My Journey from Teaching to Homeschooling,
by Pat Seddon
In the spring of 1994 1 was fortunate to be employed in the ideal job for me–a public school kindergarten teacher. My future seemed to spread out before me in a neat, orderly line. My husband, Curtis, had created a successful landscaping business; we had bought a house; and I was pregnant with the first of our two children. To make a long story short, parenthood turned out to be a bit different than we had imagined. I soon felt the need to be home with our children, and (with the help of Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette books) we made financial adjustments to allow for reducing my teaching to part time. Eventually, we also started having second thoughts about sending the children off to school. I found a magazine interview with David Guterson, author of Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, and I came across a remarkable book, How Children Fail, by John Holt.
My own experience attending public schools had produced rather unpleasant memories, but I still believed in the ideas behind public schools. I honestly thought the concept was excellent, but in my particular experience it had been poorly executed. I was certain kids had to be taught in schools or they wouldn't learn, and that bringing kids of all backgrounds together in a classroom would promote understanding between people of different races, cultures and economic backgrounds.
As I read John Holt's book I was thunderstruck. I vividly remember having to repeatedly check and recheck the dates he made his journal entries. His descriptions of classrooms and the children's behaviors matched exactly with my experiences in the classroom and yet he was writing these journal entries more than 40 years ago.
Holt's description of children being unable to answer questions about material that had recently been covered; the wild, completely random guessing that could ensue as children attempted to blindly find the correct answer; the apparent refusal to think about a question before responding, “I don't get it. I don't get it”–these were all things I'd seen many times in both my classroom and in other classes. What surprised me was John Holt's conclusion. These intelligent children were, according to Holt, afraid. As I thought about the many children I'd had in my classes in years past, and in particular the group of five year olds who were in my class at the time I was reading this book, I decided that, yes, he was right. Their reactions were consistent with fear; but why were they afraid?
I kept reading. Wasn't I surprised to discover that, according to John Holt, I was the source of their fear! I had always thought that if I were kind and gentle to the children, and came up with interesting projects, the children would love me, love school, and learn everything they were supposed to know for the grade I was teaching.
Now suddenly I was seeing school in an entirely different light. The children in my class did not choose to be with me–they were forced. They could not leave if I did not offer anything of value to them; and they had no real say in what I taught. This was, after all, compulsory schooling.
I may have taken great care to make sure my lessons seemed interesting to me, but the children were supposed to do them whether or not they had any interest in them. John Holt pointed out that because I was a person of authority, the children were trying to either appease me or possibly rebel against me. They had learned, even at a very early age, that it is important to give the answer the teacher expects, whether or not it is correct. Hence the wild guessing sessions as the children intently watch the teacher's face for clues for the answer the teacher wants. The child who repeatedly answers, “I don't get it. I don't get it” is simply hoping the teacher will give up and leave him or her alone.
John Holt said, and I was now beginning to believe, that teaching, as it is typically done in our schools, both then and 40 years later, does not promote learning, but actually prevents learning. When we choose what someone else should know and successfully make that person parrot back that information through our self-imposed authority, we are not promoting learning. The fear we create when we stand in judgment of an otherwise perfectly intelligent and capable person can paralyze that person's mind so he or she becomes incapable of learning.
Now I finally understood the alphabet problem.
Every year I taught the alphabet essentially the same way in my Kindergarten. Each week we did projects around a different letter of the alphabet beginning with A and finally, 26 weeks later, ending with Z. Periodically I would quiz each of the children to see which letters they knew. In the eight years I taught the alphabet in this manner, not a single child ever learned the alphabet in alphabetical order. Almost everyone obediently did the projects, and the majority, but not all, did learn at least most of the letters; but my teaching, I suddenly realized, was not the reason they were learning those letters.
I used to regularly tell parents that phonics and whole language activities were things we did to keep kids busy while we waited for them to read. This did match my experience of how kids learn to read, but I didn't realize how much truth there was in it until I read John Holt.
After reading How Children Fail, I began reading all of John Holt's books in the order he wrote them. I felt as though I was following in his footsteps on a journey he'd taken many years ago. I needed to know where he ended up. When I got to Teach Your Own, I was stunned that he had given up on the school system, and I was simultaneously in awe of his description of a style of learning he called “unschooling."
At this point in my teaching career I was only teaching two days a week, and had a three-year-old and a baby at home to take care of. But this newly discovered view of schools made working in the classroom a gut-wrenching experience. I suddenly felt these children's rights were being violated, and I was responsible. I felt I completely understood why a child might “act out,” in such a situation, and indeed I marveled that so few did. And yet, in order keep the classroom running efficiently, without anarchy breaking loose, I had to attempt to make sure that these children conformed. I felt that my teaching was preventing these children from learning. What was the point? I was sorely tempted to quit mid- year but I felt that would have been hard on these children as well and I decided I'd better force myself to finish the year. I did and I'm glad. It gave me a better perspective on the situation.
The vast majority of people I encountered in public education were like me. We were all born into a world with a public school system firmly in place. Most of us are full of ideas for how to make schools better, but I think it is a rare person indeed who considers the possibility that the whole concept of compulsory schooling may be flawed and unworkable.
After I made my incredible journey with John Holt, I began to read voraciously. I read John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down, David Guterson's Family Matters, and a host of related works. When I read Grace Llewellyn's The Teenage Liberation Handbook, I started to see more clearly a different way for Evan and Claire to grow up. I began to trust that if Evan and Claire could learn to walk, run, jump, talk, sing and dance without me giving “lessons” in any of these “ subjects” that maybe they could learn other “school subjects” by themselves as well.
I've had many people tell me I'm well qualified to teach my children because I am a credentialed teacher, but nothing could be further from the truth. I've had to unlearn almost everything I knew about teaching to homeschool Evan and Claire.
