‘You home educate your kids? Now, that’s a big job!’

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‘You home educate your kids? Now, that’s a big job!’

By Cynthia McStephen

Excuse me, I just have to crawl into a hole for a while before I can tackle this subject. I’m sure you won’t mind.

It’s the weight, you see. It’s the sheer effort of dragging around the huge expectations the world has of me as a home educating parent: ‘You must be so organised’, ‘I don’t know how you do it – I’d go mad if I had to be with my kids every day’, ‘Oh, you’re so good, I couldn’t do that’. And then of course there’s the classic: ‘Home Education? Now, that’s a big job!’

Ok, just in case you haven’t been on the receiving end of such comments recently, let me add one very important qualification. Comments such as the above are still – unfortunately – not the only ones that we home-edders hear, and negative comments (‘How could you do that to your children?’) still abound. However, many families report that there appears to be a subtle shift in community attitudes, and that they have recently enjoyed an increased number of positive and admiring comments about home education.

I suppose that, in many ways, we should be happy about this. I mean really, what’s not to like when someone tells us that we’re marvellous? It can be like a breath of fresh air to hear comments from people who, when they find out that we home educate, treat us positively instead of looking at us like we have three heads. But what worries me – in quite a big way, actually – is that often it’s just too admiring.

Now, before we look at the surprising problem of too much admiration (I know, how tough can it really be?), let’s have a look at why we home-edders are suddenly finding a modicum of acceptance in the community. In fact, there are probably several reasons why people are starting to treat us like we aren’t complete lunatics after all. There’s the growing popularity of home education, for example with registrations continuing to rise.

Following on from that is that more people in our community will already be aware of some home educating families on their radar, and may also know some home educated kids who are growing up and doing just fine, thank you very much. In addition, there are more frequent articles in the popular press which mention home ed in a positive light, as well of a number of competitions in which home educated children have been very successful. And yup, that’s the sort of thing that makes people sit up and take notice.

However, all of the above only explains why we may be regarded as not quite as lunatic-like as we may have been previously. But it’s the next step which we really want to explore in this article. Why are we receiving such admiring comments and hearing such unrealistic expectations of our abilities? How on earth did we morph – in the eyes of some people, at least – from lunatics to paragons? What caused home ed to develop this ridiculous aura?

Let’s take it apart and have a look at some of the elements which are at play here. One theory on admiring comments like these is that the speaker is imagining the role of a home educating parent, and feeling that he or she would fail in that role, because of an unrealistic belief that home ed is simply not something that should be undertaken by ‘real’ people with messy lives, complicated families, worries, obligations and real live emotions.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason which caused home education to be put in the ‘too-hard’ basket for ordinary people. I think it’s multifaceted, and we’d need to look at the history of school in Australia to really get a grasp on it. Schools were first developed in this country in response to an emerging attitude that education was desirable, and following on from that, that it was something which should be made available to children who weren’t being educated by their parents, tutors, apprenticeships and the like. The idea of free and compulsory education was originally conceived in order to ensure that no child should miss out, not as a way of forcing people who could do a perfectly good job of educating a child within the family arena to hand over that job to other people.

However, gradually schools became the default; people forgot the fact that they were originally intended as a safety net, and the premise that school was a necessary part of child development became entrenched. So much did school seem like a natural part of life that the pioneering parents in the home education community were greeted with an astounding sense of disbelief that they could even consider another educational path. People appeared to believe that it was almost impossible to successfully raise a child without school. The safety net had changed to become the Only Way.

In our area, a local primary school recently hosted a celebration to celebrate its centenary. One thing that struck me on the day were displays which showed various aspects of school life many years ago. Seeing something like that makes it glaringly obvious that the original ‘safety net’ of school, now seen as an essential part of child development, has changed a great deal. And as society has become – in some ways, at least – more complex and concerning, the job of assisting children to develop into great adults has meant that every year, schools have an increasingly complicated and difficult task. There’s no doubt that people are well aware of the pressures that teachers are under, and I believe that part of the mystique of home education arises from the aura which surrounds our colleagues in the teaching profession.

Now, it is not the intention of this writer to knock people who have chosen teaching as a career. Many of my good friends and some of my family are teachers. In fact, most of my family are teachers. (I’ll have to tread carefully here. If any family member of mine should ever read this, I’d just like to let you know that you’re fabulous and none of this applies to you. Oh yes, and you can ignore the entire thrust of this article, and please feel free to ring and tell me that I’m superb any time you like).

