Exactly who is the teacher here?

We’re homeschooling; I’ve mentioned this before in this blog.

We decided to go the homeschooling route because my husband’s and my standards of education far surpass what the state requires. (Okay, actually, our kid sings along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pink Floyd. We don’t want child services protecting her from herself. ;p) In both our minds, the government’s standards of education leave students illiterate, unable to do basic math, and, even worse, incapable of solving problems or finding information. In the obsession to leave no child behind, all children are left in the dust – and their teachers are wandering with them. At least they aren’t alone, right? Geoff and I make a point of not dumbing down any topic for our daughter – yet another reason to avoid public schools. If babies benefit from listening to Mozart, doesn’t the benefit come from the concerto, and not the simple melody twanged out on a xylophone? Why make a baby listen to crap? Play the damn symphony. I suspect it’s the complexity and the ordered chaos that benefits them, not the tune you can hum during the bath. And so on.

I’m a big fan of the separation of church and state.  I do not believe that mentioning that some people believe in this thing called Creationism while one is teaching evolution is wrong, however. Creationism is not science, and it should not be presented as such, but real life and real thoughts are not cleanly segmented into “this is math, this is art, this is history.” All subjects blend together and merge, and therefore classes ought to acknowledge when their subject runs into the territory of another subject. If one is going to try to explain the origin of Life (a subject probably best left to philosophers and the devout, anyway), one really ought to mention that there are varying opinions on the subject. Some of these ideas may not make sense to you, but they do to others. These ideas do exist, so you better be aware of it.  Life is complex; it’s a good idea to let our kids know that this is true. Otherwise, they’ll grow up to be simple-minded and naive, without a proper respect for the complexities of differences between people.  A true education teaches one how to think, using the rules of mathematics and grammar as the tools to teach problem solving.

Anyway, through our adventures in homeschooling, we’re meeting all sorts of other home-schooled families. (The schools in our area are generally acknowledged to be dreadful. It’s almost impossible to do worse by teaching at home than they would teach at school – and the schools are staffed with felons who somehow slipped through background checks and drug dealers masquerading as students.) Some of these homeschooling parents do fit the religious zealot stereotype, but most don’t. Most of the homeschooling parents around here are actually more the Santa Cruz, nature vs nurture, just let your child be, man, and all will be well, dude, type. This, of course, leaves their kids equally ignorant to the kids who actually attended school, without any ability to care for themselves, completely enabled by parents who intercede to protect their kids from the consequences of their behavior, blah blah blah. Pretty nauseating stuff. We chose homeschooling so we could provide higher standards of discipline and content; they went the exact opposite direction. It’s all rather disheartening.

The toughest part of homeschooling is not the curriculum. The biggest challenge lies in teaching the “soft skills” of school, namely, how to meet deadlines, work with others, be accountable for your part in society, respect the authority of others (and how to resist properly when you think that authority is being abused), live by a schedule – all that stuff that is so helpful when you actually have a job. I see many parents cave in here. They don’t want to be too hard on their kids, so they give in to tantrums, whining, and excuses, and they explain bad behavior by circumstances or disabilities such as ADHD, Asperger’s and the like. Frankly, I think this is insulting to those people who actually do have ADHD or are autistic.

Regardless of one’s circumstances, one is still responsible for one’s place in society and a part of a parent’s job is to teach their kids how to be responsible for themselves. There will be a day when mommy can’t save you — and she *shouldn’t.* If we parents do our jobs correctly, our kids won’t need us. They will, hopefully, want to talk to us, and want to share their lives with us, but they won’t need us to tell them what to do or protect them from themselves. Personally, I grew up with two child abusers, and my first husband was even worse — but *I* am the one responsible for my behavior. It is disgusting for me to hide behind others and say that I couldn’t help myself, that I was wounded and damaged by my parents. Okay, maybe I was. But I moved out a long time ago. It’s up to *me* to handle it. Dropping my responsibility for myself and blaming others for a lack of integrity and courage is just a fancy dress on the body of narcissism and spinelessness. We all have war stories. It’s how we manage and respond to them that is the measure of who we are.

Our daughter is beginning to realize that her school lessons aren’t actually what we’re teaching her. Yeah, we expect her to recite her times tables. I will teach her the differences between cadences and forms of poetry and I expect her to practice writing in all forms. All this is just memorization, though. These are the tools we use to ask her, “Now, how can you prove that light must have substance? Since it gets pulled into a black hole, it stands to reason that the gravity of the hole must be pulling on something. How are you going to show me what that is?”

The ability to think is the watering hole to which we bring our children. Their “lessons” are the harness and bridle. We can’t make them drink, but we can show them where to find the water.

Through our teaching her, we also learn.

