A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.)

This past week I’ve had two college guys named Johnny* and Christopher* building a table in my garage. They live in an apartment and asked if they could use our tools and our space to carry out their building project.

I’ve been wandering past them as I come and go from the house, seeing their progress and chatting about things going on in their lives. Our lives have intersected in a number of different ways over the past 10 years so there’s always a lot to talk about.

This has gotten me to thinking about friends. And schooling. And raising kids.

Johnny and Christopher were homeschooled. They were very close friends of my second son, Jesse. Collectively, they probably weren’t an impressive group to people who care a lot about school grades and academic discipline. They marched to a little different drummer and they spent a lot of time in high school thinking about how to avoid doing schoolwork. In the homeschool co-op where I was a leader and teacher, the three boys often appeared disinterested in their classes and they got in their share of trouble. Christopher often bragged that he rarely did any schoolwork and was typically working long into the summer trying to catchup.

So, how are these two “troublemakers” doing today? Johnny and Christopher are not just doing well, they seem to have surpassed a lot of their peers in many of the ways that count. Christopher is working himself through college and, in the process, was recently promoted to a managerial position in the large company where he works. He’s a high school ministry leader at a local church. He’s the first person we call on in the family business for assistance in a bind when we need a hard worker, a person we can trust, and someone who can take charge and manage issues as they arise with a large degree of confidence and good sense.

Johnny is finishing up on college and owns an online business. He’s a vociferous reader and reads the writings of all the great philosophers for pleasure. It’s hard to keep up with him in a discussion or argument about politics, philosophy or sociology. This past summer he and my son decided it would be fun to spend some time in a foreign country so they purchased the cheapest airline ticket to the cheapest country they could find to visit and spent three weeks living on their own in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Czechoslovakia. They are fearless that way.

Johnny and Christopher are independent and self-directed, confident to a fault at times. They are also fun and funny. The apartment they share is constantly full of friends. There’s a string of girls lined up that want to date them. Life is not passing them by.

But this is not just a tale about Johnny and Christopher. It’s a tale about the teachers who teach them. And that includes me.

You see, when Johnny and Christopher said they wanted to build a custom table for their apartment in our garage I immediately reverted back to my old teacher/student relationship with them. In other words, I started telling them what to do. And what I was telling them was ALL wrong.

First, I immediately assumed that since Johnny and Christopher had no construction experience that they couldn’t build a table. So I told them they should buy one. Second, because I knew they had little money, I suggested Goodwill or the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store as places to shop. I did what a lot of adults and teachers do when they relate to children: I tried to replace their goals with mine and completely lowered expectations in the process.

Thankfully, true to form, Johnny and Christopher didn’t listen to the teacher.

You see, Johnny and Christopher didn’t want MY table. They wanted a custom table that would perfectly fit the space and meet the varied needs of the people living in their apartment at the time. They never even considered the possibility they couldn’t build the table, proving once again that confident and resourceful people can accomplish and learn almost anything if they really want and need to do it (if they haven’t been convinced otherwise by teachers and other “do-gooders.”) People who really want something don’t need a formal class or curriculum in order to do it. And they certainly don’t need a trained teacher to help them figure it out.

Here’s how Johnny and Christopher built the table: They designed a bar-style, high-top table that would fit perfectly snug between two walls in their apartment. They then tracked down FREE wood (pallets) so they could afford to build what they wanted. They followed that up by borrowing from friends the tools and space they needed to build the table. They carved out time from their busy school and work schedules to work late into the night throughout the course of a week. They were resourceful enough to ask my husband for design and construction advice along the way. (And to borrow our truck to haul the table back to their apartment once it was built). The finished piece was truly useful and beautiful.

A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.) serves as a great reminder of how adults often mishandle smart kids and learning. We (adults) think we have all the answers and that children will benefit from what we know. But children learn by creating and problem-solving on their own, not being force-fed answers to questions they didn’t ask. We limit children to our own understanding of the world, holding them back from becoming much greater than we ever were. We suggest imperfect solutions that don’t meet needs when children are willing and able to construct perfect ones that do.

Johnny and Westin wanted a custom table in their apartment and I suggested a common one. They wanted a masterpiece and I suggested a piece of junk. They wanted to work hard and I suggested they take the easy way out.This is the way of teachers.

