I have been homeschooling my own kids for 9 years. In the past year, I decided to go back to school to earn my Masters of Education and California teacher’s license so that I can work for a homeschool charter. As part of my program, I had to complete 600 hours (nearly 4 months full-time) of student teaching in a high school physics classroom. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this experience. I missed being with my own kids all day, but I loved the students I was working with and enjoyed my host teacher immensely. I’m not eager to transition to working in a classroom anytime soon, but I am grateful for this eye-opening experience. Many of these points are not surprising, but here are some of the key takeaways I learned as a a homeschooling mom working as a public school teacher.
- A Teacher’s Job is Impossible – What is it that we expect a teacher to do? Essentially, take a group of kids who were all born within the same 12 month range and improve their skills and abilities in specific areas, right? Those of us who are homeschooling and have more than one kid know firsthand how vastly different even children in the same family can be. Teaching a small group of kids that you are actually raising yourself and control all aspects of their life is hard. Teaching a group of 30 plus kids who all have different abilities, backgrounds, life experience, and levels of motivations is a Herculean task. If they succeed at getting even 80% of their students to improve their skills by even a small percentage, they deserve an all expenses paid vacation to a tropical resort.
- One-on-One Is Crucial for ALL Kids – Nothing compares to one-on-one attention. I found in my classroom that the students who made the most progress the most quickly were the ones who came in for lunctime tutoring. If I could spend 15 to 20 minutes with a student working through problems, I could usually straighten out any areas of confusion and get them going on the right path. For those who didn’t come in for one-on-one tutoring, I could spend 2 to 3 weeks (10 plus hours) trying to hammer home the same points with a far lower rate of success. I made a point to spend classtime checking in with those who were struggling, but due to time constraints and the vast number of kids needing help, I could never get to all of them to my satisfaction.
- The Mental Work is Crucial – I think the reason why one-on-one time is so valuable is that kids learn best by doing, making mistakes, and understanding where they went wrong. However, in school, kids are expected to be doing a lot, but often they don’t understand where they are going wrong. On the days when I gave individual feedback to student work, I would spend well over an hour, per class period, writing comments on assignments in the evenings. Teachers work so hard already. This CAN’T be what we expect of them. I learned quickly that the most efficient way to get kids involved in the mental effort without destroying my life was to make them to do it in class, in front of me. Lecturing does not work anywhere near as well as letting the kids talk and helping them make connections. Presenting lessons may seem more efficient, but if it’s not seeping in for 85% of the class, the time is wasted.
- EVERYONE Needs to be Engaged – My clinical supervisor recommended my second week teaching that I implement a method to call on “non-volunteers.” We all have those kids that will raise their hands and answer any questions we ask. (We love those kids.) However, those are the not the kids that need the help. We need to call on the ones that are totally lost, sleeping, or on their cell phones. We need to make them understand that our class is a safe place for them to not know the answer, because we will help them get there. The way I accomplished this was using a Spin-the-Wheel app. I put all my kids names on it and would choose a kid at random about 20 to 30 times per period to respond to what I was saying. This may seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but it WORKED.
- Math Skills are REALLY Bad – I have always wondered if my Minimalist Math curriculum is sufficient since it involves so much less work than a traditional curriculum. After spending 4 months in public high school, my belief is that it is not only enough, but it is superior. Those kids have done SO MUCH MATH in their lives and yet they are pulling out their calculators to multiple one hundred by two. There may be a few kids with strong math skills (though honestly, I didn’t meet them). There are far more students who don’t understand how to use math creatively to solve problems, which is what is required in a high school physics class and in life. They have memorized techniques without understanding what they are doing. As a result, they have zero confidence when it comes to math and don’t know how to make fundamental math principles work for them. The way math is taught in schools really needs to be reconsidered, because it is not working.
