This is a post in a series, Jesus At the Blackboard, a place to come and share our stories about educational choices in order to broaden the conversation without making parents feel bad about themselves. You can find all of the posts in this series here.
Jenn Lebow is one of the reasons that I love the internet. Her Mercy Mondays link up was how I got to know her, and frankly her thoughtful posts really challenged me as a writer, and the other links REALLY challenged me as a Jesus Lover. When it comes to education, been there done that could totally be her model and I really enjoy her thoughtful honesty here.
Education Decision 1-2-3
I grew up in two cities in Texas – Fort Worth and College Station – and attended public school from kindergarten through my senior year in high school. (Though I must confess that as a kindergartener, my school was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while my father spent a year on a journalism fellowship. My parents hustled me back home to Texas when they heard me calling the eating utensil a “faaark” instead of a “foe-work.” Because a Texan worth her salt knows how to add a syllable to any given word and still make it sound good.)
As the product of a public school education, I assumed I’d send my children to public schools, too. In fact, sending children to private schools seemed wasteful and foolish to me as a child. I remember feeling sorry for parents who didn’t realize that perfectly good schools existed, right in their neighborhood, for FREE! My parents didn’t express that opinion around me; I don’t remember whether they had a strong opinion about private schools. They did, however, volunteer at the schools I attended, so their interest and involvement in my education remained strong.
One indication of the importance of education at my house: I was in eighth grade, 13 years old, before I realized that going to college was optional. Our teacher asked if we had an interest in going to college, and if so, where we wanted to go. I looked around the room in confusion. “If? If we wanted to go to college?”
It’s fair to say I was a little naïve, not to mention that I sometimes formed assumptions about the “right” course of educational action without having all the facts.
As I look back on my children’s educational paths so far, I remember public schools in Texas, private American schools in foreign countries, private French schools in foreign countries, a private Christian school in America, one year of homeschooling, a private French school in America, and a public school in Virginia. Pretty much the only things we haven’t done so far are boarding school, military school, and unschooling.
Although the year of homeschooling swerved dangerously close to unschooling several times, if we’re being honest. Let’s just say I am not cut out to be a homeschooler. I’m far too prone to call a “stay in your pajamas and read any book you want” day. Or week.
From all of these experiences, I’ve identified three factors that most affect my children’s success in school. Working from least effecting to most, they are:
3. School’s approach to learning: Interestingly, Einstein and Blossom, as different as they are, both responded best to a “one size fits all” approach. Instead of the teacher letting students work at their own pace or in smaller groups according to academic level, Einstein and Blossom do their best work in classes that expect everyone to work through the curriculum together, even when (or maybe at their best when) the teacher set higher standards than they found comfortable. Cartwheel liked staying in the middle of the pack, too. None of the three of them excelled when self-paced study ruled the classroom. Cartwheel struggled not to fall behind everyone else’s pace. Einstein raced through work, only to find himself bored waiting for others to catch up. Blossom felt lonely without friends working alongside her, and lost her motivation. Small groups didn’t work well, either. No one wants to be in the slower group, some get a bit too much ego from being in the faster group, and some find talking to their friends too great a temptation. (For the record, I’m not naming names when it comes to these effects, and some of my kiddos fit into more than one of the aforementioned statements.)
2. Class size: As homeschoolers in an official class of two students at two different levels, plus a baby-sized mascot, Einstein and Blossom agreed that our class size was too small. Einstein has also been in a class of four, which even for an introvert was too small. Blossom has nightmares when she even thinks of that size class: “Mommy, how would I go on without at least ten friends???” On the other end of the spectrum, all three kids reported feeling lost or unnoticed in classes of 25 or more. I don’t blame teachers for class size, nor for having limited time for each student when more than 25 kids sit in one classroom. I understand also that without more money, schools can’t feasibly form smaller classes in most school districts. However, when we talk about quality of education, my kiddos have most enjoyed classes of 13-20 students, in which a sufficient number of friend options exists, but the variety does not overwhelm. In which academic competitiveness flourishes, but small groups remain mostly unnecessary. In which teachers feel pulled in only four million directions instead of forty million, God love ’em.
And speaking of teachers….
1. Teacher attitude and ability: Hands down, without question, my shy kid, my brainy kid, and my gregarious kid responded most to the attitudes their teachers projected in class. From the kindly British teacher who reminded his students of the importance of “not being a jerk,” to the strict French teacher whose frowns motivated her class to improve and receive her sunny, approving smile, the most progress came when our kids’ caring teachers took the time to gauge the reaction of the students. Our hardest difficulties occurred when teachers turned their classrooms into popularity contests or tried to eliminate all traces of humor and personality from their lesson plans.
In short, what we’ve learned about education from our smorgasbord of schools so far is that every type of education offers some advantages and some disadvantages. No one system is right for every family, every student. No one system exclusively embodies academic virtue. If we’ve picked up one overarching lesson, both from school and life so far, it is that each family should do what works best for the people in that family, and should offer empathetic support to families who choose differently. Everyone aims for success; thankfully, each of us achieves it when we steer toward our strengths and abilities, whatever academic route we choose to get there.