[NOTE: In the intro, I dove into the results of my Dec 2017 survey. You can read that here: Unschooling Around the World.]
PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Jessica. Hi, Jessica!
JESSICA: Hi Pam!
PAM: Recently Jessica shared some snippets of her and her son’s journey from alternative schools to unschooling. It was so interesting that I asked if she’d be willing to share it on the podcast. Obviously, she agreed, and I’m so excited to speak with her today. And to get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family?
JESSICA: Sure, I’m originally from Canada and I now live in Germany with my son who will be 13 in a few weeks and my partner.
PAM: Okay well, let’s dive in.
When your son hit school-age you chose an alternative school so I was wondering how that decision came about?
JESSICA: It was actually a decision I made a lot earlier even before I was pregnant. I was studying and I was trying to think what am I going to do in the future and thought about doing a parallel degree in teaching.
I did an internship at a German school and visited one of them for the first time and during those four weeks I was so shocked about how the school worked. I don’t know if that’s the difference between the Canadian system and the German system. I think it’s a lot more rigid here, but I did a class where I had a lesson plan all set up to discuss a book and they just went off into this amazing discussion, so I threw out my lesson plan and went with it the discussion.
I was told afterward that you can’t do that, you have to stick with the lesson plan, and it made it so clear to me that what these schools were about was not what I wanted—it had nothing to do with the children or anything to do with the actual learning—it was about pulling through with this plan.
That’s when I started to look for alternatives. It didn’t take long before I heard about democratic schools and there was one in the city I was living in. So even before my son was born and we were pregnant, we joked, “Let’s sign him up so he’s already settled!”
PAM: Did you end up following through with that teaching? Did you get a degree or certificate, after that experience?
JESSICA: I did, later on. I did do the first part of the degree. I didn’t do the official part of the degree where I have to go to a regular school. I just did the theoretical part off the degree, so I was qualified as a teacher to teach in an alternative school.
PAM: That’s interesting. Yeah, you did mention that you became a teacher at that school, right?
JESSICA: Yeah, so my son didn’t end up going to that democratic school because at the time I began to become aware that there were a number of schools in area.
I went around and looked at them all and I found the problem with the democratic school was it was huge. There were a lot of kids there. When I went there, I saw that the younger kids looked like they felt kind of lost; there was not a lot of connection going on between adults and children. At that point, that was something important to me, that he wasn’t just lost in a sea of children and not feeling connected with anybody.
So, I ended up choosing a smaller school that wasn’t quite as free as the democratic school. The children were allowed to choose what they wanted to do. The one exception was the weekly assembly. The adults were a lot closer to the children. There were five adults for fifty kids and it felt a lot more familiar like a family setting in a way. He started in kindergarten and then I became a teacher a couple of years later.
What were some of the aspects and the environment for your that he found challenging?
JESSICA: It was a long process to recognize those, too, because working there I felt like I was so involved in the whole project. I thought it was so amazing. Everyone is so enthusiastic about working respectfully with the children and trying to establish a whole new way with being with children. I thought this is the way to go.
When I noticed my son was having difficulties, at first I thought it was me and I was doing things wrong or things were going on at home because various other issues. It took a really long time before I would question some of the things that were going on at school as part of the problem. That’s when I started to have a new view on things.
I realized one thing that was going on: the teachers are really close to the children but they weren’t in a close relationship with them. Like a lot of what they did was observing them, but they stayed out of it, they stayed at a distance emotionally. They tried to keep an emotional distance and to not influence the children too much. But that led to them being inauthentic. That became a really big problem for my son. He felt like they would have one look on their face, but their acting wasn’t the same. The way they were feeling didn’t add up to what they were saying—like they were putting on a show.
PAM: That’s interesting. You can tell that that when the words don’t match the body language.
JESSICA: Right and he’s somebody who is very in tune with that, he’s very sensitive to it.
That was one thing I noticed, and the other thing that came up was that there were a number of things where children were not really allowed to make a lot of decisions on their own. There were a lot of restrictions in place because they thought younger children aren’t mature enough to be able to gauge the consequences of their decisions and they needed a certain amount of protection, so they had all kinds of rules in place about what you could do, like certain things couldn’t be inside or outside.