- The Pace is Insanely Slow – As a homeschooling mom, I still cannot fathom how little is accomplished in 5 class periods each week. That is several hours of time and yet I still feel like I could basically summarize everything we did in a week of 9th grade Honors Physics to my 8th grader in 20 minutes or less. What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that there are students who I could have summarized the whole week in 20 minutes for as well. Those students are basically killing time the rest of the week. Simultaneously, there are students who still do not understand the main points even after a full week. They are not dumb. They just need one-on-one time to sort out misconceptions. Of course, I didn’t want to leave those kids behind, so sometimes I would tag on an extra day or two just to work with those kids wasting even more time for those who already understand the concept.
- The Workload is Unnecessarily High – I feel that another reason why the pace is so slow is that the workload is so high. This may be specific to math and science classes, but if we give the kids a ton of work to do and they struggle to understand it, then our choices are to either leave a bunch of kids behind or slow the pace for everyone. It turns out I really prioritize efficiency when it comes to learning and in my own life. I once took the 50 plus questions that my host teacher wanted the students to do during a unit and categorized them into 4 primary categories plus a couple bonus tricky categories. How much more useful would it be to kids if instead of having them work all these problems and make mistakes that no one would every notice and correct for them, we taught them to recognize the 4 different categories of problems? I tried this with some success, but didn’t have the opportunity to implement it fully. If I were a full time teacher with my own class, I think I would start by giving the students a succinct study guide at the beginning of each unit, then introduce problems one at a time and have them learn to figure out on their own which part of the study guide they should use. This would help them see that what they think is a mountain they have to climb is actually a much more manageable hill.
- Standardized Tests are Bad, but Unit Tests are Worse – Even though my kids homeschool, they still have to do standardized testing, which I despise, since we homeschool through a charter. I want them to be enthusiastic learners and let’s be real. Testing is not conducive to achieving this goal. The testing my kids do is diagnostic testing for reading and math a couple times a year and state testing every spring. I’m realizing now that what is nice about this situation is that all the learning we do throughout the year is not tied in any way to these tests. Also, nice for me is that these tests show improvement year after year and my kids don’t need to know the results. Compare this with public school were every single moment of a student’s time is typically tied to some upcoming assessment. Chapter tests, unit tests, pop quizzes….this is not why we want our kids to learn, but it is their primary motivation. (Or worse, they have no motivation.) The absolute best part of homeschooling, apart from the one-on-one advantage, is that we don’t have submit our kids to this kind of torture.
- You Don’t Need a Degree – I hope most people know this already, but you absolutely do not need a degree to homeschool. I earned my Masters of Education and it improved my ability to teach my own kids not at all. I was actually disappointed, because I was hoping I would learn something that would transform the way I think about education and teaching, but it did not. What you need in order to homeschool is a willingness to learn alongside your children and show them all the magic and beauty the world has to offer. Honestly, I think this is what teachers in schools need as well and it is not taught in an education program. We want our children to learn how to think critically and be curious about the world around them. If we are not excited about our children’s education, they why should we expect them to be? Being willing to model an openness to learning for our students is far more valuable than a degree will ever be.
- The Kid Are Actually Great – I feel like overall my general takeaway was that the homeschooling model is far superior to public school if you have a parent or individual willing to take responsibility for a child’s education and help them along the way. Mostly, I was surprised by how inefficient and ineffective public school education turned out to be. However, there was one key area that I think many homeschoolers might be surprised by. We love our homeschooled kids. By and large they are quirky and unjaded and empathetic. However, I think public school kids get a bad rap sometimes by homeschoolers. I LOVED my public school students. The might be less quirky in an attempt to fit in with their peers, and they are certainly more jaded based on everything they’ve seen, but overall, they are not less kind. Yes, there is bullying and bad behavior in public schools, but it would be sad to paint all the kids with the same brush. So many of them are compassionate, interesting individuals that the one thing I regret is that my homeschooled kids don’t get to spend more time with them.
I know most of this was not earthshattering information, but I hope this was helpful for some! For those of you homeschooling, keep going! Trust me, you are doing better than you know! For those of you in the classroom, just know that you are seen and appreciated. The world needs you!