Principles over Principals

Principles over Principals

This article from the Summer 2019 edition of the IPA Review is by Moira Deeming.

When I was in year 12 our school hired a trendy new Principal. She wore shapeless artsy clothes, a severe haircut and thick red-rimmed glasses. Her first act was to drag my entire year level out of their classes to a special assembly where she told us we were all “one big family”, then demanded we bow our heads, close our eyes and chant with her, “We belong at St Francis Xavier College”.

I may have come from a broken home, and I may have been a depressive and moody teenager, but even I knew this woman was wrong: none of us ‘belonged’ with her or to this collection of buildings. Even then, I knew schools were just service providers which existed to serve and strengthen individuals and families—not the other way around.

Since then, I have repeatedly witnessed this tendency of schools to abandon academic rigour and undermine parents by insinuating themselves into the moral, psychological and political development of students. But it was only after eight years of working as a high school teacher and becoming a parent myself that I finally decided to quit and instead homeschool my kids.

That decision changed everything about my life. I gave up the only job I had ever wanted to do and which I truly loved. I gave up my income, and the public respect and personal confidence from having a ‘normal’ job and raising kids in the ‘normal’ way. It is fair enough to wonder what drove me to make that decision, and whether it was worth it for me, my husband and our kids.

My story is a tiny part of the worldwide trend toward homeschooling. Currently, there are almost 1.7 million homeschooled children in the US, where enrolments doubled from 1999 to 2016; almost 50,000 in the UK, where enrolments increased 40 per cent from 2014 to 2017; and almost 20,000 in Australia, where enrolments doubled from 2011 to 2018. At least an equivalent number of students are estimated to be homeschooled ‘illegally’; that is, without official government permission. In Australia, where we have more low-fee private schools, homeschooling numbers are comparatively small by international standards. However, homeschooling is still the fastest-growing education sector nationally, though the growth is uneven. From 2011 to 2018, homeschool enrolment rates increased in every state in Australia: 99 per cent in the ACT, 45 per cent in NSW, 290 per cent in QLD, and 42 per cent in Victoria, which also has the highest absolute number of enrolments (approximately 5,300). While many families plan to homeschool from the outset as a lifestyle choice or for better academic results, research shows there has been an influx of ‘accidental homeschoolers’ due to cultural or religious beliefs, bullying issues or having a child with special needs.

This should not surprise us. In 2015, the triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results demonstrated the “steady decline in Australia’s results since 2000, in international comparisons and absolute mean scores. Australia ranked equal 10th in science (down from 8th), 20th in mathematics (down from 17th) and 12th in reading (down from 10th)”. Over a similar period 47 per cent of Australian students reported experiencing high stress in schools, almost 25 per cent reported experiencing bullying, and 50 per cent said they were not confident schools could deal effectively with bullying. Furthermore, falling academic standards and rising levels of student anxiety are occurring in private and public schools alike. But rather than calling for early childhood curriculums to focus on literacy and numeracy, educational ‘experts’ decried the ‘PISA panic’ and saturated every subject in every school with politically lopsided and unscientific mental health initiatives. Many parents, myself included, cite as one of the main reasons for homeschooling their children the now infamous ‘Safe Schools’ curriculums which graphically explore erotic sexuality, present biological sex as a ‘decision to be made’, and relentlessly demonised those who disagreed. No wonder parents are ripping their children out of such schools, where academic achievement is downplayed and the social landscape resembles a monstrous combination of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Orwell’s 1984.

We can easily admit schools are letting children down, but we also have to admit families have not fared much better in recent times. Rates of divorce and family breakdown are a tragedy for children. But even work and travel commitments mean family relationships are being conducted across such frequent gaps in time and space that their bonds are too easily broken. Homeschooling offers a double remedy to these problems. It provides a thoroughly enjoyable bulwark against family breakdown and—with free market access to high-quality educational resources and new pathways to university—can ensure every child receives a completely tailored, high quality education.

I first met a homeschool family while studying to be a teacher. My initial response was absolute horror. I could not help but wonder: What the hell did they do to those kids? They were socially awkward and unfashionable. I was only in their presence for five minutes, but I immediately blamed the parents and their decision to homeschool for ruining their children. At that moment, I was all of 22 years old, childless, and socially awkward. Ahem. Like most people who received a ‘normal’ education, I had absolutely no idea what homeschooling entailed, practically or philosophically, when I made that snap judgement. Over the next 15 years, my ignorant and condescending assumptions about homeschooling faltered under the reality of ‘School’—as a student-teacher, a practicing teacher and, with finality, as a parent.

