My first t-shirt as a homeschooling parent proclaimed, "Don't bother me. I'm having a parent-teacher conference."
This expressed well my initial thoughts about the roles of mother and teacher while homeschooling. I could see my "teacher self" talking to my "mother self," echoing the familiar adult roles in education that involves public school.
A recent Facebook post of John Rosemond's column, "Set Rules for Homeschool Homework" sparked Facebook comments about the parent role and teacher role in homeschooling, as well as about the approach to homeschooling used by the mom who wrote to him for advice. She wrote:
The school day lasts from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., after which they usually do homework for an hour or two. During homework time, they are constantly coming to me, asking me to go over material we’ve already covered during school. This is preventing me from getting my own work done.
Many of the commenters in the thread I read on Facebook were aghast at this mother's approach to homeschooling. Veteran homeschoolers of many years and many children, they could not imagine a "school day" that long for only two kids who were just seven and nine years old.
But there was another sentiment, too, expressed not only in response to the mom's sharp distinction between "school day" and "homework," but also in response to Rosemond's observations:
If they were attending “regular” school they wouldn’t have access to their teacher(s) after school hours. Likewise, in your homeschooling situation, they shouldn’t be able to have “teacher” on demand after school hours. As things stands, they don’t have to give you their full attention during the school day. Furthermore, you’ve given them permission to come to you any time they experience the slightest amount of frustration concerning homework. That circumvents the development of perseverance, which, as you will recall, is one of Homework’s Seven Hidden Values. Under the circumstances, the effectiveness of homeschooling is significantly reduced and your stress level is significantly increased. If you don’t put an end to this, you’re going to continue to have periodic cerebral meltdowns.
Separation of homeschool and homework? More assigned work for elementary-aged kids after they've been homeschooled one-on-two for six hours?
Most of the long-time homeschoolers who were commenting on this Facebook thread are moms I would characterize as having emphasized a "learning lifestyle" in their homeschooling. While all have spent huge amounts of time nurturing their children, as far as I know, few of them use a strict or typical "school day/homework" model of educating their children.
Rosemond's thought that the kids "shouldn't be able to have 'teacher' on demand after school hours" was particularly galling to them. And, I admit, to me. Maybe they don't need to have a "teacher" on demand, but access to mom to reflect and process with is one of the benefits of homeschooling.
But Rosemond advised:
Begin by limiting the number of school-related questions you will answer after 2 p.m. to two per child (maybe three for the younger one). Tell them that after they’ve finished as much of their homework as they can (and not before), each of them can bring you two (or three) questions, but that you’ll spend no more than a total of 10 minutes per child answering them. After the 10 minutes, they’re on their own.
I guarantee that if you enforce this dispassionately, your kids will (a) begin to pay better attention during school hours and (b) eventually all but stop asking after-school questions.
Ack. Because this is what we want? We want kids to "all but stop asking after-school questions?"
This freaks me out. A proponent of inquiry based-education, I've found that my kids learn most through dialogue -- and that good dialogue is what sends them to read or research more on a topic. I want my kids to ask questions. One of my kids in particular was homeschooled for a couple of years almost purely based on questions -- discussing them, helping him learn to seek information to answer his questions, and my asking him questions to stimulate him to look at things from all angles.
Even during my non-homeschooling, kids-in-school, full-time paid career years, I did not want to discourage my kids from asking me "after-school questions." Why would I want to do this as a homeschooling parent, when I am in a prime position to understand what my child has been studying and learning?
Unlike Rosemond and the mom writing to him for advice, I don't have clearly distinctive periods called "school day" and "homework time," and I no longer have a separation between "parent" and "teacher."
Truthfully, the distinction between parent and teacher did not last in my mind as long as the tee shirt lasted.
For me, the two roles aren't mutually exclusive. I am a parent who helps my kids learn. I don't flip a switch to become Teacher and then flip the switch again to become Mom.
Seeing myself as this one "whole" person -- a mom who helps her kids learn-- has, ironically, helped me with boundaries, and it is boundary-setting that Rosemond advocates, albeit not in a way that would work for me.
However, as one of the other Facebook commenters noted, there is the question of sanity.