However, while teachers are not themselves individually responsible for the magical qualities which are ascribed to them, I think that over the years people in general have increasingly looked at teaching as being a hard job. They’re right. I grew up watching my parents work long hours, stress about difficult students, and stay up late into the night correcting homework or marking tests. They often found the expectations of the school leadership and the parents difficult to meet, and that was more than 30 years ago. Nowadays, teachers have even more stresses than they did then.

It’s well documented that many aspects of student behaviour have deteriorated, and that incidents of violence, including some that are frighteningly serious, are on the increase. Students are seen as less focused, more troubled, and social issues are seen as being more severe, than even a generation ago.  And let’s not even get started on the issue of teacher accountability, and the number of community-wide problems that are being tackled by yet another program being introduced into our schools. Guess who is at the pointy end of all of this? Yup, that’s right. Our friends the teachers.

All of this means that often, when people look at teaching, they see a job that they themselves would find difficult. However, it’s not just student behaviour and the increased expectations of schools that contribute to this opinion. There’s also the idea that the act of gaining knowledge itself has the reputation of being hard, and that someone who is able to lead others along this path must be skilled indeed.

But, quite frankly, teaching is not magic. When teachers graduate from college or uni, they are not presented with an automatic education-injecting machine to use on their students. Skilled at classroom teaching they may (or may not) be, but magic they aren’t. Teachers are human, with only 24 hours in every day, their own messy lives, limited patience and energy, and the weight of community expectations weighing heavily on them. Exactly, in fact, like home educators.

It’s not surprising, given that teaching is seen as harder than in previous generations, and home education is seen as increasingly acceptable, that we home-edders are sometimes on the receiving end of comments along the ‘Gosh, you’re good – I don’t know how you do it!’ lines. However, in some ways it may have been easier for us when we were regarded as lunatics. At least then if we seemed fallible, or if our children were acting up, it could be put down to our weirdo status: ‘Poor kids, but what would you expect, living with her.’

Quite frankly, while I do enjoy the increased acceptance, I must say that I find the whole pedestal bit pretty hard to take. And what worries me even more than the weight of the expectations that I joked about earlier, is my suspicion that the ‘big job’ aura of home ed goes a long way to putting many families off the idea that they too can educate their children at home.

If teaching appears hard, it’s not surprising that people contemplating home ed are daunted. It can seem pretty audacious that a ‘normal person’ – who may or may not know what a preposition is, how to handle a class of 25 Year 9 students, or even know what the current education acronyms stand for – could contemplate thinking about trying to do a better job than the experts. And that makes me sad. I want people to see home education as something that they CAN do if they want to, and not to be held back by the idea that home ed may be good in theory, but that they themselves couldn’t possibly measure up to do such a ‘big job’. It is safer, if you are not confident in your ability, to entrust a child to school, and maybe to dream of home education as an ideal that you would have loved to do, in much the way that some people would have loved to travel, but never quite managed to do it. And while that belief is an understandably safer way to approach life, it’s not actually a reflection of the reality of home ed.

Many things in life require thought and commitment. Parenting is one which springs to mind. Home education is another, and various career and lifestyle choices are also on the list. And of course not everyone is suited to being a home educator, just like not every person is suited to being a business person, a farmer or a mountain climber. However, it would be a great pity if those who would like to educate their own kids are put off by the seemingly huge and daunting task that any educator, whether in school or at home, is seen to have. And while on the one hand I revel in the occasional comment indicating that those in my community think that my role is praiseworthy, on the other I’m very concerned for those who think that they may not be up to the mark.

Home ed – a big job? Yeah, maybe, but more ‘doable’, less daunting, and not as difficult as you may think.


When Cynthia is not being a paragon of educational virtue, she has a messy, busy, and rather un-perfect life.

From Otherways 128

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1 Comment

  1. Michelle Mitchell says:

    You are so right!
    I was a ‘professional’ teacher (I used to get paid for teaching) and now I home educate.
    I would love a dollar for every time I heard this false admiration!
    I now tell people that my role is no different now to when my children were very young. I simply love them, notice them, spend time with them, guide and encourage them. They are incredibly capable human beings, so they teach me the rest!

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