I have total respect for teachers. I always appreciated they had a tough job but now we have started homeschooling I am in awe.
I think of the lovely Mrs Etherton and how despite being sometimes tired or perhaps with stresses at home, she is always positive, enthusiastic, and energetic for a day with 30 kids to inspire and control. Perhaps with 30 in a class it often does come to control more than inspiration so it is even more incredible to find children’s minds being sparked with interest. Here we have it easy, we have 5 kids to teach with very little need for ‘control’, just the battle for concentration. The Von Engelbrechten boys we join have had a variety of experiences of school, from short periods at local Tongan schools – with a big emphasis on traditional learning by rote and handwriting – to dipping in to short periods at schools in New Zealand and England. My kids, other than forest school, have known nothing other than Ashburton Primary school. I had mixed reactions when choosing to take them out of school for a year. Some were immediately nervous -‘what will the kids do for school? How will they catch up?’ Others, including Mrs Etherton, were positive and encouraging – ‘ what they’ll gain from this year will be a lot more than any school can give them’. Of course I joined the later with my feelings or I wouldn’t have taken the leap but I was still nervous. Teaching, with no experience, is a daunting task.
We have divided up the key subjects between us according to our interest and best ability; Karyn does History and English Grammar, Kian does Maths and Science, and I do Creative English, ‘Cultural studies’, and occasional art. We’ve been looking at world religions and plan to move on to other cultures. Karyn has captivated the children with a study of Romans and plans to have a roman party at the end of term. As I write Kian is doing a dramatic description of how the earth moves around the sun with an old buoy hanging and our handy blow up earth. He is a natural teacher and seems to always find great ways of explaining things. We’ve decided to run school in the mornings, roughly from 9-12.30, and then we try and have a quiet hour in the afternoons for extra reading or handwriting practise. School is held down at Happy Api if Karyn is teaching, and up at ours – Jungle Camp – if we’re teaching. We have borrowed a table with benches from Sonny, our Tongan neighbour in the middle of the island (he smiled and said “we’re Tongan, we have no need for tables”) and put up a makeshift blackboard. School is quite pleasant up here, with a bit of a breeze coming up from the sea, and the smoky fire burning to keep the mosquitos at bay. We’ve been able to get basic exercise books in town and we bought quite a lot of art materials with us. Karyn has gathered a good selection of school resources and interesting books.
This all sounds sweet, almost too good, but of course there are some down sides to our little home school. Firstly we are dealing with a range of ages and capabilities, this takes a bit more patience and juggling but is not too hard when the numbers are so low. When I was Maisie’s age I went to a small missionary school in Nepal and we were all ages thrown together in a small class too. I remember it as a very happy time.
Another disadvantage to our teaching is our relationship with the kids; they do not see my as a teacher. I’m so grateful to have other children in the group, finding the boys listening and working hard whilst my own children want to contradict, and show off. This is gradually improving with time and practise, we are gaining confidence in our ability and settling into our ‘teacher’ roles and the pupils now pay better attention.
Another hitch, despite our best intentions, is we rarely manage to complete a full week of classes! This is’nt too grave a problem, we just have to go with the flo here and school can’t always happen when things, good or bad, come up. A fortnightly trip to town for supplies may be needed, a day when we need to work on looking after guests comes up, or there’s something more exciting than school to do, like a whale swimming trip. Of course we are all continuing to learn through all these experiences.
As well as an enormous amount of freedom in our teaching or lack of it, and our choice of subject, teaching method and creative learning, I’m also surprised to find that more conservative and traditional methods of teaching work well too. With English for example I’m finding that learning poems off by heart helps gain concentration and prepares us for class, or repeating a definition of a noun again and again really drums it home. We have learnt to balance freedom and alternative schooling with tradition and tentatively following curriculum. We’ve discovered how ugly the handwriting is that they have been taught at school resulting in illegible ‘f”s and ‘i’s for Marlon, but how strong the authority of school is instilled in them. In trying to introduce a new handwriting, trying to catch bad habits before it’s too late, we find ourselves battling against a stubbornness of “this is the right way because school does it like that”. This respect for school is a very mixed blessing. Sometimes I want to shout (I don’t) “but we’re in charge, this is the way now!” whilst other times I can see we benefit from the kids having had a few years of routine and discipline.
I now realise, other than regular reading together, just how little awareness I had of their progress at school in England or what they were learning. Was I/am I a slack mum or just typical of so many mums with a busy life, happy to hand over all teaching to the school and trusting they will know what’s best for our children? Maybe this sounds naive, perhaps I should have been much more involved, I gave time to the school community where I could, occasionally volunteering as a parent helper, but I remained fairly unaware of what my kids were actually learning. I admire those parents that give so much more to their school but, with some exceptions, they are usually parents with one half bringing home a good income. Before leaving I gathered some top tips from the kids respective teachers regarding what to focus on and some daunting tables showing what stage they should be at, what they should be capable of, by the end of this school year. It’s hard to know if we’ll be on target and how easily they will fit back into school and the appropriate year – if we decide to continue that way – but over all I think a year of homeschooling, despite our lack of experience and discipline, is a hugely positive thing. I can see Maisie’s handwriting, maths and reading improving. I’m so glad to be witness and more, I’m so glad to be part of their journey. Oh and I’m so glad to be missing the hideous school run morning, the battle to get out the door in time for school. Here they finish breakfast and clear the table or take a walk through the jungle.
I asked the kids what they thought of homeschool:
‘One problem is the teacher is your mum‘
‘It’s good coz you get to see your mum all day’
Ha ha!! No pleasing everyone.
a crafty class