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.