Posted By Tess Bomac on April 23, 2010
At my annual review yesterday, my principal gave me quite the compliment. He said, “I love the way you make everyone around you want to be smarter. I finish talking to you and I think to myself, ‘I’ve got to read more!’” We talked about that for a bit, and I realized that the thing that makes me valuable as a schoolteacher is the same thing that makes leaving my job and homeschooling imperative. That thing is a love of excellence.My parents were committed to getting me an excellent education, and thus moved me around from school to school. I went to seven different schools by the time I was in ninth grade. I was the “new kid” for all three years of junior high. I went to a variety of schools, including an all-girls school, a progressive public school, and then a fantastically wealthy public high school that looked like a country club. I also spent three years being homeschooled full-time during elementary school, and homeschooled myself part-time for the last two years of high school. (Yes, you really can do that.)
I can say that every school I went to was exceptionally damaging to my sense of self-worth and my education. Being the socially clueless kid with a bad hair cut (and, later, with train wreck acne) did me no favors in a system where being pretty and hip is a prerequisite to being accepted. Each of my schools had a different system of education where the focus seemed to be on new methods and rearranging the desks every few months. None of the schools focused on assessing student learning. One could know nothing about the subject being tested, fail the test, and get a B because of homework and participation. That kind of grade reflects docility, not knowledge. Nobody seems to care if students actually learn anything, so long as it looks like the teacher is teaching. That’s an important distinction.
The only types of schooling that worked for me were homeschooling and college. I’ve never been good at staying focused on tasks that are drawn out. If learning a new math skill should take 10 minutes to teach and 50 minutes to practice, then so be it—I’m your girl. I’ll listen closely, work hard, and follow your advice. However, I have never been able to focus on a 45-minute lecture while sifting out the 10 minutes worth of usable material. My response in school was always, “I guess I don’t really need to know this, since nobody can explain how it works or why it’s useful.” Asking things like, “How can I use this information?” or “How will I know that I’ve mastered this skill?” were treated like mutiny. (I don’t remember this, but eyewitnesses swear that it’s true: when I was a junior in high school, a few weeks into an allegedly tough English class, the teacher, who routinely graded papers with college-level rubrics, had us pick out plastic animal figurines from a bag, then sculpt our bodies so that we resembled the animal. Apparently my response was, “This is malarkey; I am not doing it,” and then I walked out of the classroom. I do remember dropping the class and homeschooling myself in English, German, and humanities for the rest of the year, taking just a few classes for the rest of high school.)
Based on my experience, I believe that students in regular classrooms learn many self-defeating lessons from their teachers and classmates. These include:
- The rules are always changing, and since you never know when the teacher is going to enforce them, try to get away with as much as you can until she starts screaming. Then blame your neighbor.
- You don’t need to think about your education. The teacher will decide what you should learn, you’ll do the things that she decides matter, then she’ll give you a grade that represents how well you can follow arbitrary directions.
- While the teacher can make mistakes and move deadlines all the time, you will be penalized if you misunderstand the directions.
- Almost everything you learn is a measure of your docility, not your intelligence or your effort.
- Working with others is more important than learning actual content. Group projects, no matter how unfair, inefficient, and tedious are here to stay, and if you complain about it taking 10 hours out of class to make a collage that demonstrates 15-minutes worth of learning, tough. Life isn’t fair.
- Life isn’t fair, so thus it is okay for me to be unfair.
- Don’t question textbooks, even though most of them are riddled with errors and omissions.
- Learning is for school, school is painfully monotonous, so learning must be boring, too.
- Learning is for school, so once the day ends, you’re free to do whatever you find fun.
- Learning can only take place in hard plastic desks, in crowded classrooms, while being told exactly what to do.
- Nothing is more important than fitting in. If you don’t fit in, there must be something wrong with you. Maybe you should buy some more accessories? Try a different hair style?
- The earlier you start dating, the more important and grown up you are.
- Talking about Jesus is for people who are “not open minded” and are “trying to push their beliefs on others.” Incidentally, would you like to wear a rainbow pin to support the gay marriage?
- Reading in school? Are you crazy? We have to get ready for the state tests!
