I said that I’d share here with you the recent article I wrote for our local community publication, the Where What When, geared towards the Orthodox Jewish community, so here it is!
Moving Beyond Fear – An Accurate Look at Home Education
As a home educator for the last ten years, I’ve been approached a number of times by parents in the community with questions and concerns about home education. Many thoughtful and deeply concerned parents have become increasingly concerned with how the needs of their child/ren are being met by the schools they attend and want to explore the possibility of educating their children at home.
In the secular world, the general perception of homeschoolers tends to be highly positive, with many expressing the belief that homeschoolers are interesting, well-educated, and well-rounded – more so than their schooled peers. (Some homeschoolers have felt this perception to be a pressure to live up to, but be that as it may, the perception is there.) Colleges have increasingly directed their recruitment efforts towards homeschoolers, recognizing the unique strengths that home educated students, who tend to be highly motivated and truly interested in learning, bring to the college atmosphere. The high regard with which home educated students are viewed isn’t surprising, as homeschooling as a movement has been around in earnest for several decades and the success of home educated students in every venue (academic, career, interpersonal) is quite high.
What is surprising are the inaccurate and specious perceptions found in the Jewish community towards home education. What makes this even more intriguing is that the Jewish people for generations have transmitted the Torah from parent to child – according to the directives of Chazal, a responsible parent must teach his child three things: Torah, a trade, and to swim. You wouldn’t think there would be much to object to from a religious perspective.
Why all the negativity?
To understand the opposition to homeschooling in the Orthodox world, we need to look at several points.
The first is historic – the yeshivos have widely been credited with saving American Jewry (an evaluation I personally share). Therefore, we have assimilated the idea that nowhere but in yeshiva can a child receive a solid Jewish education – even though the demographics of today are quite different from seventy years ago, when many parents were poorly educated Jewishly and disinterested in providing their children with a solid Jewish education. (Interestingly, this is remarkably similar to the African American view of home education. Blacks in this country worked hard politically to integrate the public school systems and continue to this day to insist on public schooling as an ideal, despite the statistical reality that African Americans as a group are one of the most poorly served by the public schools.)
Secondly, parents simply don’t know what is involved and the normal response to the unknown is fear. That response is found equally in the non-Jewish and Jewish world and is easily countered with accurate information. Attending a local support group meeting, speaking to experienced home educators, and attending the upcoming annual Torah Home Education Conference (June 13 at Park Heights JCC, Baltimore) will go far to assuage these concerns.
The largest part of the fear is social. There is a growing insistence on conformity in our communities. This is evident in every area of religious life, not just in schools, and while it would be nice to say that this movement towards conformity has been exclusively to the betterment of our communities, that would be inaccurate.
As a result, people are afraid to to make choices that outwardly look out of step with those around them. Fear of recognizing and asserting one’s needs is an unhealthy place to be making critical decisions from, and is especially unfortunate when it’s carried over as a decision making strategy for our children. It’s in large part the fear of ‘what will people say’ that results in a significant number of families in our community being unwilling to make a change in the educational framework their child is in, even when there are clear indications that the child is being poorly served and even at risk.
While a discussion of Jewish history and the role of R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla and the directive he instituted at a time when many children didn’t have parents to educate them and were falling by the wayside would be most interesting, it’s not within the scope of this article. (Please note that I while I share the reasonable concerns regarding those in our community who remove their children from school and do not actively step forward to support their education, this is also not the purpose of this article.)
Fear is essentially at the root of concerns about home education – namely, fear of the unknown, fear of being different, and fear of not having the skills to succeed. What I would like to address are some commonly expressed concerns and the underlying fears.
Some common fears
I didn’t grow up frum/I don’t know enough – Baruch H-shem (thank G-d), we aren’t limited by what we did or didn’t learn in high school! There are wonderful resources to help a parent build his knowledge and skill in every area, both Judaically and secularly. We live in a community rich in resources, there are plenty of resource people in the community you can turn to with questions, and even the internet is a wonderful source of shiurim and Torah learning. Learning can and should continue your entire life – one delightful aspect of homeschooling is that you’re constantly learning new things, learning that in all likelihood you wouldn’t take the time to explore if you didn’t need to.
I’ve found it particularly interesting when teachers tell me this. I respond, “But you’re teaching the children of this community – and you don’t have the confidence to teach your own child?” While parents benefit from continually expanding their knowledge, you don’t always have to know something before your children do – you can learn alongside them. And often your children will teach you about new things!
Years ago I asked Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller how she developed the strong textual skills that she is well-known for. She replied that when her children were young, she would try to find time to read a sefer (book in original Hebrew of Torah ideas) when she had the chance. But, I persisted, what about when you didn’t know the meaning of the word? “I’d turn the page.” The message I went away from that phone call with was not to be dogmatic about learning, but to keep learning, that consistency and regular application to the material over time will improve one’s skills remarkably.
It’s important to understand that while parents don’t have to know everything, they do have to do is be willing to expand their comfort zone and be willing to look for opportunities to support the child’s interests and needs.
My child won’t listen to me – I always say this isn’t a home education issue, this is a parenting issue! One pleasant surprise that parents experience when they take their children out of school is that within a fairly short time, there is a noticeable improvement in their child’s behavior and attitude as your child sheds many of the pressures and tensions that were inherent in school life. This makes parenting much easier!
What will he do all day? – As the lives of our children have become increasingly involved with school, there are fewer and fewer free hours left for them to explore their interests or to develop hobbies. While in the past parents (and their children) would have had no concerns about how to use free time, too many parents today have lost touch with the need of a child to have unscheduled and unstructured free time. Children can only learn to manage time themselves when given the opportunity – but the majority of children (and their parents) today are totally lost on a vacation day as to how to occupy themselves. Perhaps we should be more concerned about how our children will learn to structure their time independently when adults tell them how to spend most of their waking hours?
