Every homeschooler seems to have a story, although it is worth remembering that the reasons people start homeschooling, or home educating, are usually not the same as the reasons why they continue.
I started homeschooling when Pokemon Boy was nine years old. We had fairly recently moved from the UK to Sydney.
I had already considered home education for Drama King, because he did not do too well in his first year or so of school in England. He started nursery school (part-time) when he was three and a quarter, which now seems terribly young. He could be quite disruptive and inattentive. His teachers were sweet people, very tolerant of his behaviour, and usually explaining it by, “well, he’s so young still,” or, “he’s so bright.” He developed epilepsy when he was three and a half, so that was an additional burden, and it was never easy to work out exactly what was causing the behaviour. By the time he was four or four and a half, I grew to dread the afternoon pick-up. It seemed that every day the teacher was taking me aside to talk about whatever Drama King had done to disrupt the class. The best one was when Drama King had messed up all the PE kits, so no-one had the right clothes. All the parents were waiting outside the classroom for quite a while for the teachers to sort out the clothes again. And when the door opened I heard the familiar, “Could I just have a word with you?” Poor Drama King also had a patch when he was quite weak and would get fatigued easily, and was not very co-ordinated or confident in physical activities.
Drama King moved to another nearby school in the reception year. The teachers seemed to deal with him a little better than in his first school. He gained a best friend who was very similar to him, and quickly became part of a larger group of lovely, friendly children. However, in both schools, I never felt he was fitting in very well or achieving what he was capable of in the classroom. He had always been such an inquisitive child, always wanting to find out new things, and always asking questions. He had really looked forward to going to school like his big brother. But school, even these good schools, seemed to be a lot about sitting down, being quiet, writing neatly (which he found difficult) and only talking when appropriate.
This is all by way of background, to explain that I was already thinking about home education. I had been in touch with the home education community in England. I was on a few e-mail lists, I had stocked up on books (particularly a couple written by John Holt) and gone to a few meet-ups.
Before moving to Australia, I joined the RockpoolHomeschool online forum. A few people on the forum suggested that I should just go straight to homeschooling when we moved over. They also linked to Ken Robinson’s TED talk about changing paradigms and it was inspiring. But to be honest, I was not keen on moving halfway round the world and simultaneously taking the plunge to homeschool. I was pregnant with our fourth child, and I was worried about settling in and the boys making friends. I thought that joining the local public school would be an ideal way to get into the local community.
As soon as we had found an apartment to live in, we registered at the local public school. The boys started school the following week, conveniently right at the start of the Australian school year.
Drama King (by then aged 6 1/2) had pleaded with me not to take him to Australia. He knew how much he would miss his best friend. He landed on his feet. In his first year here, he had a wonderful teacher and quickly gained a whole load more friends. His teacher seemed capable of appreciating his good points and not focussing too much on his failings. She was truly exceptional, as she seemed to be able to do this for all the children in the class. She talked to us about his messy handwriting, but seemed very sympathetic. After a year of occupational therapy his handwriting was not so different to other children’s anyway. Although he would still tire after only a few lines of writing, overall he was getting far more physically confident and more co-ordinated. There was no doubt that moving to Australia had been a very positive experience for Drama King.
Pokemon Boy had changed school once before, at almost the same time as Drama King, and he dealt with the change extremely well, making friends really quickly. In contrast to his brother, he had been very positive about the move to Australia. It was a huge surprise when he found it difficult to settle in to his class here in Sydney. I put it down partly to the different culture and education system, and partly due to the age of the children. I feel it probably gets harder as the children get older. The change was hard for me, too, but I guess I felt more that it was my own choice and that I should make an effort to make it work.
In retrospect, we also put Pokemon Boy in the wrong school year. There is a mis-match between the two systems. He had already started Year 4 in England, when the school year started the previous autumn (in the Northern Hemisphere). Academically, I had no doubt that he was working at the same level as the children in Year 4 in New South Wales. I didn’t want him to be bored by going over the same material again. However, he was one of the youngest children in the class (by about 3 months). In the playground, if he played with anyone at all, he played with the Year 3 boys.
