I first heard the term “deschooling” five years ago on the Homeschool Association of California (HSC) Yahoo! Group e-list. I was new to homeschooling, and I didn’t think the concept of deschooling really applied to me, since my kids had never been in school. Over time, I found the deschooling discussion to be, in fact, the most valuable of them all.
Whenever someone would voice their concern about “doing things right”, or when their kids were reluctant to study, I would read the discussion with rapt attention. I am a perfectionist, and I wanted to do things right. I wanted to avoid potential homeschooling pitfalls. Repeatedly, the advice these parents received was, “take time to deschool.” I was curious about it. Why did the questions that I felt the most inspired to read always lead to a discussion about deschooling?
Commonly, the suggestion offered was to take one month off for every year the child was in school, and basically do nothing. This time frame was about how long experienced homeschoolers said it took them to find their educational sea-legs, and for their kids to feel good about learning again. It was often referred to as a time to detox from school.
As you might have already experienced, this suggestion wasn’t always met with enthusiasm. Spending a few months letting the kids do “nothing”, sounds great coming from the other side of experience. As a new homeschooler, this sounded to me like educational suicide. I wasn’t alone in my fear, as other new homeschoolers would respond hesitantly to this advice, “Do “nothing” for six months? Sit around and watch TV and hope and pray that my child will spontaneously jump up and ask to do school work? How is that going to help my child to love learning again?”
It was intimidating, yet strangely exhilarating, to imagine educating my children in a way that didn’t look like school. Could I do that? Was it possible? What was our life going to look like if it didn’t reflect my own education? I wasn’t confident in the idea of not having my own experience to fall back on. Even though I did want to do something different than school, the opposite extreme of no school at all left me looking at my hands wondering, “Well, if not school, what then?”
I noticed that not everyone had the need to find an alternative to the school-at-home approach. For some families, replicating their own school experience at home was an effective and enjoyable approach. Although that worked for others, my husband and I knew right away that this approach wasn’t going to work for us. We decided to homeschool because we wanted freedom and opportunities. Why make the decision to teach our children differently, and then do exactly what they’d be doing in school? I wanted to create a more personalized learning experience for my children.
Yet, since I had never experienced education any other way, I was reluctant to fully embrace a life without it. I was on a journey to find a balanced way to deschool.
As I became an experienced homeschooler myself, I discovered my own answers to the many questions about how to learn as a family. I was then able to respond to new homeschoolers’ questions with confidence and empathy—I identified closely with what they were going through. The more experience I had as a homeschooler, the more I would help other new families find their way, primarily by relating my own stories and describing some of the effective tools and approaches that other families used. I found myself in the position of being the one who started responding with, “take time to deschool”, because it works.
I have asked myself if there was a way to learn to work together at home without deschooling. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t moving from one “this is how you do it” paradigm to another. I didn’t want to follow advice blindly simply because I didn’t know what else to do.
Time taught me that while deschooling isn’t necessary for successful homeschooling, it does come with many benefits. The main benefit of deschooling is that we go through the process of learning how to educate our children one on one within the context of our family and the world, rather than using strategies best designed for group instruction in a school setting. We learn that whatever teacher role we take on at home has to be different than what teachers at school have to do. There are different variables to consider than what school teachers have to deal with. Teaching at home is like running a small business, not running a large corporation.
I was also concerned because deschooling sometimes seemed like a way to run away from our responsibilities as homeschooling parents. The idea of letting the kids do “nothing” didn’t fit in with my idea of responsible parenting. After time, and careful consideration, I saw that deschooling was in fact the opposite. “Doing nothing” is really another way to say “doing more”.
Deschooling is an exploration into what’s possible. Educating our children without school allows us to see that the world is a limitless expanse of opportunity. But it does take some time and experience to see past the curtains and look outside the classroom. Pattie Donahue- Krueger, in an essay called simply “Deschooling”, describes it as similar to an astronaut re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.
The Good School Kid
I have a Bachelor of Arts in French and one in Psychology, as well as a Master’s Degree in French.
I’m not telling you this to impress you. I’m telling you this to show how thoroughly entrenched I was in the system. My kids never went to school, so they didn’t have to make the adjustment to learning without walls. I’m the one who needed to deschool.
