Last week, I packed up my 18-year-old son and his antique trunk of enigmatic trappings, drove him to college in the exotic, far-away land of Maryland. and liberated him – apparently never to hear from him again (why didn’t he answer yesterday’s email? and has he lost his phone?)
My 16-year-old started her senior year in public high school a couple of weeks ago. She may be new to the role, but so far she has perfectly enacted the part of the American teen as seen on film and TV, hanging out at the local fro-yo shop with friends after school, staying up too late studying, and even attending her first Friday night high school football game with a gang of buddies.
So, in a way, my homeschooling journey has just ended. But in some ways it ended long ago, when my kids started teaching themselves. In other ways, this may be just another phase. I’ve often said that all parents homeschool their children. Our homes are our children’s most consistent and effective schools. The public can debate the effectiveness of our school systems in shaping our youth, but there’s no such dispute about the size of the impact our homes have on our kids. No matter the content we decide to teach (and I have certainly taught my share of questionable content through poor modeling), home is a research-proven teaching and learning setting.
Our family independently homeschooled for 11 years. Independent homeschooling in Tennessee means that we just register our kids as homeschoolers at the beginning of the school year with the county board of education and then turn in a meaningless “attendance” sheet at the end of the year (of course they attended…they live here) – no umbrella organizations, no prescribed curricula, just us living the learning life.
The presenter at a recent teacher inservice I was forced to attend gave one of those inescapable put-downs of homeschooled students who return to school, including the requisite eye-rolling. I hear it all the time. Teachers assert that their jobs are so much more difficult when homeschoolers return to school. Yet I’ve watched a lot of homeschoolers move in and out of school over the years, and I just haven’t seen it. I have seen homeschool families send their children off to universities year after year. I have also seen former homeschoolers sitting in our high school honors, AP, and dual-college enrollment courses. I don’t think their teachers even know they came from homeschooling backgrounds.
Sure, some kids make little progress in homeschooling. Some kids make little progress in public (or private, or charter…) school as well. Most teachers I talk with only seem to notice the former homeschoolers who are struggling. Often, those same children left public school in the first place because their parents saw that they were making little progress in school, blamed the teachers, but then discovered the lack of progress wasn’t the school’s fault. Some kids struggle to learn. Blame is easy. Teaching is hard.
After 11 years of finding our own way, we have no regrets. Sure, my kids are quirky. They have some solitary habits. They have some unique perspectives on the world. None of that seems to be interfering with their ability to move on to new environments, make friends, or find success. I think our experience is pretty common for homeschoolers. So, if you are a family just starting the journey, take heart. If you aren’t part of the homeschooling world, but are tempted to roll your eyes and make blanket assertions about us, educate yourself first. We are a difficult group to pigeonhole, ranging from Christian based, to unschoolers, to highly-educated life hackers. We all have different reasons to homeschool, so that means that the available research on our success has limitations, but here’s a start:
After 11 years of homeschooling my son and daughter, parents sometimes ask me whether they think homeschooling would work for them. I’ve been happy with how it turned out for us. I’m proud of my children’s accomplishments and truly like the people they have grown to be. People often say that the reason I’ve had a good homeschooling experience is that I’m a teacher, so I must have it all organized and know what to do. But like the plumber who never gets around to fixing her own sink, I’m something of a lackluster homeschool teacher. Most weeks, I congratulate myself if I’ve pointed out a few math puzzlers to the kids. We’re pretty laid back, but I’ve known other homeschooling parents who had completely different styles, and were very different people from my husband and me, and their kids turned out to be amazing people, too.
As I reflect, I realize that there is only one question I think parents should ask themselves if they wonder if homeschooling will work for them, and that is:
Do I like to learn?
Notice I didn’t ask if your kids like to learn. I also didn’t ask if you like to teach. I asked if you like to learn.
Because if you do, eventually, your kids will, too.
If you want your kids to learn, they should see you:
Read for enjoyment.
Learn to do something new, just for the fun of it
Talk about new things you have learned (to your spouse, friends, or maybe even your kids)
Research stuff you are interested in
Figure out things that you don’t understand – even the really hard stuff – and persist when the learning doesn’t come easily.
