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Gender Ideology, Neurodiversity, and Alternative Schooling
A conversation with Teva Johnstone, LCSW
GENDER IDEOLOGY, NEURODIVERSITY, AND ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLING
A conversation with Teva Johnstone, LCSW
Teva Johnstone, Connie Morgan, and Jake Mackey
Editors’ note: FBT’s Connie Morgan and Jake Mackey sat down with Teva Johnstone, a California-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in autistic children, to discuss the developments she has seen in her profession and in schools.
Connie Morgan: I thought we would just start off with you giving us a little bit of your background and how you came to be where you currently are in your career.
Teva Johnstone: I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of California. Clinical social workers can do a lot of things. What I have been doing for the past eight years is psychotherapy with children and adolescents, mostly children, but some adolescents. Also some traditional social work in foster care, school-based therapy for children with disabilities, and private practice. Back in grad school I did a year in inpatient adolescent psychiatry. I've had quite a varied experience with kids and youth in general.
Now I am doing parent consulting and parent coaching. I'm making self-paced courses for parents online mostly because I had to pivot during the pandemic. I got my clinical license during the pandemic and no one was renting offices at that time. I briefly had a virtual child practice but realized it wasn't feasible for the long term. Seeing kids on zoom is like herding cats. I pivoted to supporting parents and I realized that I actually really liked that more. Most of the work with kids in the psychotherapy realm is really working with parents. That is the reality. So I had a ton of experience supporting parents already.
Autism is a focus of my work. I opened an Instagram (@rebel.parents) account to do autism advocacy mostly speaking to other professionals. The account kind of blew up and all these autism moms wanted to work with me and they were in other states. The way that our bureaucracy works I can't see anyone outside of the state in a clinical manner. In order to serve more broadly I pivoted to providing coaching and consulting. By not working in a clinical fashion, I can help families nationwide.
Connie: You don't think you'll ever go back? Basically, this is where your career is going to stay?
Teva: I will always work with parents and I absolutely love working with kids and I miss them. I really do. But because of the political climate in my state I'm not comfortable seeing kids for therapy. Then there's also the financial piece. To go and rent an office when I can work from home…it’s kind of nice.
Jake Mackey: You mentioned that you did not find the political climate of California conducive to seeing children clinically. Have you already covered your reasons for that? Or is there something further you would like to say on that topic?
Teva: Let's see how do I want to phrase this . . . California has bans on what they call conversion therapy. This traditionally meant trying to make a gay person straight. I don't know any therapist who would ever do anything like that. I think historically that was happening in some churches but I don't know psychotherapists who engage in that behavior anywhere. We've had some updates to the law where they've added “gender identity” to the anti-conversion therapy ban. The law is vague and puts therapists who don’t practice the Gender Affirmation Model in a precarious position. Activists and activist organizations frame anything other than the affirmative model as “conversion therapy.” Helping a youth feel comfortable in their body—with their sex—could be misconstrued as some kind of harmful and illegal practice. This is new territory for therapists and not one I want to venture into.
WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, is looked to as the authority organization. They are not though. They are an ideological organization but they've just put out a Standards of Care 8 (WPATH SOC8). In the Standards of Care 8 it recommends that clinicians are neutral about youth’s gender transition. I cannot get on board with neutrality about a child rejecting and hurting their body. I think ethically and morally we must recognize that transitioning often involves youth taking on a lifelong medical burden with known compromises to their physical health and not based on long-term evidence that it improves mental health. I believe youth should have high quality care and don’t think that is what is promoted in SOC8. Ethically I can’t get behind what they are promoting. I am committed to children, committed to my clients, not ideology. This will be looked back upon as one of the darkest periods in my field’s history and I will know I did not participate. So yeah, I'm not willing to compromise my ethics for politics.
Jake: That's really a damning indictment. The system has been set up in such a way that you simply cannot practice your professional expertise.
Teva: I know, it's heartbreaking.
Jake: When you say WPATH is ideological you mean they are ideologically gender affirming, right? Is that the term for when you're pushing for transition, whether medical or merely social, in preference to exploring other options?