In the space of about six months, I saw my confident, friendly boy turn into a miserable child who frequently lashed out at me or his brother. For his birthday party that year, he complained that he hardly had any friends to invite. He ended up with a good list in the end, but my husband and I realised that some of the boys were ones who he just wanted to be friends with – the popular ones, the ones that made other boys laugh – rather than his real friends. It became apparent that a couple of them were not the kind of boys we would really want him to be friends with.
There was definitely some bullying going on, but I took too long to become aware of this. Pokemon Boy did not volunteer much information about what was happening. At school, he was well-behaved! But he was clearly stressed and he displayed heightened aggression – towards us, at home. He punched his brother at the fish and chip shop for some spurious reason, and he would frequently just walk off without us knowing where he was going. Once he punched a mild-mannered friend of ours for a perceived insult which was actually nothing of the sort. He was clearly a boy on the edge.
I did speak to his class teacher at the time, who, firstly, expressed surprise at my descriptions of him, because she viewed him as someone who did not cause much trouble. She rearranged the desks and tried to remove the bad influences and I think it made a small amount of difference, but not enough. Sadly, this teacher was only there for one term before leaving to take up a position that had been arranged in advance. My boy ended up with another new teacher the next term. The subtle bullying continued – or sometimes, not so subtle, such as when Pokemon Boy was pushed down the stairs. Pokemon Boy was always reluctant to tell me anything, and even when I worked out what was going on he definitely didn’t want to name any names. He usually said he didn’t remember or didn’t see who it was.
I didn’t want to take Drama King away from his wonderful class and teacher, and I was also heavily pregnant with my fourth child. But it was clear that we needed to do something for Pokemon Boy. I signed up to the Sydney Home Education Network. My partner researched other schools in the area.
Things came to a head one day when Pokemon Boy had a huge argument with me after school. He came home extremely hungry and was angry that there wasn’t much to eat in the house and I didn’t have dinner ready straight away. Eventually we got to the bottom of it. Another boy had walked up to him and had taken some of Pokemon Boy’s packed lunch.
My partner looked at me and said, “We have to do something.” I told Pokemon Boy he did not have to go back to school if he didn’t want to, and I started to fill in the forms for our homeschooling registration.
Pokemon Boy went back to school for one day, because he had a playdate organised for after school that he didn’t want to miss. After that he had five days off in a row. Bang on cue, the school called us to find out why he wasn’t there. I told them, which prompted a series of meetings with various members of staff (but, surprisingly, not his class teacher). Firstly they pointed out that I could not legally homeschool him without being registered, to which I responded that I already had a date for my interview with an appointed person from the Board of Studies. This threw them! I don’t think any of the staff knew anything about the process of being registered for homeschooling. I reckon they just wanted to scare me.
They all expressed such concern and regret about what had happened, asked me (or Pokemon Boy) to name the other boys involved (which he wouldn’t) and repeatedly pointed out that he should know he could always go and talk to a teacher whenever anything happens.
Both my boys had already told me that there were only a few teachers that actually bothered to listen when they complained about other children. The rest told them to sort it out. And in my experiences later on with Drama King, I realised that the teachers didn’t take much time to work out what was going on. They were happy to use one child as a scapegoat, hoping it would serve as an ‘example’ to the others. I can appreciate that school teachers are very stressed timewise and otherwise. Even in the home, and with only a few children, it’s very hard to get to the root cause of a dispute. But the teachers (most of them) were neither trying to behave as fair adjudicators nor to teach the children themselves how to behave to resolve conflicts.
Ultimately, I felt the staff were simply telling me what they felt they should say. They expressed great concern for my son, but were they really going to do anything? I doubted anything would change. Yes, the school had an anti-bullying policy. This policy seemed to hinge on the bullied child, the one who is most likely very unconfident and has low self-esteem, speaking out against the funny, strong, popular kids. That seemed like crooked logic to me and I even said so, in a letter. I suspect nothing has been changed either in the school policies or in their practices since we left.