She often shows me my own limits. I have become far more intimate with my horrors and weaknesses in the effort to teach her to avoid my mistakes, to make her own mistakes instead. Becoming her teacher forces me to practice patience, empathy, and exposition. I must challenge my assumptions of understanding if I am going to comprehend how it is that she thinks and learns. I must find her where she is, and bring her towards her best possible self. The best teachers are guides, not autocrats. If I am to be truly successful at teaching her what she really needs to know, then I need to rely less on the “test” and be more responsive to what she experiences. This responsiveness does not lower the bar of expectation by any degree, but it will help me help her to reach it. If I were to discover, for example, that she is dyslexic (she isn’t, but let’s use that as an example), it would be inexcusable for me to say, “Well, the letters move around on her, so we shouldn’t expect her to be able to read at grade level.” No, the proper response is to change how one teaches, to assist the student in pinning those letters down, and then continue to insist that she read at grade level, not to say, “It’s okay that you failed. You really couldn’t expect to do any better, anyway, not with your troubles.” How insulting to a person, to explain to them that not only is it acceptable that something is hard for them, but that they really ought not expect to be any good anyway because, well, that’s just the hand you were dealt. How demoralizing!

Being responsive without being permissive is not so easy. My PTSD self wants to control my environment. I want things to be “just so.” And they never are. We really can’t control much in our lives. Even our choice of toothpaste can be gummed up if the store is out of our favorite brand. I might be teaching her facts and methods, but she teaches me to move out of my comfy hyper-vigilant state, and re-evaluate what is actually happening now, in this house, with her.

She doesn’t know this yet, but she is an excellent teacher. Through her, I learn self-discipline (something I thought I already had, but actually don’t). I practice consistency and patience. (I’ve never been accused of being patient.) I exercise humor and curtail reprimand; I learn daily that there are very few moments when one actually ought to be angry. But, when the time comes, by all means, be angry. Just be prudent in your anger. Be careful, for your actions do matter. You are responsible for your response, even when you are provoked. She is teaching me how to shut up and only say what I mean.

This blog is one of the tools I use to practice that lesson. To say all that I mean, nothing less, and nothing else.

It’s a rather tricky thing, really. I’m grateful that I have a good teacher.





About Shannon Blue Christensen

Storyteller. Author. Editor. Literary Critic. Director. Teacher. Knitter. nascent Musician. Student. Operations and Quality. Marketing. Historian. Lear's Fool. View all posts by Shannon Blue Christensen

9 responses to “Exactly who is the teacher here?

  • sacredstruggler

    I learn all these things from my kids (clients) too. My sister in law is homeschooling for the reason that you are as well, and it’s nice to know there are others out there. Just make sure you let her know that questioning the meaning of life isn’t just for philosophers and the devout. Nothing is beyond the reach of questioning regardless whether one considers oneself to be devout or to be a philosopher.

  • Raunak

    Shannon, I am so glad that you’ve written about this. Incorporating the “soft skills” into home schooling is very important indeed. Also, I feel that adults need to stop underestimating the learning potential of children. It is a wonder how much a young brain can assimilate and hence exposure at an early stage in life is so important.
    Last month, I assisted in a village school (I have posted some of the images in a recent post “This is what Happiness and Joy look like”) where children were being taught by experiencing and discovering things themselves. It was a beautiful approach which is so lacking in most schools around India….and it reflects in the joy and positive energy I felt at that school.

  • tiffany267

    It is very heartwarming and encouraging to read messages like yours about homeschooling families who get it right! I was homeschooled with values more like your own. However, where I grew up, most homeschoolers typically were the “religious zealots” you mentioned, and even with horrific public schools these children would have better opportunities not being forced to stay at home indoctrinated by parents like these ones. With so many families like them, I’d almost lost hope of seeing rational homeschoolers who genuinely want the best holistic educational experience for their children. Thank you for keeping that hope alive.

    By the way, I wish to share my opinion that even worse than the low standards of learning is the social environment of public school. The more I’ve learned about what public school students endure as a matter of course, the more that I’m appalled by what we take for granted as a culture.

    You mentioned drugs, which are a huge problem. So is the awful bullying and abuse by other students, which obviously is not the same risk in homeschooling (provided that the parents and siblings are not abusive, which is not always a guarantee). As everyone knows, this culture of hatred and intolerance has now escalated into suicides and massacres. I can’t fathom a parent who could send their child into that sort of danger.

    I also am disillusioned by the general lack of individualism in public schools. The idea that teachers can confiscate a child’s cell phone or other personal items at whim is so objectionable to me. I certainly don’t think that children ought to use cell phones in class, but confiscating their property is a violation of their rights. Speaking of freedoms, I recently discovered what probably most people already knew – that due to fear of gangs high schools across the country are prohibiting head-wear! Why are we bringing the TSA mentality to our public schools? Why are we, as a culture, so fearful of each individual acting according to their own conscience? Perhaps with a little more freedom and tolerance in our schools we wouldn’t have the frustration and depression that have led to drug abuse and violence that is chipping away at these children’s chance for a bright, self-determined future.

    Thank you for homeschooling, and I hope that your children’s journey is a happy one.

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