A Different Kind of Education

By Soni Albright, Admissions Director and Cyber Civics Teacher

If you have not yet seen the documentary Race to Nowhere, you now have a fabulous opportunity to screen this film for free in your home through January 31, 2020. I strongly encourage all parents to watch this important documentary which highlights the intense pressure children feel to perform and achieve. We are asking them to be better, stronger, smarter—and for what?

One of my early teaching experiences was at both Gunn High School and Palo Alto High School, which are highlighted in the film Race to Nowhere. I was teaching at Gunn High School at a time when the suicide epidemic was peaking and the students, staff, and parents were reeling from these tragedies. In addition, these ‘top notch’ schools, which were frequently listed in the top 10 best public high schools in the country for decades, had a host of other issues. Drugs and stimulants, excessive gaming, and cheating were rampant (higher than other area schools), and were clearly representations of highly stressed-out students. As a faculty we spent countless hours trying to wrap our minds around the “why” of it all.

Many of these kids had grown up in an academically rigorous, highly competitive, results-driven educational model that wanted them to be everything and to do it better than everyone else. And though the intentions from parents, teachers, and students were likely well meaning, the results were catastrophic.

After about a year and a half in the Palo Alto Unified School District, I noticed a handful of individual students who stood out to me. They were not the stressed-out, win-at-all costs students who drank copious amounts of coffee during the school day and fell apart when they received a B+; they were engaged, fresh-faced, eager learners who took immense pride in their work. They approached their teachers and assignments with interest and creativity. They tried out new things that interested them, like being on the badminton team or competing in the Quiz Kids Championship for the sake of learning or enjoyment—not simply for their college applications and resumes. They were not devastated by failure, but rather challenged to try again in a new way. I got to know many of them personally because they would shake my hand and look me in the eye as they introduced themselves on the first day.

One such student told me that his mom had sent him to “this hippy school” through 8th grade. Now here he was at this extremely competitive and highly rigorous High School, not just getting by, but excelling. He wasn’t just surviving the extreme expectations, he was thriving in an environment of balance that he created for himself to make sense of the high expectations, and to round out his day. Something he was clearly taught during his years at a Waldorf School.

“Hippy School,” I thought. “I’ve got to check this out.”

That was my introduction to Waldorf Education and the next week I took a tour of the Peninsula Waldorf School. Decades later, I find myself here at CLWS with all of you, watching my own children thrive and grow into empathetic, well-rounded, intelligent people right before my eyes. And what a gift to know that they not only have the academic chops they will need out there after 8th grade, but that they get to be seen as so much more than that. I’m grateful that we prioritize emotional well-being, social health, art, music, and movement in the same way we care about academics. They all matter.

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