And if you like to learn, you will probably like to share your learning process with your kids. And, over time, you will keep learning new stuff so you can share more and more with them. You will probably enjoy reading aloud to them. I love children’s literature, so I naturally wanted to read all sorts of kid’s books aloud, but my husband didn’t like ‘kiddie lit’, so he read articles from National Geographic and the newspaper to them, or passages from whatever book he was reading at the time. It didn’t matter. They listened because he was really interested in what he was sharing. And then they wanted to share what they were reading and learning with us, too. And somehow, homeschooling just fell into place.
I’m not new to parenting. In fact, Hank and Anna just celebrated their 18th and 16th birthdays. I’ve been “Mama”, “Mother” and “Mom” for a long time now, but I’m only three weeks into this new adventure as a mum… as in, “Is that your mum, luv? She’ll need to be signing these papers for us.” And I’ve tried to think positively of the project of enrolling Anna into a sixth form college as an immersion-learning experience for my research into post-16 education in the UK.
Now those of you who know me are aware that Anna has been homeschooled for all but her kindergarten year. But this year, she wanted to go to school. If we had stayed in McMinnville, she would have enrolled at Warren County High School (our only public school option.) When we found out we were going to be in England, she was especially eager to see what the schools would be like, and to have a chance to make British friends.
My Fulbright informational packet gave instructions for signing dependents up for education through local city councils. I immediately discovered that those instructions were only meant for parents of students in years 1 – 11 (which correspond to our grades K – 10). At the end of year 11, students take GCSE exams to qualify for different post-16 education options. Students with academic qualifications go on to sixth form and students with vocational qualifications go on to further education (its a little more complicated that that, but I am trying to be brief). Post-16 schools are independently operated, although they are publicly funded. I was given my placement at the University of Leeds in mid-June, so I emailed a representative from the Leeds City Council, who gave me some web links to Ofsted school rankings and standardized test scores that were intended to guide me toward the best schools, and instructed me to choose a sixth form college and apply to the school directly. And that’s when things began to get interesting.
Since it was late June when I began my enquiries, schools were just going on vacation and no one answered my emails or phone calls. So, I had to shelve the process until school officials returned around the end of August. By that time, we had arrived in Leeds to get settled in. The first school I emailed was full. I got a little concerned that all the schools might be full, so I emailed several at a time, but received no replies. I began making follow-up calls. When I told the first two schools that we would only be in the country until the end of March, both said they would have to check with “admissions” and get back with me. Now, I thought they meant their own school admissions office, but I later discovered that “Admisssions” is the funding office for the UK Department of Education. I never heard back from one of the schools, but the other called back to tell me that admissions said that their school would not receive funding unless Anna sat for A level exams in June. Later, I received an email from another school with the same answer.
Well, one of my initial research questions had been, “Just how important are standardized test scores in UK schools?”, and I suppose the answer rings loud and clear. Not only are Ofsted school rankings and test results the be-all and end-all criteria for parent selection of schools, but funding itself is contingent on completion of exams. So now I have a host of other questions, such as, “How does the system ensure that students in transitional living situations like those in temporary foster care or homeless have equal access to appropriate educational options?” and “How are schools adequately funded if students move out of the area during the school year due to economic changes (mass lay-offs, etc)?”
But here is the one that, as a mum rather than a researcher, I have to be most concerned with right now: “How can Anna be required by compulsory attendance laws to attend school, and yet schools can reject her because they are not funded to take her?” Now, this is a funny issue here. First, compulsory education has only been extended to 16-year-olds this year. In fact, many UK citizens, and even those working in the field of education are not aware of the new laws. Anna’s birthdate clearly places her in the compulsory attendance age, but I have had to convince several people of this. One Fulbright colleague suggested I simply turn myself into the police for non-compliance with truancy laws! It might yet come to that, but I am still hopeful. I have been conversing with admissions officials at the Department of Education, but have still not worked my way up the chain of command to anyone who can provide definitive answers. And we are considering letting Anna stay through exams, somehow, or requesting early exams, if that is possible.
For now, we have kept our leave-date open and may have found a school willing to take her. She has an appointment for a math placement exam today and, if we are lucky, she will bring home forms for her mum to sign.