Our decision to homeschool coincided with the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario’s public schools. I am not familiar with the details of the recent changes occurring in Ontario kindergarten classrooms but parents are telling me that the increase in school population brought-on by full day kindergarten has bumped-up class sizes across the board as other classes are combined to make room for the additional kindergarten classes. A field of portables – complete with graffiti – sprouted beside a shiny new neighbourhood’s public school (begging the question “how did you not see this coming and couldn’t you have built the school the right size in the first place?”) and a large extension to another new school was built in the schoolyard. In the land of “play-based learning” space to run around doing nothing is at a premium.
From full day kindergarten, to poor academic placement, to special needs, parents express a growing concern that while the school system is staffed by dedicated teachers and well-meaning principals, it is not serving the needs of their individual children very well. And so they ask about homeschooling. A lot.
A friend recently inquired about homeschooling and my reply inspired this blog post. Her question was not so much “why homeschool?” or even “how to homeschool?” but “what can I expect after pulling children out of school?” and “How will I stay sane?”
The sanity question is very much undetermined at this point. Homeschooling is hard and we are still negotiating the learning curve. My days are long and the nights are short. I remain sane by remembering why we are doing this. Thankfully, having five children older than the four youngest gives me perspective on how quickly this season will pass. I keep simple goals in mind on an hourly basis (don’t get angry, don’t yell, breathe) and the big picture in sight whenever I feel like quitting.
At this point in our homeschool journey – we started 2 months ago with 3 school-age children and will be adding a fourth in January – we are mostly learning to learn in different ways. The Internet calls it “deschooling” but I prefer using “deprogramming” to describe the process of bringing children home. We often assume (at least I did) that homeschooling is “doing school at home” – and for some that’s exactly what it is – but in reality, homeschooling is a paradigm shift. You will notice this paradigm shift in the comments you receive from people who do not support homeschooling: you can’t teach unless you are a teacher, you need to isolate children from their home environment for learning to occur, you need a lot of material support, you need a curriculum telling you exactly what needs to be learned when, you need a large group of same-age peers for socialization to happen. We are conditioned from a very young age to believe that schooling happens in a box. The physical act of removing the children from the box does not necessary change our thinking. There is a lot to learn in homeschooling and curriculum is only part of it. Here are a few unwritten lessons from my first two months of homeschooling after 14 years of school:
1. You will need to teach your children to trust you as a teacher. I had an interesting exchange with one of my daughters during the summer prior to the start of our homeschooling journey. We were talking about menstrual cycles – well, I was doing the talking — and I said: “When your periods start, they may not be regular for a while. You may skip weeks or even months.” And she looked at me with the kind of look you would give a lost puppy and said “I know mom, I’ve been to health class.” And this sums it up: your children, after years of conventional schooling, may love you and even respect you but their learning has been compartmentalized between the “home stuff” and the “school stuff”. You don’t understand their “new math” and “modern grammar”, you are no longer welcome to help in the classroom and your children don’t expect you to know jack squat. Don’t expect to jump into pre-algebra and traditional logic and think that your children will suddenly trust your superior brain. As far as they’re concerned, this homeschooling thing might just be another one of your “phases”, like that vegetarian kick of 2002. By the way, your mom and their teachers think the same way.
2. You will have to learn to learn at home. After years in school, your children are used to learning at school and flopping at home. The proximity to the kitchen, the toy room and the TV/computer can challenge academic work. I spent the entire month of September guarding the fridge. I’m not sure how they coped with fixed snack-times in school when I see how much fuel they need to keep their concentration.
3. You will learn to smooth the kinks in your relationship and discipline before learning can occur. Regardless of how good your relationship is, you can only teach so much if you don’t get along well with your children. And I mean this in the most loving way possible: we all love our children on the inside but the day-to-day grind often gets in the way of a cordial rapport on the outside. Parents of teenagers and toddlers, you know what I mean. To homeschool, you need to get along with your children on the inside AND the outside. It doesn’t mean that they become compliant little Stepford Kids but you need a basis of genuine compliance to move ahead with homeschooling. Learning to obtain compliance from your children without damaging your relationship – yelling, nagging or generally getting fed-up – may take weeks or even months but it needs to be done first. If you can’t get your children to clean-up their rooms without a fight, you have a taste of what homeschooling will look like day after day, hour after hour, until you quit in despair. Character before curriculum. I repeat this to myself about 2000 times a week.
4. Your children will have to learn to live with each other in close quarters. Your children may get along well at home or they may fight like cats and dogs, either way they will learn to work and live with each other. At school, they have been socialized to play strictly with children their own age. They have also been socialized into “girl play” and “boy play”. Boys and girls who play well together are often told they are in love with each other. Boys who enjoy “girl play” are often told they are gay. We all have stories of children who play well all summer with a younger neighbour only to royally ignore their best friend on school ground. We all have stories of older siblings who will not be seen with their younger siblings at school or on the school bus. Your children need to unlearn all this wonderful socialization to get along well in the context of the homeschool, especially if they are boys and girls. It may sound far-fetched but for our first month of home schooling, my biggest obstacle to teaching was the constant fighting between my 5 year-old and my 8 year-old. And I have 3 year-old twins and an infant, it says a lot.
5. You will learn to walk in confidence to the beat of your own drum. You will face opposition, criticism and soul-crushing doubt. The biggest failure predictor for homeschooling families (other than obvious challenges such as income loss, death and mental illness) is lack of confidence. If you doubt your ability to homeschool, there are good chances that you will prove yourself right. A few days ago, I heard a beloved family member explain to me how she didn’t think I could raise forward-thinking, engaging and open-minded teenagers in the context of the homeschool. A friend later suggested that she doubted my ability to teach advanced academics on the topics I did not master myself. Both are valid concerns coming from people I respect and care about, even though they show a lack of research on the ins and outs of homeschooling. I went to bed reeling, first thinking I would ruin my children forever, and then thinking I would prove everybody wrong. I got up this morning with a bone to pick and lined-up my little circus monkeys for a full day of academics. By lunchtime, I had to bitch-slap myself a few times to regain focus: I am not training circus monkeys, I am raising people. I will prove everybody wrong, all in good time. The proof will be in the fruit but I have to let the fruit ripen. Whenever I feel like I need to prove something to someone, I repeat to myself “Let the fruit ripen.”
Homeschooling is a journey of discovery, about yourself, about your children, and about the world around you. Whenever I feel wobbly and unsure, I remind myself that I am only taking my first steps. We will learn, we will grow and we will become stronger.