John, University Professor, Father of 2, CA
John is a University Professor and the father of two adopted children. He lives with his partner and family in CA. He requested we use a psuedonym for himself and his son in this interview. He was interviewed by RE-ENVISIONED Founder, Erin.
The first question is to pick a child that you care about and tell me a little bit about that child and what makes them unique.
When you say child, talk to me about age range.
Yeah, so not fully adult - it's preferably someone not totally done with school.
Okay, so we will not use my daughter we will use my son. He is seventeen he has just graduated high school. He moved into our home at the age of sixteen as a foster youth and we adopted him before he turned seventeen. He is right now weighing options for what happens post high school. He graduated in a provisional degree high school degree in California as a foster youth so he was able to graduate with fewer credits but that means he can't go on to a four year college immediately he has to go to a two year college first, should even college make sense for him.
Tell me a little bit about his personality and who he is.
He is incredibly resilient young man. At the age of sixteen having been in foster care for half his life when he moved into our home. This is Cameron [shows picture]. He is charming, he interacts really well with adults because he has had to navigate a system run and led by adults, many of who have disappointed him over the years. And he also often looks for an easy way out, the path least resistance. He falls into what, at times has been described as the “entitled orphan” because he's been in the system for so long and things are handed to him. He tries to figure out ways to get systems to provide for him rather than providing for himself. Two sides of the same coin.
When you think about what you would like for him when he is grown up - say in he's in his thirties and is totally done with whatever preparation or schools he's going to be doing and living his life, what is it you want for him?
Ultimately I want happiness. I don't care if he ever sets foot in a classroom again or not but if he finds why is passionate about and good and something that he can engineer a way for it to become his livelihood.
When you say happiness, what do you mean? What do you think it takes to be happy in Life?
It takes a certain level of self-esteem or success. But success that is intrinsically motivated not extrinsically motivated. I think for Cameron he will define success in terms of material possessions and financial wealth. I, again, once his basic needs are met I don't care about that. I just want him to be able to enjoy life and feel like what he does matters.
There's research that says that above a certain level of income per year, I want to say it's around $80 or $85,000, it doesn't matter how much money you made in terms of your level of happiness - but there certainly is a lot of strife trying to live on twenty thousand or thirty thousand dollars a year. I would love to see him find that independence and that self-fulfilling experience of success. But I don't really care what he does or how he does it.
He's a really interesting case. What do you think the role of school is in getting him to the good life that you want for him?
It may play no role whatsoever. Learning is hard for him. Organized, structured classroom experiences are not his friend. I think he probably is going to learn best in some sort of a journeyman or mentor-mentee relationship. Whether that's learning photography or social media or learning design or learning automotive repair. These are all things he has articulated interest in. Whether he gets more schooling or not, we'll see, he'll probably learn more and succeed more from attaching himself to somebody who has greater experience and greater expertise.
Is there something you wish school had prepared him for now that he's kind of out of this first K-12 experience, that you would have liked school to play a role in but it didn't?
Yeah. Somewhere along the line, his joy of learning was squelched. I wish that had been nurtured - that he had an enthusiasm for going out and learning things. He made a comment somewhere along the line that, “school is so dumb, basically they teach me things that I already know or teach me things I don't need to know”. It's such a limited worldview. Being fairly fully baked by the time he came into our home there wasn't an awful lot I could do to interact with that belief, there wasn't a lot of opening to create a different possibility.
When you think about him getting from here to this life that you want for him, what are your concerns or worries you have?
Work ethic. Right now I know he is looking for a part time job and I want to see him succeed but I am also unwilling to leverage my network because I've seen his work history. You know you say you're willing to do anything for your kids, but no, there's actually some things you're not willing to do to help. I don't think he would appreciate the effort and honor it with respect. So, I wish that he had a stronger work ethic. If I saw that or saw the spark of that then I could nurture it or invite other people to nurture it.
What do you think is similar in terms of what you would have liked it to do - but it didn't - for other kids going through the system? What is working or not working in your mind with the way school is done now.
It’s hard for me to know if it’s school that failed him or the foster care system. And it’s hard for me to know, had he gone through one entire school system – K-12 – or even just one high school – 9-12, would things look different? I think what is working in our school system are the individual instructors and coaches and administrators who teach with passion and with enthusiasm. The Stand and Deliver kind of model or the Dead Poet’s Society – the dedicated educators who give it their all and put in the extra hours. Probably in each school and definitely each system there are a handful of those, but it’s not a sustainable model – how do you cultivate and replicate that? It seems so personality driven in that regard. That is working but it’s the luck of the draw.
