I have always looked up to homeschoolers with a mix of curiosity and admiration.
Since forever, I had secretly wanted to try teaching my own children, but I was never able to overcome the practicalities of putting that experiment into place. Then, COVID-19 came into our lives, and I experienced that bitter world where your dreams come true, but not on your terms.
In my state, one requires no special certifications to disenroll from public education—you simply write a letter to the school district once a year informing them you are homeschooling and name the curriculum you intend to use. Any curriculum will do. In fact, the district is forbidden from endorsing or not endorsing any teaching methodology. It can be as easy as writing a one-line note that reads, “I am unschooling my children this year.”
Why has that little note kept me from embarking on the adventure of teaching my own children? I harbored worries about their academic progress. The whole of my attraction to homeschool is rooted in enhancing critical thinking skills that might not be so strongly cultivated in an institutional environment. I had no doubt public schools would be better at teaching my child to memorize facts and be one among a group, which are skills that have their place in life. However, I have a deep-rooted belief that what the world needs most right now is not marginally proficient academics, but innovators who are not afraid to effectively and appropriately challenge the status quo.
My outsider perspective of homeschooled students is they seem to fall within the parameters of two extremes: academic geniuses with more functionality than I have as an adult, and those who have been pulled from public schools because, unfortunately, they were already not doing well and have since fallen far behind their peers and are borderline illiterate.
Fast-forward to the age of coronavirus, when I learn on a Sunday night there is no school the following morning. Parents scramble to find childcare arrangements only to quickly realize there are none to be found, and I am thrust into my dream of being the central source of academic progress for my children. I accepted this hallowed crown with what, in retrospect, was naive and misguided confidence.
I already had purchased a book of grade-level worksheets from a big-box store and a closet full of arts and craft supplies with a variety of glue sticks, markers, crayons, the works. It turns out that it takes a lot more than that to make learning at home work.
Here is an analysis of the dynamics that played into our homeschool experience being a total train wreck:
1. My seven-year-old is a free-spirited, strong-willed tomboy who saves her biggest emotions for me because I am a safe spot for her. This is a classic case where the traits most desirable in adults are identical to the traits that are most difficult to manage in children.
2. Her younger, preschool-age sister wants to be involved in every step of every part of home learning, which creates resentment in the classic forms of siblings not wanting to share.
3. Our school district rolled out a remote learning program that, when completed as written, would take at least five hours per day, which is not developmentally appropriate at the elementary level. There is no attempt to have parents present new concepts. The work is focused on maintaining established skill sets through repetition.
As you might imagine, our metaphorical house of surprise homeschooling was made of cards and fell within weeks. I am now celebrating our final week of “distance learning,” having come through a tremendous journey.
It started with a hopeful push to complete the hours of repetitive work, but soon gave way to power struggles, emotional shutdown, and a learning block. It took all of this for me to accept that the distance learning laid out for us by our district is designed to be successful in an institutional environment, which is the opposite of how families generally work.
I didn’t know what real homeschooling was like, but I feel in my heart this was not it.
Here’s what I know: if public school-prescribed “distance learning” continues in the fall under the same framework it’s ending now, I will be one of those who write a short note to homeschool (for real this time): I am unschooling my children this year.