Editor’s note: Dionne Ekendiz founded the Sunset Sudbury School in South Florida. In her own words, here’s why she did it.
I always wanted to become a teacher and make a difference in the lives of children. I truly believed in public education and wanted to be part of making it better. But like many “smart” students, I was dissuaded from that career path, especially by my math and science teachers. They encouraged me to do something “more” with my life, so I went off to MIT and pursued a degree in engineering. After 12 years as an engineer, computer programmer, and project manager in the corporate world, I finally had the confidence and courage to make a change. Others thought I was crazy to leave a great career, but I was driven to pursue my own passion.
I entered a master’s of education program and sought to get the most of my experience there. When I heard about a professor who was conducting research in the “best” public schools in the area, I volunteered to be his graduate assistant. This took me into the schools twice a week. I loved working with the students, but there were things I didn’t like about the environment. One of the most disturbing was how teachers and aides would yell at students to “stay in line” and “don’t talk” in the hallways. Those were the times that schools felt most like prisons to me. But still, I believed a good teacher could learn to control his/her students in a more humane way, so I didn’t let it bother me so much.
A year into my education program, I gave birth to my first child. Watching her grow and learn on her own, especially during her first years, made me see the true genius inside her. Indeed, it is a genius that exists in all children. She was so driven to master new skills like walking, talking, and feeding herself. I was always there with love, support, and encouragement, but my instincts told me to stay out of her way as much as possible and let her own curiosity guide her. Because of my own experiences with schooling and well-meaning teachers, I was determined to let my daughter make her own choices. I knew that with curiosity and confidence intact, she could do and be anything she wanted to.
It slowly dawned on me that everything I was learning about teaching was contrary to the philosophy I was using in raising my own daughter. The goal of teachers, in the traditional setting, is to somehow stuff a pre-determined curriculum into students’ heads. Some teachers do it more gently than others and make it more fun, but the result is the same. Teachers must stifle their students’ own interests and desires to meet the school’s agenda. Simply put, regardless of how nice a teacher is, s/he must coerce students into getting them to do what s/he wants them to do. What I was once willing to do to other people’s children, I wasn’t willing to do to my child. That was a huge wake-up call for me.