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Why did we really quit home school? Part II: the specific good and bad

Last week, I answered a few questions about switching from home school to a traditional classroom. I promised to give some specifics about the good and the bad.

Once again: I make no claim that these are things that always happen to every person who makes the choices we made. I’m simply talking about our experience.
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Also, this is where we’re at six years in. I would have written a different post in the first few months! It was a pretty rough transition, emotionally and logistically; but the worst aspects were temporary. Even when things were rough, we never felt like we made the wrong choice.
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What drawbacks have we experienced from sending our kids to school?
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1. It’s exhausting. We have to wake up early and come home late, and on weekdays, we spend the most time together when we’re tired and cranky. We spend a ton of time in the car, and this stinks. Literally. Do you know what happens to an apple core when it gets frozen in spilled seltzer, and then defrosts five months later? Nothing good. 

2. The paperwork and logistics. Our school is really good about keeping paperwork and homework minimal, but it was hard for us to get used to even basic things like, “Where’s my lunch box?” Sometimes it feels like there is always something to sign, always a check due, and always something to volunteer for (and we are probably the least volunteering family in the school). It’s unrelenting, and the kids always remember they need something at 11 PM.

3. It can be expensive. We never spent much money on home school (because we didn’t have it), and when we first started sending the kids to school, it was really hard to find the money for basic school supplies, normal-looking clothes, and gas money for the commute. But our income has increased as our expenses have (partly because I can work more now that the kids are in school); so now if we have to buy special binders or pay for a field trip or replace water bottles or indoor shoes, we can swing it.  They are also pretty generous with scholarships. Our kids are used to the idea that we only order pizza every other week, and we aren’t doing book orders and ski club and such, so it’s manageable.

4. The influence of bad kids. Some of the other kids they spend time with are jerks, and our kids pick up some bad stuff from these kids. This worries us. Even the good kids have some bad ideas. They all think divorce and gay marriage and premarital sex are normal, for instance. We try to make this aspect of our lives into an opportunity to remind kids that they are born to be evangelists; that they should expect to stand out because of their faith; that we don’t do things just because everyone else is doing them; and that we all need to learn how to be good to people we don’t like, and we all need to learn how to treat people well even when we don’t approve of (or imitate) what they are doing.

Our younger kids are in a small school with involved parents, and we like most of our kids’ friends. The high school kids have to put up with a lot of unpleasantness (profanity, sexual talk, kids who are promiscuous and drink and take drugs and have contempt for decency in general), especially in the hallway and on the bus. They try to find decent friends, and they wear their earbuds when they’re outnumbered.

Most of our kids have a bit of chip on their shoulder about not conforming, and I sometimes worry more that they’re turning into snobs than I do about them becoming too worldly.

5. It’s harder to shape their tastes. We haven’t come across the teachers exposing the kids to anything objectionable — the last thing most teachers want is start some war with the parents — but they do introduce them to mediocre stuff sometimes, especially fiction and music. It’s harder to get some kids excited about Narnia if all their friends are racing through the 374 volumes of Pixie Friends of Bubblegum Hollow available at school.

6. I hate sending my little ones off. When they are gone for a big part of the day, our relationship changes forever, and it hurts (even when I see that it’s good for them in many ways). But we love our kindergarten teacher to bits, and the kids do well when they get in on the ground floor.

7. We don’t get to choose how to spend our time. This is the one thing that makes me really miss home school. We don’t have much time or flexibility to do fun or important things together as a family, like go to museums or other cultural events, or celebrate religious feasts in a big way, or have long vacations, or have vacations when we need or want them. We haven’t even been to the library in a very long time (although they do use their school libraries, and the older kids walk to the public library every day to be picked up). Reading aloud has to happen in the evening, and we may or may not be in the mood. Religious education has to be crammed in here and there. And summer vacation is criminally short. We have to be really judicious about our free time, and there’s never enough of it.
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8. It’s harder to find time for religious practices. We used to be able to build any Holy Day or observance of the liturgical year into our day. Now it’s hard not to feel like HDOs are a burden, because we have to schlep to the next town in the dark at the end of a long day, rather than taking a day off school and baking a cake in honor of the Blessed Virgin. We have to fight to celebrate Advent while all the other families are already halfway done with Christmas. And so on.
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The benefits to our kids and our family:
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1. It’s a relief to have someone else in charge of the crappy, boring stuff. It just is. I never have to teach place value again. I never have to look at a periodic table unless I want to, which I don’t. I love this relief, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! I enjoy sharing certain books, music, art, and ideas with the kids, and I can let someone else handle the draggy stuff. Woo hoo! When I help them with homework, it’s always a wonderful reminder that we made the right choice to quit home school.
 
