped me to be curious and open to developing as a person and stepping out of the “norm” as an educator.
Photo credits: Carol Klock, Joe Parker