Yesterday I started a conversation about Mason schools inspired by a lecture that Art Middlekauff gave at the CMI conference and quotes from Formation of Character. I started that blog with the intention of shedding light on the challenges that come with running a Mason school and teaching in the school setting. Some of these challenges are probably shared in the homeschool community, but I think there is a difference, which I will explain in the remainder of this blog.
The first challenge that comes to my mind as a former principal is money. Now sometimes that can just be a challenge that brings out this sort of determined creativity to provide what the kids need on a shoestring budget. Homeschoolers can certainly relate to that. But what hurt me was that we never had enough to pay teachers what they were worth. Teaching groups of children is hard work! Those of you with lots of kids or who have worked in a co-op understand that. But I know my teachers put in so many hours outside of school assessing student work, communicating with parents, preparing lesson plans, reading ahead in their books, resolving conflict, attending professional development and faculty meetings, and serving on committees for school events that a healthy work/life balance was really difficult. I am grateful to these women. They certainly weren't in it for the money. They truly loved children and believed in this philosophy whole-heartedly, but that kind of lifestyle burns people out quickly. My friend Megan Hoyt commented yesterday on Facebook that we need to be supporting schools. I agree. I think we should be putting our time and money where our hearts are. Consider this a plea for anyone who is reading this to volunteer or send a donation to any CM school, whether it's a Childlight, Provender, CMI, ASI, or independent school. We are all in this thing together, and without these resources, there will be no schools.
The next challenge is evolution. No, not the Darwinian kind, but the gradual evolution of your school into a non-CM school (or at least a hybridized version). Principals have to be extremely vigilant in creating and maintaining the culture, because other ideas creep in so easily. Sometimes they come from a teacher who brings in teaching material or a system of rewards and punishments from their previous job that doesn't necessarily fit Mason's paradigm. Other times, a "consumer" mentality can develop, as parents who are paying for a service assume that, since they are your customers and paying your salary, you should incorporate some program or pet project that they want. And then, of course, there is the fear that your students won't get into college. That causes many to compromise on curriculum and practices and conform to the more traditional model. Mason charter schools feel the most pressure here, as they are actually required by law to follow their state's standards. Unless you are very careful, your school can quickly evolve into a picture that looks an awful lot like the free public school down the road. And at that point, frankly, what is your purpose for staying open? I'll leave the reader to contemplate the possible answers to that question.
The next challenge is building a reputation in the community. Frequently, particularly when there are no grades and little to no homework, people in the community perceive it as easier than traditional schools. This often means that parents don't even inquire about your school unless their child is having problems somewhere else. After all, why would you pay for a service that you are currently getting for free unless there was a problem? This is a case of people running away from something rather than towards something. I assume this happens often when people decide to homeschool, as well. But I find that running away from something you don't like (being reactionary) never produces the beneficial results that come when you run towards something you believe in (being intentional and proactive). I remember when I would interview parents for Willow Tree, it was almost as though I was trying to talk them out of enrolling their children. I wanted to make sure that they knew exactly what they were getting into. If they weren't totally weirded out by the time they left, I could be fairly certain they would be a good fit for the school. Anyway, I have heard other principals describe the same phenomenon in their schools, and it can lead to a perception in the community that your school is a good option for kids that can't hack it somewhere else. Of course, anyone who knows anything about Mason knows that her curricula were challenging--a lot more challenging than what you typically find in the public schools. But, as they say, perception is reality, and Mason schools can easily end up with a very high percentage of students with special needs, and while the children thrive, you run the risk of burning out your teachers even faster. Of course, if you take the opposite tack and become a prep school, your reputation in the community can become equally faulty--that you are a school for rich white kids. Getting the right balance is a real challenge, and I think Mason schools are still trying to figure it out.
But the major difference I see between the challenges that homeschools and schools face is that, in a homeschool, the Mason philosophy is lived out all the time. It is in the air. The children grow up with the unconscious idea that, "this is how people live." That's not necessarily the case in the school setting. First, schools have to be on a more rigid schedule, because the kids are only there for certain hours of the day. And while many teachable moments present themselves daily, it is very difficult to just drop everything for the day and go on a hike like a homeschool family has the freedom to do. But more importantly, the Mason philosophy is often not lived out in the home at all. No one is reading. Kids are still being shuffled from one extracurricular activity to another while having dinner in the car. Families are not having conversations about ideas. When the kids get home, the tv or game system comes on and stays on until bedtime. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and the children of families who really try to educate themselves and live out this philosophy always do better than those that don't.
So what are the challenges that you have faced either in a Mason school, co-op, homeschool, or cottage school? And, more importantly, how are we going to put our heads together and solve them? Please comment below, and let's start figuring this thing out!
Many blessings on your day, and enjoy your cuppa!