How This School Principal Left the Traditional System and Became an Unschooler
“It’s wild. It’s messy. It’s so much fun!” - Lesley Jones Sessler
Taking the plunge into life without school can be terrifying, isolating, and overwhelming. But there is a whole community of families and educators living and learning with freedom who are excited to give you all the support you need.
Galileo co-founder Kelly Davis chatted to Lesley Jones Sessler; a former Principal turned unschooling mom who wants to inspire others through her self-directed education journey with her son, Sammy.
Lesley comes from the traditional education system, having been a teacher, literacy coach, Principal, and Assistant Superintendent. It is her 30+ years of experience that make listening to her talk about unschooling so fascinating!
She passionately advocates for self-directed learning as a meaningful alternative to the schooling system.
She shares her journey and wisdom on her blog WatchMonkeyMama as she inspires parents feeling unsure about their choice to remove their kids from the education system.
Let’s dive into her conversation with Kelly, filled with a passion and knowledge that will leave you feeling inspired and ready for your alternative education journey.
Leaving the traditional schooling system behind for a life of self-directed learning
“I kind of always knew that we would be a homeschooling family based on the educational philosophy I believe in, which is a progressive one, very experiential, very hands-on learning.”
Lesley said that she knew she wanted something other than the old education system for Sammy.
The schools in her area weren’t diverse enough or progressive enough, so when Covid forced her to take him out of pre-school, she started looking into alternative education options.
She said, “I had never heard of unschooling, had never heard of self-directed education, and then I started doing my research and absolutely fell in love with it.”
Leaning into unschooling after years in the education system
Lesley is candid about her experience as a new unschooling mom, saying, “it was like something I had never experienced before.”
Having come from the rigidity of the old education system, Lesley found herself wanting more freedom for Sammy than even the progressive schools were offering. She says there were things about the schooling system that didn’t seem to foster learning, and she asked the critical question...
“Why is it so teacher-centered, teacher-directed, teacher-led? Why isn’t child-centered and child-led?”Tweet
So Lesley decided to embark on an unschooling adventure with Sammy and offer him the opportunity to take control of his learning. She says that each day is different and based on what Sammy wants to do and that she is there to facilitate his learning.
“With unschooling and self-directed education, I had to understand more and more that I really was taking a backseat here, you know, I was the passenger.”
For so many parents choosing alternative education, the idea that their kids have autonomy in their learning is exciting but daunting. Society still has rigid rules about learning milestones for children, and it can be challenging to re-program your brain to accept another way of doing things.
Take reading, for example.
One of the biggest questions unschooling parents face is, “How will your child learn to read?”.
Lesley said, “parents are so fixated on what society looks like and what our experiences look like as we were coming up as readers.”
She agrees that a love of reading is vital but says that literacy is so much more than reading, “and when it comes to reading, what I’ve learned as an unschooler now, is that children will read when they’re supposed to.”
Lesley offered concrete examples of literacy in their home, saying that baking and research journals are essential for Sammy’s literacy journey.
“He’s becoming so literate based on his own internal devices. And for us in our home, if he is not going to independently read a book until he is seven or eight or nine, that’s fine. Because reading is so much more than word calling, it’s about comprehension, and it starts with the love of and the exposure to quality literature”.
Lesley says that “ he dictates it, and I write it down in his own words. I’m not thinking about grammar right now; I’m not thinking about spelling right now. That’s going to come. But it really is, does he have a love for reading?”.
And isn’t that why parents choose alternative education? So that their kids can discover the joy of learning and learning how to learn?
As parents, it can be a challenge to silence the critical voices.
Embracing the freedom of learning outside of the schooling system
Listening to Lesley, it’s easy to think that she has confidently found her unschooling groove, but she says, “it really was letting go and trusting the process. But I don’t want you to think it was that easy. Because being a Principal, a teacher, an educator, you always still have that inner voice, kind of showing up at different times”.
When embarking on a life without school, the word ‘deschooling’ pops up a lot. It is the process of changing the way you think about and approach education. It is about looking at learning outside of the school lens.
Deschooling is for parents and students!
Maybe it is even more difficult for parents because we have already been through the system and feel the pressure of friends, family, and society.
Kelly mentioned an interesting quote from Naomi Fisher, saying, “you know the system did a good job if you come out of it not questioning.”
As an educator, Kelly says, “I don’t think about this often because, at Galileo, we’re asking kids to push against and push into ways of finding their own independence.”
But the old education system doesn’t want students to be autonomous. Traditional schooling uses tests, scores, measurable outcomes, and achievements.