Teva: Yeah, there's some great discussion from psychotherapists, Stella O’Mally and Sasha Ayad, who have been studying gender for a long time, and from Eliza Mondegreen, who attended WPATH’s latest conference. Leor Sapir is doing great work on the topic as well. I know a clinical social worker who used to be part of the organization on the ethics committee and recently left because of WPATH’s ideological stance in the sense that it's not based on sound clinical evidence. It's based more in a kind of faith or philosophical belief about gender identity. SOC8 has a clear bias if you read the document. It's full of activist language rather than clinical language. I mean, they say things like they're okay with people being transitioned who have significant mental illness or autism. They have made “Eunuch” into a gender identity, which is male castration. You're just supposed to accept with a straight face that it's a gender identity to want to be a eunuch. I mean, what? They're discrediting themselves more and more every day.
Currently they are highly respected by many of the major U.S. Medical organizations but that doesn’t mean much.
Connie: So your specialty is autism and neurodiversity but are parents with children in those categories the only ones you work with? Or do you branch out to any parent who needs help with something?
Teva: I will see any parent who needs help with something. I don't only see autism families. Autism advocacy just kind of put me on the radar. I see parents with kids who have abuse and trauma histories. Oftentimes those are foster parents. I see parents who are suspecting a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism or ADHD. Maybe they're not quite ready for the evaluation but they need help with parenting a child who is clearly different. Maybe there's some stigma and they don't really want the diagnosis. These parents tend to use terms like “spirited kids” or “highly sensitive kids.” I see a lot of these parents. More recently I've been seeing parents who have kids in schools that are pushing critical theories on gender and the parents are not aligned with these theories. They want to know how to protect their children and how to get them high quality mental healthcare from an exploratory rather than activist-type therapist.
Connie: Right, so that's how you really made waves. When you started to speak out against gender ideology and the way that therapists and psychiatrists are handling it. Can you speak on that a little bit more? What got you to start speaking out against it or certain components of it?
Teva: Absolutely. I heard about the impact on autistic youth first. That really came to my radar because I heard about one study at the Tavistock Clinic in the UK that's been ordered shut down. The study showed 48% of the kids who presented at the clinic were autistic or had autistic traits. Because I know autism and the various symptoms, challenges, and features of autism, that just didn't land well with me. That really set off all my alarms. That's when I started to dig deeper into what's happening here.
I started to learn about what was being taught in the schools, particularly in my state of California. Parents started sending me curricula. I was also doing my own research about some of our comprehensive sex ed curriculum where biological terms like “male” and “female” were excluded for “person with a penis,” “person who produces sperm.” The words “girl” and “boy” are absent from many sex ed lessons. I was just alarmed. Then I started to learn more about the trans influencers on Instagram and Tik Tok and YouTube and you know, once you see it you can't unsee it. And this is an onion . . . you just keep pulling back the layers. I know liberal progressive parents because I'm in California and I've always identified as one of them until more recently. I know that we are a compassionate bunch. We don't want to offend anyone. We want to be kind. We don't want anyone to be hurting. I saw these parents being bullied by activists. I saw these parents just blindly accepting what I call ideology. I'm privy to what's happening in my field and psychotherapy offices. How we have kind of detoured from a clinical approach to gender dysphoria and gone more into an ideological approach about gendered souls, gender identity, and forgetting everything we know about child development and approaching distress in a holistic manner.
So, that's just my personality. I just can't stay quiet on things that I think are really important for children and parents. I just started to dabble by posting some things online. I tried to be really careful and then I realized it doesn't matter how careful you are. You will be called names and slandered and all of that stuff.
Connie: Then you were kind of like, might as well jump in with two feet and just be open about what you think and provide an alternative. So is that why parents primarily find you? Maybe they have an autistic child that has been dabbling in the gender stuff or is gender confused? Or parents who are worried their autistic child will get pulled into that world or they're more likely to be pulled into that world? Why is it that autistic children seem to be so susceptible to this ideology?