Some of those things we have at home anyway; games get really wild and maybe they’re not suitable for a certain room, but they were very rigid about those things so there was no room to negotiate on an individual basis. They were increasingly enforced for what was called consequences, thinking they were natural consequences, but they were adult-imposed consequences, like, ‘Then you can’t be inside for the rest of the day,’ or, ‘You can’t be in the garden.’
I gradually begin to realize that essentially what we’re doing is punishing the children in a lot of situations. He’s always been a very autonomous, very strong personality, and he doesn’t like somebody telling him what to do or pointing him in a direction, and that felt like that to him. He felt like, ‘You’re not seeing me and you’re not seeing what’s going on with me,’ so he’d start to fight against punishment or argue against them. It was a catalyst and got worse and worse. It became clear that the rules were more important than the child.
There would be a power struggle between a teacher and my son and typically it was between one particular teacher. I discussed that with them and it became clear that this is a school setting and that means, even if there’s a lot more teachers per children than in a regular school, they still don’t have the capacity and the time to sit and talk with the children to see what’s going on behind things. My son would have ‘needed to get over some of that because they had to be there for all the children,’ and that meant to a certain degree the kids had to function, otherwise the whole system wouldn’t work anymore.
PAM: That’s so interesting.
So, there was no fixed curriculum or anything that they were expected to follow but it was the environment itself—to keep control of it. They had a set of rules. They spent most of the time enforcing the rules verses discussing and treating the children as individuals. They were still in this fixed environment, they just didn’t have to follow curriculum. Is that how it went?
JESSICA: That’s exactly how it was.
And that’s ironic because that’s not what we were aiming to do there. I began to question if it’s that whole school system that makes it really hard to actually live the way we wanted to live with one another and with the children. Because you’re responsible for all these children, and we’re in a country where you have to go to school, so that means they were also facing all the expectations that parents had, and that the school board had.
They had people coming in and checking to make sure that the school was actually “working.” Those were all kinds of other factors that were having a huge effect on the way they were being with the children and that meant that a lot of things were under a certain level of duress.
PAM: That’s so interesting. Thinking of the people running the school, because they have to fit into that system and they need to be able to show some success for their evaluations too, but it’s not just about not following curriculum, is it.
Children’s learning is so much more than yes or no—the environment so important. Even with rules, per se, the discussion and understanding how it impacts an individual, that seems like it would be so helpful if you’re able to, but they still had such a large teacher-student ratio that the teachers weren’t able to individualize that and validate a child’s needs.
It sounds like they were still very much an adult/child hierarchy?
I mean, there were certain things that to be a part of the school we had to agree on beforehand, like the whole thing being critical of media and screens—those were absolutely taboo for younger children. And that also affected my relationship with my son because I had to follow the rules, being a teacher, and be an exemplary person within that whole system. And I kind of lost track of focusing on what my son actually needed and what our relationship needed because the whole school environment also influenced how we lived at home.
PAM: So how did you get to the point where you chose to leave that school? What was that choice, what did it look like?
JESSICA: It was one of those points where I noticed my son was just rebelling against a lot of these restrictions and it was a situation where he was out in the garden when he just dropped something in the garden was told he had to clean it up and he refused to do it and then he was told he couldn’t be in the garden the next day and it just sort of hit me that I know that there was so much more going on with my son at that point.
He told me afterwards of all these other situations that had gone on before and why he was feeling so upset and I realized that has no room here. As much as I value the teachers as people, they didn’t have the capacity to focus on that. I felt like there was just a power struggle and their rules were more important than my son.
When that hit home I thought, ‘Okay we’re stopping here.’ I had already stopped working there. I had already changed my job, so that wasn’t holding me there anymore and that was probably an important factor that I wasn’t one of the staff members anymore and that helped me to sort of free up my own thinking and at that point I was already focusing on, ‘What does my son need?’
That was just more of the point where I thought, wait a minute, if that’s more important than validating what’s going on with my child, then this is not going to be working for us at all. And it was my decision. I just felt like I had to pull the emergency brake just to open up new possibilities for us.
From that point you tried Montessori School, right? What did that experience look like?
JESSICA: That was also a very difficult experience for us because we had just come from an environment where the children were very free to choose what they wanted to do, and in-between my son stayed home for three months, but we were still at that point where we live that he has to go to school and that just isn’t an option.