“And I wish we could get rid of all of that. I really wish children were free to learn, like Peter Gray says, based on their own needs,” says Lesley.
Lesley knows better than anyone how restrictive school is after spending so much of her career in a school building.
“For me, I knew that I did not want this to look like school for him. I wanted him to have all the space and time and the resources available to him. I wanted him to have so much fun. The fun is taken out of schools so often. I know that with playing, there’s so much learning that’s going on”.
Lesley says that there are so many resources available to parents who need help and support, “so I would recommend that you do as much research as you possibly can to understand deschooling.”
Clubhouse events, Facebook groups, Instagram, podcasts, and books all have a wealth of information for the new unschooling parent. But more than that, they can offer a community!
When you are feeling frustrated, uncertain, or scared, having a network of families to connect with can be invaluable.
“And so I think parents have to realize if you’re going to unschool your child, you’re doing it for a different reason. You’re doing it because you don’t want it to look like what would happen in the classroom normally in formal education.”
Having a supportive community of families and educators who understand this and who want the same thing can not only make the transition easier but enrich your lives.
Preparing your child for life outside the education system
An audience member asked Lesley a very interesting question about how she thinks Sammy will manage in a world of systems when he is learning outside of one?
This is probably something you have thought of yourself as a parent.
“I think he’s going to be even more prepared than your typical students who go to school because of what I’ve noticed so far, and I’m speaking with my teacher hat on, with my Principal hat on, and with my assistant Superintendent hat on right now. I have seen so much growth and learning in him, which is far above what I saw in students of his age in school. Because in school we typically have students who are so put into those boxes, they’re so forced to learn what they probably don’t even want to learn; they’re not given the time and space to have fun and to explore and to discover”.
Just because you choose to offer your child learning freedom doesn’t mean they won’t function in the world. If anything, they will thrive!
Allowing your kids to experience the world around them, immerse themselves in it, and discover how they fit into it, will enable them to learn in the best way.
What better way to learn about the world than to be a part of it?
When learning is tangible, practical, and lived, it becomes real.
Like Kelly says about the kids learning with Galileo, “they’re here creating groups and group projects and building their own schedules based on their own interests, so we hope that they are out there creating new systems. We want them to be the job creators, the game creators, not just the consumers.”
Are there similarities between old and new education systems?
Lesley doesn’t think so and for a good reason. She recounts an example from her days as a kindergarten teacher.
“We had to go into the gymnasium because they were not doing well on their exams, and then they had to grab any old book and pretend to read while sitting around the perimeter of the gymnasium on the floor. Tell me where the love of literacy is there? Tell me where the love of socialization is there? Tell me where the love of school is there? It was more like a prison”.
Homeschooling, unschooling, and other alternative education options are focused on joy, independence, and play rather than rules, fear, and conformity.
Play is such a vital part of learning, and “that’s what’s so beautiful about play. That play will segue into research that will segue into learning that will segue into so many other things”.
Kelly McDonald’s book UnSchooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom talks about four elements of self-directed education that Lesley implements in her home.
1) Freedom to learn is encouraged
2) Resources are available
3) Time and space for learning are offered
4) Knowledgeable and supportive facilitators available
She considers herself a facilitator but says, “if you are going to unschool your child, let them be the leader of what they want to learn.”
Kelly agrees with this and explains how Galileo allows students to engage in self-directed education.
“They are in control of their learning schedule. So I’ve had parents tell me that now their 8-year-old knows different time zones, and they can tell different time zones based on their UTC location. I think these types of independent skills that the students are gaining are different than what they would be ticked off in boxes from an educator in a classroom, and like Lesley saying we are here to facilitate, to help them, and to get to that independence in whatever way works for that individual”.
Lesley mentions John Holt, Peter Gray, and Ainsley Arment as huge advocates for learning through play in a self-directed way.
“Children should just be exposed to so much free time to do free play. And you’ll see when they have questions, you’ll see when they want to find out more about a particular subject”.
It is possible to thrive outside the schooling system!
Lesley and thousands of families globally have shown that a life without school can be the best decision you ever make!
It can be a difficult choice that has you conflicted, but as Lesley says, “parents need to think about what they want in their homes for their children, how they want it to look, especially if it’s self-directed education. And to let go and trust their child and to let their child play. Let their child have all their freedom to play and learn, to be free to learn”.
If Lesley can do it, then why can’t you?
Does this story inspire you to make a change? Share it with your friends and family. Maybe they’re ready for a change, too. 💌