Why Parents Can Be Successful Teachers at Home

One of John Holt’s many insights based on his classroom experiences and then later his work with homeschoolers, is that homeschoolers are better off NOT duplicating school methods at home, particularly by making the teacher the focus and controller of how learning occurs. Put the learner front and center and make the teacher “the guide on the side,” is one way to summarize this concept.

However, many parents doubt this insight because they were never trusted to learn in this manner and they default, as many teachers do, to teaching the way they were taught.

Further, many resist homeschooling because they don’t feel qualified to be their children’s teacher, and they doubt their children’s abilities to learn independently. Writing this reminds me of the first radio talk show I did about homeschooling, in 1985, where a caller excoriated me for claiming that parents can teach their own children: “I have five college degrees and I don’t feel the least bit qualified to teach my own children!” The irony of how his years of schooling disempowered a well-credentialed person from feeling competent enough to teach a young child how to read and write was not lost upon me, though he seemed unaware of it. I heard John Holt and Ivan Illich in my head saying, “School teaches the need to be taught” but I could not get that retort out. I was dumbfounded that such a smart person would admit to such a thing in public. However, I have, unfortunately, heard that sentiment expressed many times since then, which is why I want to write about being a teacher at the start of a new Not-Back-To School year.

What homeschoolers often don’t appreciate, and what many supporters of schools don’t appreciate either, is how many professional teachers have feelings of inadequacy when they teach. Changing curricula, new technologies, and social and political pressures make professional teachers feel unprepared to teach, yet children are in their classrooms every day, as these headlines show:

“Nearly Fifth of Teachers Say They Feel Unqualified,” reported the New York Times in 1999.

“Despite Training, Half of Teachers Feel Inadequately Prepared for Common Core” reports Education Week in 2014.

The headlines also show that the more things change in school, the more they stay the same—but this does not have to be true of your family and their learning.

You’re in good company if you feel shaky about your teaching skills, but here’s a beautiful thing about learning at home: You don’t have to be a conventional schoolteacher.

The training and skills needed to teach a class of 15 or more children who you don’t know well are totally different from the training and skills you need to help your own children learn in your home and community. Love, a library card, Internet access, and good conversation borne out of solid relationships are what many families discover creates authentic learning for children at home.

Not surprisingly, many educators have made this point in the past—Ivan Illich, John Holt, John Gatto, Chris Mercogliano, Matt Hern, James Herndon, and George Dennison all note how it is the personal relationships forged between teachers and students that produce meaningful learning. Today this point is lost in the technocratic search to create better teachers who can manipulate children to improve their test scores. Fortunately, homeschooling allows us the time and space to forge meaningful relationships with our children and communities, and this is something thoughtful schoolteachers also yearn for. David Kirp, a professor at the University of California–Berkeley, wrote in the New York Times (Aug. 16, 2014): []

TODAY’S education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy. Some place their faith in the idea of competition. Others embrace disruptive innovation, mainly through online learning. Both camps share the belief that the solution resides in the impersonal, whether it’s the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology. Neither strategy has lived up to its hype, and with good reason. It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.

It is an open debate whether school will embrace bonds of caring over bonds of control for children, but there should be no debate in your mind: Enjoy your time with your children so you can build a good relationship with them; as you observe your children they will show you, or outright tell you, how you can best help them learn.