Teva: Parents of typically developing youth who are gender questioning reach out to me and parents of autistic or suspected autism reach out to me. Some of them already have kids who are deep into it and already trans identifying or non-binary identifying. Others are trying to take a more preventative approach to keep their kids grounded in reality and body acceptance because they see what the schools are teaching. They're wondering how do I send my child into this school and also try to protect them from the risk? The risk of them being confused and wanting to go down a medical path. But the parents whose children do not have autism there's usually something else there: OCD, anxiety, high sensitivity, exceptional artistic skills. Things like that.
Connie: Why is it that you think so many autistic children get pulled in?
Teva: That answer is really multifaceted. The traits of autism can look like gender dysphoria and influence youth to adopt a trans identity. Probably the most significant factor is social nonconformity. Gender fits into that. If you think of gender as kind of this social role. Whether it’s behavior, looks, or performance, as Judith Butler says. Autistic people are generally socially non-conforming. I mean, that is one of the defining traits of autism—social differences. So if they see that girls generally tend to look like this, they tend to act like this, they tend to like this. The autistic girl may not fit in with them because she doesn’t understand social communication as well, especially the more complex social communication of girls that begins around age 6. She might think to herself: “I don't read social cues so well. Relationships are hard for me.” Then she may think, “Maybe I'm not a girl.” Especially if those ideas are reinforced or taught by the school and also taught online. Autistic people tend to spend a lot of time online. Autistic youth, like many youth, but particularly autistic youth are spending a lot of time online. Part of the condition is the ability to really hyper-fixate on anything that's of interest. They are so good at going down the rabbit hole and just spending hours and hours and hours learning about a topic of interest. If you feel different and you spend a lot of time online it's pretty easy to stumble into the online trans communities who tend to be very accepting as long as you believe like them. Then there's also the fact that autistic people have very high rates of not being heterosexual. And we know that most gender non-conforming youth, if left alone and not transitioned, will grow up to be gay and lesbian adults.
Connie: Are you referring to the watchful waiting?
Teva: Yeah, those studies. So it depends on which study you're looking at but the numbers are something like 68 percent to 98 percent will drop the trans identity or the cross-sex identity if left alone. Most of that cohort will be gay or lesbian. If the youth is beginning to know maybe they’re same sex attracted then they will naturally take an interest in the LGBTQ community. Then they may think, “I don't really fit in with the girls. Maybe I'm not a girl.” They may also have internalized homophobia and desire to transition so it’s more acceptable to like who they like. Some call this “transing the gay away.” There are also biological differences that come from autistic neurology. There can be a disconnect in feeling in the physical body. This is called interoception. Autistic people may be less likely to feel things like hunger, cold, heat, pain, needing to go to the bathroom. This is part of the neurology of the disorder. Kind of a disconnect from the body. Then there's black and white thinking with autistic people. It’s called cognitive rigidity. So, in theory, once the youth has made up their mind that they are not a girl because “this” is what girls are, there can be a tendency for a kind of cognitive stuckness. With autism there’s a strong desire for justice. So there's a real attraction to fighting for the underdog, fighting for fairness and social justice because the inequality is not fair, right? And so there's a tendency to be drawn to cultural and political movements that surround social justice topics and that's kind of where the trans issue falls.
Connie: Do you find yourself coming across some of those fringe identities like people who believe they should not have an arm or a leg or they think they're a dog?
Teva: I haven't personally. Thankfully, I have not.
Connie: Of course those stories always get traction in the news because they're so wild. I've wondered how often they really occur. Are there like five people in the entire country who identify as worms? But that's getting a little off topic.
If there's a parent out there who’s like, I found Teva. Her stuff is great. I've talked to her, but I really need that in-person counselor, how can that parent find a good therapist for their child? How can they make sure this person isn't just going to affirm whatever their kid says and encourage them to embark on whatever journey their heart desires? You've said two things that stand out to me that contradict a lot of the methods I see therapists talking about. Many therapists are just about affirming and/or not about involving the parents. Are those the two main red flags?
Teva: It's highly location dependent. In more progressive states the therapist is going to feel more pressure to affirm because in the back of their head they're thinking, am I going to get in trouble if I don't affirm? They have been taught affirming is the social justice thing to do and social justice has captured our field. In conservative states it might be easier to find a therapist who's not going to just go straight to affirmation. They're going to do more of an exploratory model which is just traditional psychotherapy. It is hard. It's very hard to find a good therapist. They either don't take your insurance or are not licensed in your state. Or they are full or are only virtual and your child really needs in-person therapy. It is really hard out there.