So, we looked at what alternatives are out there, and he heard of that school because some of his friends had been there and so he went and he immediately hit it off with some of the other kids and that was what helped him through that. He had two friends that he really got along with, and he felt really good socially there.
But, in the beginning, there are all kinds of things that he didn’t like about it that were very problematic, like, there was an hour where they had to be doing Montessori material, which is wonderful material, but if you have to be doing it …
That was an issue for him from the get-go because he wasn’t used to anything like that. That was difficult for him to just settle down and to just say, ‘I want to do stuff with my friends but now I have to focus on this.’ That was really, really difficult for him because he hadn’t ever been in that situation where someone told him, ‘He had to do math now.’
Then they had meals where all the children had to sit down together, and they had to stay at the table until everyone had finished eating. Those were things that were new to him, and that I didn’t like either, so it probably made it harder for him to agree with it. Those were huge drawbacks. It was a wonderful environment and a beautiful setting and he had some great friends but those were huge drawbacks for him.
PAM: The compulsory nature of things, that’s where it all goes sideways, doesn’t it? Like you said, it could have been great because it was a beautiful environment and he had friends there. I wouldn’t be surprised, if he could come and go as he wanted, he might have enjoyed it a lot more?
JESSICA: I’m sure he would have loved it. It’s exactly what you’re saying. As soon as somebody tells you, ‘You have to do this now,’ then it’s no longer part of your intrinsic motivation. And especially for someone who has grown up an environment where he’s been so focused on his intrinsic motivation but to have somebody else tell you to do this, it wasn’t good.
PAM: It’s that whole power dynamic in there. It’s a fight for control. ‘Who can control what I do?’ What he would learn out of those experiences where he’s forced—for lack of a better word—to sit and do those activities versus if he chose or came across them and did them, is like night and day, right?
And I noticed that at the old school they also had Montessori material and they would offer him a math group, but it was completely voluntary, and he could choose to take part in it or not. It was all there on the shelves and he could take it out or not—and he used to love doing math. After going to the Montessori School where he was told he “has to do this” and “you have to do it in this order,” on top of it all, he stopped wanting to do math. That was really shocking for me to see, that somebody who has always enjoyed that, but never sat down and said, ‘I wanted to do math,’ he just wanted to figure something out. you take out the material and didn’t even think about how he was using it but as soon as somebody said “this is math and we have to do it this way” then it lost its appeal to him.
PAM: Exactly. That’s such a huge piece, so interesting. From that point, how did your decision to leave that school surface?
JESSICA: It also took a while because I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to go back to this. I’m going to make a decision and a decision I would make only with my son.’
So, there were a lot of conversations that went on. There were a lot of discussions when difficult things came up at the school and trying to figure out, ‘Okay, how can he deal with that?’
I began to realize that some of these situations either you have to say, ‘Okay, I can live with them because I want to go to the school,’ but as long as I’m saying, ‘We have to go to a school,’ and he thinks an alternative would be a regular school—which he definitely didn’t want to go to that—then that doesn’t feel like he has a choice to make.
So, I start to back off with that and started to say, ‘You know what, if you don’t want to go to school, if you just want to stay home, you can.’
PAM: That took some nerve!
And it took meeting with other families who had also done that, and that was a huge step where I thought, ‘Okay, there are other people that are doing it,’ and I’m lucky enough that I grew up in Canada so I grew up in a country where I know homeschooling was accepted, even if it’s not the norm, I never had this feeling like it was wrong or something you shouldn’t be doing.
Since I had already been down that road of going to an alternative school and I’d had so many experiences over the years I was teaching there that I had absolutely no doubt that he’s going to get what he wants—no matter where he is, no matter what he’s doing, he’s going to get what he needs and he’s going to learn everything he needs in life—so I didn’t have that fear.
I was more, “So, what happens if we get caught?” kind of thing. There it was just really important to talk to other families to figure out what options do we have, what could happen, and that really helped me to calm down about it. It’s an ongoing process but that was a big part of it.
Even though your son only attended those alternative schools, did you find that he needed some deschooling time when he came home?
JESSICA: Totally! And we’re still in the process of it.
