Reflections after 25 Years of Homeschooling
(Originally titled: “Homeschooling 101: Getting Started”)
ST. EMMELIA WEST CONFERENCE, April 2018
To introduce myself a little bit, my husband and I have seven children, all grown now. I started homeschooling in 1991 with kindergarten for my oldest, and finished in 2015, with my two youngest graduating from high school. Everybody went the whole way through at home.
I was asked to focus on the most frequently asked questions, or “getting started,” and the most frequently asked question I got, all through those years, was “How can you do it?” with the idea that maybe I can’t do it, or it’s too hard, or how are you sure you know what to do?
To answer that question I have to go back to before I had a child old enough to start school. As soon as I had a baby, I thought, “I really don’t want to send him away all day when he’s five years old.” I think he was three months old when I read a book by John Holt. Holt’s books were the beginning of answering that question for me, because he fully explored the failures of the public school system (How Children Fail). Then after he switched to private school he wrote a second book (How Children Learn), and the third book was about educating your kids yourself (Teach Your Own). After reading those I thought, “Well, I’m sure I could do elementary school better than the public schools.” And I just went from there. Now I would say “far better,” because I think over the last 30 years public schools have declined even further. John Holt was really formative for me because he gave me an underlying philosophy about childhood, and the freedom of childhood – that you don’t really need to sit in a chair for eight hours a day. You can get that learning done in a couple of hours, and you can play outside and you can do real things and be with your family, instead of sitting in a room with 20 or 30 kids and one adult, having to ask to use the restroom and having every single thing according to a schedule that a committee of bureaucrats thought up. Really, when you look at it, that doesn’t seem like a very promising atmosphere for learning. As an aside, the books and ideas that were important to the beginning of my homeschooling journey were not from an Orthodox perspective. The educators I was reading were just looking from a pedagogical standpoint: “what is the best form of education – or even, what is the best childhood – for children to have?”
There were some other important books that I read right in the beginning that were very much in sync with John Holt’s observations, and were incredibly helpful to my understanding – partly because they gave, again, a realistic perspective on the failures, or what isn’t happening, in institutionalized schooling. One was by John Taylor Gatto, who was a NY state teacher of the year, and he wrote a book called Dumbing Us Down. Then later he came out with a very poorly edited but very interesting and important book called The Underground History of American Education. And that is just fascinating reading, and I recommend that book especially, to everyone who is homeschooling, or considering homeschooling, or who has family who consider homeschooling a bad idea. If there were only one book I could recommend someone to read, it would be The Underground History. Both of the Gatto books, really, and also Teach Your Own, are essential for a reminder – on the level of acquiring learning, but also on the level of personal and spiritual development of the child – of why we’re doing this, and that yes, it can certainly be done, with good results. And that actually the entire structure of compulsory education, and the model that has developed from that and is present even in private schools, is damaging to children. These books convey real truths about the development of children and about the vision of the people who thought up modern schooling. And those truths are not very widely known, even now, and they are so important to know if you are raising children.
I also learned from Raymond and Dorothy Moore’s Better Late Than Early, which they wrote I think in the 60’s. The main thing I took away from that, which was very helpful with a large family with different learning styles and aptitudes and personalities, was that you don’t have to worry about “oh, they have to read by this time,” and “they have to do this by this time.” It was very much their point that some people are going to take longer before they’re ready for things, and actually that it benefits their intellectual and personal development to wait, sometimes, before learning certain things, depending on the individual. Another interesting book was by David Colfax. His family homeschooled back in the late 70’s, so really early on. Three of their four sons went to Harvard, so it caused quite a stir at the time, because homeschooling wasn’t that well-known and their kids all did extremely well. And that’s an interesting book, not because they went to Harvard, but because they talk about how they did homeschooling. It’s called Homeschooling for Excellence. I also appreciated Charlotte Mason’s several-volume set, which fit in well with the ideas about education in the other books I’ve mentioned.
Anyway, the result of all this was that I became very aware of the flaws of institutionalized schooling, and that gave me the confidence when things were hard, or when I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done, or we’re still in the Algebra book that we were in last year. It enabled me to say “It’s still ok.” These books gave me the sense of what institutionalized schooling is really like, intentionally, functionally, and practically: it’s all kind of square pegs in round holes – like maybe you’re a round peg, and it’s going to work out great for you. But if not, there’s going to be some kind of damage on a personal and on an academic level. I always loved school, and my husband hated school – even though we both got graduate degrees, he hated K-12. And so in times when I would get discouraged and say, “I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” he’d say, “You’ve got to stick it out.” He said it would be better for them to stay home and play for a year than to send them to public school.
A lot of the questions I would get when I was doing it were things like, “How do you know what curriculum to use?” and “How do you know this or that, how do you organize your day?” I think over the 25 years I did it I probably made every mistake possible, whether recognizing too late that a curriculum was not working for someone, or not being organized, or getting distracted by other responsibilities, or just being overwhelmed with a large family, pregnancy, illness, and so on. Those books I had read made me realize that curriculum is really not the biggest question, in fact in some ways it’s the smallest question, because there are a million ways to do this; there’s no perfect philosophy. In spite of all my mistakes and flaws, I still believe it was a healthier choice for my children’s childhoods than anything else.
