A Safe Place to Land

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A Safe Place to Land

Pavlina McMaster

A little over a year ago, we moved out of our community of 20 years. I was excited to find a mould-free rental with a back yard, but at the time, there were so many unknowns. How was I going to find friends for my kids? How was I going to find the same support level? Was I going to find adults to hang out with during the week? And would I ever find someone to walk with at night? We left the Yarra Valley behind, but kept our post office box there as a bit of an escape hatch. We’d see how this new adventure panned out and bolt “home” if we needed to. 

A year on, home is now the Toomuc Valley. We’re not going back. We have found community, friends, support, and adults to hang out with during the week (I’m still working on finding a walking partner). I would go so far as to say we have found family. 

What started as a brief conversation on the Victorian Homeschoolers and Unschoolers Facebook page has blossomed into a network of homeschooling friends. We were welcomed into our new Homeschool Co- op by Roanna and Beth on a cold, wet day at the beginning of autumn, and we have found our place. A year on, I now help admin the group, and our numbers continue to grow. 

Our members are incredibly diverse – we come from diverse faiths, backgrounds, educational experiences, reasons for homeschooling and home education philosophies and styles. We have members who are eclectic, some who do school-at-home, we have those who follow Charlotte Mason and others who follow Montessori or Steiner methods, those who unschool and those who do Distance Ed. 

But it works, and it works well. When we come together every week, we do not leave our beliefs at the door, but we use each other as sounding boards for how to develop our own home education craft. We share ideas, successes and failures. We are united by belief in our choices to home educate, whatever the reasons. We accept all comers, and work to find common ground. None of it is deliberately staged, we can go weeks without talking about home ed styles, and we do not have “group rules” but we treat everyone’s opinions with respect and consideration. 

I recently realised that I do not know what styles many of the other families in our group employ, simply because it has never come up with them. We have too many other things to talk about, all the time – growth spurts, food, car problems, easy ways to remove eggshells from hard-boiled eggs, the benefits of catching VLine trains over Metro (numerous, in case you’re wondering), home education regulations (not surprisingly), what we did on the weekend…..the list is endless. Conversations about philosophies are incidental. 

Our family are natural learners/unschoolers, and I have to say that our group is a wonderful place to be – there is no judgement, there is no suggestion that we’re irresponsible or doing it “wrong”. I have come across judgement from others in the home education community, outside our group, and reading some submissions to the DET was confronting. As a community, we owe it to ourselves and to others to accept other home educators as they are. United we stand, divided we fall and all that. 

I like to think all our local groups are welcoming. Newly minted home educators need somewhere safe to land. It is hard to come into a new group, especially when you have just moved from distant lands, or when you have just pulled a traumatised child out of school. These are challenging life changes to deal with, and we need to be gentle with each other in the process. 

We run a Facebook page, and we welcome new members in a simple, single line. People are then aware that there are new members coming into the group. Sometimes we organise play dates with new members so the kids can meet one or two families before being overwhelmed by the masses on a Friday. This doesn’t always work, is sometimes forgotten, or doesn’t work out, but the intentions are good and our follow-through, while inconsistent, is improving, I think. 

When new members come to their first meet-up, we make an effort to include them, introduce ourselves, and have a chat. Again, the execution sometimes falls down, but we have four admins for our group, and between us we manage okay. We could be more strategic, but then it would also seem less natural. However, I think there’s a lot to be said for having safety nets. Often new families are less confident, and some parents are less forward than others. We need to be mindful of the person standing alone, or a little apart. 

As admins, we also take concerns of members seriously. As with any congregation of humans numbering more than one, issues will arise, usually between children, often involving those who have recently left school, but sometimes longer standing home educated kids too – this is inevitable. As parents, we make an effort to introduce our children to the new ones, and think about who might fit in well with the newcomers. Again, our system is not perfect, but we try to make a conscious effort to encourage and support interactions until friendships are established. 

We respect each other as parents and as educators. I think that there is a feeling in our group that everyone has something to offer. I think sometimes we don’t communicate things as well as we could, but we are busy parents and our children are our priority. Sometimes things fall by the wayside, but we always put in our best effort to include people and help them feel welcome. 

I recently asked for a little feedback to help in writing this article. Andrew, who often brings his kids to the group, had this to say, “The group works simply because it IS as welcoming to new families as it is. Being a relative newbie of the group, the unconditional support that has been offered to us, above and beyond the home ed aspects of the group, has been overwhelming to say the least. The openness and willingness of the group, dare I say ‘family’, to help each other, is unlike any other group mentality I have had the pleasure of experiencing. 

“The fact that we all come from very different backgrounds, our individual home ed styles reflect the diversity of the group, and yet we are all aiming to achieve the same ends, the best way to educate our children. How that happens is a non-issue, but the support is there, and that’s the great thing. 

“The real testament to the group is that my two girls, and my son, have made some amazing friends whom they really cherish. That makes it all worth it in the end.” 

It seems that support from regulars is a must. I think it also begins with the group admins, or organisers. Deb said, “What makes the group work is the relaxed agenda and ability for families to just be who they are, and a very accepting attitude, which I always believe is initiated by whoever organises a group – you can’t get a more gentle and caring group of women than those who run our group! We could improve on…..nup nothing I can think of! When I was new there were mums who came and introduced themselves to me. I did not feel awkward.” 

We have organised meals for members who are going through hard times or new babies, and a house cleaning working bee for another who was wheelchair bound for months. Tam had this to say, “I think you’ve created a warm, friendly culture that trickles down from the organisers and regulars. We’ve struggled for various reasons each of the times we’ve managed to make it along (last year just wasn’t great for us), but we’ve always been shown kindness and support during and after even though you barely know us.” Melissa backed her up with, “We have been home educating for nine years and have lived in different states, so we have met a lot of different homeschooling groups over the years. I have to echo Tam, that you have created a warm, friendly and welcoming homeschooling group/ family that we feel very blessed to be a part of. I think once you create such a great foundation, that like-minded families join and the magic keeps unfolding.” 

We accept all comers, and while we understand that all kids struggle at times, we do model close supervision of the kids. Don’t get me wrong, they free-range and are left to their own devices, by and large, but we are vigilant about watching for situations brewing, and we support the kids through solving problems if they arise. 

However, problems are uncommon, as the children in our group seem to pick up the relaxed and welcoming vibe of the parents, and respond to each other in similar ways to the parents. We model kindness and welcome, and they often seem to follow. 

I don’t by any means think we get everything right all the time. That would be impossible and, well, kind of boring. But we’re trying to listen to our members, make changes where they are needed, and embrace growth and change, and our new members as well. People make groups what they are, and it is up to us to create the kind of environments we want our children to be in. 

As Jess commented, “The group has been the most warm and welcoming homeschooling group I’ve come across. I’ve encountered zero judgement from anyone, everyone introduced themselves when we first came along, which was wonderful for someone like me who is introverted and shy. No one preaches to anyone else about any particular homeschooling style. Unschooling isn’t looked down upon and neither is more structured learning. There is countless support offered in all aspects, not just in a homeschooling capacity. Really it just comes down to the amazing people!” 

I would encourage all group organisers to embrace new members, not just accept them. Value them and their families for who they are, no matter their backgrounds, philosophies or education styles. These things bring richness and diversity to our home education community. We don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, but we can welcome our fellow humans with care, respect and wholehearted joy. 

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