Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Pre-School

When I taught my college English classes, I’d begin my semester with the ritual of the syllabus and handing out Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford University commencement address. Jobs’ address remains my favorite speech of all time, but I handed it out partially because Jobs was talking to students their age and in an age where much of education focuses on standardized testing or having students behave and memorize what is handed out, I wanted my students to think about finding what they loved and to think about what they loved. This wasn’t just for their sake, but for mine. Honestly, students who have found what they love and what they are interested in and then write papers about those topics write better and more interesting papers. They write the kind of papers I like to read because I learn things from them. I also handed out Jobs’s address because it’s the kind of thing I wish one of my professors had handed out to me when I was starting college. My students of course didn’t see it this way. They thought I was an idealistic sap.

This week, when Steve Jobs died, I went back and reread his Commencement address. It still moves me and makes me tear up. It makes me think about how much time I have spent listening to my fears rather than my heart and intuition and how some people spend their entire lives only listening to fears, unaware they have a heart and intuition.

Yet, something changed for me when I became a mother, maybe thanks to oxytocin and all those mothering hormones, but mostly, I realized with a clarity I couldn’t deny that I was my child’s role model, and I would demonstrate living a life I loved and was proud of for my son. And as a mother, I have relied on my instincts, even when I can’t find research to back me up (though every once in awhile the research catches up with me and I nod that satisfying I-knew-it nod).

This week I also signed my son up for playgroup. We opted out of traditional pre-schools because we live in New York and when we moved into our Brooklyn brownstone in February, we had already missed the deadline for fall pre-school programs. Throw in that out of all the pre-schools I researched, there was something I didn’t like about each of the programs. Throw in that each application required me to write various essays about my child or how my parenting lined up with their educational methodology or what have you plus the application fee and inevitable waiting list – and well, it all required far more work than either my husband or I had put in to get ourselves into college. I also think our college educations were cheaper.

Pre-schools are serious business in New York. The thinking goes that if you get your children into the right pre-school, the rest of their education and their brilliance will fall into place. Parents on the playground have worried conversations about which pre-school will prepare their child for kindergarten, reading and Harvard, as if failing to read by age 4 dooms their children to a life of minimum wage servitude. Parents can spend up to $38,000 on private Pre-K to ease their anxiety about such things. Whereas my husband and I shrug and figure, given how much we each read and write, it’s just a matter of time and our children will learn when they’re ready.

Our decision to not send our son to a traditional pre-school whether it be the YMCA or a Montessori or Waldorf type has raised the eyebrows of some family members and friends, as if we were denying our child key childhood experience, denying him the alphabet itself or guilty of negligent parenting, as if I haven’t spent years researching education or reading up on the crisis in the current education system that has trickled down into some of the country’s pre-schools. But rather than stress about son’s future SAT score and if it could be predicted by his pre-school attendance, we found like-minded parents whom we could do a pre-school home school coop kind of thing with because we do want our son to play with other kids, to make friends, and to learn the kind of social problem solving that happens in groups of people. Except our pre-school-home-school-coop-kind-of-thing won’t start until January. Playgroup, we thought, would fill in the gap, especially since in my mind pre-school should be about playing anyway. Except upon arrival, we discovered that while the playgroup advertised itself as up to age 3 ½, only kids under 14 months had come. My son looked out at the sea of babies and asked, “Mommy, where are all the kids?” My heart broke. I asked for my money back. As we left, the woman said, “You know the kids his age are in school, right?”

I spent the next day questioning myself, and our decision to forgo the traditional pre-school and education route. I google-ed things like, “what’s the point of pre-school anyway?” “home school pre-school” and what have you. I registered my son for art class at the Children’s Museum of the Arts. Then I shut my computer. I realized I parent my children the way I wished I had been parented. Maybe it was the same with education, and maybe I just had to think about how I wish I were educated and that would inform my decisions about my son’s educational future.

All things considering and even though I wasn’t the best student, I received a pretty strong education in the Portland Public School system, and as I bounced the question around with my husband and my other most trusted confidant, my sister, we realized we all at some point in our public school educations had experienced following our instincts, our guts, our curiosities, our hearts and not only getting in trouble for it, but also getting labeled.

My husband, sister and I also realized that we wished we had been taught to follow our instincts, and have our perspectives, ideas, and insights –even the childish ones – respected and taken seriously. We pondered what would it have been like to have someone as excited about our creativity and curiosity as we were, or interested in how we formed our thoughts and perspectives. We wondered what it would have been like to have been raised in an education system where the focus was on learning how we learn and how to think. In having taught college students and asked them their opinions, only to receive the deer-in-the-headlight stares, I also had reason to suspect that much of education is actually trying to educate the curiosity, the instinct, the heart and even the creativity out of students.

At my son’s art class, he played with clay, he made a mural with other kids, he listened to a story, he hid behind an easel during songs (then sang the songs the rest of the day), and at one point he stacked stools, while the other kids colored with markers. The teacher jokingly called him a troublemaker for stacking stools. Jokingly, but still. I refrained from saying that Maria Montessori would point out that he was not trouble making, he was stacking stools for whatever reason that was important to him, because I didn’t want the teacher to snap back with a suggestion to stick him in Montessori then (as if that wasn’t a long waiting list).

My son didn’t notice the label. Art class was fantastic despite the label, but I felt that I was right to question my son following the standard educational route where many educators are mainly interested in how well children behave.

Later that day, Steve Jobs died.

In rereading his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, it’s hard to pick a favorite part of that speech, but in light of spending the week obsessing about my son’s educational future, two parts stuck out:

1) “You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

2) “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma —which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I listened to my son in the bathtub bellow songs he learned in art class while hiding behind an easel. My son then asked to have his boat book in the bath. My husband explained it was paper and couldn't go in the bath. My son asked, “What happens to paper in the bath?” My husband and he then dumped a good portion of the recycling bin into the bath to find out what happens to paper in the bath.

I realized I didn’t have to worry about pre-school. My son is learning from living because that’s what kids do. Other people have different priorities for their children’s education whether it’s that they be high achievers in hopes it will grant them job security or that their children do well just so as parents they look good (we know these kinds of people, but they rarely admit such things) while others want their kids to just have good experiences of school and childhood.

I can understand these priorities for our children’s education, but I want my kid to take a page from Steve Jobs book and that means I too have to trust my heart and instincts and not live with the results of others’ thinking. I want my son to do great work simply because he loves what he’s doing (and not because it will earn him a good grade). I want him to know what it is that he loves. I want him to think for himself, and to trust his heart and values. And most of all, I want him to love learning and stay curious and to trust that curiosity. I don’t know exactly what his education will look like or where he’ll get it, and I don’t know the answers for reforming the education system or if there’s one system that will work for all children and learning types. But the life of Steve Jobs shows me that what I want to nurture and encourage are not my son’s abilities to behave, take tests, or learn by memorization, but his curiosity, his ability to ask questions (and tough questions), his natural love of learning – even if it takes nontraditional routes – his instincts, and his perspective that is his and his alone.


Lara English said... [Reply to comment]

I totally agree! Your son is lucky to have such a great mother who really cares about his education (and life) and not just because you want future recognition for yourself but because you want him to be happy! Fantastic :)

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