I’m thrilled to be handing this post over to Julia from Classroom Free to tell us her story – an inspirational read:
“In March 2015 we will be celebrating twelve years of home-educating. Twelve years! Other than my marriage and being a mama, it’s the longest that I’ve stuck with anything – and if I’m honest, I’m more than a little surprised.
You see, I was such a ‘mainstream’ mama. I was such a yes sir mama. I was such a follow the rules and do as I am told mama, don’t question authority and cause a fuss mama.
At 28 years of age, I was doing what was expected and raising two children of school age. We had done the usual mother and toddler groups, gone on to nursery school, and then handed over the reins to primary. My life was a whirl of daily school-runs, birthday invitations, sleep-over arrangements, and avoiding school gate gossip. I thought that it would be that way for many years to come. I was wrong.
At the tender age of 4 years old, Joseph started to struggle. He was diagnosed with speech dyspraxia, and he had to wear an eye patch to correct a lazy eye – along with glasses. He became an easy target for ‘bullies’ – although that seems like a harsh word to use when referring to primary aged children. Joseph was bringing broken pieces of his glasses home with him several times a week. He became incredibly withdrawn and would refuse to enter in any sort of conversation, instead he preferred to retreat to his bedroom and shut the door.
The change in such a short time was incredible. He went from being a happy-go-lucky, always laughing and smiling, running to get to school early child, to becoming sullen and quiet. His behaviour regressed drastically, so much so that he wouldn’t get dressed or feed himself. He was physically sick during the morning walks to school and complained of stomach pains daily.
He lost his joy.
He lost that dazzling sparkle from his eyes.
He lost his smile.
I found my pain.
I didn’t know what to do. I talked to his teacher, his head teacher, the dinner ladies. I started volunteering to help in class, I assisted with reading and swimming lessons. I was willing to try anything I could in order to observe and see for myself what was going on. I needed answers. Just what was happening to my child, what was he going through? Any reference to bullying was strongly denied by the school and instead our own family life was brought into question. Were there problems at home? Any changes in circumstances? Were there problems within our marriage? It could only be our fault.
I searched the internet for help, looking for advice on school phobia and bullying. I was lost. I was losing my child and I didn’t know what to do about it. Joseph wouldn’t readily speak. He would hardly eat. He wouldn’t play games or do things that he had previously loved. People were telling me that he was just being naughty, that Joseph just didn’t want to go to school, but I knew that wasn’t the case.
I was scared.
Joseph turned five.
How long could I let it go on for before I lost him – my beautiful happy, funny and smiley boy, forever?
Those online searches came up with a site called Education Otherwise (EO). I had never heard of home-education before and didn’t know that there was an alternative to the school system. When I was struggling with bullying myself during my secondary school days, my mother told me that it was law that I attended school. All children had to go or their parents would be imprisoned. I believed her and had no reason not to. I had never heard of anyone home-educating in the UK.
The feeling of relief that washed over me as I began reading about home-education on the EO site was absolutely immense. I can’t begin to put it into words. There was actually something that I could do to help my son. There was a legal alternative to school. Wow! That felt huge.
I discussed things with my husband and he too felt relief. It felt like at last there was light at the end of a very dark tunnel. We talked and talked, researched and researched some more, not wanting to just jump at what seemed like the ‘easy’ option. This was a child’s education we were toying with, we had to get it right. We talked about changing schools, but figured that the issues Joe was experiencing could easily happen anywhere – he would still be wearing his patch for some time to come, he would still struggle with his speech, he would still wear glasses. Could we risk that?
Within the week we had sent in the de-registration letter – not just for Joseph but for his older sister too. Chelsea was then 7 and although was seemingly doing ok at school we had numerous little niggles. We felt that we would work better as a family if we home-educated them both. Our initial thoughts were that we could home-educate for just 6 months to a year to build up lost confidence, develop self-esteem, and work on the speech issues. We wanted to give Joseph every chance of fitting back into the system.
For Chelsea we felt that we could tailor her education to suit her needs better than a teacher with a class full of students could ever do. We found out that Chelsea was struggling desperately with maths work but excelled in literacy. We knew that Chelsea was frustrated at the time restraints of lessons. She often wanted to work for longer on her stories and poems, and found that she didn’t get the help she needed in order to understand numeracy. As she was deemed as a ‘good girl’ she would often be left waiting with her hand up throughout the lesson whilst the teacher saw to the more disruptive members of the class. At home we could offer Chelsea the help and time she required.
It was very much a temporary solution to a difficult problem. I really didn’t think that I was clever enough to teach my children long term.
At first we tried to do ‘school at home’. I worked out lesson plans, timetables, pencilled in breaks and lunch times – the lot. Disaster! Our lessons would always overrun as the children became enthused on a topic, or a lesson would lead on to another topic and go off in another direction entirely. I became totally disheartened by it. All that effort planning our days was going to waste and I was starting to feel like a failure. I believed that children needed such structure, planning and discipline in order to learn. I thought that they needed to sit at desks with pens, paper, and textbooks being told what to learn and when. Isn’t that why schools are organised in such a way?