After completing my Bachelor of International Relations, I chose to take my teaching degree at the most prestigious university in my State. On day one, I found myself in a state-of-the-art ‘learning pod’ with irregular shaped desks, interactive white boards and dimmed lighting. My 20-something-year-old lecturer began by warning us against the hideous dangers of “lexical density” in our future classrooms.

Apparently, lexical density induced anxiety and triggered disruptive class behaviour. What on earth was this pox upon education, I wondered? In short, it was the nightmarish affliction of ‘too many words on a page’. The causes listed were not, as I expected, missed opportunities for early remedial literacy lessons, but ‘racism’ and ‘classism’. We were instructed to remind students we had sympathy for their socioeconomic class and “minimise the amount and variation of words, especially culturally unfamiliar words, on all teaching materials”.

I began to wonder what would happen to my career if it were ever discovered I had a deep, dark desire to ‘lift’ rather than ‘entrench’ the literacy rates of all my students. I asked about promoting joy and pride in learning, about enticing students into an expanded world through unfamiliar books. My lecturer responded with questions about my own socioeconomic background and strongly hinted my ‘privileged’ upbringing meant I may not be suitable for ‘some student cohorts’.

Nevertheless, my diploma was granted and my career began with youthful enthusiasm. Teaching is a sink-or-swim kind of affair, with 40-50 per cent leaving the profession within the first five years. But I paddled hard and learned fast. I learned authority abhors a vacuum; either I would be in charge of my classroom or a student would. I learned that like everyone else, kids appreciate competence, fairness, humility, friendliness and humour. I learned being a school teacher was more about following school schedules and ‘delivering’ the curriculum than teaching individual children. I learned bullies are hardly ever punished or expelled, and certainly not fired. I learned ‘School’ is a bureaucratic behemoth designed to standardise everything and cannot embrace initiatives that do not fit the schedule or align with reports.

In my fifth year of teaching, I had had enough of teaching the likes of Shrek and Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief in English. I was sick of my students putting themselves down and wanted them to be able to say they had read a ‘classic’, understood it and perhaps even liked it! So, I decided to try and get John Steinbeck’s The Pearl onto the year 8 curriculum. I badgered my principal relentlessly for an entire semester until, finally, he capitulated.

My students and I read every word of The Pearl together. At first they were surprised this book was a ‘classic’ as it seemed too easy to understand—even boring! But bit by bit, they were drawn in as we discussed each section, looked at maps and drew out the historical and biblical references. They all fell in love with the plucky little family who found ‘the pearl of great price’. When I finally came to that terrible and simple line describing little Coyotito’s death, I made sure to look out across my little sea of faces. They were devastated. On we went until the bitter end. They erupted. They argued and mourned and eventually became silent. They had begun to grasp what makes a ‘classic’, classic. But at the end of that year, my colleagues complained about the lexical density of our curriculum and successfully replaced The Pearl with a graphic novel, and replaced the major writing assignment with a ‘drawing’ one. Against this backdrop of increasing professional frustration, I had the opportunity to watch a ‘homeschool’ in action when my best friend began educating her child at home. I was insatiably curious. In fact, I was probably a pest. I constantly compared her experience of teaching at home to mine at school. All the universal frustrations of children remained, but none of the frustrations of the ‘School Institution’.

It is true none of the institutional ‘supports’ were available to her, but she simply did not need them. As I discovered, modern homeschooling resources, specifically designed for the ‘non-teacher’ parent, are abundant and rigorous, and everything I had ever wanted as a teacher. Whereas I was forced to go to endless meetings and redundant professional development courses run by people with barely any more experience than myself, my best friend educated herself using the best in the world, listening to online Oxford University lectures on mathematical thinking, and taking Circe Institute short courses on ‘language arts’.

When her children didn’t understand a concept, she was not forced to give a grade of 60 per cent and charge on with the scheduled curriculum. She could actually pause, investigate and remedy the gap in understanding. “It’s mastery or nothing,” she told me. Imagine that! If her child showed an interest or talent in a particular area, she didn’t have to say “it’s not on the curriculum”; she could say, “well, let’s set a budget and design a course together”. And, of course, her children were completely normal—no more or less quirky than the thousands of kids I had been teaching in schools. In fact, research is now showing what I have since come to suspect, which is that compared to children attending conventional schools, homeschooled children have higher social skills, higher quality peer friendships, and better relationships with their parents and other adults.

