Teachers are not the problem

  1. I think of teachers as missionaries, serving a tough field and just trying to make a difference in as many lives as they can.  2.  I believe public schools will always need to exist for kids who have no place better to be.  3.  I believe it is the social responsibility of taxpayers to fund public schools.

A week or so ago I shared a terse visit with a long-time friend who is a public school teacher. Here on this blog, which I pretend nobody reads, I have been a pretty outspoken critic of public school. Conveniently choosing to forget that I have (or had) many friends who teach public school, I have raged forward, unchecked in my writing, taking every opportunity to jab blindly at a public school system that certainly has its faults. What I sometimes forget is that the System is made up of real people who have real feelings. And I thank my friend for reminding me that teachers invest deeply in their jobs and that criticism of the public school seems, to a teacher, like criticism of her personally.

You want to know what I really think about public schools? Here goes:

While I don’t believe they’re the be-all, end-all that my 90-year-old grandmother believes them to be, I think public schools are and always will be necessary. I believe that public schools exist to put strong role models (the teachers) in the lives of students who need them. I view teachers almost as missionaries… going into a difficult field, trying to make a difference for kids who might not hear good words elsewhere.

My notion of public school might seem a little progressive for rural Montana, but I’ll tell you how I’ve developed it: I married a man from the Southeast. There are just so many more people down there, and those population centers which we here on the Northern Great Plains are as yet unacquainted with are socially ahead of us. (I don’t mean in a good way; I mean that what is happening there now will be happening here in a few decades.)  Already when my husband was school age 20 years ago in the Deep South, families who could swing it sent their kids to private school… because public schools were scary drop-offs for kids who had nowhere else to be.  (And those kids deserve a chance too, right?  I mean, for goodness sake, they were right born here in the land of opportunity!  This is why I believe funding of public schools should be a social responsibility for the taxpaying citizens of our country.)

I just plain married a man who is from another place and who believes that public school is not for folks like us.  His short stint on our local public school board here, four years ago, convinced him that the local school is only a player in an overweight national public mess that is handcuffed by legal jargon… and he’s never looked back.  Though I don’t necessarily think public school here in rural Montana is at such a point yet that it’s completely unsafe and unfit for the average kid, I also had a hard enough time in my own rural Montana public school that I begged my parents to homeschool me (which they, being graduates of the old school, accordingly declined).

So, again:  teachers are missionaries trying to save as many little minds as possible through public schools, which must exist because every kid in our country, no matter his background, deserves a chance.  Is the work of teachers real?  Is it difficult?  So real and so difficult that there’s no way I could do it.  Paying taxes to keep it all going is, for you and me, almost akin to tithing.  And, yes, I would guess that public school in rural Montana is a much healthier, much safer environment than public school in Alabama is.

Growing up and going through public school myself, I had some pretty good teachers and I had some great teachers.  I can’t think of a single teacher who crossed my path who wasn’t a good person who tried to do his or her best.  And if there’s one thing I know about teachers, it’s that they’re passionate about what they’re doing.  With their passion lives defensiveness, because they are emotional creatures who lay it all on the line.  Many public school teachers believe that acceptance of the school reflects on their own quality of work.

The thing is, teachers would exist whether or not public school did.  As far as I can tell, the public school is just a workplace.  And if there’s a problem with the public school system (some would say there’s not), it’s way above the teachers who are grinding away daily in their classrooms.  The (alleged) problem exists in the reality that the public school system is a government program.  And if you think our government is efficient, prudent with funding, and operating based on good ol’ fashioned Christian values… well then, what are you doing reading my garbage?