The bulk of it right now is from the last school he was at. He doesn’t like eating with a group of people and he realizes it’s because he used to have to sit at the table at the last school. At least he’s aware of that and I just think he needs that space to really feel like nobody is going to come and force me to do anything.
That’s partly because of the school but it’s also because it took a long time for me to step down from being in control of certain situations too because I had been so accustomed to it in certain situations as well. Yeah, that was a big part of our process was to get used to that.
I think for him, I was very restrictive with him on things like media and screen time and things like that. It took me awhile to let go of that and to realize all the things that are going on there; let go of the fears that I have that surround it all and he’s totally just trying to embrace that and to dive into that. And still, there are those moments when he’ll look at me and he will say, “I’m going to play video games all day today,” He’ll just see if I’m going to react to it and that’s where I realized he still not entirely sure, that he hasn’t entirely settled down in this and he’s not sure he can choose what he wants to do.
PAM: Yeah, developing that trust takes time doesn’t it?
JESSICA: It really does.
PAM: How long has he been out now?
JESSICA: He’s been home for three quarters of a year now.
Speaking of deschooling—and you mentioned screens—what have been some of the more challenging shifts that you’re going through now as you move to unschooling?
JESSICA: Well, definitely getting used to the media and embracing that for myself, that was one of the biggest parts of it. And generally just letting go of control, and where I recognize it’s a very gradual process, like as soon as there’s more that I’m still holding on to.
Even when I thought I’ve let go of something, then fear will come in, and that’s something that I really have to work on. To be able to recognize where I’m acting out of fear and I’m saying something that is just from that place of fear and it has nothing to do with what the situation is now or what our needs are based on any fact.
To some extent, there’s just these deep-rooted fears that I think a lot of us have. And maybe part of it was that whole teacher training and learning all these things that kind of fit into these traditional things that tell us how children should be growing up, how children should be learning. And I don’t feel like I’ve had to deschool on the academic side. I think that my experience working in alternative school really help me let go of that because I was really able to see teens growing up and coming to the point where they’re finishing off their traditional school years and going on to do other things and it was just wonderful to see those various different processes that help me let go of any fears that I would have had on that scale.
But on the other scale, like, what do children need to develop in a healthy way? How much social contact? All those thoughts focus in on me and I think, ‘He hasn’t gotten enough social contact. He should be having …’ All those “shoulds.” That would set me off into something and I would have to break myself off and say, ‘Wait a minute. How is he doing right now? Focus on now.’ That’s really a big aspect of it.
PAM: That’s really cool.
What I find really interesting, and why I love talking to so many people, is because everybody’s deschooling journey or unschooling journey is so unique based on the experiences that they’ve had in their lives. They are so many conventional ideas out there but some we’ve already worked through just based on our experience. Like you said, you’d already seen those teens. You’ve seen that they did not need a compulsory curriculum to learn “academic skills and information” to move into the world. Yet, they were other things that were personally your fears.
How do you approach moving through something, or, how do you realize, ‘Oh, I’m reacting to a fear.’ For me, I remember, it was like a physical response. When that topic what come up I would notice that I would be kind of clenching and it wasn’t until I noticed that kind of physical response that I thought, ‘Hey, something is off here.’
I thought it would be interesting to see if you could share how you noticed there was an issue for you to start digging into and how you like to approach that processing.
JESSICA: I definitely have a physical response like the clenching but that’s usually something I only noticed afterwards.
It’s more that I’ll be in the middle of a discussion and it’ll get really heated, really quickly, and I’ll just feel like my head is just spinning and I’ll just realize at some point, ‘Wait a minute, none of this is coherent anymore and I think we’re just reacting to one another,’ and that’s when I realize: ‘Slow down. You’re just getting emotional.’
Usually I just get really emotional about something. Then when I get to that point that I just have to say, ‘Stop, breathe.’ Stop the conversation and if necessary go back to it later. I was totally off on my thing there. Just forget it. But usually it’s getting emotional about things and I find it’s really hard still sometimes to recognize it myself.
It’s usually my partner, when he witnesses it, he’ll put his hand on my arm and I look at him and he’ll say I’m there again. It’s really hard to notice it in the moment. It’s usually a lot easier to notice it afterwards. My head will be going and I’ll be trying to go through it all and wonder where did it all go so weird. At some point I’ll realize that, ‘Wait a minute, just stop get out of the fear just look at what’s going on,’ and then everything will clear up sort of gradually and then I realized that’s what it was really about.
