Home School/Real School: A View from Both Sides of the Barricades: Part 4

Meanwhile, we had reset the timer on our family timeout. Although we had loved Chicago, we loved Utah’s canyons and mountains – and the time we now had to explore them – even more. Michael resigned his chair at the University of Chicago and accepted a professorship at the University of Utah College of Law. We took three month-long family trips to Europe, lugging along a suitcase full of books on art, culture, and history. I wrote, taught homeschool co-op courses, eventually coached debate as a parent volunteer at West High School . . . and tried not to think too hard about what I was going to do when I grew up.

The timeout ended abruptly just a few days before our older daughter was to begin twelfth grade and her final year of preparation for the upper-level IB exams. The director of the International Baccalaureate program telephoned me, sounding frantic. The longtime IB history teacher had just announced that he was quitting – that day. The capstone history course he had taught covered 20th century Europe, with a special emphasis on the first phase of the Russian Revolution, 1917-1924, and the early years of the Cold War. I had studied these subjects at Oxford, right? Would I consider coming in to teach the class?

A few months later, buoyed with the joy and deceptive success of teaching a relatively small class of extremely bright and motivated seniors, I announced to my startled husband that I’d decided what I was going to teach school. Real school – bricks, mortar, administrative offices, report cards and all.

If I had never considered the prospect of homeschooling my children, I had once thought a lot about the teaching profession. More specifically, I had vowed, sometime around the seventh grade, that I would never become a teacher. I had observed my mother’s years (brilliantly) teaching fifth and sixth grade. I knew all about the low pay, the never-ending grading, the carping principals and the constantly shifting programs and regulations .

Now that I’d changed my mind, however, it turned out that becoming a teacher wasn’t that easy. Like many states Utah has an alternative certification program, but it comes with a Catch-22. Prospective teachers can only be admitted if they already have a teaching job. A sympathetic official at the Utah State Office of Education advised me to apply to private schools. Six months later I landed a job teaching middle school math and social studies at a small Catholic elementary school in Bountiful, filling in for a teacher in the Army National Guard who had just been deployed to Iraq.

Middle school was not my first choice, but I had homeschooled two daughters through sixth, seventh and eighth grades. I had managed to teach math through Algebra II and history at the IB level. Surely I could handle this.

Actually, I was awful. Eight years of homeschooling had filled me with theories about adapting to individual learning styles and uncovering knowledge through exploration. I wanted to present children with a rich buffet of excellent books, which I was confident they would readily devour. I hauled in the exploratory group math games that had generated enthusiasm in the boys’ upper elementary coop class I had taught. I tossed aside the boring Utah and American history textbooks and worked up multidisciplinary unit studies on the Intercontinental Railroad and the battle of Antietam. Brimming with good intentions, I proved to be more or less clueless about how to design and implement a curriculum for a classroom of students with widely-ranging abilities, a handful of fairly serious learning disabilities, and a marked lack of enthusiasm for either numbers or the printed word. In my classroom, chaos often reigned. Across the hall, an experienced teacher about my age taught religion and Spanish using quite traditional methods to exactly the same set of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. The students were actually learning something in her classroom. And they loved her for it.

I will be forever grateful to the principal of this small school, who concluded – without much evidence that I can see – that I had the makings of a good teacher, and that with my subject matter expertise I really belonged in high school. She recommended me to the principal of Juan Diego, a new Catholic high school in south suburban Salt Lake City, and the school hired me to teach government and economics and start up a debate program. Within a few years the debate program was up and running, and I was chairing the social studies department and teaching several concurrent enrollment and Advanced Placement courses. While I was, and remain, aware of my many shortcomings as a teacher, I grew increasingly comfortable with and thought I became increasingly competent at my job.

Along the way, I jettisoned much of what I had concluded about teaching from my years of homeschooling. I returned to textbooks, and wrote out detailed study guides for every textbook I used. I structured my lesson plans quite rigidly, and began each class with a quiz on the assigned reading. While I tried to spark discussion and included simulations, web exercises and group problem-solving exercises in my unit lesson plans, my students still spent a great deal of time watching my mouth move in front of the class. Some of this change in technique reflected the realities of high school. But even more it reflected a growing acceptance that I could not teach a classroom of students the way I had taught my family, or even a small homeschool coop class.

If “real school” poses different challenges for teachers, it also confronts home –schooled students with a very different model of learning. Home schoolers have as a group scored above average on standardized tests, and performed well in college: I am certainly not suggesting that home school produces ill-educated kids! Still, while hybrid “online” programs have blurred the distinction between home school and traditional school, I still suspect that this transition can produce some shocks. I taught a few former home schoolers, and found that they did have to make adjustments to a more rigid schedule – to say nothing of hours spent sitting at a desk!

Again, I would love to hear from students, parents and teachers who have participated in this transition. How did home schooling prepare you for “real” school? What do the two models have to teach each other? How can parents, teachers, and school administrators make this transition easier for home-schooled students? Email me at MMcConnell@desnews.com.

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