Evan showed a strong interest in letters and language and could recognize all alphabet letters when he was two years old. When he was three he began to read words he'd find around him. I started attempting to help him sound words out and quickly caught on that this approach caused him to shut down. In some of my reading of John Holt's works he mentioned how annoying it is when you are trying to learn a new skill for someone to interrupt and offer unasked for help. I realized I was guilty of this, and vowed to myself to stay completely out of Evan's reading unless he asked for help, and to only provide as much help as was requested.
When Evan turned four, I'd come upon him sitting quietly in a room reading slowly to himself. I kept my promise in spite of my tremendous urge to say, “Wow, you're reading!” and kept my mouth shut. Next he began reading to two-year-old Claire and again I said nothing. He never tried reading to either Curtis or me during his early reading efforts, I suspect because he feared we would try to correct him. Evan is now five years old and a remarkably fluent reader.
We've had friends and neighbors complement us on what a good job we re doing teaching Evan, to which we repeatedly respond that we cannot take credit for what he learns. He learns what he wants to learn, and he learns it very well. If I chose what Evan is supposed to learn, I'd never dream of providing material at the level he handles on his own; and I'm certain that if I tried to force the material upon him, he'd become frustrated and probably refuse to do it.
I'm at a loss to say how public schools can be made better. I would personally prefer John Holt's vision of a much expanded library with scientific tools, musical instruments and myriad other things available to use; much as one checks out a book from a modern day library. I don't think, however, that the millions of parents who are accustomed to having children in school during the day would find that sort of thing satisfactory. I think many working parents take comfort in feeling their children must attend school, and measure how their child is fairing by the marks a child earns in school.
Most schools attempt to decide what a child should know by a particular age, and try to make a child demonstrate that he or she can repeat this information in oral or written form at least once. After the child demonstrates this (passes the test), it is unlikely the school will care whether or not a child continues to remember the information. This method of teaching creates a “pass the test” mentality. It does not create a love of learning. Children will, if we are lucky, learn their grade level subjects long enough to appease their teachers. If the information has no obvious value to them they are unlikely to remember much of the information past the test.
In our home, when Evan or Claire shows an interest in a subject, Curtis and I attempt to act as resource specialists or librarians, not teachers. When Evan showed an interest in the solar system recently, a subject neither of us knew much about, we found books both at home and at the library for him on the solar system. When he indicated he wanted to build a model of the solar system, we helped him design and build one. We took him to a Planetarium show. We're planning a trip to a local observatory. We called up the local astronomy society to find out about their offerings. Evan became fascinated with The Grand Tour, by Ron Miller and William K. Hartmann, a book written at an adult level about the solar system, and he has now read large portions of it. We played Gustav Hoist's The Planets, for him and he began insisting on hearing it in the car on practically every outing. He can easily identify which planet each movement represents.
We don't worry about which facts Evan has or doesn't have in his head. We view our job as fueling the passion Evan develops for any subject he shows an interest in. If we encourage his natural love of learning about the world around him the facts will take care of themselves, as we feel he has already amply demonstrated.
Schools simply can't indulge an individual child like this, particularly in a class of 20 to 30 other children all the same age. If nature had intended for children to learn best with 19 other children the same age we would give birth to litters instead of one or two children at a time. The younger the child is, the more of a problem this single age grouping of children becomes. Many five-year-olds are just one step out of babyhood, and suffer greatly when their needs for comfort and assistance can not be met in a mob of other young, needy children.
For our family, homeschooling is our ideal choice for nurturing a love of learning in our children, but as passionately as I wish to protect my right to homeschool, I would never dream of forcing homeschooling on other families. I have no desire to change the public schools. Many people are content with their neighborhood schools, as I was before my son was born. But for the many people who are not happy with their neighborhood schools, I believe we need more options. Charter schools, vouchers for private schools, homeschooling, and options yet to be invented all need to be available to families.
As a teacher, I cared very much about education of my students, but that care was a mere shadow of the concern I feel for my own children. We hear a lot about negligent parents in the news, but I strongly believe that most parents care far more for their own children than schools and teachers can ever care for their students. If a parent and/or a child is unhappy in a public school, I feel they must have other options.
One of the most remarkable gifts our country's founding fathers passed down to us is our separation of church and state. How wise they were to realize a government should not dictate religious beliefs to its citizens. Imagine the anger and resentment that would arise if our government decided to create a public church, and asked religious leaders to compromise upon a set of religious beliefs that would satisfy our diverse population. The very idea sounds ludicrous. And yet our public school system is attempting to figure out a single body of facts and figures that every mind in our country should contain, and a year by year timetable for this information to be placed in these minds. Just as attempting to make people compromise on their religious beliefs would be disrespectful of the many religions found in the United States today, it is extremely disrespectful of the diversity of people in our nation to expect that one public school system will meet the needs of our country's people.
I am optimistic that an increasing number of people are beginning to question the strong hold our public education system has had on our children, and are becoming more aware and accepting of alternatives to the neighborhood school. We consider ourselves very fortunate that we had our children just at a point when homeschooling moved from a primarily underground movement to a more mainstream alternative to public schools. Despite my initial fears, we have not had a single negative reaction to our plans to homeschool, and in fact have received a great deal of encouragement.
I will be forever grateful to John Holt and the families who blazoned the path of homeschooling that we are now able to take with comparative ease. I am certain that if others had not gone before me, I would never have considered taking this fantastic journey with my family. But most of all I am grateful for my son, Evan. I am sure I would never have seen our school system in such a different light prior to his birth. I'd been sleepwalking my way through life until he was born. His first cries woke me up for the first time to the world around me. In many ways, through his eyes, I saw the world for the first time.
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