Many of them are not public. There's kind of like an underground railroad happening because trans activists come after them. Trans activists complain to our boards and therapists fear for their safety. It’s a mess. I’m thankful I’m on an indefinite break but my heart hurts for the desperate parents. There are a few directories. One of them is called Conservative Therapists. I recommend parents look at the public directory of the website genderexploratory.com. I would probably look for a generationally older therapist. They tend to be better trained and less into some of this hyper-progressivism. I might also look for a faith based therapist like a Christian counselor or any faith. Psychology Today has a section where, after you select your state, you can punch in your faith and therapists will show up. That's probably what I would do.
Connie: So are you seeing families straight up leave states like California because they need to get their child to a better therapist?
Teva: I don't know them personally but I've heard of families who have left the state just because of the heaviness of things happening in the schools. I've heard of a local licensed psychologist being run out of the state by trans activists in Southern California. There was this mom of a trans identified child who started to go after this psychologist because the psychologist spoke up as an expert at a school board meeting. The mom is an influencer on social media. She must have a lot of time on her hands as well because she wrote I want to say a twenty- or thirty-page document complaining about this psychologist and sent it to the board and to the local politicians. It just became so heavy for the psychologist that she left the state.
Connie: Do you know if she's practicing in a different state? Or did she just say I'm done with this career?
Teva: I think she's practicing in a different state. Her story was public.
Connie: So looking for a good therapist is sort of reactionary! Your child's already dabbling in gender ideology or you see the signs. But what about preventative parenting stuff? One thing is to keep your kid offline and really restrict their time on their phones. But another option you practice is homeschooling. I would like to hear you talk a little bit more about that in particular. I believe you practice unschooling? For a lot of people who aren't familiar with homeschooling can you explain what that means and how it is the same or different from other typical homeschool styles.
Teva: Yes, as a preventative measure I recommend trying to keep kids offline. Trying to be really intentional with that and also home schooling.
I just want to say really quickly, these children have mental health problems. They are suffering from a crisis of meaning and purpose. According to the detransitioners sharing publicly, it becomes all consuming. Most of the youth drawn to gender ideology already have risk factors. I would just say try to be intentional with keeping your child mentally well and your family strong.
This is where homeschooling and unschooling comes in. I'm aligned with some of the arguments that school is a major contributor to the children's and teen’s mental health crisis we're having right now. Homeschooling helps reduce some of what I would call toxic stress happening in the schools while also shielding kids from some of the hyper-progressive ideology. Homeschooling can provide a rich life where youth get to pursue their interests. This is protective of their mental health.
First, I'll just say what unschooling is not. It is not trying to recreate a typical school at home. I think sometimes that's the easiest way for people to understand.
Connie: You're not sitting at a desk doing worksheets.
Teva: We can sit at a desk and curriculum can be included but there's a philosophy of not trying to replicate what's happening in the schools. We avoid coercion, tons of evaluation, and lots of adult-directed learning. We tend to have a philosophy that children are born learners. They love to learn and it's really the adults and the systems that adults create that put out that fire in children. Unschoolers are trying to create learning environments that keep that fire going. In my opinion it's really rooted in child development and a respect for children. It's rooted in more of a relationship. We use our relationship to influence some of the things we want children to do and learn rather than threats and rewards.
My daughter never went to school. We never had plans for her to go to a typical public school. One of the main reasons was that from zero to five years old she demonstrated to us that she loved learning. We just had to keep that flame burning. So we kept on with more of the same that we did from zero to five except we started to expose her to more enriched environments. She's out of the house five days a week. She's with peers five days a week.
Connie: This is other homeschool groups that she's linking up with?
Teva: Yes, homeschool communities. I think it's important for people to recognize that unschooling is just a type of homeschooling. We're still homeschoolers. I do some direct teaching with my daughter as well. We do nature groups. We do a homeschool pod that's project-based academics. The groups are small, like five to six kids. I just reduced my work schedule to be a little bit more involved for weekly museum trips.