Even so, I only got up the strength to hammer the final nail in the ‘School’ coffin as an angry parent. Sadly, my eldest daughter went through some of the most severe bullying I had ever heard of (by a student and a teacher), and the school handled it very poorly. The school counsellor pressured me to give the school a free pass because I was on staff. I leaned forward in my chair and told the counsellor I had never once tolerated the bullying of a perfect stranger’s child and I certainly was not going to tolerate the bullying of my own child.

The bullying went on over grades prep and one, beginning when my daughter was five. She had been trying to tell me about the bullying here and there, but I was always hard on her about her own immature responses, and of course she was too young to be able to describe the sustained, targeted, manipulative, deceitful nature of what this other girl and teacher were doing. To my shame, I only began to take my daughter seriously when two other mums told me their daughters were traumatised from being bullied into bullying my daughter. My daughter began to nervously pull out clusters of her own hair and stutter. My husband and I were devastated.

I resigned and informed the school my daughter would not be returning the next year. They demanded to know which school I had enrolled her in and tried to withhold her school records from me in order to forward them directly to the new school. I took a deep breath, smiled and reminded them it was none of their concern which school she would be attending, that their legal relationship with my daughter had ended when I retracted her enrolment, and asked them once more to hand over my property, immediately. They did. The next step was to register for homeschooling, which is very easy in Victoria, requiring only identity verification and a very simple learning plan. (Some parents find creating the learning plans intimidating, but I was well acquainted with the Education Department and in no danger of taking it too seriously.)

I spent those Christmas holidays researching curriculums and making plans. I was thrilled to discover Classical Education, which—using a rich chronological sweep of history as a spine—branches out to focus on Western Civilisation’s greatest works of literature, art, music, philosophy, mathematics and science. The goal is to show students ‘the best that has been thought and said’, to help them develop a keen and independent intellect, as well as love of wisdom and virtue.

We know from our own experiences that our children will need private reserves of knowledge, wisdom and joy to draw upon when life’s troubles come; not just to get a job, but when a marriage is strained, a child is dying, or a judge is unjust.

Teaching at home required a whole lot of unlearning on my part. I had a terrible teacher’s habit of rushing through everything and doing my daughters thinking for her, just to complete a lesson. We clashed a fair bit in the first few months because we were both so tense. But help was easy to find, first in the online homeschooling community and then in the huge number of local homeschool clubs. Three months in, we were calming down and my daughter stopped pulling out her hair and stuttering. Six months in, we were enjoying each other’s company and sailing through the ‘work’. Now, five years later, my daughter is years ahead academically and actually loves— really loves—learning. She hates writing, but I am still the teacher, so I make her do it.

I have now begun homeschooling her little brother using Aesop’s Fables and historical novels. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find our marriage blossomed with me at home full time. Our whole family is closer and happier than I thought possible. (In fact, we went on to have two more little girls, now 1 and 3.). Of course there are hard days and discouragements, but our lives are marked by the beauty of a rich family life.

Every morning, after chores and piano practice, we sit around the table with hot chocolates and I read aloud to them from Shakespeare, Plutarch, the Bible and at the moment, The World of Columbus and Sons by Genevieve Foster. We trawl over maps to find the places mentioned.

Usually, the eldest two do a nature drawing while they listen, and the little two play with Duplo or generally tumble about making messes. Then it’s individual work with one of the oldest, while the other is on duty reading books or playing with the little girls. Even with interruptions, we are usually finished by 1pm and they have the rest of the day free to meet up with friends, listen to audiobooks, play, daydream. We take family holidays to the beach during the school terms and spend lazy days kayaking and digging huge tunnels. My eldest two do Jiu-Jitsu three times a week. They all have deep, abiding friendships with their peers, and are enjoying childhood to the full.

I have absolutely no doubts my children will leave my house with a top-quality education. Homeschooling is hard work, but it is the most effective and enjoyable teaching I have ever done, and it has been the most enriching experience of my life.

Moira Deeming has a Bachelor of International Relations and a Graduate Diploma of Education. She taught at public and private schools for more than 10 years before leaving to homeschool her children. She saves the government approximately $140,000 per year by educating and caring for her four children at home.

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