Lessons from a Career in Schools

A lot of homeschoolers are former teachers, like myself.  Part of it, I’m sure, is that people with a general interest in education have a heightened interest in their own child’s education.  However, I’m also sure a big part of it is that people who know the school system the best are the most reluctant to put their children in it.  While I think homeschooling has it all over schooling of any sort, I learned a lot of things from schools about teaching that I use all the time in homeschooling.  While I would never say one needs teaching experience to homeschool (despite what many parents seem to think, I believe nearly anyone can do this homeschooling thing if they truly want to), I am glad I have that experience.

First, a little about my teaching career.  My public school career was pretty short lived.  I simply couldn’t hack being a public school teacher.  The bureaucracy, the attitudes, the terrible curricula and the general atmosphere all turned me off.  Some of the experiences I had would make your mind boggle.  The teacher in charge of all the resources for the history department handed me a box of pencils and two boxes of chalk at the start of the year.  When I asked if I came to her to get more chalk when I ran out, she laughed at me and walked away.  All this while her own closet was a treasure trove of supplies.  The department head once gave me the following “formal” evaluation of his observing my class as he passed me in a busy hallway: “Everything you did was a complete waste of time.”  He never spoke to me about it further.  And those weren’t even my worst experiences in many ways.  If I had stayed there, I’m sure I would have learned something about teaching and education, but I’m not sure how much of it would have been helpful in homeschooling.

I learned a lot more about teaching when I went to work at a small Quaker middle school full of excellent, often very individual kids.  The school where I worked was small and I stayed there a long time so I had the opportunity to work with many different kinds of kids, a few of them for three or even four years in a row, which was a special opportunity.  I’ve since learned a lot of new things from homeschooling. However, here’s a few things that will probably always stay with me that I learned from teaching:

* Take the long view. Mushroom and BalletBoy are young, but having taught so many middle schoolers has helped me think in terms of the future.  One day they’ll be 14 and I feel like instead of thinking in terms of the now, it’s best to think in terms of the journey to get there (and beyond).

* Education is all about the process. I feel a little bit like a broken record when I say this because it’s so central to my conception of education and so lacking from our school culture that I say it quite often.  This is certainly something I began to see intuitively when I was younger and heard articulated when I was in grad school, but I don’t think I could have come to understand it so thoroughly if I had not taught in a Quaker school.  The endpoint matters and it’s good to have that long view with it in your vision, but the journey must be the focus of the educator.

* Assessment is essential. I started my career in schools with the same angry feelings about standardized testing that I still harbor today.  I also didn’t believe that grades were an expression of learning in any depth that mattered so I tended to think of assessment as an annoyance at the start of my career.  I’m very glad to have gotten over that sophomoric view.  Real assessment helps structure what you do and affirm your path.  It helps you set goals and move forward.  It helps you and your students know your strengths and weaknesses and work from there.  Without assessment of some kind, we’re at sea without anchoring points to mark that journey that is education.  In our homeschooling, we use portfolios to gather work and reflect on it – not because we have to (we’re lucky to have pretty minimal regulation here) but because it’s important.

* Kids need boundaries. This is one of those lessons I always have to keep learning over and over.  I had to learn it in schools, where I initially wanted to keep things as open-ended as possible and I’ve had to learn it over again in homeschooling where I initially wanted to give the kids more control than they were ready for.  But I’ve seen it in practice especially when I was teaching that the more I sat with a kid, providing that structure, making the work happen, the better the results and the easier it was for the future until finally I could see a student who could work independently and who knew where the lines were.  I don’t think it happens intuitively and I’m glad I at least started to figure that out before I had kids.

* DIY curriculum writing isn’t that hard. I think many homeschoolers have a fear of relying on themselves instead of a curriculum.  Because homeschoolers know all the best resources (seriously, this is the arena where school teachers should take the most notes from homeschoolers), we’re using a lot more purchased curricula than I ever anticipated we would.  Some of that is for structure, but much of it is a lack of need to invent on my part what’s already there.  Still, when I was teaching, I wrote all my own lesson plans and curricula every year.  I planned my own courses and structured them however I pleased.  It can be intimidating and occasionally somewhat time consuming, but it’s not that difficult. While I sometimes chafed at having to do what’s called curriculum mapping when I was a teacher, it’s now a skill I’m glad to have acquired.

9 thoughts on “Lessons from a Career in Schools

  1. I feel extra guilty for having left teaching now. I was at an awesome school. Plenty of resources, meaningful feedback from my superiors, a focus on what makes students retain knowledge, support in discipline, and an “eh” attitude toward standard tests.

    Re: assessment, I like your point. I usually think about the assessing one assignment–which can be really instructive with a good rubric–but your point about looking at progress over time is a great one.

  2. Your last point is really something I need to learn. I use a very structured planned out curriculum as my base and then customize that to our needs. Mostly though I teach from the curriculum lessons as they are. I think at some point I might want to separate from the premade curriculum and piece together my own lesson plan. Though right now I find it too intimidating.
    Anyway thanks for sharing these, you have some great advice here. : )

  3. You know what I think about writing curricula 🙂

    Could you please explain how you assess the boys’ learning in more detail ? I have trouble with assessment other than immediate comments on how an activity or project is coming along. I think the lack of long term assessment affects my dc’s motivation somewhat.

    1. We do a bunch of things with gathering work and setting goals. The kids pick their “best examples” and we throw the rest away. It sounds onerous, but we’ve got it so routinized that it doesn’t take but a day of school. Plus, I write up a quick assessment that includes “things to be proud of” and “things to work on.” Plus, I list all their outside classes, a selection of the books we read, the field trips we went on (I just copy those off the calendar, where I note whenever we go anywhere), and any formal curricula we’re using. Then we read the portfolio – they show off all their work to me and to their father and I read the assessment piece with them. We talk about the goals. Then we sign it together. It really helps me stop and reflect and then get clear on what we’re missing and it helps them to get feedback about their successes and about things they should think about. They take it pretty seriously, actually.

  4. Homeschooling isn’t for us for a variety of reasons, but you’ve certainly summed up why my son is at an excellent, small Quaker school.

  5. I didn’t finish college, got married in my 2nd year and never went back. But my major was education and was planning to be a high school teacher. Years later I am teaching my daughter at home in our fifth year. Funny how life works. I agree that it is very easy to develop some of your own curriculum. I couldn’t find a math curriculum this year that fit our needs (math is her toughest subject) so I made one to fit our families needs. This year has brought her up to speed and for 7th grade I hope to purchase Teaching Textbooks. I enjoy your blog. Looking forward to future posts.

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