04/10/2015 03:53 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2015

Following the Child


Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, once said, "Follow the child, they will show you what they need to do, what they need to develop in themselves."

Somewhere along the No Child Left Behind route, we have forgotten that education is about children. Instead, we have made education about other things: political agendas, arguments over funding, arguments over curriculum, relentless testing, a road of multiple choice questions that unintentionally discourage critical thinking, burnout among teachers, among high school graduates, and sadly, even among our youngest children. I have seen a pep rally where elementary-aged students chanted a passing test score over and over again, with as much enthusiasm as they would for a football victory. Why would we place such pressure on ones so young? What is it ultimately teaching them?

This environment often breeds extreme anxiety in children. Many fear the constant pressure of performing up-to-par with their peers, of "saving their schools" by making a certain score. They are acutely aware that the success of the schools lies on their shoulders. I think of myself in school 25 ago. How would I have done under that kind of pressure?

Not to mention the anxiety felt by educators. I have witnessed state test teachers who have chronic health problems associated with the stress of testing. Teachers who are expected to attend weekly meetings where they receive intense criticism of their practices based on often misguided tests. Who stay up at night worried about their students' scores, worrying about "saving their schools," coming to work sick, staying extra hours, tutoring relentlessly until the very moment of the test.

Of course, many are leaving public schools, opting for expensive private schooling or homeschooling, because in the place where their child was never supposed to be left behind, they feel exceedingly abandoned. Life is about authentic experiences, but looking around today's classroom, especially during spring, when so much is alive outside of the class windows, life within the classroom can seem very drear indeed.

I don't want this world for my child.

So how do we change it?

We must get back to authenticity in the classroom. Students must be challenged to find their own voices, encouraged by an educational system that truly "follows the child." They should be challenged to know as much about the world outside of the classroom windows as they do about the world within. They must find joy in the simplicity of nature, in the love and respect of each other, in the changing world around them. They must meet that world in the form of their own discoveries-in their own inquiries. And no one should get in their way. Not their teachers, not educational leaders, certainly not politicians, many of whom are so far removed from the K-12 experience that they have little ability to have children's best interest at heart.

We have to learn to follow the child again. There is no way she will be left behind if we are following her.