I didn't expect to have anything interesting to blog so soon. But these things often come up when you least expect them. Last Sunday night, I was visiting with a new acquaintance at the church playground while watching kids play. It turns out that their family also homeschools. So the topic turned to what methods do you use and are you with a group, etc. In the course of the conversation she made a little commonplace comment that I've heard often enough before. It was a comment that seems completely ordinary, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. The comment was that she didn't feel comfortable teaching her own kids after they reach 7th grade level work, so she sends her older kids to a charter school/homeschool arrangement where they are at school two days a week and then do independent study at home the rest of the week.
Now, please don't mistake my concern with this. I am not a purist that thinks my way is the only way. I have no problem with charter schools or independent study programs. I think that parents should be in charge of their own kids education whatever path they need to follow. The part of the comment that bothered me was not regarding method of schooling. The part that bothered me was about a person's comfort level in teaching their kids past a certain level.
Now, I understand that not all people feel like they can teach. By all means, if you don't think you can teach, don't teach. Though, I sometimes wonder if that is sometimes used as a cop-out so people can do as they please instead of sometimes making the occasional sacrifice to do what is best for their family. Personally, I don't feel that I am tempermentally suited to teach in a classroom situation where I would be teaching other people's kids. I am perfectly fine with teaching my own kids one-on-one. I have friends who are public school teachers who are just the reverse... they'll teach a passel of other people's kids without batting an eye, but can't imagine teaching their own kids. There are plenty of valid reasons to not teach. I'm O.K. with that.
What I keep coming back to in this comment that bugs me is, if you can teach up to a certain point, what prevents a person from teaching past that point. I didn't get into a deeper discussion with this acquaintance on the topic, because I thought that might be a little bit too much for a new acquaintance. What I started thinking about was what makes a person qualified to teach.
Knowledge about particular teaching methods may equip a person to teach better than if they were ignorant of those methods, but methods don't make a teacher. To my mind, understanding of the subject matter is a key element to being able to teach it. Though there are times when prior knowledge isn't necessary if the teacher is learning along with the student. Perhaps the student is outstripping the teacher's abilities. That would be cause for a different teacher indeed. But let us say we are not talking about extraordinary abilities. When a teacher gives up teaching at 7th, 8th, or 9th grade, there are probably lots of reasons for it.
But to my mind, in my usual way of thinking, anyone who has mastered a subject themselves should be capable of teaching it. So I keep thinking back to the comment and wonder about the teacher's mastery of the subject matter. With what little was said, I got the feeling in the conversation that the mother felt that her writing and composition skills would not be able to keep up with what her kids needed. Instead she is finding a way to keep the best of both worlds so to speak by using additional teachers to fill in the gaps while still keeping a workable homeschooling situation for her family. That is commendable. I don't want to imply with what I say that I am tearing anyone down. But, the comment about not feeling competent to teach what you yourself should have learned in school, should really prompt some self-reflection. If I cannot teach someone what I learned in school, did I really learn it or did I just punch my time card and manage a passing grade on a report card that didn't really mean anything? If I cannot teach someone what I learned in school, am I functionally below that level in education myself? If I cannot teach someone what I learned in school because I forgot it from lack of use, is it necessary for my child to learn and necessary for me to relearn? If I cannot teach someone because I never learned it myself, is it a good thing for them to learn or am I trying to give them something I never had (whether good or bad)?
Now comes the follow-up questions to all of that self-reflection. If I had what is considered a basic education (whether public or private), and am not qualified to teach those same subjects to someone else, does that mean that my education failed to reach the mastery stage and therefore failed. How many people who are educated in these "normal" methods of education (most of us were not homeschooled after all) are not well enough educated to be able to teach what they were taught? If a large percentage of people have this problem, what does that say for the education they received? What does this say about the educational systems used in our society?
I would love to tell you right now that I have all of the answers to the above questions. I don't. I do think these are some of the questions we parents should wrestle with as we figure out what is best for our families. I think I know some of the answers for me. I will share with you some of the answers as they apply to my teaching.
I had an excellent public school education. Two of the four colleges I attended were public and two were private. They were all good schools and I had many good teachers. I have studied four widely diverse subject areas at the college level. I should be well equipped for teaching others what I have learned myself. For the most part I am. Yet, I too have strong areas and weak areas. I remember upon receiving my bachelor's degree, thinking to myself, "why didn't I learn all of this in high school?" I felt a little let down that my good education wasn't better. Those of you who follow my blog may have seen my tendency to think deeply from time to time, but I do not claim to be a great writer. I have a masters degree in information science. I am a proficient researcher by training. I relate well to college level studies. I like the give and take of a deep and challenging conversation. I find the basic steps of early education kind of boring, but I understand the necessity of them. So I work hard at helping my kids understand them. I am actually looking forward to the time when I can teach logic and deeper topics about our world. I look forward to guiding a teen through their own studies and deep life questions. Will I come across things I simply cannot teach? Yep. My seven year old is already beyond my musical abilities with the piano. I never learned to play the piano. I played violin for just over two years. I picked up most of my basic music reading ability during that time, which isn't much. When she passes up my husband, we will need to find her another teacher for piano or whatever other instrument she chooses to learn. I am an active person and I like to walk, but I am not a good swimmer. Our kids will get swim lessons from someone else since we see that as a matter of personal safety as well as a good skill to know. I learned French in school and never completely felt like I could speak it. I struggle learning languages. This year we are beginning to teach our oldest daughter Latin. I am learning it with her and my knowledge of French helps me a little. At some point, I expect she will surpass my abilities, since she seems more gifted with languages than I am. We will still teach her, but probably through independent study style lessons where she is learning from someone else, instead of being directly taught by her parents. It is completely possible that with her love of language she will surpass my English abilities. My husband has better skills there than I do, but she may end up needing another teacher for that. We seem to have very independent minded kids and they may all go in directions we never imagined or had any training in whatsoever. That's O.K. We are equipped to handle the basics. And we know how to find appropriate training for the other stuff.
As for the broader implications of people not being able to teach someone else, it worries me. I remember back when I was working at a Christian College library, I got a phone call one day from a man who was very concerned. He worked at a church where they had just received their new quarter curriculum for their children's classes. They were scheduled to start using it the following Sunday, but nobody he talked to at his church knew much about the publisher of this curriculum and he wanted to talk to someone who was familiar with it so they could tell him whether it was O.K to use, in other words, was it doctrinally sound? I truly wished I could have helped him out, but I couldn't. I wasn't a specialist in Sunday school curriculum and the person who might have helped him was unavailable at the time. After talking with him I realized that if he didn't understand his own faith well enough to read a child's Bible lesson and analyze it for accuracy, then he had a much bigger problem than "should we use this curriculum?". He didn't know what he believed. People who don't have a good understanding of what they should know, don't know how to operate at the level that society says they are qualified to operate at. It is easier to be scammed when you don't understand things like finances, advertising, religion, and politics. When people are not able to think logically and critically in many areas of life, they run into trouble. When this is a widespread problem, society runs into trouble.
For myself, If I find an area that is important for me to improve (whether for training my children, or for my own needs), I would wish to make changes and improve. I would not relinquish my ability or right to teach my own children lightly. So, to finish up... I would like you to consider your own answers to those self-reflecting questions and consider what is going on in our society when people consider themselves or others as unfit teachers.