PAM: That’s it, right? In the moment you don’t often know what the fear is that’s being triggered. It’s just starting to realize that, ‘Oh no, I’ve been triggered by something,’ and then it’s the work to dig in and figure out, ‘What is it that I’m scared of in this situation that’s making me respond this way and feel this way?’ Does that make sense?
I think the first step for me was to recognize where I was reacting to other people’s demands or expectations. That was the first step when I begin to realize, ‘Wait a minute. I’m saying no because that person over there expects me to do it?’
So that was the easier one, once I realized that’s what was working on me in public situations or when my mother was there. Once I let go of those, that was easier to recognize, to let go of, and I realized how those expectations are still working in me even when those people aren’t and that was a tricky part because that has a whole lot more to do with how I grew up or my schooling or what expectations I’ve had on me that have a whole lot more to do with society and school and what is success and how do we learn how do children develop healthfully and a whole lot less to do with me and my son.
PAM: And I found in the first few years after one of those encounters where you’re in a place where those expectations are so clear on you, it would take me a couple of days even after we left that situation and came home to get myself back into an open and relaxed mindset. Because you have to reprocess all those expectations again and remind yourself what I’ve found to be true about children and about learning and everything.
Over the years I got faster and faster and then it got to a point where right in the moment it didn’t affect me anymore, but it takes a lot of work at first. Even if when you went into that situation you were comfortable and sure but all those expectations being thrown at you, you need to reprocess again to get through them.
JESSICA: Yeah because they just sneak up on you.
PAM: Exactly! ‘Okay, everybody thinks this… Why do they again? And why don’t I?’ It’s really just absorbing it into your being. People get so frustrated with themselves and feel like, ‘Oh, I’m not strong enough’ or, ‘I don’t really believe this,’ or, ‘I’m fooling myself’ or, ‘I’m not making the right choices with our lifestyle,’ and we can really beat ourselves up.
I hope people can realize that this is all part of the process because it’s totally unique to each person the number of times that it takes to reprocess our understanding of a particular thing—whether it’s how children learn, how they don’t need a curriculum and why somebody else’s idea of what they need to learn doesn’t mesh well with an individual and what that individual needs to learn. Or maybe it’s the compulsory nature. ‘But if I don’t tell them, they’re going to miss something.’
All those things we work through, it’s not about working through them once and then knowing them. You can understand them intellectually but it takes processing them over and over and watching our children and seeing things play out so that we can also bring that into our understanding until we eventually really believe it deep in our bones because our understanding now meshes with our experience.
This processing is work and it’s hard and it’s scary in that first fear response. But…
JESSICA: … it’s worth it.
PAM: It’s so worth it! It’s not wrong. Not to beat ourselves up but to do the work each time. Not think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a horrible unschooler because I just got thrown for a loop because I just spent the day in a big group that had much more conventional ideas.’ And then you try to avoid it and push it down but no—process it again and again and again.
JESSICA: It’s so important to think that we all get to that moment of beating ourselves up and I just think there’s a sentence in one of the schools that somebody always said that everybody always shows the best behavior that they can at that very moment. And that’s a mantra that I keep telling myself and that’s where I realize I’m human, I’ve got my own mistakes, my own past. I always do the very best that I can in that moment and that just keeps getting better. I’m here now, and it threw me for a loop, but I’m going to learn from the experience. I’m going to continue on and next time it will be better.
PAM: Exactly and learning from that experience IS that processing.
PAM: Rather than trying to ignore it or just make yourself feel guilty and just saying, ‘Okay, next time I won’t do that,’ but you need to process it and work through it again to learn deeper because then you’re a different person next time you walk into that experience.
JESSICA: That’s how we learn, right!?
PAM: Exactly! It’s true. And that’s our upbringing, part of what we have to process through, that it’s not right/wrong or you’re good or your bad. It’s each moment, being in the moment, and accepting that we’re doing the best we can in that moment, but we want to learn from it so that we can continue to grow as an individual.