Thankfully, Johnny and Westin don’t listen to teachers. They have always been “troublemakers.”

Until next time….Be fearless.

*Names have been changed.


Embrace Truancy. Try Homeschooling.

There’s been a lot of fussing about school attendance policy in my community lately. School officials think kids should get fewer unexcused absences. Parents think they should get more. And in the middle of the back-and forth, our school superintendent said something remarkable. She said business leaders are looking to schools to train students to be diligent about their school attendance, so they will learn to be diligent in their work attendance as adults.

The underlying premise of her statements has been clear. The woman who reigns supreme over education in our community believes students should go to school every day so they can learn to do the things they don’t like to do as children …so they can do well the jobs they don’t like to do as adults.

Is this really what we want to teach our children to do? The purpose of school should not be to train children to endure it.

There was a time in America when home was where you learned discipline and hard work and school was something more. Home was an excellent classroom for learning responsibility because children were immersed in the best personal responsibility curriculum ever devised. It was called “Chores.”

Now, we tell our children that school is their job. We measure their character by whether they can complete their homework, hand it in on time, and have their name written on the top of their papers. That’s fine, but education should be much more and much different than that. And careers should be the same.

There’s little vision in traditional education for real learning OR real work. Have you ever tried to get an excused absence from a school because you needed to make an important visit or attend an important event? Not going to happen. What about take an educational trip? Dream on. In school, learning only happens in classrooms and its measured by things like grade point averages and attendance reports.

Apparently, educators feel the same about work — that it only happens if you can count it or measure it. Our school superintendent said local business leaders told her they were looking for schools to train “soft skills” in students and she said those skills involved the ability to come to work every day and arrive on time.

“Punctuality” is important, but it should be expected and understood in school, not taught. It certainly shouldn’t be a lynchpin of the national curriculum and education leaders shouldn’t insult our intelligence by implying it is a vital component of the 21st Century skill-set.

If business leaders really are talking about attendance and punctuality as necessary job skills they are likely leading  employees at places like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Because people with good jobs in today’s economy aren’t punching a time clock at all. They are paid and measured by their ability to produce and perform.

I remember the time I got a truancy letter from our local school district. We had taken our young children out of school to go on a very necessary (and very educational) family trip. It was a form letter similar to this one. It accused me of being a law breaker, threatened me with criminal prosecution, lectured me about the importance of education, etc.

I discarded that letter and started homeschooling. Now my kids get a real education in the real world where we can prepare them for more satisfying and more lucrative jobs than those defined by time clocks and manager reports. If you want to “train” people to work for minimum wage then force them to go to school. If you want to train people to work at something better, force them to learn. There’s a difference.

James Altucher knows a thing or two about how to be a success in the world of work. The popular author has written 11 successful books about business, started 20 different businesses, and produced podcasts about business that have been downloaded more than 20 million times. He’s also a prolific investor in business. I’ve read some of his books and blogs and downloaded his podcasts and I’ve never heard him say a word about the importance of punctuality and attendance in business. But I have heard him say a thing or two about schools. He hates them. And he has a unique take on training children. He believes they should be conditioned and even rewarded for doing the things they like to do as children….so they will choose jobs they love to do later on.

This thinking is completely contrary to my local school superintendent, as well as most other educators and parents. But then Altucher is brilliant and rich and most of the rest of us are still trying to figure out how to pay off our student loans.

Altucher understands that advances in technology are rapidly changing the work world, where companies are increasing owned and operated by small teams of highly creative and skilled people who use technology, not people, to assist them. In this world, mid-level jobs quickly disappear.

This is not conjecture or simply a dire prediction. It’s already happened. During the last recession (ending in 2009), 50 percent of the jobs lost were mid-level positions. Since then, only two percent of the jobs gained have been mid-pay. Approximately one-third of new job creation since 2009 has been high-paying positions (more than $70,000 per year), while two-thirds have been low-paying positions (less than $37,000 per year).

In his best-selling book, “Choose Yourself,” Altucher said students are left with two choices: They can prepare to invent, create, and lead, earning a high-paying job in the process. Or they can prepare to work in a minimum-wage job.

If you want the latter you might want to check out my local school system. They are working hard to make sure every student understands and masters one of the most important skills for a minimum-wage job — the art of “showing up.”

Until next time…Be fearless.