But what do kids actually do if their academics and homework aren’t consuming most of their waking hours? Read, relax, play, get together with friends, spend time with siblings, go on trips, listen to music, help around the house, start a home business, do projects and crafts, develop hobbies – the day gets filled fairly quickly.
Kids need the pressure of their peers to make the right religious choices -For those who truly believe that his child won’t want to be religious or live the lifestyle the parent is living without the pressure of his peers, then the real problem is you and how you present your lifestyle. If your life is joyful and meaningful, and he sees he can experience the same thing by following that path, then he will. If he doesn’t see that, then he’ll understandably choose something else. When I hear things like this I have to wonder about the underlying message of ‘conformity above all’ that the child must be absorbing.
Children need to be in school to learn good social skills – In contrast to this often touted objection to homeschooling, many parents have personally experienced that most of what kids learn from their peers are the things we want to “unteach” them! This is true from the very youngest age, beginning with children in play groups. Children don’t learn healthy social skills from their peers; they learn coping mechanisms and how to conform to the current fashions/trend in behavior, speech, and dress. Healthy social strategies are learned by watching and modeling mature healthy adults. One reason television and the media are so harmful is that the adult actors and actresses are modeling immoral, selfish, and immature behavior Watching that day in and day out has an effect. So does being in a classroom with same age peers.
Homeschoolers are weird and I want my kids to be socially normal – Comments like this are funny because they show that the questioner doesn’t know any/many homeschoolers! This goes back to the need for conformity; there is an unspoken assumption that anyone in the Jewish community who makes a choice that differs from the mainstream must be strange. While this is judgmental and narrow-minded – not to mention patently false – this is a commonly expressed fear.
Understandably, we want children who can appropriately interact with others of all ages. To be honest, homeschoolers are somewhat different from their schooled peers. They tend to model adult behaviors from a younger age, meaning that they are more mature, self-aware, and significantly less peer oriented. That means they care more about what is right than what their peers will think. They care more about listening to their own voice than following the crowd. To assume that having a healthy sense of one’s self is a social liability is false – it is actually when you feel good about yourself and who you are that you have the most social strength. Do you think that self-esteem is better supported by a loving home or in a large group of same aged children?
A mother watching a group of homeschooled children interact at a recent homeschool gathering commented that it was amazing to her to watch children play together for so long with no fighting, no name calling, no bullying – just enjoying each other. This is common at homeschool events that are secular or non-Jewish as well as our local frum gatherings. There’s clearly something about being removed from the daily ‘pecking order’ that benefits children socially. I guess that does make homeschoolers ‘weird’. Maybe it’s time for us to ask what ‘normal’ means and if we really want our kids to be normal! This brings to mind a t-shirt I notice bearing the slogan of anti-debt finance advisor Dave Ramsey, that stated: “Debt is normal. Be weird.”
People will look down on me – Being a responsible parent means making decisions based on what is right for your child, not from your insecurity of social abandonment. However, I’ve found that people are rarely negative when they learn that I’m home educating. The majority of parents of several children who have passed first grade are well aware of the challenges and issues inherent in school. They’ve already learned that not every child can do well in school, not every child fits the mold, and many are watching the spark go out of their child’s eyes. Therefore, the response tends to be positive and sometimes even envious – “Good for you!” “How did you have the strength to go against the crowd?” “You’re so lucky!” “I know my child would benefit from homeschooling and wish I could be confident enough to do that.”
I couldn’t stand to be around my child all day/I’d go crazy – I mentioned earlier that kids often become more enjoyable to be around when removed from the pressures of school. Kids would probably report that their parents became more enjoyable, too! However, if you truly don’t enjoy your child and dislike spending time with them, please don’t even consider home education. I’ve been able to offer support and practical suggestions to parents in different situations that have helped smooth the path of home education for their families, but this is one worldview that is inherently in opposition to the goals and attitudes necessary for successful home education. While parents may blithely toss this comment out without intending it to be a serious statement of values, perhaps it’s time we looked more closely at what we’re saying and the messages our children hear.
If you are a parent who knows in your heart that your child needs a more individualized approach to education, please don’t let false fears keep you from learning more about this option. It may be viable for you, it may not. Home education is not for everyone. But neither are the schools.
Avivah Werner is the mother of nine children and has been home educating for the last decade; her oldest two children will be graduating – from homeschooling for high school – at the beginning of June. She is the founder of the J-LIFT, the Baltimore area support group, founder of the Torah Home Education Conference, and has spent numerous hours answering questions about home education.
For those who are interested in exploring more about home education, the Second Annual Torah Home Education Conference will be held in Baltimore on June 13, from 9 am – 5 pm at the Center for Jewish Education, in the Park Heights JCC. This is a national event featuring speakers including Rabbi Daniel and Mrs. Susan Lapin, Rabbi Yosef Bentzion Bamberger, and Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, in addition to a number of others. More details about the conference are available at www.jewishhomeschooling.wordpress.com, or call Alisa at 410-963-2977. Registration must be done in advance.
My approach when discussing home education is to be proactive rather than defensive in how it is presented in the religious Jewish community. The feedback I’ve gotten so far has BH been highly positive, and it will be interesting to see what the responses in the ‘letters to the editor’ section are in the coming month. If you’d like to express your thoughts on this article in that venue, you can do so at http://wherewhatwhen.com/advice.asp. The more discussion there is of these ideas in a public forum like this, the better!