Before Calling School a Prison . . .

I've seen the comparisons between school and prison: lack of movement, walls, food that you don't get to choose, a system of punishment and rewards, the use of isolation. The case looks compelling on the surface.

And yet . . .

The words above can be used to describe people's experiences with just about every social institution, including families. I could make the case that families are like prison, because of the bullying and abuse that happens in some cases. I could say that the kitchen (often failing to offer choice) is like a prison cafeteria or that the rules are arbitrary and authoritarian. I could claim that the timeout chair is solitary confinement and that the walls of a bedroom are no different from a prison cell.

But I don't think families are prisons. I believe that some families are abusive and dysfunctional and feel like a prison to children. However, I think it's dangerous to listen only to the hurt and the pain and apply that as a normative standard to every school.

Sometimes school is a refuge.

I have never met someone who said of prison, "This is a safe place. This is where I am getting to grow. School is where I meet someone who cares." Those are the words of a student of mine who filled out the School is a __________ and I am _______________ with the words: refuge and safe.

Before making up excuses about indoctrination and acculturation, just consider that these are the words of a "low-achieving" student who does not, on the surface, look like someone who loves school. You won't hear his voice in the student voice movement. His voice goes against the collective chorus screaming against the institution of school.

But his voice matters, because it is a vivid reminder that the good/bad paradigm doesn't work all that well with something as complex as a school. To some kids, school will be a refuge. To others, it will be a prison.

What matters is that we listen.


John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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  1. Thanks for the post John! It is definitely food for thought. Do you have this conversation with parents who have had a negative experience in the school system as well?


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