Just a couple paragraphs here against public schools, because again, I actually DO BELIEVE they MUST exist.  So, quickly:  my biggest issues have to do with parenting and social trends that send kids to school who, frankly, I don’t want my own kids to be around yet.  My own mind is seared with memories of the sex, drugs, and drinking that happened while I was in school 20 years ago, and I shiver to think of how the bar may have progressed since then.  You (and my grandmother) might say, “Well, they have to learn all about the world eventually.”  Well, yes, but do they have to be exposed when they’re fresh from the womb?  This takes me right back to my argument against Santa in One last thing on Santa this season — from someone more socially acceptable than I am.  We Americans seem quite sure that children should believe in Santa’s magic up on into a ripe old age, but by golly let’s get them to school so they can learn all about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll before they have all their adult teeth in.

Am I the only one who thinks our culture has a few things kinda screwed up?

Furthermore, I just don’t believe that the healthiest place for a kid to be is with his peers 7+ hours a day.  “Lord of the Flies,” anyone?  A homeschooling friend who has really stretched my thinking was the first to tell me that she doesn’t care for her kids to be around other kids; instead, she wants for them to spend time with hand-picked adults capable of teaching good things.  At first I thought she was crazy.  But as I thought about it, the Lord changed my heart (this whole education evolution within me can only be attributed to the Lord changing my heart, one day at a time), and I realized she’s got a point.  Do kids ever learn anything good from other kids?  Sometimes.  Rarely.  I remember from my own school experience:  as a student spends years in school, she logs many, many hours passed exclusively in the company of other kids… with no adults to guide them and remind them of appropriate behavior.  Like in the hallway between classes and on the bus and in the locker room.  (Read:  I’ve had short hair before.)

I am also fearful of the school habit just plain taking on a life of its own and hijacking a family’s path.  Like this:  you send your big kid to school, where he picks up bad habits from other kids, and he comes home and teaches those bad habits to your little kids, and you’re so busy running back and forth to the bus stop (we would always be late) and to meetings and to practices that you don’t have time to keep enough spoons clean to feed everybody cereal, much less correct snotty behaviors in your children!  We Americans have given education and hurriedness precedence over family life for many years now, and look where we’re ending up!

Ahem.  Despite the three paragraphs above full of scathing (but… truthful?) accusations, I will repeat it again:  we know it’s a good thing for children to be educated, and that private schools are few and far between up here in the Frozen North, and that many families couldn’t afford private education even if it was available.  We know the majority of parents are unwilling or not equipped to teach at home.  We know there are many kids for whom school is a safe haven from a less-than-ideal home life.  For all these reasons, public school MUST exist.  Seems like job security to me… so what’s making my teacher friends nervous?  Some politicians (oh, Lord, am I turning into a politician?) are starting to question the public school model in our country, openly pointing out its faults and submitting that tax money should be used for private schools and charter schools.  Still, I feel like teachers ought not despair!  Even if the public school giant falls on a national scale — and I’m sure it won’t in my lifetime — teachers will still have jobs.  Maybe not government jobs.  But teachers will always be needed.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world where teachers weren’t needed.

Back to the reality of my own little family.  Beau and I are suspicious that public school wouldn’t be a great fit for us.  And the closest private school is 70 miles away.  And for some inexplicable reason, we’ve both recognized for some time, at the backs of our minds, the niggling notion that we ought to keep our kids at home with us and teach them on the run.  We are so thankful to live in a country where we have the choice to not herd our kindergartner onto a bus and send him away for the day even though every fiber in our being is screaming, Don’t do it!  We’ve always nurtured an environment of learning in our home, and now we’ve officially started our 6-year-old on his journey with the alphabet and with his number chart and with geography and with history.  Maybe you hate us for it… maybe you cringe when you hear the word… but so far, it would appear that… We.  Are.  Homeschoolers.

There.  I said it.  And I’m trembling.

Because homeschooling is pretty offensive business here in the smallest county in Montana.  I know of regular pew-sitters in our town who’ve ceased speaking to other families who pulled their kids out of public school in order to homeschool.  I think, with an aching heart, of the two families in the county who homeschooled when I was growing up, of the public disapproval they must’ve endured.  My own grandmother shot hot tears out of her eyes when I first told her that my little family was headed in the homeschool direction.  As far as I can tell, she thinks homeschooling is Wrong, with a capital W, and that homeschooling parents should be arrested for depriving their children of the Opportunities public school affords.