Connie: If somebody is interested in homeschooling or unschooling but they're overwhelmed. What are some resources for someone to learn more about that? Maybe homeschooling and then unschooling specifically.
Teva: I would totally recommend Unschooled by Kerry McDonald. She's amazing and this really gives a well rounded understanding of the philosophy. The broad spectrum of ideas and beliefs about unschooling. And then Dr. Peter Gray’s Free to Learn. Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist and he studied how the children learn in tribal communities. He wanted to bring what he learned back here for his own son who was struggling in traditional school. Then Peter Gray found a school called Sudbury and researched the model of self-directed education that was happening at Sudbury and aligned it with evolutionary psychology and the science of how children learn from a psychological perspective.
Jake: Can I ask you to expand on something? I'll preface it with a personal note. I've been interested in homeschooling and unschooling but have not felt the need because my kids went to a really emotionally supportive school. It was also academically pretty good, and non-ideological. (Until last year.) You said earlier that there's something about the way we do school that is not ideal for children's mental health. I guess up till very recently, I just haven't seen that. So what is it? What's going on in schools that is not ideal for children's mental health? Apart from the new ideology, if it's possible to separate those things.
Teva: Okay. Typical public school. I'm not talking about the hippie private schools in California because they're special. But typical U.S. public schools. The school day is getting longer. The school year is getting longer. The children are losing out on play, movement, music, art. They are under so much stress to perform for tests. The school day follows them home with hours upon hours upon hours of homework. If you are an exceptionally bright child you will not be spared from this because more and more will be asked of you. If you are a child who's struggling you will not be spared because you will start to develop a negative self concept about yourself. So it's really the decline of play. The excessive adult micro-management. The very long school day and school year plus the homework on top of that.
School robs children of their childhood. It deprives teens of feeling useful. Developmentally teens should be out in the world being useful, learning from a mentor. Instead we rob them with mind-numbing days inside of four walls. Then they come home and scroll social media.
Then there's the ideology. The demoralizing things they're being taught about themselves, whether they are white, black, or something else. Somebody is a victim. Somebody is a perpetrator.
Then there's also the bullying. If you are neurodivergent it’s an overstimulating environment with all the people and all the noise and all the transitions. Kids spend the best hours of their day, the best years of their lives in an institutionalized setting where somebody else is constantly telling them what to do and what to think. They're struggling from a deprivation of meaning and purpose. Peter Gray talks about this a lot. There have been numerous studies showing us the actual suicide incidents in kids follow the school calendar. Meaning during summer break, spring break, Christmas break we don’t see the suicides in children.
Connie: Which is different trend from adult suicides. Adult suicide increases during the summer months.
Teva: Peter Gray has a recent article called “More Play Less Therapy For Students: Schools Produce Anxiety and Depression and then Hire Therapists to Fix it.” And so what I see is just a total misalignment. I see it as a developmental mismatch. Now, some children are what they call dandelion children. This is an actual psychological theory. It's called the Orchid Theory, the orchid and the dandelion. Some children are dandelion children. They can grow and bloom anywhere and they're very resilient. The dandelion can weather all kinds of storms.
Other children are what we call orchid children. These children are very sensitive. They have different wiring. Sometimes they might have a diagnosis but we call them orchid children because they are delicate. Not the way that fragility is being taught in schools now with terms like “words are violence.” Not that kind of delicate but their constitutional or temperamental makeup is more sensitive and they will not thrive in any environment. When given the right environment they bloom and they are the most beautiful orchids. But the wrong environment? They're going to lose their color. They're going to die.
So I argue there's this developmental mismatch with institutionalized public school. John Taylor Gatto argues it’s designed that way–to demoralize and conform. He was brilliant. He has this book called Dumbing Us Down. Gatto was a public school teacher in Manhattan for 30 years. An award winning public school teacher. In his book he talks about what school teachers really teach. It is not to be a critical thinker because children need to just accept what they’re being taught as true. Students constantly seek external validation in the form of grades and teacher praise and this kind of thing. Gatto points to six toxic lessons teachers tend to teach. It’s not how we like to learn as adults. We know as adults we don't like to be micromanaged. We don't want to sit in a four wall room with no windows and when the bell rings we move like sheep. When we are stuck at jobs we hate we either do everything we can to leave or our mental health begins to suffer. Youth are the same.
