Not long ago, before the pandemic, I was teaching fourth grade. One of my students, a quiet boy who wore his hair in a long ponytail, hated school. Much of the content felt overwhelming for him, and so he would often run out of the classroom.

While the boy’s experience is an extreme example, it’s not an uncommon one. Many children in this country hate school. According to a 2020 study by the Yale Child Study Center, 75% of high schoolers self-reported having negative feelings about school. Some of the teens’ most common descriptors for school were “bored,” “tired,” and “stressed.”

Our current conventional model of schooling inculcates young people in the United States to not expect pleasure or joy from a place where they spend at least 1,100 hours a year. These negative attitudes toward school continue into the workplace. One Gallup study from 2017 found that only 33% of U.S. workers were engaged at their jobs.

What exactly makes school terrible for young people can vary somewhat from setting to setting. Many poor Black and Brown students are forced to experience curricula that don’t represent their experiences, taught by teachers who don’t look like them, in buildings that are under-resourced and overpoliced. Amanda Latasha Armstrong, in a research paper published by New America, pointed out how educational materials are routinely unrepresentative of people of color. That lack of representation has a negative impact on Black and Brown students.

Meanwhile, in private schools serving wealthier, White students, a culture of competition can lead kids to develop anxiety disorders and depression, even at a young age, as per education expert Peter Gray, writing in Psychology Today.

Montessori schools are more widely known than free schools, but also too often serve wealthier and White children. This is in spite of the model’s origins as an educational model serving poor and working-class children in a tenement building in Rome. Montessori schools are somewhat more teacher-centered than free schools, but still emphasize student choice. Montessori school days generally give students more control over how they spend their time and use longer unscheduled blocks of time in their day as opposed to the high-paced, fragmented schedule my students experienced.

It is exciting to imagine what would be possible if these models were freed from their exclusive silos and made more widely available to all young people in the United States. Imagine a generation of children given the chance to practice autonomy and creativity at school.

With different schooling experiences, how might young people transform their workplaces as adults into places where people care about their work? What demands could they make for workplaces to care about workers? Perhaps they would ask for more input into decision making. Or they might demand more frequent and longer breaks.

Read the full article about transforming schools by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe at YES! Magazine.