A couple of years ago, a mother asked me for advice on how to keep the flame of learning bright in her daughter who was about to start school. The problem was that the local school was very "traditional" - boring, controlling, and would probably stifle the girl's love of exploration to some degree. I wasn't sure what to tell her at the time. What can you do in such a situation?
However, a few days ago I was asked again and I realised that an answer had been quietly developing in the back of my mind since the first time I was asked. Perhaps the reason for the slow response is that the answer is heresy from the traditional teaching perspective that I had myself been taught.
The answer: Take school less seriously.
Don't ask how tests went, don't tell her off for a bad report card. Don't be on the teachers' side. Be on your daughter's side. Don't add pressure; subtract it.
To teachers, this advice is heresy because it is considered as a very real cause of underperformance: parents who don't care about school undo all the good work the teacher does in their few hours a week in the classroom. Without "working together with parents", how else can a great, transformational teacher have any impact?
I actually kind of agree about that, which is again why the answer was slow to surface. Consistent environmental impact can definitely have a stronger impact than a teacher acting alone. If the teaching is great, then parental support magnifies the benefits. However, if the teaching is average or poor, parental support magnifies the failings of the system.
Therefore, with all that in mind, if a parent is going in with a strong belief that the school experience will be sub-par, the first thing to do is not magnify it!
Almost all of the problems with a bad school experience get worse when taken seriously.
Does a bad test score get treated with: "Oh well, you can't win them all. You tried, and anyway, your painting the other day was really nice!", or "This is because you're lazy. You need to start taking it seriously"?
What about a detention for wearing the wrong colour socks to school? Yes, this actually happens. Is the response "Well, I agree it's a silly rule. It's up to you if you want to wear them or not", or "They're right. You need to start taking more pride in your appearance! (thus implying that they don't)"?
In Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl shows how even in the conditions of a Nazi concentration camp, he and others he knew were able to take a meaningful and deliberate approach to their lives. If that is possible in a Nazi camp, then it is surely possible when dealing with a run-of-the-mill school.
In Frankl's words:
"A human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. [What matters] is not freedom from conditions, but the freedom to take a stand toward the conditions."
So if you don't have any choice over the educational options for your child, you can still have a positive impact simply by taking off the pressure that school puts on them, and taking your child's side instead of the school's.