Then what's really hard today with our kids is that they don't have as many protective factors as the kids of yesterday used to have. So there's the developmental mismatch of being institutionalized all day long and then coming home and spending five to eight hours on social media and not playing. They aren’t moving. They aren’t outside connecting with peers in person. It's a recipe for mental illness and that is exactly what we are seeing today: mental illness.
Connie: Is it really that many hours the average child spends on social media?
Teva: I don't know about the exact data but five to eight hours is pretty standard.
Connie: That's brutal stuff.
Teva: It's not just social media. If you've been following the work of Jonathan Haidt lately, you know it's not just social media. It's the decline of play as well. John Taylor Gatto, who just died a few years ago, would also argue it's a decline of meaning and purpose. We're not supposed to be sitting in a classroom until we're 18 years old. We're supposed to be out there learning from our community.
Connie: I agree with everything that you're saying. I became really drawn to homeschooling when I started thinking about my goals in raising my child. A typical private or public school tells you the goal is for kids to go to college and make money. They literally show us charts and say look, kids who go to college make more money. Everything is about going to college. You drive by schools with banners that say “98 percent of our graduates go to college.” But is college really what I want my child’s education to be centered around? In reality what I want is for my kids to be good kids. I want them to be virtuous. I want them to be creative. I want them to be able to think critically. You realize making money is not a parenting goal. If I have a morally solid child who grows up to be a morally solid adult who doesn't go to college or doesn't make a ton of money I’ve still won as a parent. I'd rather have that than if they make a lot of money but they're horrible people. It doesn't mean they're mutually exclusive. You can be a good person and still have a successful career. But the goals of our current public education system do not align with me. A classical education is centered around developing good humans. Virtue, morality, understanding beauty and those kinds of things used to be what education was all about. But I didn't get any of that when I was in school.
Teva: And to your point, Connie, I think that even the idea of going to college and making a lot of money is an outdated idea. That's no longer the case. They go to college. They get a $100,000 student loan and then they're working at Starbucks. They’re still directionless. This whole failure to launch thing is really serious.
I was an identified gifted child and by the time I got to high school I was sleeping in class, doing my makeup all period if I was awake. I was ditching as often as possible. My parents are both educated. They were married at that time and I almost didn't graduate. I was just bored out of my mind. Bullying was so intense. I was just directionless, doing unsafe things.
The minute I graduated I went to cosmetology school. I pursued my interests. In ten months I was making tons of money as a 19-year-old working for myself. I had meaning and purpose and my mental health improved. I was making something of my life.
I just don't think that keeping youth sitting at a desk all day long for 18 years is a good model. And even that is a new model. It used to be that kids were in school for four hours and then they went home and helped on the farm. They played. They helped with chores. They had responsibility. And these things are now absent and the kids are paying the price for their absence.
Jake: I didn't have much responsibility but I had play. My parents were the opposite of authoritarian. I played. As soon as I got home from school I spent hours playing. I played until dark with my neighborhood friends and we did incredibly dangerous things every single day. It's so weird how even though I know that's valuable somehow I'm not reproducing it with my kids. It was raining here yesterday. My kid went out. My son who's 12 went out for a walk on his own. He wanted to go explore in the rain and half an hour in, I panic. I was like oh, my God what if he fell down and split his head open and he's dying in a ditch right now. Then I tried to tell myself, you did this every day of your life starting in first grade. I knew he’d be fine but I still couldn't help the panic and it makes me reign him in, you know. Against my own will I'm doing the wrong things with my kids in terms of not letting them have that freedom and make the mistakes.
Teva: It’s not part of our culture right now. It’s hard to be countercultural in that way.
Jake: It’s hard to raise them the way I was raised, that’s what's crazy. Every day we went down to the creek and we were miles from adults and we had no cell phones. Any one of us could have died but we did it every day and I wouldn't let my kids do that. What a hypocrite I am!