So in terms of “what do I need to get started?” I think the main thing is that you need to believe that it’s a good choice, and it’s worth doing, well worth doing. It’s a lot of time and effort, and unless you’re way more energetic than me, your house is often going to be messy, and there are just a lot of things that fall through the cracks when you’re the teacher for a lot of people, or even a few people, and you need to feed them and clean up after them, and have some fun too. One of the pitfalls that I think is important to point out is that it’s dangerous to compare yourself to other people, and how they’re doing it. The question behind the question “can I do it?” is really “can I do it as well as an institution, or as my friend who’s homeschooling?” I think when you send your kids away to school, you feel it’s not your responsibility. Either they’re at a public school, or you chose a private school, and you don’t feel that burden of, “oh, I might be doing it wrong.” It’s so undermining to worry this way. I know this personally because in spite of all the books I told you about and my deeply held beliefs about education, I still felt inadequate. It’s really important to start out accepting that maybe they won’t get the best education that they could have had, just like maybe they didn’t get the best parents they could have had. For some reason, God gave them to me, to this family. And I’m not going to do everything right, but it’s still worth doing.
What I’m trying to say is that what this journey is really about might be somewhat different than the questions I’ve gotten over the years. The questions are mostly the nuts and bolts of “when” and “what.” But for me what I’m left with, being all done, is that the “how” is so much more important. The key is not so much how good am I going to be at educating them, but how good am I going to be at loving them, and having a close relationship with them. Of course that’s really intertwined with how you’re doing as a parent, but with 24/7 time with them, there’s a lot more room for relationships to be nurtured, and there’s also a lot more room for difficulties. So it’s more intense. They’re just with you more, so they see everything – they’re not gone all day with a pleasant teacher. They’re with you, seeing you being irritable, and tired, and impatient, and all the other ways you might be. I would say the thing we need more than anything is love. And we need to ask God all the time for help, for the strength and the will to work on our own passions and our weaknesses, because you start working on your kids really hard when you’re homeschooling, because again, you’re with them all the time. And you can have expectations of your children that you’re actually not living out as an adult, if you look closely at yourself. So the best way to work on them is to work on ourselves.
When you take on the challenge of educating your own children, it’s easy to let the goal become that they’re going to succeed, and then they’re going to go to college. And you know, maybe they won’t go to college, or maybe they won’t finish college, or maybe they’ll do something else. And of course we all know this, but once you are educating, this idea has a way of putting itself in front of what we’re really doing, which is trying to make a loving family for them, a happy home with good memories, a home that is focused on Christ – to raise them to love Christ, which also means we have to be trying to love Him. It always has to come back to that. Homeschooling is amazing for an Orthodox family. We could go to all the Holy Week services, and midweek liturgies, and there was just a lot of freedom for Orthodoxy because we were homeschooling. I didn’t have to ask anyone for the day off, or write a note. And the lives of the Saints give an important perspective on what we’re doing. St. Paisios only had an elementary school education, but he had devout parents and lived fully the life of the Church as a child, and he became one of the wisest people on earth. There are a lot of saints like that, who only had a little education, but it ended up that it didn’t matter, it didn’t hold them back to not have that education; they acquired the Holy Spirit and they knew everything other people knew by studying for years. I’m not saying to throw away the books or the idea of getting an education, but I am saying it helps to keep that perspective if you’re going to start worrying or focusing too much on academic or worldly success.
Try to get inspiration and advice from people who are farther along than you. When I was starting out, I didn’t know anybody who had already done it, or who had kids 10 or 15 years older than mine. And so it was all of us learning by trial and error, and influencing each other, like the blind leading the blind. And that’s ok, as long as you don’t make a lot of comparisons or get influenced by how ideal someone else’s homeschool seems to be, or get discouraged by what you aren’t accomplishing. I think most of the discouragement of homeschooling actually comes from signing on to that compulsory model of education that, if you read Gatto, was actually a Prussian philosophy for societal control, not a benevolent program to truly educate children. It’s nice if you can find an older mentor who can help you through things, and remind you of the important part. Because when your children have all left home, you see how incredibly short that time was, and what an amazing, amazing gift that time was. So try to find someone like that.
Question & Answer:
Audience: What did you do about tutoring?
G: For a couple of years we were in a small co-op, one day a week, very simple. There was a homeschool academy where our boys took a class or two in high school. One year I traded a Shakespeare class for Greek lessons. We used Schola Tutorials and Scholars Online, both of which I highly recommend.
Audience: Did you ever look at the standards?
Audience: What about multiple ages? I have a hard time focusing on my one in kindergarten because I have a baby.
G: Make time to read to him every day — classic children’s books with beautiful illustrations, and Orthodox books, simple lives of the Saints or other stories. Give him art supplies, musical instruments, toys to build with, legos or anything that engages and helps him explore. Let him play outside as much as possible. Kindergarten is a very modern invention – even today in Scandinavian countries they don’t start school until age 7.
Sooner or later though, there’s not a solution to that problem, other than having extended family, or some kind of community where you can help each other out. It helps to shift your perspective on what school looks like, how learning is going to happen. Especially for those early grades, you don’t need to spend much time formally teaching them, and later, they will hopefully be self-directed learners.
Audience: Did you operate off of any schedule or routine for yourself?
G: Not really. There were certain things we always did. Morning prayers before breakfast, chores after breakfast. Morning was the time for schoolwork, and when that was done the afternoon was free. We lived out in the country, and they would be outside most of the afternoon, doing all sorts of things.