Homeschooling. Hackschooling. Unschooling. Life learning. These are all brand new phrases that entered our world this past month. And if there is one thing this past month has taught me, once again, it’s that you should never say ‘never’. Not in a million years would I have thought that my children wouldn’t be in public education. I am a product of public education. My husband is a product of public education. It’s what I knew, it’s what my husband knew, it was the culmination of our entire childhood and adolescence so of course, our kids would do the same. Right? Wrong. At least for us. Let me dive into part one of why we left public school, what we have been through for the past month and why, after much prayer, worry, stress, loss of sleep, and tears, we decided that leaving public school was the best thing for us.
We moved to the current community in which we still live five years ago, it will be six this Christmas. Our oldest, Tanner, was in 2nd grade and our daughter Blake was in Kindergarten. Everything was great and we loved the traditional approach that the principal and community took with the school where we still enjoy Christmas concerts and that the students were held to extremely high standards (Tanner quickly learned the ropes and realized that even the word ‘crap’ was frowned upon. Definitely something we can look back and laugh on, but as his parents, we agreed that we would prefer that approach to the school we attended).
Fast forward to the next year, still good. Moving along as all students do. Tanner didn’t have the best year with his teacher who didn’t understand or care for his personality and we took that year as an opportunity to teach him that 1) you can’t win them all and 2) you will need to learn how to work with all types of people in real life so this was just a good preview.
The next year was great, Tanner got involved with the school choir, Blake was doing well in 2nd grade and Owen began preschool and also received assistance with his speech at this point. Then the following year – another tough year for Tanner with his teacher. And while, again, we made him tough it out, looking back I should have had him switch classes. And quite frankly, this particular teacher has no business teaching kids. I’ll leave it at that. And unfortunately, we ended the year with a lockdown at the school due to an armed robbery that took place in our community. An extremely rare thing where we live to be honest and being pregnant and hormonal, it was the longest hour and a half that Jarett spent holding me back and talking me down.
Last year, still going well. Now both Tanner and Blake are involved in the choir as well as cross country and Owen had a great year in kindergarten. We loved all of their teachers and loved seeing the kids blossom even more. Tanner also went out for NJHS and was chosen to be a member. Unfortunately, we ended the year with the #RedForEd teacher strike which was tough to see go on. We supported our teachers in making a stand and we know that there is so much of an underbelly to these things – the government affects a lot of what goes on and Arizona is currently ranked 45th nationally in education. There’s no surprise there are issues and none that we are strangers to.
Then this year. Tanner started 7th, Blake in 5th, Owen in 1st and our little Blair jumped into Kindergarten. From the beginning, we had strong concerns (stating it lightly) regarding one of Tanner’s teachers who happened to be new to the school (along with many others as well as changes that came with new leadership and new principal). This particular teacher, Tanner’s English teacher, spoke about racial topics endlessly, felt the need to remind everyone in the classroom what color her skin was, misspelled things on her own whiteboard and who thought that a 4th-grade level book was appropriate for her 7th-grade students given that they were “interpreting it”. I’m still not even sure what that means.
Blake loved her homeroom teacher dearly as did we. However, the entire math department for her grade level is known to have issues among the parents and our ‘A’ student found herself with an ‘F’ within the first few weeks. We made sure to communicate concerns to her math teacher, asked what options we had for additional help, but my patience wore thin when we received an email explaining how things are taught in the classroom and links to where we could get additional help and have our students teach themselves online (there was a large number of parents who I touched base with who were feeling the same way – if a higher percentage of students are struggling, perhaps it’s not the students. Perhaps it’s the way the curriculum is being taught).
Then there is our Owen who truly loved his teacher as well as school. However, there were more and more days that he was asking if he had to go to school which was completely out of the ordinary for him. Then one afternoon he came home and shared with us that one of his classmates while sitting next to each other in art class, threatened Owen and informed him of how many guns he had at home and knows where Owen lives. That same afternoon, while attending Tanner’s football game after school hours, the school went into lockdown. Sitting out on the field waiting for the game to start, then hearing the refs blow their whistle and yell to all of the athletes, students, parents, teachers, coaches, and cheerleaders who were in attendance to “run”… The hair on my arms still stands up when I recall that moment. And while we are so grateful the situation in the community never found its way on campus that afternoon, sitting silently with two classrooms full of students for an hour with the shades drawn made me absolutely sick to know that this is what our kids live with at school this day in age.