At the same time, the school counsellor managed to suggest that Pokemon Boy was in fact an anxious child and that maybe all these incidents were not intended as bullying, and recommended a great program for childhood anxiety in which we could enrol him.
I did take Pokemon Boy to a psychologist for two whole terms. The first term followed the Cool Kids program for childhood anxiety, which is based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and is very effective. I thought it worked very well, and he seemed to have a good relationship with the psychologist.
Nevertheless, what worked best was actually removing him from the school and putting him back in control of his own life. In fact, before removing him from school I had already taken him to one homeschooling event. It was wonderful to see my son having fun, and engaging with the teacher and other children again. I had my happy child back, if only for one morning. The problem was (largely) not my child’s psychological make-up. It was the school system.
The second term we had a different psychologist who continually pushed to get him back to school, although being very careful with her words, and eventually none of us felt the sessions were very worthwhile.
Later I discovered that one of Pokemon Boy’s friends had been bullied a couple of years back by the same boy that was bullying my son. In exactly the same way as happened with my son, the victim was sent to a psychologist and nothing was done about the bully. I call that positive reinforcement of negative behaviour. It makes me sick.
What happened next with Pokemon Boy? We had a brief period when we were supposed to be doing flexi-schooling (part-time home, part-time school). This practice is not legally allowed in NSW but may occur in some schools if the principal allows it. The aim, as stated by the principal, was to help Pokemon Boy to get used to school again so that eventually he would go back full-time. I am now very skeptical about the real intentions of the school and I suspect they just wanted him on their records so they could still claim funding for him.
The flexi schooling was a waste of time. There was no direct communication between me and the class teacher, apart from one day when there was a mix up about where I was supposed to collect Pokemon Boy. This led to the teacher shouting at me in front of the rest of the class. I had to sign him in and out of school all the time, as opposed to when he was attending full-time and I could just let him cycle himself there and back. But what made it a real mockery was that I had no information about what the class was studying. I had a timetable, but nothing about the specifics of their studies from one day to the next. For example, when Pokemon Boy went in for ‘computer time’, they were all designing presentations about the book they had read the day before. We had not read this book – in fact we did not even have a copy of the book – because no-one had told me what they were doing.
The class teacher, bless him, sent all Pokemon Boy’s textbooks and workbooks back home because he couldn’t work out how I was planning to teach my son without them. But without a detailed plan the textbooks are not particularly helpful. And in fact they were not very good in any case. I soon decided to ditch them.
It was a relief when the family decided we were not going to carry on with the so-called flexi-schooling, and we could embark on our own learning adventure. It was a further relief when Pokemon Boy and I could stop visiting the schools my partner had shortlisted (although some of them were very impressive) and say that he was going to be homeschooled for the rest of primary school. That has since changed into “for as long as we can both cope with it, unless our circumstances change significantly.”
Drama King joined us the next year when he was about 8 years old, following a change of teacher to one who was far, far more traditional and definitely put more emphasis on writing neatly than on asking insightful questions. In retrospect, I should have worked out in the first week that she was not the right teacher for my Drama King. Instead, we stuck out two terms of her teaching, with a cover teacher for one term. At the end of Term 3 I found out that he was regularly being put in detention along with his friend, who has autism. The school were not communicating with me or the other parent about this. A few misunderstandings between my son and the staff made me determined to pull him out, and presciently, I had already applied for our certificate of registration that August when I re-registered Pokemon Boy.
Reptile Boy (by then four and a half years old) did two terms of pre-school. He had loads of friends there, and the approach was very child-focussed, with resources that made me wince with envy. Nevertheless he decided he’d rather be doing what his brothers were doing at home!
Now we are all four at home, plus Princess, my youngest, every day except one when she is in family daycare.
That’s our story. I am sure I have missed out some details but I hope it is helpful to someone out there. I have always appreciated reading people’s honest stories about why they started homeschooling, and I am telling our story in the hope it will help other people to make the decision one way or the other.