Classroom teaching vs home teaching

Homeschool student practicing division

Homeschool parents are widely regarded as incompetent teachers.

Yesterday, I wrote about my assessment of a lopsided article on homeschooling. I made the mistake of reading the comments. One of themes that emerges from the negative comments is that ordinary parents aren’t up to the task of teaching children.

My husband and I are both teachers, but we’re well educated enough in pedagogy to know that we alone could not teach our children as well as a school environment could. And that teaching is a highly specialized professional field, but unfortunately one that everyone seems to think they can do. … I have two masters degrees, have extensively studied educational and developmental psychology, and have years of experience in the classroom. Of course parents know their own children, but that doesn’t mean they can teach. … Every parent assumes they know more than their child’s highly trained teacher. It would be so nice to be given the respect that professionals in other fields are granted."

MichelleChicago

Michelle asserts that teachers are professionals with extensive specialized training and experience, both of which homeschool parents lack. Of course this is true. But Michelle, however well-trained she may be commits a logical error by assuming that homeschool parents and classroom parents cannot both be competent in their own contexts. This is a false dichotomy. I’m a homeschool teacher (maybe “guide” is a better word; but whatever); and I have tremendous admiration for professional serious-minded teachers. Of course, I imagine Michelle would admit that teachers are not uniformly skilled and professional; just as homeschool parents are not uniformly qualified. Is the worst classroom teacher still better than the best homeschool parent? How would you know? Michelle creates a “straw-man” by portraying the decision to homeschool as based on their perception of classroom teachers as unskilled, unprofessional, and unknowledgeable. I doubt this is often the case. Our own decision to homeschool was difficult and complex. It had nothing to do with public school teachers.

Or consider the wisdom of Sandee from Houston, TX:

I do not like the idea of homeschooling at all. Oh, and ideas a parent might disagree with… which is, of course, the reason folks elect to homeschool their kids!

SandeeHouston

No, Sandee, we homeschool for many reasons. In our case, it has practically nothing to do with ideas we disagree with. We are secular to the core. We believe and teach that everything must be questioned and critically evaluated.

A doctor from New Jersey also opines that even the most educated persons in their disciplines are incapable of meeting the needs of their children:

I find there to be a certain arrogance in homeschooling your child. You know that saying about it taking a village to raise a child? As far as I am concerned, school is that village. My husband and I are both MDs. We had 12 years of public school followed by eight years of higher education. In college, I took multivariable calculus, differential calculus, college level physics, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, many, many biology classes, English literature and creative writing classes. My husband was a math major. We’re definitely not undereducated people, but I would never presume that I know enough to teach my children all the skills necessary to make it to college.

NMYNew Jersey

Well, Doc, maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re wrong. Without data, you simply don’t know. But, believe it or not, the purpose of education is not just stuffing more facts in kids’ heads. Maybe it’s a good way to get into med school (it was, I did it) but it’s a really poor way to regard education. The last sentence of the quote, though, points to a fundamental difference in our points of view. I don’t regard the goal of public education as “making it to college.” I want to be confident that my daughter has a love of learning and of books. I want her to be curious and skeptical. I want her to have time to pursue her interests. I want her to find a meaningful livelihood. College, medical school, graduate school, conservatory? All are fine; and our financial plans amply anticipate the likelihood that she’ll go on to post-seconday education. But the obsession with college is an unhealthy one.

There are dozens more comments like these. What they all have in common is a claim that professional public school teachers are always more effective at teaching children than parents. I want to look closely at this argument by defining the skills that make good classroom teachers and those that make good homeschool guides.

Command of the subject matter

Classroom teachers are expected to have a fluent command of their subject material so that it can be explained to a room full of children. But at the same time, we should be coaxing children to develop their own academic skills and self-discovery. Homeschool guides don’t have the same opportunity to go as deeply as classroom teachers within a particular subject; but they have a unique learning environment in which to foster curiosity in their children and to teach them the ability to find things out for themselves.

My question for the doctor quoted above and her husband is this: If your own primary education left you with so little confidence in your ability to teach it, why do you place such unwavering confidence in the institution of public school.

Learning climate

Although I’m not a classroom teacher, I’ve sat in enough classrooms to know how they work. Much of the work of the teacher in school is to set up a productive learning environment. There’s a bit of stage-acting. I’ve heard it described as “edutainment”. I’m not being pejorative here; there are real theatrical skills that excellent teachers possess or develop. It requires enough charisma to motivate and engage students while remaining true to the content and purpose of the lesson.

The homeschool guide is different. Most of us are comfortable in our own homes with our own children. Theatrical skills aren’t really needed. Instead, we weave learning into everything we do. We do set up a quite physical environment where we do our table-based work, our microscope, books, and other tools. But we aren’t bound by this space.

Discipline

I once drove across the country with a friend who at that time was a recently-retired high school teacher. Before his tenure at the high school, he was a middle school teacher. Over the course of hours of stories, I came to appreciate the toll that the work of maintaining classroom discipline takes on teachers and on the learning environment. In his opinion and that of other teachers I’ve talked with, discpline is becoming a larger problem.

Disciplinary events in the classroom are a form of interruption. The flow of the lesson is broken; and it takes a moment for everyone to get back on task. Moments add up. The science of interruptions provides considerable insight about the cognitive burden imposed by these interruptions.

I do not mean to say that homeschool children never interrupt and never misbehave. But given that many misbehaviors happen in a social context of other misbehaving children, these sorts of patterns don’t emerge in homeschool. At the least, it is not overriding concern for the homeschool parent.

Empathy

Both homeschool parents and classroom teachers need to have high degrees of empathy to be effective. Empathy, of course, is not the same as feeling sorry for someone. Nor is it feeling the same as someone else. Rather it is the ability to read the emotional state of another person and accurately communicate and respond to that state.

Good parents just do this naturally. Good teachers do to.

Formal pedagogy

There is a formal method in classroom teaching. In front of a class, the teacher appears relaxed, confident and engaging; but it belies the organization and preparation behind the scenes. Great teachers are not only good at conducting a classroom lesson; but they are efficient at preparing and follow-up.

In homeschool, we also have to be prepared; but the planning happens on a different time scale. Because I’m not expected to organize lessons for a classroom that would rapidly devolve into chaos if I don’t have a seamless game plan, I have only a rough idea about how our day is going to proceed. It allows me to be more responsive. I can slow down if ViolinGirl needs more time on something, or skip around if she’s bored because she already understands something. In short, I have to be organized enough to meet her needs; but I don’t have to plan every moment.

Not the same

Great classroom teachers are amazingly skilled. Michelle, quoted previously, incorrectly assumes that we homeschool because classroom teachers are unskilled or unknowledgeable. Among our homeschool peers, we do not know any who regard public school teachers in this way. We may have our disagreements with how schools are run in their bureaucratic way. But I don’t know any who disparage teachers.

Homeschool guides and classroom teachers simply have different roles. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with how homeschools actually function will recognize that.