It really came up for me when you were talking about how important that processing is as part of our deschooling and the deschooling to unschooling thing—we’re always learning. There’s always going to be things that come up. We’re always shooting for the person that we want to be.
JESSICA: And our children are our best teachers, because I think throughout the whole process my son has been the best gauge for me of how and where I stand and what I need to work on.
With some of the things I just announced it to him, like when I realized, these consequences I’m doing? They’re punishments. I said, “You know what? I’m not going to do that anymore.” So, whenever I would slip into that and say, “Well, if you don’t do that then…” he’d look at me and say, “You’re doing that again.”
And that was so helpful, and it also was always a hint to me that I’m in the right direction when I would say I don’t want to be controlling this but that’s what every kid wants is to have a mom who doesn’t want to control things. Those are those moments when I think that if I could listen to him a whole lot more to that inner voice then a lot of these situations that I be doing a whole lot better already.
PAM: I know, that’s what I’ve said too, my children are my guides because they feel free to point those things out to us, because we created that relationship where we can have that conversation with them.
They are so smart, for lack of a better word. They are in the moment. They see what’s going on. Children are so commonly disrespected that way, that they don’t know what they are talking about, they don’t have the experience etc. But when you engage with them as another person, another important person in your life, they have such a wealth of information and insight to share.
JESSICA: Totally, and I think the younger they are, the more they grew up in an environment where they are respected, then you realize how unclouded their judgment is and how they’re so in tune with their own emotions and needs and I think that is so amazing.
I think at an early age I was one of those kids, a “really good kid” that wanted to please. From an early age on I was really focused on, ‘So, what do I need to do in order to be the good kid?’ And I was already very far away from listening to what I needed right now; how do I feel about it?
PAM: Exactly and watching them in action just reminds us how things can be different.
And I did the same thing. I would say, ‘What do I need to do to satisfy the adults around me?’ and I would just get that done so I could go and do the things I wanted to do.
When I was a kid I never understood why there were kids who would resist that. I would tell my poor brother, “Why don’t you just go clean your room then you can go and play instead of sitting there for an hour arguing about whether or not you should clean your room!” But now I’m like, ‘Wow! That makes so much sense.’ It’s so much processing work—eventually I realized I was just focused on pleasing other people first before I would even think about what I was interested in.
It’s just so fascinating to watch them in action. It’s not like you even have to have deep conversations with them but watching them and how they pursue their interests, how they deal with when things go wrong, and how determined they are when they’re intrinsically motivated. It’s just fascinating to watch them in action!
JESSICA: Absolutely, that’s the best thing!
PAM: So, our last question.
What do you love most about unschooling lives right now?
JESSICA: I love that we can just focus on us right now and I don’t have that school that’s sitting there and saying, ‘But this is the way it should be.’ We can do things the way we feel we need to and we have the time. Through that time and that focus on us, our relationship has grown so much, and I think that’s really what makes a huge difference from a year ago.
In fact, my son, he had stopped calling me mum but instead was calling me by my name, for years. It was nothing that I instigated but in the last few months he started calling me mum again. That says a whole lot about how our relationship has progressed. That was just a really touching moment for me.
PAM: Oh, I can imagine, just to notice that. I have goosebumps!
And we don’t realize before we start this how important that time together is, do we? I don’t think so. Time is so valuable in our lives, and open time, not time that’s controlled and scheduled, but time to just be together makes a vast difference in our relationship, doesn’t it?
JESSICA: Totally. When I think back when my son was young and I was still trying to validate his emotions and take the time to go through all those steps, but it just often wasn’t there because then I had to go to work, he had to be at school. There we’re all these other things going on and, in a school situation, there’s all these parents watching you and other factors that didn’t really make it feasible.
That was one of those really big important parts about actually validating and taking that time, because I thought I was doing it before, but it wasn’t until I didn’t have those time constraints on us that I realized this can take hours and hours, or days as it needs to, and it can just keep coming up because we’re just always together. That means that there’s just that space for all those old things to come up because we didn’t have time back then, but gradually, step by step, those things can be dealt with because we can give them the time that they need.
PAM: That’s beautiful and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Jessica. I really appreciate it. It’s such a wonderful story. Thank you.
JESSICA: Thank you, Pam. It was great talking to you.
PAM: It was wonderful. have a great day!