And I can kinda see Grandma’s point.  She remembers a time when some kids didn’t get a chance at a full education but instead had to stay home and work on the farm.  She has personally witnessed a national increase in book knowledge, much of which can be attributed to public schools, in her 90 years.  (How far our country has come — all the way to the top of the mountain of civilization — and have we now started down the other side?)  Like most members of the Greatest Generation, Grandma believes wholeheartedly in education, precisely as though it is the hope of our country.  Education has been next to godliness for her generation and for her.  Grandma sees the public school as a gathering place for the community, a building in which we all — Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and atheists — hide from the winter weather and enjoy ballgames, just rooting for a common cause.  It seems so simple and pure, doesn’t it?

But you know me.  I’m a classic over-thinker.  I am not homeschooling because I haven’t thought it through 880 different ways.  I’ve watched IndoctriNation.  I’ve read “Teaching from Rest” and many other titles on the subject.  I’ve researched Thomas Jefferson Education and the Charlotte Mason Method.  Beau and I are aware that homeschooling is not right for every family or for every kid.

So we know we make a privileged decision when we choose to homeschool.  We know not every able parent has the means to teach her kids at home, and I don’t judge you if you have no desire to do so.  I think you can pray your kid safely through any situation you send him or her into, including public school.  It’s just that, for me personally, there has long been that voice whispering inside me (do other people have voices?) saying that homeschool is the way (I can remember my best public-school-teaching friend teasing me even before I had kids:  “Don’t do it!  I’m know you’re gonna want to homeschool, and I want to be the first to tell you, your kids are gonna be weird and you’re gonna ruin them!”).  But for some reason — probably not coincidence — God brought me a husband from 2,000 miles away who is driven to homeschool just as much as I am.  In fact, he’s even more confident in the decision than I, unwavering as he confidently leads our family in what is to him the obvious path… while I waiver daily on whether or not we’re doing the right thing (based on who I’ve most recently talked to).  An import to this area, Beau is unafraid of what the old ladies around here are saying about us.  He doesn’t wonder, as I do, if there are folks in the community who would rather see our kids ripped out of our home and placed in foster care with two gay dads who would make sure they made it to preschool and public school every day… than accept that kids can learn at home.

In fact, public opinion usually has me about half afraid that my kids themselves will regret being educated at home.  The “school” model is such an unavoidable part of growing up American — books, toys, and cartoons promote “school” to kids from infanthood… so that the average American these days just assumes that “school” is a quintessential part of life.  What if our kids feel like they’ve missed out on holiday concerts and school bus rides and dances?  I tell Beau, “Maybe we should give them the choice at the beginning of every school year.  I don’t want to hold them here against their will.”  He half-jokes right back, “We’ll let them think they have a choice.”  Regardless, I suppose the day will come that we will let them choose; after all, we can’t go on forever trying to protect our kids from making the same mistakes and feeling the same sorts of pain we ourselves wish we could erase from our own histories.

But.  For this year, school year 2016-17, we Blakes are here at home.  And my job is to be emotionally steady for our little crew — to never let on to them that periodically parasitic doubts, and doubters, worm their way into my soul — and to lead them confidently forward in our learning adventure.  Will we Blakes always homeschool?  I don’t have to know that right now.  All I have to know is that we’re doing it this year, with one kindergartner, and that he (and his preschool-age sister) are stretching by leaps and bounds before our eyes.  What a privilege to have the time to sit, just sit, and watch God’s creations grow.

Will our homeschooled kids “fit in” with other kids?  Beau says, “Do we really want them to fit in?”  The truth of it is, Beau and I both spent many long years in a classroom and never necessarily fit in.