The lone wolf in the particular Facebook thread I was following, that mom (also a long-time homeschooler) noted that while her family never approached a formal six-hour school day with kids that young, she definitely asked kids to do some work on their own each day. When they did, she did household chores and took personal time -- to save her sanity.
I get it. As part of being one whole person -- a mom who helps her kids learn -- I, too, have suffered from the "always on" problem.
In some ways, since in our family we emphasize a learning lifestyle rather than my being at the front of the class as "teacher," during some stages of homeschooling, the "always on" problem has not been as acute. We're learning together in daily rhythms that work for us, with no need to limit questions at any time of day, for goodness sake. Without a strict "school day" in which I am focused on being a super teacher for six hours, we're just weaving together meals and talking about books and watching history videos and throwing in the laundry and kicking the soccer ball and trying some new harmony and discussing dark matter.
I have long noted that one of my kids learned best at bed time, and I actually found that spending more time with him during an extended bed time routine made our days smoother and his learning more effective, freeing time for him to play and for me to give my attention to other kids and my pursuits during the day. It's a good thing that I didn't limit his questions after 2 p.m., since he didn't really hone in on them until he was physically good and tired and beginning to make way for sleep.
My writing, editing, speaking, radio work, volunteering, and other projects have provided natural boundaries -- time when I necessarily focused on something that required all of my attention, which left my kids with some time to fend for themselves.
There were the years when my family was younger, when I found it necessary to reserve and schedule "unstructured time" so that I could spend time with my kids in our learning lifestyle. Otherwise, it was eaten up with outside activities or phone calls. Basically, this often ended up looking a lot like school, with books, experiments, maps, projects, artwork, and music focusing our attention during certain hours of the day.
There were the years when I had to will myself to get out and exercise or spend time with friends, so great was the pull to nurturing that I risked self-care.
Rosemond's advice comes in the form of "splitting" the parent and teacher roles into specific parts of the day, and that won't work for me. I have to keep myself together and take care of my whole self the whole time. I don't want my kids to stop or start asking me questions because of what time of day it is, but because their mom who is helping them learn is a person who has limits and other interests and responsibilities.
The image of homeschooling presented in Rosemond's column is not realistic or necessary for me, and the six-hours on/must-turn-it-off scenario is certainly not typical of the majority of homeschoolers I know.
Even though his authoritarian "this-will-solve-it" tone grates -- and even though I might want the mom who wrote to him to explore just what her six hours of "school" is accomplishing -- if a homeschool mom saves her sanity by creating clear schedule-oriented boundaries that work for her, who am I to argue with that?
Still, I'd have to question a solution that includes a homeschooled child being allowed to only ask his mom two questions after a specific time of day. At some point, I'd rather the children understand the principle of my being a whole person who has additional responsibilities and who may be unable to answer all questions all the time, rather than following a rule about an arbitrary number of questions.
Past my first few months of homeschooling more than a decade and a half ago, I have not separated a "teacher self" from my "mom self." At the same time, I found it was important for me to set boundaries of time and space that made my family function well. This has worked best when I did not limit myself to typical school schedules or specific schedules or practices that other people advocated. Instead, I had to think it through, try it out, stick to what worked and revise what didn't work. Reading other people's thoughts on this informed what I tried, but ultimately, it was a matter of doing what worked.
For me, sacrificing an ongoing inquiry-based give and take was not an option. Letting collaborative learning pervade most of our days was also a priority. But I had to put these together with a bit of time for myself, time for household chores, and time for work and service.
Each homeschooling parent has to knit together the yarn of learning and living in a pattern that is useful and enjoyable. If that's not your pattern, if you find yourself "losing it" often as the mom in Rosemond's column does, then things aren't working.
Rosemond is advocating more division between "school" and "not-school" time, more rules to sharpen the boundary.
It might work. It works for some homeschooling families.
Or you might benefit from a pattern that is knit on larger needles, looser and with more give, making fewer distinctions between living and learning.
It might work. It works for some homeschooling families.
Sometimes it surprises everyone which solution works for which families.
It turns out that the parent-teacher conference my tee shirt depicted really is about talking to yourself -- having that conversation about what isn't working well and customizing your homeschooling habits to fit your educational philosophy and your life.
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