Thursday, 6 August 2009

Really, I am grateful

If you wander through this record of home education, you will doubtless read a whole lot of scorn, mockery, dramatic crap and cynical posturing.

I hope you can see too how much I love these ridiculous kids of mine, whom I am so fortunate to know, even at the moment they are committing armed assault with a puffin and a home-made spear.

Falling in love with your own kids is easy, isn't it? They smell of you and you never forget how they looked like grandma, the one who was mad and had no teeth, but hey, she's family, right?

But there is something in me that also is in love with what it is to be a child. That makes it difficult to hate any one else's kids, even the one who is flat on Tesco floor screaming out his guts because he cannot grab sixteen cans of baked beans adorned with the face of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Perhaps there is a large bit of me that has never grown up. To me the company of children is refreshing.

At that admission, I expect to be slammed in jail, because in the UK today the culture is so anti-child and anti-anyone-who-works-with-kids, it's like I just confessed to pedophilia. But I find children are engaging, honest, clear and inspiring about their learning about the world in a way that adults are not. That is possibly one reason why I became a teacher in the first place, and possibly why I failed at that career.

Now, by avoiding school and choosing home education, I am living the sort of life that is greatly satisfying to me, of that there is no doubt. Of course I worry that I am superimposing my preferences on my kids. I ask them, Would you like to try school? I even go so far as to suggest it might be fun. They have never yet leaped up and shouted Yes! Yes! Please! I guess they glimpse a reality of that life on a Tuesday morning when we are out and about and we see the school party lining up at the museum on their annual trip out the classroom. My kids aren't stupid.

At those moments, when I have a sudden perspective on how we learn together, what we do, and how we live as a family, I feel such gratitude for our lives, and the choices we've made. Even though these choices have sometimes led to me being excluded and cut off from other people, and pushed out of what is accepted as normal. Believe me, that feeling of being alone because our choice isn't 'normal' is hard to take. But choosing to learn alongside my kids, being with them, able to see them learn about the world, watch them take on new ideas, change the world for themselves, and have this experience of learning, is all so precious to me, and I value it so highly, I would experience it like a physical pain to have it taken away.

Really my gratitude for this life exists in part because of those brief years standing in a classroom. Two of those years changed my life in subtle ways and the gratitude I feel now comes partly from the awfulness of that teaching experience.

I started teaching about the turn into the 1990s. The first school I taught at was fantastic; warm, welcoming. The staff were inspirational, the kids engaged, free to express themselves and their ideas. For the most part they accepted each other, were friends, fell out, made up, grew up, were tolerant, generous, understanding. They were encouraged, enlivened and it was a creative experience. I have dear memories, and I remain not as an anti-school voice. For some children and their parents school is a rewarding experience.

After too short a period of teaching at this school I took up a place at a school just a short drive away. The first day, I knew I had made the most dreadful mistake. It was not the kids.

There is this intangible part of a school which is sometimes described as the 'ethos'. This is the untouchable ether: the air, the spirit of the place forming the relationships between people as they meet in offices, corridors, staff room, class room.

The ethos pervades everyone in a school; it shapes expectation, attitude, the way of education, of talk between each other, of self, of all children. And in this school there was something mean, withdrawn, withered, abandoned. But it wasn't the children. It was the situation they were in and which, as a teacher, I was suddenly horribly facilitating.

I stayed two years, through gritted teeth and determination. But those two years were possibly the most trying of my life. Every day brought a new challenge, not just the terrible behaviour, the brutality, the criminality: drugs, assault, bullying, physical attack, eventually a shooting, but worse.

I would not walk away. If I stayed, the year class I had as a form tutor I could see leave that school, and enter college, or work. To simply up and go because it didn't suit me seemed like a betrayal of those children who had to spend their final two years at that school.
Yet staying seemed like a stupid thing to do.

The leadership from the head was the most appalling experience because there was no leadership. There was betrayal of the staff at a deep level and that abnegation of responsibility was proportionate to my feeling of deep responsibility to the kids in my form.

I wasn't alone. Many of the staff at that school worked hard to bring together their classes and inspire those kids while they were simultaneously being undermined and kicked in the face by the ineffectual head who covered his own back and shut his office door.

I walked so near the line of what was acceptable to that head and his thug of a deputy that I honestly think they did not know what to do with me. But there was no way I would give in. If you give particular people power over you, they will almost certainly walk all over you, kick you in the face while they're walking, then turn around and blame you for being that lump they had to walk over.

So I survived on that boundary line. I followed what I knew was right by the kids, to treat them like people. And when I strayed across that line, I duly received the brown paper envelope in my pigeonhole. I showed the kids in my form the contents, I outlined the scenario of disciplinary action because of my transgression. While they watched, I screwed up the letter and drop kicked it into the bin. We spent a morning talking about responsibilities. That particular transgression, by the way, was to offer the year 11 kids in my care the option to listen to the radio in their lunch break. Listening to a radio was against school policy.

The experience of those two years gave me the determination to start out home educating, if only because I never wanted my children to experience that type of sealed environment. And I determined I would never enable someone like that head to come into contact with my kids.

That head was in such a precious position. That position comes with a duty to provide an environment where children are inspired, where their inquiries about the world, and their responsibilities for themselves and their own needs and respect for the needs of others are never undermined, assaulted, withdrawn, but are always encouraged, supported and developed.

Sometimes I think I cannot be bothered to update this blog. Me and my kids are out living so many exciting times. But despite the fact I grumble and mock, I want to say that this blog exists as a record for our home education.

And underneath all the mockery is a deep sense of responsibility, and a real gratitude for our position and the choices we have been fortunate enough to make, and a deep appreciation for the life we have been able to live. And truly, a celebration of learning, and the humility and joy I feel of being alongside children who learn in the world.

I know what we do here is right because I have seen the struggles that good people do, to try and prevent the damage that happens on the other side.

And all I really wanted to say is that yesterday there was a fantastic, inspiring workshop at St Albans Museum, where my kids were fortunate enough to learn about the Spanish Armada from people who care.

Thank you, St Albans Museum, for supporting our home education.


Sam said...

Grit, you are so good at making me cry ;-)
Another fantastic post. Thank you.

ummrashid said...

"To me the company of children is refreshing".I absolutely agree.
And to witness their learning is so interesting, such a privilege.
I also started in secondary teaching. But home education is where the magic is.

platespinner said...

I have been follwing and reading your blog for a little while and it has been absolutely fascinating reading. I have a 16 month old so school is a little way off for us yet but I want to say thank you for opening my eyes to the possibilities of home education and ways of life which are outside the mainstream.

The Green Stone Woman said...

Man, you sure know how to put the right words in the right order and get your point across. That was a great piece of writing and it is so clear what you want to say to us and the world. You never made yourself better known than you did now, I understand you completely and have enormous respect for you.


sharon said...

Now those are the best arguments you have ever put forward for HE. I can see exactly where you are coming from, and, more importantly, why. The Gritlets are so very lucky to have you as their Mother, Teacher and Facilitator.

Brad said...

I've developed a great amount of respect for you and what you do, by reading this blog. Perhaps it's not only a record of your experiences, but maybe a bit of inspiration for others to give it a try. It might be a messy business but I often find myself wishing I could tag along for a lesson or two.

Grit said...

hello all, thank you for your comments. it is a hard balance to strike, whatever we choose. somedays i am definitely a better teacher than i am a mother!