That night I found myself Googling school shootings and how many gun incidents on school campuses have involved first graders (I was truly shocked to find a handful of stories over the past years. Even more shocked that I was Googling it) so I could use that as a barometer of how extreme my measures should be in handling this situation for Owen. As if that even mattered! This is my kid. And in the state this world is in, I pretty much assume saying “gun” in school is on the same level as saying “bomb” on an airplane, right?!
And while Owen’s teacher was more than accommodating and wonderful in this situation with this particular student in trying to get something figured out, the fact that we heard nothing from the leadership at our school (which happens to be new this year) for a week left an extremely bitter taste in our mouths. How can I trust sending my kids to an institution that is going to have such a slow response to potentially dangerous issues?
It was that weekend after the lockdown at Tanner’s football game and trying to figure out how far to take the situation with Owen, that Jarett and I looked at each other and just said, is this what life is supposed to be like for our kids? Should going to school really be this hard for both them and us? And should we feel this scared and unsure every morning they walk out our front door? What are our options? Is there one that works for us? What the heck are we thinking? Are we really even entertaining the idea of homeschooling? What if this thing that we are at the wheel of with our kids’ education and futures in the backseat was headed straight for the metaphorical cliff and a fiery crash? What happens if this doesn’t work out? Do we move to a state and area with better schools? What if the kids end up hating not being in school?
Charter school and private school were not options we were going to consider. For a number of reasons that just don’t suit our family and where we live.
For 72 hours straight it felt as if the only thing we did within the walls of our home was discuss our options, ask the kids openly what they would prefer to do, pray together for peace and comfort in any decision we came to, and research. I have never researched so much in my life. Every article, every podcast, every YouTube video, and every documentary on the subject I have in some way consumed these past few weeks. Homeschooling, hack schooling, unschooling, life learning… so many options and so much is written on each one. And while the initial thought of something so out of the realm than what we were used to the more it felt like it was a strong option. That it was right in front of us the whole time and we never even saw it. I mean, we are the last two people you would probably assume to be business owners. Two people said no to working for someone else so that we could build our own dreams – no formal education, no capital funds. Just a whole lot of guts. However, somehow and by the grace of God, we are here doing it. Why couldn’t the same amount of grit, the same amount of resourcefulness, and the same amount of moxie trickle down to our offspring and help us guide them into a better way to approach their education?
While we have always been strong supporters of public school and have always made sure that we are present, volunteering our time to be a part of the school community, being present and available for our kids to help them outside of the classroom with their studies… we felt as though the system failed us. It failed our kids. Our schools are failing our kids. Our government is failing our kids. Our teachers are overwhelmed with classroom sizes and lack of funding. Just here in Arizona, there is a shortage of 1500 teachers which means when there is a spot or hole to fill they are grabbing anybody. As long as there is a warm body to stand in front of an overflowing classroom things will be just fine because, after all, there are videos online to teach us how to teach. And don’t even get me started on the educators that have a passion for teaching and a love for the kids they get to. There is so much red tape and do’s and dont’s that come from the government-mandated curriculum that they can’t be innovative anymore. They can’t inspire. Because from the beginning of each school year the sole focus is on preparing for the tests. The institution of public school is one that has not seen upgrades or advancements like technology and medicine does and it is one that has been so tightly gripped by the government that we are running assembly lines. All kids get filtered through the same chute, all groomed to pass tests and get the grades in order to end up down the line with a job for the sole purpose to make a living and pay bills. And if you can’t pass the tests or get the grades, then you don’t fit. Or there’s a problem and you’re holding up the line. Public school failed me so why did I not for-see the possibility with my own kids?