Will our homeschooled kids learn at the same pace as public school kids do?  No; for one thing, we Blakes are big on letting kids be little and are in no hurry to get a “head start” on official education (read:  On Preschool).  For another thing, homeschooling stats from around the country show that, in the end, homeschooled kids flourish under their one-on-one instruction and often achieve impressive summits — like medical school and law school (!) — at very young ages.  One thing that’s sure:  the lessons that a public school schedule stretches into hours — to accommodate for students at varying levels, to make time for socialization amongst students and for transport to and from school, etc. — can be accomplished in less time in the more efficient kitchen-table setting.

Will our homeschooled kids follow a schedule like public school kids do?  No.  Because the public school model is not the only method of education, and maybe not the best method of education, and historically speaking a fairly recent method of education.

Do I know how to “teach”?  No.  I did not go to college to learn how to control and inspire a classroom full of students at varying levels of readiness and intelligence.  But God has put within me the desire to teach my kids the good things I already know and to pursue my own lifetime learning with them by my side.

On a national scale… do we believe every child deserves an education?  Yes, obviously, though I suppose there should be limits on how much should be invested into severely handicapped students.

Should it be mandatory for a child to be educated in our country?  Yes; it’s called compulsory education, and it’s the law in all 50 states; these laws, depending on the state, were enacted between 1852 and 1918.  Compulsory education protects innocent children from abusive caregivers who otherwise might not provide the opportunity to learn.  And this is a good thing; I surely wouldn’t want to live somewhere where education wasn’t the status quo.

Should it be mandatory for a child to be enrolled in public school or another accredited institution?  No; while I don’t think homeschool is the correct choice for every family, I do believe that our family has the right to homeschool, and Beau and I truly believe we can provide for our own kids an excellent and customized education.  Homeschooling is, of course, legal in every state in our country.

But who should determine if individual homeschooling parents are fit educators?  As far as I can tell from an informational packet provided by the Montana Office of Public Instruction, our only legal homeschooling responsibility at this point will be to notify the County Superintendent of Schools of our plan to homeschool at the beginning of every school year once a child turns 7 years old.  This seems pretty darn unregulated to me, but isn’t that what most homeschooling parents desire:  to be free of regulation?  Still, I can certainly think of a few parents whom I would deem unfit to educate their own children.  And maybe you feel that way about us.  If it makes you feel any better, I do have a college degree; the thing is, my husband doesn’t, and I would judge him to be just as fit as I am to home educate.

So, the big question you’ve all been wanting to ask:  Is our kindergartner actually learning anything this year or are we just keeping him at home because we’re backwoods idiots?  All I know is that you are welcome to come spend a day or two with our family at any time to watch my kids in action.  I am not one of those parents who lives in fear of how my kids are going to behave under pressure, because we are training them, right here in the safety of our own home and just like a horse trainer would train a horse, to behave.  And they are responding.  The 6-year-old can count by 10s and 2s and knows his way around the world map.  He listens intently as we read aloud to him, and especially loves his graphic comic version of the Bible, through which we are delving into the history of the world.  He produces masterpiece after masterpiece on copy paper using fat Crayola markers.  He will pour bowls of cereal for himself and his little sisters and he makes his own bed.  He will also ask you how you are doing.  And he might ask you to play Civil War or Battle of the Little Bighorn with him — the details he’s memorized of both still surprise me.  Though we work away on letters and penmanship, I can’t promise he’ll read fluently before he’s 7 (but as Beau points out, he graduated with many 18-year-olds who couldn’t read, and anyhow, can anybody tell me — what are the lifelong benefits of learning to read early?).  I know this much:  Asher is on his way to becoming a decent human being, and shouldn’t that be our main goal as conscientious parents?

Finally.  To address the big concern of every hater of homeschooling:  maybe our homeschooled kids will turn out to be social misfits.  But that’s a tired argument… because I know lots of public school graduates who are social misfits too.


© Tami Blake

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