One family's quest to learn together
Until December last year, both Lucy and Oscar attended a private Anglican school, Lucy had just finished year 5, and Oscar had just finished 18 months of Reception. The school that they attended was a very nice school by all the usual community standards, but it was large, the class sizes were too big (around 30), and we felt that it was very academic in it’s approach to the early years. Despite having an excellent Montessori preschool, once the children moved over to the primary school in Reception, the notion of play-based, exploratory learning, seemed to go out the window.
The very first activity that both of our children did on their first school day was a writing lesson. They had to copy a sentence under one scribed by and adult and draw an illustration at the bottom of the page. This was before they had ever learnt their letters, or how to read, both had only just mastered writing their name. As an early childhood educator myself, this seemed like a rather harsh way to introduce children to the wonders of the written word. The daily writing lessons took all of the fun out of writing, it became a chore, and Oscar in particular dreaded coming to school each morning to see his writing book waiting on his desk. Both of our children are also left-handed, and in a classroom where neatness seemed paramount over enjoyment, we watched our children lose confidence in their own abilities because they compared their writing to others. On his second day of school, our son came home and told us, with tears in his eyes, that he ‘wasn’t very good at school’. Our hearts broke.
Lucy enjoyed learning maths concepts in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, but in Year 3 something really changed. In the first 3 ½ years of school manipulatives were routinely used as part of the lessons, counters, shapes, measuring equipment and so on. Most of the lessons involved small group work, and whether she was flying under the radar, or just understood better when she used her hands we’ll never know. I didn’t notice that there were any major gaps in her mathematical knowledge myself, but perhaps I should have seen the writing on the wall when her end of year report stated that she ‘rarely contributed to class discussions’. In Year 3 the maths manipulatives were relegated to the shelf and the ‘copy from the board’ and ‘sheet’ work replaced hands-on lessons. There was also a chart on the wall recording each member of the class’ mastery of times tables which was publicly shaming her. By the time her mid-year report came home we knew that Lucy was really struggling with the maths lessons and her confidence in the subject had been crushed.
Now, in all honesty we can not place all blame for our children’s academic struggles firmly on the shoulders of the school, and neither do I think it is fair for parents to do this. We chose the school that they attended, and out of 168 hours in a week, only 30 of them are spent in a classroom. Logically then, schools are only accountable for 17% of a child’s education, an education that parent’s choose! Simon and I have always firmly believed that our children’s education is our responsibility, both by way of the school that we make a decision to send them to, and the knowledge that we pass on to them ourselves.
Of course, if something’s not broken, why fix it? I know that there are lots of families that are very happy with the education that their children are receiving in mainstream schools, I’m envious of them frankly. With my own education background would I ever be able to find a school that I was 100% happy with? Probably not. When the cracks began to appear with our own children’s school experience shouldn’t I have been able to fix it? I am a teacher for crying out loud! In the beginning I tried. I went and spoke with their teachers about our concerns, I tried to do more with them at home to bridge the gaps, but I hit a major road-block.
No, it wasn’t my kids willingness to do homework (although they had zero interest in doing school work at home) it was our lifestyle that was blocking the way. I had given up teaching in favour of running my own small business, I worked 6 days a week, and the earliest I could expect to be home was 6pm, but often it was after the kids had gone to bed. Simon’s work day involved an hour commute to the city morning and night, and his weekends involved the bulk of the housework. As much as we knew it was our responsibility to take ownership of our kid’s struggles, our lifestyle just didn’t allow enough hours in the day to do this. Tired, hungry kids don’t tend to want to do extra maths and letter work in the evenings, and tired, stressed parents don’t tend to have the patience to pull this off successfully.
I’ll be honest, our first knee-jerk reaction was to consider finding another school for our kids, to offload the blame on to the school and the teachers. I’ve seen many parents do this over my years in classrooms, but I rarely saw it make parents happier. There are the serial complainers, the parents who are in the head’s office every other week complaining about the schools many faults and how their kid’s needs are not being met. Then there are the school hoppers, the parents who shift their kids from school to school, hoping that the change will suit their little ones better. Lastly, there are the car-park packs. These are the parents who air their complaints to anyone in earshot in the school car-park, but rarely communicate their concerns with teachers or heads. One thing that all of these parents has in common is; 1. They are rarely pleased with the reaction of the school, or the outcome they receive and 2. They fail to acknowledge that for 83% of the week, their cherubs are in their own care, and that should account for part of the problem.
The more we thought about finding a better suited school for Lucy and Oscar, the more we realised how futile it would be. In truth, we needed to spend more time with them. That’s it pure and simple. Our kids needed us, and we needed to take action quickly before their small struggles at school snowballed into huge ones with each additional year. This acknowledgement was a big wake-up call. It made us reassess all of the decisions we’d made, the area we lived in, the cost of living in our large home, and the hours we spent away from it. What was it all for, if we didn’t put our kid’s needs first? It also made us wonder why we had let the arbitrary benchmarks that education department sets for student attainment, (reports and testing) let us and our kids feel so bad about learning. Did it really matter if Oscar learnt to read and write at 5, 6 or 7 years of age? We knew he’d get there one day. If Lucy hadn’t mastered her times tables in by age 9, did that mean it was all over? Had she missed the chance to go back and learn the concepts of multiplication and even counting all over again? Schools are just so hung up on what student achievement should be per year, but in reality humans don’t learn that way, and life is not so neatly compartmentalised.
We know that not everyone would, or even wants to make the major life changes that we have made in the last 12 months. We sold it all, the house, the business, all of our possessions. Simon quit his job, (you can read more about our story here) and now we are travelling with our kids, learning as we go. Much of our efforts have focused on building the kid’s confidence again, and rekindling their interest in exploring and learning. We’ve found ourselves doing less and less of what would be considered ‘school’ work, and more natural, incidental learning, yet now we are much happier with their progress. Simply by removing the benchmarks, the school imposed timeframe, for when skills should be attained, our expectations have relaxed. We know that our children will learn everything that they need in good time. More importantly, now that we’ve taken on 100% responsibility for our children’s education, it’s not at all stressful or frightening, it is liberating. Remember the old saying, ‘If you don’t like how something is being done, do it yourself’? Well it couldn’t be truer.
Parents, YOU are responsible for your child’s education, whether you like it or not. Maybe it’s 100%, maybe 83% whatever rocks your boat. The question is do you step up to the challenge? And, if I might get you really thinking, does your lifestyle allow you to give it your best shot?