Of course, I was very wrong.
I started reading all I could about child development, learning styles and teaching methods. I explored books written by the likes of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. I became more relaxed and less in need of structure. I dropped the idea of having to ‘teach’ things and stopped myself from searching for an educational value in everything. I began to realise the value of living a happy life and the way we are always constantly learning. I became less focused on educating my children and more focussed on creating happy children. I sought to offer pressure free childhoods and realised that a love of learning can easily be a by-product of such. I didn’t have to force feed information in order for my children to learn.
I read blogs written by experienced home-educators, and connected with families online. I learnt such a lot and we developed our own routine. We found out what worked for us as a family. I noted that when my children were interested in something they developed a real passion to find out all they could about it. I also discovered that when my children knew they had a reason for knowing something, when it was felt as being relevant to them, they would find a way of learning it. An example I can give is Joseph with his reading. He left school unable to read anything other than his name – they had tried to teach him phonetically and with his speech and pronunciation issues that wouldn’t work for him at all. When he left school he felt like he needed to read like his school-going peers did. I felt under pressure to prove that I could ‘teach’ my children and I was going to be a good home-educating mama. If I could teach Joseph to read it would prove that, right?
Oh how we struggled. There were tears and tantrums on both sides. He was frustrated that he couldn’t read, I was frustrated that he would seemingly know a word one day but forget it the next. We both felt like failures. Then I said enough is enough. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I just needed to do what was right for my boy. So, I announced that we were stopping the reading lessons. No more learn to read workbooks, printed worksheets, or boring simplified reading schemes. Instead we were just going to enjoy reading real books.
We started reading chapter books as a family, snuggled up under blankets on the sofa. I read aloud as the children played with their Lego bricks or train track. Sometimes Chelsea would take over the reading. At the age of 8 Joseph asked if I could help him to read. Why? Because he wanted to read the instructions for his Playstation games. We started sitting and reading together with purpose and within a week he was a fluent reader. He had discovered a need to read, developed a will to read and thus began to read – even with his dyspraxia issues. It all clicked into place for him.
It took just over a year away from the school environment to help Joseph feel confident enough to leave my side when we were out. I allowed him to cling to me without frustration or pressure, to just be. We had weekly speech therapy sessions at first, which then dropped to fortnightly, then monthly. The speech therapist was so patient. She said that it was the worst case of school phobia and lack of confidence in a child that she had ever seen in all her years of practice. I was devastated. He hadn’t always been this way.
A year into our home-educating journey and I passed my driving test. This opened up a whole new world of group meetings and exploration. At first I had my boy holding my skirt, but over time he trusted that I would be there for him always and he would go off and play. Joseph made friends easily and more importantly he was accepted.
The change in him was incredible. His confidence grew and he became the joker of the pack again. The glint returned in his eyes and I knew I had my son back.
The speech therapy became less regular. The therapist could see the progress being made at home and saw no need to keep seeing us, she just continued to provide us with support if we needed it. On the day that Joseph was signed off from the sessions, we were told that it was because we home-educated. I quote; “I am of no doubt that if Joe was in the school system, I wouldn’t be signing him off today.”
I was so proud. It really felt as if we had done the absolute right thing. It hadn’t always been an easy ride. Relatives disapproved of our actions and were often vocal in telling us so. I did question myself; was I ruining my children’s future? Was my mum right when she said that Chelsea would only ever be good enough to stack shelves in a supermarket (not that there is anything wrong with that – if my kids were happy and stacked shelves, I’d be happy!).
Now, with hindsight, I know that home-educating was the absolute right path for us to take. Eleven years into the journey, it is still the absolute right road for us to be on. I now have six children and the youngest four have never set foot within the school system. They are vibrant and energetic, they are curious and questioning, with a thirst for knowledge and a strong will to learn. They are amazing. As a family unit we are so close. The children are like best friends, and I have an amazing relationship with all, including the teens. Chelsea is nearly 19 now and studying Psychology, Sociology, and English Literature at college in order to gain a place at University next year. She wants to study Psychology and earn a degree. Joseph at 16 is still home-educated and happy. He has a great interest in Politics, Journalism, and History and is often found to be reading up on one of these subjects or doing a project. He is under no pressure to decide on his future path just yet, although he is researching college opportunities for himself at the moment.
There are days when I wonder what life would be like for us now if we hadn’t found an alternative to the system, and to be honest it isn’t something I like to ponder on too much. I wonder just how much damage would have been done to Joseph over the years and how he would have coped with it – if indeed he would have. I shudder when I look back and remember the hurt and sadness in his eyes and am so glad that we overcame all we did and Joseph is where he is at now. I know that my own life would be very different. Perhaps I would be travelling along the 9 to 5 work path by now, and I wouldn’t have met any of the amazing people I have – both online and in real. Home-education isn’t just an educational choice, it’s a family lifestyle one.
I know that I have home-education to thank for so much and I will always be grateful to those that have fought over the years in order to afford us the right to such freedom.” Julia Pollard