From what I read and understand, in many places the flipped classroom is working – what can be delegated to online learning or learning in another mode so the classroom experience is really about teaching and learning. That is working in our school systems. And I think that small size is working in our school systems. We chose to put Cameron in one of the smallest public high schools in the city. We would have found a way to finance private education if that had been the best match for him, but his grades were so low and his experience with school has been so bad. We could have figured out how to pay for it if we had gotten him in, but that ship had sailed many years before he came into our lives. But what I do think are working are small schools, some of the charter schools, and some of the private schools are working – not just because they’re charging tuition but because they’ve got parental involvement in the education process. Again, I don’t know how you scale that to the size of Houston or New York or even San Francisco, but I do know that on an individual basis, small seems to be better and individual seems to work.
Work for what – what is the purpose you see of schools?
Back to Cameron – the purpose of schools is to cultivate a love of learning and a track record of success in acquiring knowledge.
Do you think people agree with you? I’m going to ask you on three levels, which is a bad way of asking an interview question, but on three levels – good life, what they should do, and what’s going wrong.
No, I don’t think people agree with me. There are parents and administrators and teachers who would answer very differently. And even if we did agree on a good life, I think the tactics to get there and the responsibility of the schools, there would be a lot of different opinions on.
I know from having been a teacher and from friends who teach that one of the really frustrating things about being an educator is the additional things we expect of our schools – to provide breakfast, to provide after-school programming, sex education, driver’s education – we seem to lay a lot more demands on our school systems and not more resources to get them done. And I think that’s a very untenable place for educators to be.
As you think about your life experience, in school and out of school, are there any empowering educational experiences you’ve had that come to mind?
So the picture up there is my two sisters and my dad and I standing in front of the high school we all graduated from. My father graduated in 1940 so he just had his 75th anniversary of high school graduate, and has worked as an admission officer, development director, endowment director, and he is at 93 still in that community as an ambassador and champion of the school. I grew up on the campus, it was a boarding school as well as a day school, we didn’t live on campus but I was always there. I went to the school as a high school student, came back and taught there, became an administrator there, came back again for six months in an unpaid capacity to help close a gap in the budget – the school was actually grooming me for president and it wasn’t the right fit, but having that sense of longevity and connection with a place as well as an institution, I think is rich and irreplaceable. Some people have that with their college alma mater. But to be able to have that with a high school, and also to have that sense of the arc of history of what a school does for people, I think is fantastic. I don’t know a lot of people who have that sort of really decades of experiences at a school.
I believe, when you look back at the evolution of schools in this country, school really was the center of the community – that and church were the center of life – it plays a different role in our lives. It’s a legacy, it’s connectedness. My father and I shared one teacher in common – he graduated in 1940 and I graduated in 1982. My sisters were all five years apart, so when we have homecoming, it’ will be my 35th, Cathy’s 40th and Julie’s 45th all from the same school. We shared some teachers in common – they went to the girls’ school next door, which it’s now all one, but even then was all the same community. That’s an educational experience that has shaped everything else that I’ve done.
Behind you, I have all in one frame, my high school, college, MBA and doctoral diplomas. There are probably not a lot of people who would put their high school diploma in the same frame as their doctoral diploma, but it was so foundational for me. I couldn’t provide that for my son, but if I could provide something analogous to that for my daughter I would. My husband had a similar, though not as rich, experience with the high school he went to. I would love for my daughter to grow up in a similar learning community.
I love that. When you talk about what’s powerful about it, it’s this legacy, and connection, and relationship – and I’m not sure it came out earlier in the kind of role that school can play.
No, it didn’t.
Is there anything relevant to these topics of what we’re seeking or wanting for our kids that I didn’t ask about?
I guess for me it hinges on parental partnership. When I taught high school, the parents who came to parent teacher night were never the ones I needed to see. When I interacted with educators at Cameron’ high school, he resented us being involved and engaged, and I feel ripped off that I didn’t have more of that experience as a parent at the school. I went to some of the principal chats and parent meetings. But because of what was happening there was never an easy way to plug in. I went to one of Cameron’ baseball games and there were 6 people in the stands – an older brother and me for his school, and four for the other school. I felt diminished and disengaged, certainly discouraged from engaging, both from him and from a school that didn’t know what to do with parents who wanted to be involved.
Now, with our daughter, looking at daycare and soon preschool, so I’m really drawn to the schools that have a requirement or at least a system for direct parent involvement. Cooperative schools, charter schools, even some of the private schools will say we need you to either fundraise this money or volunteer this many hours. I think the partnership is crucial. I’ve seen it the other way – in Kansas – where parents were too involved and parents felt that the checks they wrote meant they could dictate school policy or the way their kids were treated if they got in trouble. But I also don’t want six people at the baseball game. So that partnership is crucial for success.