Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Confessions of an Underachieving Homeschooler

It had been a rough morning. A Really Rough Morning. The kind of morning that left me searching the web for an educational consultant--or was it a psychological therapist I needed? It was barely 11:30, and I think our tally so far was: 
  • 1 screaming fit,
  •  2 refusals to complete assigned work,
  • 3 outbreaks of sibling rivalry, and
  •  several episodes of uncontrollable weeping. 

I had somehow managed to keep my cool for the most part, and was now sitting quietly beside my older daughter as she struggled to come to terms with the fact that she could either complete her math problems now or she would complete them that evening while her sister went to karate class without her. After laboriously working through the next few calculations, she turned to me and asked, "Mama, do you know what I want to be?" Thank goodness, I sighed to myself, she is finally formulating a positive thought! "No--what do you want to be, honey?" I answered in my most nurturing-homeschool-mom voice. Her reply: "An orphan."

Like I said, it was a Really Rough Morning. I would like to say that such mornings are rare at our little not-school, but that wouldn't be true. Though I'm not usually invited to kick the proverbial bucket, my carefully planned lessons do sometimes get received with a less-than-enthusiastic response. I'm not one of those homeschooling moms who, when asked how she manages to be both parent and teacher to her children, chuckles modestly and says, "Oh, it's really not as hard as you might think." Or "It just comes naturally." Nor will I ever write a book about how my little geniuses taught themselves to read at age three, or mastered algebra by fourth grade without having to complete a single workbook. It turns out that not all homeschoolers are overachievers.

Writing with homemade ink and
rooster quills
No; homeschooling for us has been filled with both ups and downs: moments of joyful work and elated success mixed with episodes of failure and frustration. For me, it has been deeply challenging, often gut-wrenching work. It has required me not only to develop a host of new skills, but also to radically question many of my fundamental presuppositions about education, about child-rearing, and even about what it means to live a good and decent life. In fact, I have had to do more self-reflection during these past few years than I have ever done before. And what I've learned about myself in the process hasn't always been pretty. Homeschooling has been far-and-away the most humbling enterprise I have ever engaged in.

Baking bread
I have been staying home with my girls (for the most part) since my younger daughter (now six-and-a-half) was born, and I have been homeschooling in some form since my eight-year-old turned three. I never would have expected that this is a path I would take. In fact, if even ten years ago, you had suggested to me that I might become a "stay-at-home mom and homeschooler," I likely would have laughed dismissively. Not me: college professor, academic administrator, international field researcher, political activist, writer, community organizer. I was doing consequential work in the world! How could I give all that up to spend my days reading fairy tales; singing "The Months of the Year Song;" wiping up endless globs of of paint, yogurt, toothpaste, and mud; and wrestling with my first born over math worksheets?

Truthfully, I do sometimes miss the more professional and public life I had before I began doing this--the invigorating, ego-boosting conferences; the frequent opportunities to travel internationally; the excitement of working with young adults as they formulate their dreams and develop their expertise; and perhaps most of all, the camaraderie of coworkers. Homeschooling can be a very lonely occupation. Especially when it isn't going so well, and there's no colleague in the office next door with whom to commiserate and problem-solve.

Studying life in a pond with a
local scientist
Yet homeschooling has not only been the most arduous job I have ever had; it has also been the most fulfilling--and largely because of the struggles and accompanying soul searching it has involved. I am pretty sure that I have grown more intellectually and emotionally during these past five years than I did in my previous eight-year career in higher education. And I have done so hand-in-hand with my children. Indeed, the best thing by far about homeschooling has been the fact that it has provided my girls and me with innumerable opportunities to learn and grow together. It has allowed us to explore the world alongside one another and to share in the exhilerating experience of discovering the wonders and mysteries of that world. It has furnished us with the opportunity get to know one other more deeply than we would if they were away from home for eight hours a day, five days a week. It has given me a chance to witness (and sometimes even facilitate) their earliest intellectual and social milestones. It has allowed me to ensure that, for them, "study" doesn't just mean learning facts someone else thinks they need to know, but also pursuing their own interests, finding answers to their own questions, and chasing their own dreams.

It has also permitted me to be with my girls through their toughest struggles, and conferred on me the responsibility to help them develop the skills and wisdom to overcome those struggles. In my attempts to grow into this responsibility, I have done a great deal of research and reflection during the past few years aimed at becoming a better mentor of children--that is, a better parent and teacher. Fortunately, I have discovered some wonderfully helpful resources in a variety of literatures--not only from the fields of homeschooling and parenting, but also from psychology, sociology, education, child development, and spirituality. Of course, I still very often find myself unsure about how to best help my daughters when we're in the midst of one of our Really Rough Moments, and I'm afraid that more often than I'd like to admit, I make things worse. But at the end of the day, they seem to know I love them and that I am willing to work with them to find a better solution. Perhaps that is what it means to be an underachieving--but good enough--homeschooler.
Making homemade paper
By the way, we did manage to get all our work done on the Really Rough Morning that began this essay, and by mid-afternoon, my aspiring orphan was cuddling in my lap as we commiserated about the day and reassured each another with kisses and hugs. Tomorrow would be a new day, I told her. And no matter what it brought, we could handle it. Together.

"Love is a better teacher than duty." --Albert Einstein


Beckie said...

Great post! And thanks for the email ;)

Anonymous said...

So much truth in your post! We all have those days. When my kids went to school, I always gave them two mental health days each year. I haven't done this since we began homeschooling but maybe I will next year. Great post. :)

Anonymous said...

Awesome, Jennie
Keep writing!