There it was, the last car in the parking lot, and it was mine. As I walked through the exit doors after my last day as a high school teacher, this scene seemed rather metaphorical. For the last several years, I’d watched as some of the best educators I knew walked through these exit doors—a pattern I had been determined to reverse. There is nothing wrong with making a career change when it feels right, but these teachers were highly admired by their students and skilled at igniting the flame of learning within them. Still, they were getting into their cars and leaving empty spaces in the parking lot. One by one. And here I was, car keys in hand… Sort of.
It was a bizarre experience because I was leaving, but I loved teaching. I still do. There’s nothing like witnessing a student’s “aha” moment. Neurons flash, synapses connect as a student grasps a new concept, and their whole understanding of the world gets rocked in a split second—in a good way! You’ve often seen this depicted as a lightbulb suddenly appearing above a person’s head. It doesn’t really happen like that. Oh, the light appears, to be sure, but it emanates from their eyes. So what was the problem? It wasn’t the students. It wasn’t the teachers. It wasn’t even the administrators, the budget committees, or the folks on the school board. It wasn’t a specific thing or person. The point is that, whatever it was, it just wasn’t working for so many students. I saw students who weren’t excited about learning. Who were simply just going through the motions. I saw students who were depressed, anxious, and had little say in what they learned. I saw students who were unable to thrive in a large environment and who needed more one-on-one attention.
I wanted to find a learning philosophy that I was crazy about—that empowered children to take ownership of their learning. That’s when I started exploring other options.
I started by researching different philosophies and models of education. In time, I even started blogging about the various learning opportunities that I uncovered on this intellectual journey. It felt important to share. Necessary. I mean, this was BIG! I had discovered a whole world of approaches that existed outside of the schools I had known. Sure, I was aware of charter schools. I had attended one myself. My wife and I, both seasoned high school teachers, had recently shifted our own children to homeschooling with a project-based curriculum of our own design. But project-based learning was just a piece of the puzzle—the tip of the iceberg.
Student-directed education was another concept that offered a major shift in thinking about the why and the how of education. Instead of teachers leading “teaching” students, they serve as coaches or guides who work to assist the student in their learning.
Why do it this way?
Many communities of parents implemented student-directed learning models because they were an incredibly powerful way to motivate and empower students—and they were excelling academically as a result. Kids would design projects that were centered around their interests, set their own goals, and do the hard work of learning because they were invested in them. And the parents guiding them were there to celebrate successes, mistakes, and everything in between. They viewed themselves as mentors.
And for the how… that varied. I thought that made quite a bit of sense. Every child is unique and has different needs when it comes to how they go about learning. For example, some parents structured parts of the day around different mental or social states; like independent reading or meditation, collaborative play, partnered problem-solving, and more. All this time, I was connecting with parent groups, reading, observing, and blogging about my own learning journey to share with others. In truth, I had seen some of these strategies incorporated in more familiar classroom settings, but it was often done on an activity-level. This was systemic. Bold! The entire structural design was built around purposeful discovery, intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, and deep engagement in learning. Kids were leading their learning and they were thriving.
Before too long, I decided that I was going to start my own school.
I heard the success stories of others who had done the same, and that opened my eyes to just how many groups and communities were invested in these kinds of innovative learning models. Many of them formed networks of learning centers that all followed a particular model. Others were stand-alone groups. Not all of them would survive more than a few years, but they were there and people were willing to take the risk to bring them into existence.
Most importantly, I saw just how hungry parents were for something new. Not just different versions of school, but a different model of education altogether. Parents would pay a significant premium for their children to be able to participate in such communities, not just in tuition fees, but in their time and other contributions. They were deeply invested. They wanted to create an amazing educational experience for their kids. Still, as exciting as the opportunity to open a school was to me, the reality was that it was cost prohibitive. In fact, it was beyond the reach of most families; my own included.
For more than a year, I struggled to bridge that financial gap…
Prenda had been on my radar for a year or so. I observed their innovative use of existing public spaces to create fun learning environments and paid close attention. Public libraries were being transformed into computer coding clubs for kids. And library staff members, who were certainly not coders, were guiding these self-directed groups of students. One might have heard about this and assumed these code clubs were a flop. How were the kids learning how to code from non-coders?
