When my daughter and I walk into her science class on Wednesday, it’s clear monarch butterflies have returned to Texas. Morning sun lights the room, where several children examine potted milkweed plants with hand lenses, finding and measuring caterpillars. The teacher, Mrs. Dotson, waves when we walk in. Her parrot, Max, perches on her head. Nothing unusual about that, though. It’s just another day at Tiny School.
So what is this Tiny School thing? Well, even on days when everyone’s head is bird-free, it’s a little unusual. When an NPR article mentioned Tiny School, the reporter categorized it as a new one-room schoolhouse, but that might not be quite accurate, because Tiny School has no central building and no administrators, school boards or other management. In that way, it’s more like an idea or loose organization than what we usually think of as a school. Essentially, it’s a group of independent classrooms taught by expert teachers.
In Tiny School, each classroom is run by its teacher. Teachers cooperate to do things like share supplies and rent classroom space, but when it comes to determining curriculum, collecting tuition and teaching students, the teacher is the final authority. Essentially, each class is its own self-contained mini-school, a small business run by the teacher, with the goal of providing its students with an excellent place to learn.
Of course, an independent classroom wouldn’t work so well with an uneducated or inexperienced teacher running the show. That’s why all Tiny School teachers are experts. Each teacher has not just the degrees you’d expect, but also years of experience in actual classrooms. Take, for example, Sarah Dantzler, who has more than 15 years of experience teaching children from kindergarten to high school. Or consider my daughter’s science teacher, Mrs. Dotson, who has 30-plus years of experience teaching in Texas public schools, and is also a Texas Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Plus, she wears a bird on her head, which has to count for something.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Tiny School is about: helping adventurous, expert teachers create stand-alone classrooms that are the best possible places for teachers to teach and students to learn.
If you’re a parent, and that makes sense to you, then you can probably stop reading right here. Go take a look at our list of Tiny School classrooms and see what’s available!
But maybe you want to know a little more about this Tiny School thing. That’s good too. Keep reading.
Maybe you’re one of those people — like me — who likes the basic Tiny School idea but needs a little more convincing. Because to be honest, I have this mental battle between my serene inner parent, who is ecstatically happy with Tiny School, and my anxious inner parent, who is a little unsettled by the whole thing.
“Sure,” my anxious inner parent mutters, “It sounds great to have smart, happy teachers working in an environment they control.”
“Yep,” replies my serene inner parent, smiling.
“But this is all so vague and hand-wavey!” the anxious inner parent complains. “I need details! Where are the accreditations? The blue ribbons? How can I be sure that my child will excel in every subject and become a suitable vessel for my ego, allowing me to vicariously experience her many achievements and triumphs!?”
Here’s where my serene inner parent begins looking a little less serene and tugging at his collar. Because Tiny School doesn’t work for everyone. It requires a bit of willingness to hack the educational system, to try things that haven’t been tried, and to accept that trying something new means you’re going to fail sometimes.
When we find people who share those attitudes, we also tend to find that they share certain values that make those attitudes make sense. Here are some common ones:
- Creating over Consuming
- Familial over Institutional
- People over Things
- Cooperation over Competition
- Experimentation over Perfection
- Self-Motivation over Reward
- Flexibility over Perfect Planning
- Steady Practice over Heroic Effort
- Tiny over Spectacular
This list isn’t a manifesto of any sort — really, the only requirement for something to be a Tiny School class is that it be run by a single, expert teacher — but it seems that these values are pretty common among people who participate in Tiny School. If you want to create things instead of just consume them, you’re likely to want to have a hand in making your child’s school. If you think human interaction works best in a gentle, familial setting, rather than a crowded and highly-structured institution, you’re going to appreciate Tiny School’s classes, which tend to have 10 students or fewer.
And so we go at Tiny School as a bit of an experiment. This year we’ll try things this way, see how they work, and next year we’ll improve on that. So in addition to being a network of independent classes taught by expert educators, Tiny School is a work in progress, and requires a certain relaxed attitude toward schooling, one in which, a little ironically, we choose to release our anxiety about the Future Of Our Children in order to take the risks necessary to make some real improvement in the future of our children.
Does it Work?
In the future, I’ll write more about the theoretical underpinnings of the Tiny School model — why things like distributed networks and constructivist learning theory suggest that Tiny School is a good idea — but to keep this short and readable, I’ll just mention the most compelling reason to think Tiny School will work: It’s already working.
As of August 2020, we are entering our eighth year of Tiny School. The kids love school, the teachers enjoy their work, everyone is learning, and that set of qualities — kids loving to learn and teachers doing good work — is our metric for success. Tiny School works, at least for us, and we think it can work for you too.
If you’d like to read more about the existing classrooms, visit our locations page. If you don’t have a classroom nearby, get in touch with us via email or our contact form. We’d love to help you get started.
And of course, if you have any ideas or questions that weren’t addressed here, please contact me. We’re having a great time with Tiny School, and would love for you to join us.