Yahya Addison, of The Learners Center, shares his own family’s journey to homeschooling.
As a career educator, I have worked across the K-12 curriculum in public, parochial, and leading international schools. As a young man finishing an unintentionally accelerated bachelor’s program, I found myself abandoning aspirations towards a career in law in favor of teaching after an experience tutoring at a school in an impoverished neighborhood, an invitation from Teach for America, and long discussions with my mentors in public education. So much more seemed to be needed. Our nation had so much more to offer our young minds. And so, with an armful of ambition and a head full of naivety, I became a teacher.
Quickly I realized that the deck was stacked against anyone; whether teacher, parent, or student; who strove for excellence, integrity, and true independence in learning. “Perhaps the international school community might have something to offer,” I thought; and so, after three years teaching at home, I headed for a U.S. embassy school abroad where, no doubt, the ideas percolating in the community and delivered in our world-class training were innovative and high-minded. Nevertheless, politics, perfunctory policies, and pedagogical preferentialism prevented their implementation, and I was quickly disenchanted.
Around this time, nearly 11 years ago, my wife and I were blessed with our first child. “Little Sky” was the meaning of the ancient name we gave her, and our hopes were no less for her than the very highest reaches of her namesake. As I am sure was the case with you, this was a time for reflection. We knew immediately that school as we knew it was not what we wanted for her. Homeschooling would be ideal, but I had to work full-time and my wife felt that her own experience in failing public schools had not prepared her for such a task. It occurred to us that we could create the school we wanted, that so many others wanted. We had time, after all. We were sure that the traditions of our faith and the successful example of systems such as that in Finland were correct in their guidance that formal education should wait until the age of 7. So, I strove to do all I could to prepare myself for a career in education leadership.
I enrolled in a leading M.Sc. program at a school known for drawing upon international field research; I expanded my teaching certification to include history, English, and life sciences at the secondary level and all subjects at the primary level; I pursued training in the Advanced Placement program and leadership of the International Baccalaureate Programme, of which I was a graduate; and I secured career opportunities that provided me with much needed leadership experience. I served as a department head, then as a vice-principal, then as a at an international consultancy and training company; and in each experience, I saw that schools across the globe and of widely varying outlooks were all reflecting what the likes of John Taylor Gatto, Susan Wise-Bauer, Ken Robinson, and others were all saying: that schools were ill-equipped for true learning; which should expand the mind, invigorate the body, and inspire the spirit.
The time came for my eldest to begin her formal education, and we were still unsure that we could homeschool on our own. We opted for the next best thing. Our friends and neighbors, homeschoolers themselves, had already begun the project I had originally intended. They had created a small community school with a handful of families to support their children’s educational needs and to inculcate in them the values they held dear. Aha! We’d found it – so we thought. While I have high regard for the intentions of my friends, I found again the same. It seemed as though there was an inverse relationship between the level of organization of a school and its achievement of stated aims, that a greater level of organizational development actually led to educational entropy.
When my second child was approaching 1st grade, I was willing to give school one more try. This time, I would be there. I’d be able to see what was going on. I was in a leadership and teaching position at an innovative IB school with a theoretical emphasis on inquiry, conceptual learning, and cultural relevance I had not yet seen. The IBO had given the school a unique authorization, the first of its kind in the world; most of the staff and many of the families were multilingual, and I was even sent to Germany for training at one of the most prestigious international schools in the world. Again – woeful disappointment.
As a teacher and leader, I saw that the vision simply could not match with the reality in a school environment (something I observed at the aforementioned school in Germany as well). As a parent, I felt the pain of my children whose early passion for learning was now in its death throes. The chaos, the bullying, the neglect, and the overall hypocrisy in every community in which we had schooled and worked led me and my family to give up. The confidence of my eldest was crushed, and my youngest began to lie (the truth was not helping her in a struggle against more than one bully). My wife and I threw in the towel and decided there was nothing for it but to take our children’s learning into our own hands.
The journey did not begin as so many had before in our lives together, with daring (some may say recklessness) and a bold plunge into the unknown (we’ve lived in 7 countries, fled a revolution, visited wonders of the world in the Near and Far East, and tread desert paths alone that most attempt only with a guide); but in this endeavor, so high were the stakes, that we proceeded with hesitancy and trepidation. Even as a career educator with global experience and over a decade’s worth of training, I was unsure about how to proceed. So, I trusted my instincts.
We began with something of an unschooling approach, which was right for the time and the situation while we rekindled our children’s confidence and natural inclination to learning. There was no shortage of criticism from friends, family, and mentors, nor of doubt in ourselves, our decision, and our capabilities. But little by little, inch by inch, we crept towards a light we could see at the end of this tunnel, a light reflected in the countenance of our children, in their increasing aptitude for inquiry, in their participation as integral members of our family, and – gradually – in traditionally accepted milestones for literacy and numeracy.
We began with literacy, sharing with Susan Wise-Bauer the desire for our children to construct for themselves a world of words rather than images, and with life. The children helped around the house; we went backcountry camping; they learned to swim, to cook, to knit, to act, and to defend themselves – much of it on their own through exploration and experimentation. After they began to look at books again with curiosity rather than contempt, we moved on to numeracy, foreign language, and formal religious instruction. Some things we did ourselves, others we contracted to competent tutors and practitioners we trusted and could hold accountable. I was proud when one of their teachers said that my daughter provided the most reflective answers to questions posed to their small divinity class. And as we were hiking on a little-known trail near my father’s house in Texas, my eldest, who was impressed with Daddy’s discovery, quoted the Lord of the Rings, saying, “Strider can take you on paths that are seldom trodden.”
Our trips home to the U.S. are always full of book purchases. So, this year, I purchased some homeschool “curricula” published by a major text-book provider – just to see. Were they measuring up to the “standandards”, or did the cobbler’s children have no shoes? Indeed they were meeting the standards, having come from so far “behind” – whatever that means. What’s more, my pre-schooler is now asking to do work with his siblings and mimics their spirit of independence and inquiry. We had no doubts from a social and behavioral perspective as our kids were getting more time with us, more social guidance from people who care, and a rich set of experiences with their peers, family, and nature. Still, criticisms from outside had us doubting our children’s academic achievement; but we stuck to our guns, and it has paid off.
Now that I am in the business of designing custom homeschool experiences for children like mine, I am hearing the much the same story of struggle and success. I’ve had to counsel parents through the same doubts, the same criticism, and the periods of adjustment; but we’ve also celebrated the success that comes with patience and perseverance. There’s a moment when every successful homeschooling parent realizes, “We did it.” There will always be the naysayers, and their voices seem loud and reasonable at the beginning. Many times, the volume doesn’t decrease, but successful homeschooling parents can tune them out when they see the fruits of their labors.
For those veterans out there reading this, I’m sure you’ve seen the same time and again. As for us, we are now wholly confident in our decision. We know we’ll make mistakes along the way, but that’s part of what we’re teaching our children: that mistakes are an integral part of life. Our biggest mistake was our hesitancy in starting homeschooling earlier for fear of taking a misstep. But even that has been corrected, and it is my sincere hope to continue being part of this journey with other families so that they might benefit from each other’s experiences on the path and share something of their burden, lightening the load as they travel.