Teva: At eight years old I was riding my bikes all around the neighborhood with my friends. We were gone from the moment we got home from school until dark. All summer we were gone from 10 am. until 7 p.m. or so. No phones, no pagers, nothing. We would call from a friend's house and ask if we could stay for dinner or spend the night. So much freedom. It's just not part of our culture right now. It used to be that the neighborhood kids would run together. It sounds like your son was alone.
Jake: Yeah, that's the thing. There's like no neighborhood kids and the ones that are around are impossible to get out. And then, if you do get them out their parents are asking who's going to be watching them. Other parents are even more paranoid and messed up than I am.
Teva: Yeah, there is safety in numbers. It's normative for them to be in a mixed group and they look out for each other.
Jake: They learn so much about how to just deal with the social world in that way.
Teva: They do. They don't have adults micromanaging. The unschool that we go to has adults but they are not helicoptering the kids. The kids have so much freedom. My daughter is thriving.
Jake: What are your hopes for the future? What do we do? Do we reform public school? Is that possible? Or do we all switch to an unschooling or homeschooling model? In a sense, homeschooling and unschooling are like these alternatives, these counter cultural things, these band aids, these fixes for a broken system. But what would a future look like that’s not just ideal but attainable?
Teva: That's a really good question. I'm not a major player in the educational reform communities. I often say out loud: “I’m not here to fix the schools.” I know that there are people working really hard on different ideas for reform such as educational entrepreneurs and they're opening micro schools and things like that. Honestly, Jake, I don't have the answer to that on such a broad level.
I would like to see all kids in the U.S. have access to a high quality education. I don't know exactly what that looks like. John Taylor Gatto thought that we've already put too much money behind public schooling and pouring more money into reform is a waste of money. He believed we needed to dismantle and start over. He was a self identified libertarian and he didn't want to see more public funding go into a broken model.
I would like to see the apprenticeship model come back for teens. I think it is unacceptable to ask children to sit in the classroom until they are 18 years old. I think that's a waste of their time.
I'd like to see youth who are interested, apprenticing, interning, getting life skills. It's my opinion that most of public education is child care. That's not to insult the teachers or child care providers. I need child care, I work. But I think that if we're honest with ourselves the kids probably need one to two hours of academics and then the rest of the day is truly childcare. It's not hard to make childcare something that is more life-affirming for the kids. Think of a summer camp environment. More play. The children are suffering because they are not allowed to meet developmental tasks and in order to meet developmental tasks they must be playing and socializing. They must be useful. Any model that allows for more play and more sharpening of skills is a model I would probably get behind.
Someone I was talking with the other day said “so this is really a decentralized model that you're talking about.” And I'm like that's a really good word for it: decentralized. I don't think monopolies are a good thing. I think public education absolutely should have competition. Why not have decentralized models where parents put together something that works for them? Homeschooling in isolation is hard. I like the idea of pods and small collectives. But I don't really know what it should look like. I don't know what it should look like on a national level. I just don't know.
Jake: It sounds like you're advocating for Federalism in education, in a sense. Much more local autonomy, much more responding to local needs. What we've got is this one size fits all model. Maybe what you're asking for is just this patchwork of diversity where no county would be the same as any other county. No township would be the same as any other.
Teva: I can get behind that.
Jake: And the determination would be made by local people based on their local needs. So you're part of an experiment where you're showing what's possible. And then at some point in the future the system could be reformed to reflect greater choice, greater diversity and that could be the sort of law of the land.
Teva: I believe Sir Ken Robinson and maybe even Seth Godin advocated for bringing it back to the local level. Let local communities decide what they want for their kids. But part of that is going to be a huge mindset shift. Exciting to think about the possibilities!
Teva Johnstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Psychotherapist, and Children's Mental Health Consultant. Teva approaches her work from a developmental, attachment-based lens that centers the family and honors children's individual differences. Teva is passionate about raising sensitive and creative kids with a healthy sense of self and believes life without traditional school is a great way to do that. You can learn more about her work at tevajohnstone.com or on Instagram @rebel.parents.