As an adult, I find myself reading and studying to make up for the fact that, during most of my years in “regular school,” I didn’t learn anything. Nothing. I can barely describe who fought in major wars, the type of government France has, the capitol of more than half of our 50 states, how to calculate compound interest, how to diagram a sentence, how mitochondria fuel cells, or how electricity makes its way through power lines and into my computer. Given the state of education, I’m lucky I can read, and that was something I learned while homeschooling.
I spent eight hours a day, 180 days a year, waiting for the teacher to get to the point or for the class to stop talking or for us to stop reviewing, for the third time, the material we had already learned, in order to help the kids who had talked right through it the first two times. School is tough on the good kids, because they don’t have the solace of goofing off and enjoying time with their friends in class. They might spend 30-50% of their time in school watching the teacher manage the behavior of other students, while getting scolded for reading during the downtime.
Modern-day schooling is a daily exercise in mediocrity, or worse. Students are taught in hundreds of ways, all day long, that your output doesn’t matter, how much you’re learning doesn’t matter, what you think about it doesn’t matter. What matters are grades and popularity.
I am going to homeschool because I want my kids to have the courage to defend their Faith. (As I recall, there’s nothing quite so scary as being 18 and the only orthodox Christian in a room and having to explain to a humanities teacher that “No, birth control is not ‘the answer to abortion;’ it’s the cause. No, I’m not an idiot, but since you were able to give your left-wing spiel to a captive audience, for the sake of keeping your Church out of my State school, let me offer a rebuttal.”) Some people will say that homeschooling is akin to hiding the world’s problems from your kids; that you prepare them for a soft world that doesn’t exist. I would argue that a well-balanced education will show your kids the reality of the world far more than sitting in a politically biased classroom. (I also fail to understand why shielding kids for a few extra years is akin to child abuse. Does a seven-year-old really need to know about STDs?)
I want my kids to nourish their curiosity, to learn by doing, to write and create for an authentic audience, to have the strength to stand up for their beliefs and the know-how to do so effectively. I want my kids to read, read, read, and then write something personal. I want them to love God’s word, to thirst for it. I want them to see how math and science are fun excursions into God’s How, and philosophy and theology adventures into his Why. I want them to look around and say, “I want to learn more about that!” and “Can we PUH-lease go to the library an extra time this week?”
It’s not all spiritual or academic reasons that keep me up at night debating how structured our schooling will be. (I used to fantasize about being famous. Now I revel in imagining how our son and his future siblings will enjoy mixing formal curriculum with homegrown learning.) A huge reason homeschooling makes a difference is because of how it builds family relationships.
What shows me that homeschooling is powerful is the lens through which mothers see their children. Many, many mothers in my circle can’t wait for their youngest to leave for school, since family time is riddled with bickering, whining, and general disobedience. Parents struggle to get their children to comply with basic commands, let alone with developing self-discipline. Every day is an exhausting struggle with no end in sight. In all fairness, this is exactly what women have been told to expect out of motherhood, and why they are encouraged to “have a life.” Many people don’t know it can be otherwise.
What I see in families who homeschool is a willingness to tackle problems early. Tommy is being disobedient? Let’s deal with that directly, as often as needed, rather than waiting until he does something “really bad.” Since Tommy is given regular guidance, and his parents love him and know him intimately, Tommy soon starts to develop better habits and becomes a more pleasant child. Tommy’s parents don’t want to send him away to school in order to escape his tirades for a blessed eight hours; they want him to stay home so they can enjoy his company, and rear him like the treasure he is. They don’t “manage” his behavior, they disciple him, and he becomes a more socialized member of the family.
I dream that my children will love each other and will feel without a doubt that they are loved, valued members of the family. They will know through family prayer, habits, and ways of speaking that they are treasured. If God loves us passionately and completely, how better for our children to know God than to fully experience parental love at home? If I want my children to be well socialized, how better to do it than in a multi-age setting that emphasizes moral development? If I want my children to know that they are inherently beautiful and worthy, why would I send them to a school where only the pretty girls and the athletic boys are treated kindly? If I want them to be educated, why would I send them to a system that has demonstrated no ability to educate young people?
I say this as someone who currently teaches: the best teachers a child can have are loving parents. While I know that I am a gifted teacher in the classroom, I yearn to become an integrated whole: a mother who teaches her children and models for them God’s loving, constant presence.
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