When I was a child I loved playing school. Fortunately, I had two younger sisters, and because I was the oldest and the bossiest, I could order them to sit in front of my blackboard and be my students.
“Vicky, sit still and pay attention!” I’d say sternly, waving my chalk in front of my poor five-years-younger sister. “Now repeat after me, A is for apple.”
Vicky and Barbie would endure my games for a while and then they’d dissolve into tears or start to moan and my mother would come running. “They’re only little. Leave them alone.” And then I’d be reduced to teaching the teddy bears.
Years later Vicky admitted she’d learnt quite a bit from those childhood games. And those school games couldn’t have been all bad. Now she is a mother of 8, unschooling her own children.
Surprisingly, I didn’t become a school teacher. I became a scientist and then a mother. But those teaching ambitions must have been lying there dormant, not dead… waiting. The year our eldest child, Felicity turned five, I saw my opportunity.
At that moment in time, all my friends were talking school. Where were we all going to enrol our children for kindergarten
“I’m thinking about the Catholic school.”
“But the public one is closer.”
“What about you, Sue? Where are you sending Felicity?”
“Well…umm… I think we’ll hold her back another year. She’s not yet five. April birth, you know. Bit borderline. Probably better to wait until she’s a little older…”
And my friends accepted that and I kept my secret. My secret? My secret desire to homeschool.
I’d thought about it carefully. I knew the possibilities. My mother was homeschooling my much younger brother (he hadn’t settled well into regular school.) I’d read up on all the rules and regulations. I knew how to get registered. I just didn’t know how to tell my friends. I suspected they’d think me crazy. So I decided we’d be undercover homeschoolers. We would look like a normal everyday family in public, but when no one was looking we’d disappear behind the closed doors of our home and assume our secret identity: homeschoolers.
Sometimes I wondered: What if my friends were right? Maybe I was a little bit crazy. Could I really teach a child of my own? I questioned and answered myself.
Who knew my child best? Me.
Who cared about her the most? Me.
Who had already taught her so much? Me.
What was so special about the magic age of five? Well, there was the issue of reading. Could it be any harder than toilet training? Or sleeping through the night? Maybe not.
Would Felicity keep on learning if I kept on teaching? Probably.
Questions asked, questions answered. I convinced myself I could do it. But I had a back-up plan. Just in case. I reassured myself that Felicity could always start school with the 5-going-on-6 year -olds the following year if necessary, and no one would ever know about our failed experiment.
I was so excited. I had a real live student, not a reluctant younger sister or a row of stuffed teddy bears but a daughter and she was going to be brilliant. I just knew it. But I had a lot to learn.
I guess all my ideas of education were based on my own experiences of learning. I’d gone to primary schools, high schools, correspondence schools, public schools, private schools, religious schools, co-ed schools, girls’ schools. A lot of schools. The only thing I hadn’t tried was boarding school. I did beg my mother to let me try this out too, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to let me go. Anyway, I knew all about school even though I’d hated most of them. I knew nothing about homeschooling.
When we set out along the homeschooling pathway, we didn’t know any other homeschoolers, apart from my mother. So we went looking for people we could connect up with. We heard about a homeschooling conference and, of course, we had to attend. I couldn’t wait.
The day came and we set off with three children in tow. What a day! I sat enthralled, soaking up everything I heard. The speaker talked at a million miles an hour, pacing around and around the room, waving her arms in emphasis and infecting us all with her bubbling-over enthusiasm. It was heady stuff. I came home buzzing. I’d seen the possibilities: homeschooling was going to be a huge enormous adventure. I’d learnt so much in the space of a day. I had so much more to learn. But one thing was certain: we wouldn’t be doing school at home. I wouldn’t be sitting our daughter in front of a blackboard. I wouldn’t be waving a stick of chalk under her nose as I ordered her to, “Sit still and pay attention!” There were other ways.
Yes, our first contact with homeschooling wasn’t at-home-school.
It wasn’t classical education. It wasn’t even Charlotte Mason. No, we’d stumbled into a style of homeschooling that was there right at the cutting edge of alternate education. We were going to be unschoolers.
I’d spent the day in the company of pioneer homeschoolers, those brave and forceful mothers who’d lobbied and fought to have the education laws reformed, the women who read John Holt and Growing Without School and whose children learned and played and discovered and were brilliant.
Words danced inside my head forming sentences: Children learn all the time not just between the hours of 9 and 3. They have a natural love of learning. Children don’t need to be bribed to learn. They don’t need to be threatened with punishment to learn. They cannot help learning when surrounded by a rich environment. Life is learning. Let children lead. Trust your children. Help them. Listen. Respect each other. Enjoy. Have fun. Follow passions. Learn together. Be a family … So much to think about.
We became unschoolers. The months passed swiftly. Soon it was the end of the year.
“So where will be Felicity be going to school after Christmas?”
“We’re not sending her to school. We’re teaching her at home.”
We’d done it. We were no longer undercover secret homeschoolers. We had come out in the open.
Our friends sort of drifted away. It was inevitable. We were walking different roads. But we didn’t want to return to the mainstream. We were headed out on a big adventure. Our feet were firmly treading the homeschooling pathway. We’d followed the sign marked “Unschooling”.What was ahead?
A side track was coming in view. We glanced quickly around. No one was looking. We headed down it and away from unschooling…