I did well in school. I wasn’t the best, but I did well. I loved writing and English and being involved as an athlete, from volleyball to track to cheer and dance. Then came the spring of my junior year. After experiencing some pain in my abdomen and a few doctor’s visits and tests, they informed me that I had gallstones. I would need surgery to remove my gall bladder. A very rare thing for a 17-year-old healthy girl to have. They loaded me up on pain pills and muscle relaxants and had me out of school for three weeks until they could “fit me in for surgery”. Surgery came and went and 48 hours later I was rushed from home to the emergency room with difficulty breathing where they discovered I had blood clots. Several on my lungs and a large one behind my left knee. They informed my mother and me that if they did not immobilize me and begin a high dose of blood thinners right away that the blood clot behind my knee could dislodge and kill me. Two more weeks in the hospital, a few more weeks at home, physically and mentally recuperating, getting used to wearing a medical ID bracelet 24 hours a day, shaving with the dullest blade to reduce the chance of nicks or cuts to having to leave all of my athletic activities for safety reasons… those few months set me back more than we realized.
Come my senior year, getting closer to graduation, realizing that I was short the credits I would need, and pleading with teachers that I would do anything possible, my case fell on deaf ears. Over tests and grades. And that February I dropped out of high school, three months shy of what would have been my graduation. Because I lost my place in the assembly line.
It was emotional. It was heartbreaking. It was hard to imagine our children not having those regular experiences that we remember as kids. It was a completely different picture than the one we had in our heads from the beginning and that was the hardest thing of all. And then the next day we officially withdrew all four kids from their school. We had emailed their teachers the night before, explaining in short our decision and that the following day would be their last. We had phone calls of extreme support and understanding. I cried in the hallway with Blair’s Kindergarten teacher when we came to pick things up from each of the classrooms that next day. There was the strongest sense of relief and yet, so much heartache. And I couldn’t ignore the feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt with all that was to come for our family.
That first night we went to bed with the strongest prayers that our kids would be comforted, that they wouldn’t regret their decision, and that we would be able to build a clear and defined path for what the heck we were going to do from here on out.
And that next morning. Jarett and I laid in bed staring up at the ceiling, our hands held, and while we didn’t say anything we didn’t need to. Within a matter of weeks, we went from one life to a completely different one. The doubts were still there, the fear was present and the overwhelm was suffocating. And then one by one our kids began to climb into bed with us as they woke. After a few moments, our entire family was gathered together, the morning light filtering through the window, my phone laid on my bedside table quietly humming our family’s playlist and one by one the kids told us how nice it felt to be at home then and there. We shared what we would miss about school and what we were most looking forward to with this new opportunity. The kids each took turns telling us what they want to learn about first and Dad and I made sure to set some ground rules and make sure they knew that no, despite their best wishes, they would not be allowed to stay up on weeknights and all gaming and device using would be a weekend kinda thing.
We talked about the future – from what next week looked like to possibly the next two years. We cuddled, we laughed, we planned and it was in that moment that the gratefulness and confidence came. Grateful that we are in a situation where we could take something like this on. That we have built a life of flexibility and time, despite the blood, sweat, tears, and stress that comes with it. I was reminded of that animalistic nature I have as a mother, that usually what my gut tells me is on the mark when it comes to these cubs despite the fear that comes from following it. That my one job in life as a parent and as a mother is to raise them to be amazing human beings. And that is what our focus will continue to be. And it will be the cherry on top of everything else that is to come for us…
For those who have taken the time to read, please know that my goal in sharing our experience is to simply share. We will always have a soft spot for the public education system and we have a deep respect and love for so many educators that we have had the opportunity to work alongside in teaching and raising our kids. They are truly selfless people with huge hearts. We have many, many friends who are still a part of public school (as well as charter and private schools) who we respect more than words. My hope in sharing is for any fellow mother or parent out there who may be going through the same thing, who has the same worries and doubts and who is wondering what options are available. My hope is that you can know that you are not alone.
And for those of you who have walked this path and have any ideas, advice, or resources to share with me, I am all ears! Please leave them for me below and I will be forever grateful!