In the last few weeks we have been busy meeting with teens and families who are applying to LightHouse for the fall. In our conversations, I’ve been struck by an often-repeated theme when I asked teens about why school hasn’t been working for them: anxiety.
I have heard the story dozens of times now, teens for whom school has prompted tremendous anxiety. Whether it’s the size of the school building or the number of kids there, or it’s fear of being called out in class, or it’s test anxiety, or it’s bullying or harassment…the list goes on, and it all can become debilitating. It often results in missed school days, and as missed days add up they result in feelings of failure that only perpetuate themselves into more missed days. In the end, it adds up to teens feeling like they can’t succeed or like something is wrong with them.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, there is absolutely no reason it should be this way. Why have we designed institutions that actually promote these feelings in their very design? Perhaps the very institutionalization of learning is a foundational part of the problem here–one size fits all, when, in fact, one size fits none. Our factory model of education simply doesn’t allow the space, time, or resources to respond in a way that truly meets the needs of each child. It’s simply not possible.
Since September I have watched an evolution: teens who refused to leave home to go to school in the past who are now waking their parents up every day to get to LightHouse (really!). And it’s not because of any reason other than the fact that so many of the structures that create feelings of anxiety in school are simply not present at LightHouse.
As much as we strive to create our own environment, we cannot help but react to the environment in which we find ourselves. Environment matters. Hugely. A space where teens can take ownership and where adults and teens co-exist in authentic and respectful relationships can be transformative.
Actually, let me rephrase that: It IS transformative. We see it every day. And I tell the teens and families who come to visit LightHouse that it is possible for them too. It doesn’t mean that all anxiety goes away forever, or that transformation happens quickly or easily. But, as Montessori and Reggio Emelia educators have known for years, the environment of the classroom is a teacher unto itself. So let’s make educational environments that encourage learning, growth, and compassionate connections. Not the opposite.