But they were!
Prenda’s Founder, Kelly Smith, supported these librarians-turned-guides with some foundational skills, but their role was not to teach. When working on a coding project, kids were encouraged to ask each other questions, experiment with different strategies, and problem-solve. Guides created a safe and supportive space and students were given the autonomy, tools, and resources to accomplish amazing things. More and more kids continued to show up each week at all the code clubs around town. While I was undergoing my philosophical transformation with regard to childhood education, Prenda was doing the same. For Kelly, the very design of schooling was back on the drawing board, and technology was going to enable that plan. He was going to leverage technology to free up humans to do what we do best: connect on a deep emotional level.
The next time I saw the name Prenda, it appeared alongside a word that had grasped my attention before: microschool. It was an invitation to an info session for families interested in enrolling their child in a Prenda Microschool, or starting one of their own. I decided to attend. I listened in as parents asked questions about the learning model, the curriculum, and other school-related things parents feel obligated to ask about. Some parents shared stories about how their child had struggled to learn how to read, and their transition to a microschool led to incredible progress. Others talked about how their child became reenergized about school when given more choice and autonomy.
But the most impactful moment was when I saw tears shed over children who felt loved and accepted like never before. As an educator, this is what I wanted for my students. As a father, it is what I wanted for my own children. That was when I decided I was going to start a Prenda Microschool. It took a little planning, some research, and a lot of talking to friends and family about this incredible new learning opportunity, but I did it!
At the beginning of the school year, I was running a microschool out of my home. My students ranged from third grade to eighth grade, which made this high school veteran quite nervous. But we took our time, learned together, and figured out what worked for us. Prenda provided the learning model and state standard-aligned curriculum, and I had the flexibility to incorporate the interests of each of my students. They got to work on so many exciting projects and collaborative learning activities, and I started to notice how they were the ones initiating learning activities and getting super passionate about topics. They were loving to learn.
When we went virtual in response to the pandemic, my students were already comfortable using digital tools to work together and adapted quickly to the change with minimal disruption. They went out of their way to continue collaborating with their peers on school projects, even outside of school hours—they absolutely loved learning! It wasn't always sunshine and lollipops though. We experienced moments of frustration and differences of opinion like any other group would. But, given the small-group setting and flexibility of Prenda, we had time to build a healthy culture of compassion, communication, and trust. We all learned and grew more than anticipated, myself included.
At the end of that school year, I had a very difficult choice to make: I could keep my microschool, or I could shift my focus to helping others start their own Prenda Microschools. To the chagrin of my parents, I opted for the latter. However, I helped several of those same parents get their own microschools started, so I knew my students could continue with Prenda. These parents went on to become exceptional Guides. That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve been able to help people across the country open their own Prenda Microschools. I’ve personally supported dozens of new Guides, and hundreds of students, to build healthy learning communities. As an organization, we’ve worked with a variety of educational partners in multiple states to support tuition-free microschools with thousands of students. And we’re still growing!
I recently returned from a trip to visit microschools in Kansas, where I was able to work directly with the students again. While reflecting on that trip, I realized how much I missed being involved on a daily basis with the exploration and learning of students. So this next school year, my family and I will have a microschool in our home once again. I’ll be continuing in my current role at Prenda, but my wife is becoming a Prenda Guide. She’s a former high school teacher, homeschool mom, and personal development coach, and I couldn’t be more excited for her to be embarking on this journey with her group of young learners.
The most important thing that I’ve learned from all of this is that there are opportunities for other teachers and educators, like me. When you find them, you have an “aha” moment just like the ones you enjoy seeing in your students. For me, being able to bring a little bit of myself to school, incorporate learning philosophies I believe in, be spontaneous, have time to connect one-on-one with each child, and truly make an impact with Prenda was one of my biggest “aha” moments.
Sometimes it just takes a little bit of searching but, when you find it, you light up!