2. The kids are involved in things they never would have been involved with — extracurricular things, like band, choir, drama, Shakespeare club, ropes courses, field trips to D.C. and New York City — and academic things, like advanced math and science courses, silver smithing, Mandarin, science fairs — that we either couldn’t afford, or didn’t know how to access, or didn’t have the energy or expertise to pursue. These things were all available to us as home schoolers in theory; but in practice, they weren’t coming into our lives.
Also, this may seem trivial, but the kids enjoy class parties like you wouldn’t believe. I tried to make holidays special at home, but Valentine’s Day and Halloween and such are much more fun for the kids when they whoop it up with their class.
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3. We desperately need structure. With twelve people in the house, anarchy is always right around the corner. Even when I had a set schedule for home school, it was too easy to fudge it, and get nothing done, or never get dressed, or never leave the house. I need externally-imposed structure, or I return to muck. If I know I have to leave the house at 2:30, I finish my writing and plan dinner by 11 a.m. 99% of the time. If I know I’ll be home all day, well . . .

4. The kids get teachers who are trained in how to teach. In our charter school (which is K-8), the classes are small and there are teacher’s aides who can work with the kids individually, and they have much better success than I do, especially in math.  I know, I know, I’ve been to college, and anyway I’m their mother, and that makes me an expert in my kids. That was enough as long as I was teaching a kid who didn’t actively resist whatever I was teaching; but it wasn’t enough for when we hit a stone wall. Sometimes, I just plain wouldn’t know how to do it, and so it didn’t get done. In theory, I could tailor the lessons to the kids’ individually-appropriate learning styles; but in practice, I was only one person, with limited patience and imagination and zero training, and I was too overwhelmed to go into depth with any of the myriad tips and guides for how to teach in various ways.

Many of our kids’ teachers have been good, and a few are truly great. I was afraid the kids would get a mediocre education, but they’re actually getting quite a good one. It’s not necessarily the same kind of education I once hoped to give them, but in some ways, it’s better.

5. It’s been good to have help from experts. This is more private, so I’ll be vague, but we have benefited from the advice of experts who are trained to notice when kids could use outside help. I don’t think anyone would have picked up on these issues if we had been home schooling, because no one else would have spent enough time with our kids to notice them; and that would have been a huge loss. And it’s also been a gateway revelation for me, making me more open to the idea of getting help for myself when I need it.

6. We are off each other’s backs, which is good for kid-kid relationships and for kid-parent relationships. There are a lot of introverts in our family, and we get along better when we’re not on top of each other all the time. We like spending time with each other, and we love each other, and the kids play together and do projects together; but we seem to recharge with some time apart. We’re all happier when our relationship is not colored by the emotional and psychological stress that went along with academic work. Which is a fancy way of saying that my kids aren’t always mad at me for making them do division drills, and I can look into their pretty faces without thinking, “You don’t know about the War of 1812, and it’s all my fault!”

7. We just meet more people this way, and get exposed to the things that these new people are interested in, and are more confident around people who aren’t like us. My kids have made friends, I’ve made friends, and it’s been great. We’re all way more friendly and outgoing, more confident and socially adept than we used to be.

8. I’ve learned invaluable lessons about parenting and life in general: Not everyone needs to be just like me or my ideal. Most people are actually decent, and don’t mean us harm, and may have something wonderful to offer. I can’t and don’t give my kids everything they need. It’s okay to change my plans. It’s okay to be wrong about stuff, as long as you’re willing to change. Hardly any choice you make will be all good or all bad. And not everything has a simple solution, especially when it comes to people.

And the biggest change of all, which is both good and bad:
We’ve had to accept that we’re not in control. When we were home schooling, I used to lie in bed for hours, literally shaking with terror and guilt over the horrible job I was doing. I would ask myself, “Yes, but would I rather have no control over my kids’ educations? What’s better, to be responsible for absolutely everything, or not to be in charge of anything?”
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Turns out it was a false dichotomy. If we had been doing a better job in home school, I would have delegated more, so I wouldn’t have been responsible for everything; but now that we’re not home schooling, it’s not as if we’ve completely relinquished our influence over them.

Other people now have a big influence over our kids’ attitudes and what information they’re exposed to. Do they learn things I’m not happy about? Yes indeed. The kids sometimes casually mention some fact that I know is false, and I realize there must be more that I don’t know about. This is probably the scariest part. We have to be on the alert, especially when a kid is taking a history course (what will they teach about the Crusades?) or a biology class (what will they cover in the reproductive unit?). So nu, so it’s called talking to your kid.

But we get to know the teachers for the younger kids, and have learned to trust them; and we check in with our older kids to see what they are reading and learning. We accept that this is part of this kind of schooling. It just is.  I used to believe that teachers were just aching to usurp the parents’ authority. Turns out most of them, as I mentioned, just want to educate kids, and they love it when parents get involved. The schools are good about keeping us in the loop  — for instance, we could opt out of the sex ed sessions in middle school, and we have to give written permission for the high school kids to watch movies.

More importantly, it was always true that I was not in control of how my kids turn out. I just wasn’t able to face that fact. Learning to live with that has been one of the hardest, most valuable lessons of parenthood and of life in general.
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Would this have happened if we had continued to home school? Who knows? God is flexible, and He can tell you the things He wants you to hear no matter when and how you decide to start listening. For us, making the change in how we educate our kids was opening to the door to some of the best things we have now.

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