I didn’t plan to be a educational rebel, let alone a deschooling advocate. I grew up a poster child for the success of the American public school system. I was the teacher’s pet, earned good grades and stayed on the honor roll for most of my high school and college career. I was on the fast track to Ph.D. acquisition. I wanted to be a professor.
Then, a few weeks after obtaining my M.A. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a set of fortuitous circumstances forced me to make a hard choice between my family and my schooling. Although I wished at the time that I could have done both, life pulled me away from school and into motherhood. If my husband and my children hadn’t pushed me to make a choice, I would probably have my Ph.D. today. Maybe I’d have two. Maybe I’d still be there. I am forever grateful for my husband’s insistence that he have a satisfying job, and my children’s insistence that they be born before I was done with my Ph.D.
When I was in school, I had no idea how trapped I was in someone else’s idea of success and happiness. My whole value system was based on whether my professors approved of me. My grades defined how good my life was. And even as I questioned the validity of the teaching methods I was asked to perform, and I struggled against the status quo, I never once thought of breaking out and finding my true self outside of school. I was eternally happy being miserable: all-nighters studying for exams, piles and piles of reading material that I was always behind on, facts and figures I impressed professors with but which never had time to sink in because I was on my way to something else—all these things made me “happy.”
I was convinced that in order to be happy, I had to be “busy” and “challenged.” I was convinced of this because I never knew anything else in my life.
Not until I was a mom did I figure out what I had been missing.
I had been missing me.
I was enthusiastic about being a stay-at-home mom with my first child. I knew it was the right choice for us. But it was a choice that came with consequences. I was home alone, left on my own to figure out how to fill my completely empty schedule. I spent hours in chat rooms. I walked around Berkeley and San Francisco with my son in the Bjorn. I would go to the classes at Gymboree everyday just to have something to do. I played hours and hours of video games. I watched Oprah. I read sci-fi novels. I did “nothing”.
When my son didn’t do what he was supposed to (like sleep), I found comfort with being obsessed with his schedule. I scheduled meals, my son’s naps, when he nursed, when we played, when we’d go for a walk. Planning his day made it feel like it when things seemed to be spiraling out of control, it would all be OK.
But my son didn’t like it. Although he was only a baby, we “fought” about what the schedule should be. He was trying to teach me how to live and let go so he could grow.
As he got older, and I had another baby, and then another, I would come to learn more and more from my kids. They didn’t know the latest trends in teaching kids how to sleep, eat, read, talk, walk, or recognize colors, yet they managed to do all these things. I was looking everywhere for answers when the answers were right in front of me.
It was a time of soul searching, experimenting, laughing, crying, exploring, questioning, trusting, worrying, discovering, embracing, playing and learning to let go. I re-evaluated my point of view on education and learning over a dozen times. I swung back and forth between a strict schedule as the solution to my struggles, and a laissez- faire “who cares?” attitude.
When we decided we were going to homeschool, I read many books. I devoured them. I wanted to be the perfect homeschooling mom. I found new and improved answers in each one, with even better ideas on how to educate kids than any book I’d read before. So many great ideas, I couldn’t wait to try them all. My worries would be gone, because we’d finally found the right educational approach.
And while I was going through all of this, my kids went along learning in their own way. Whatever new program I found or new perspective I had, my kids just kept on being who they were, going around me (or trying to) whenever I got in their way.
I had to go through this process of exploration to learn to trust that learning can happen without school. Because I went through my own deschooling process, with the help of my children, I discovered first- hand that people are born to learn. My children have done nothing but prove this to be true. Grades, teacher assessments, or homework – none of that tells me who my kids are, even if they were in school. I know that their truth is already in them, not hiding in school lessons somewhere.
Whether my kids are in school or not, I’m a deschooled mom. My kids deschooled me. In many ways, they continue to do so. I will always be grateful to them for that.
This is an excerpt from Tammy's new book, Deschooling Gently: A Step by Step Guide to Fearless Homeschooling.
Tammy Takahashi lives and learns with her three children (10, 7 and 4) and supportive husband in California. She is the author of Deschooling Gently: A Step by Step Guide to Fearless Homeschooling. She also serves as the editor of the California HomeSchooler magazine, a bi-monthly publication for the Homeschool Association of California. You can read more from her about education and homeschooling on her website. And you can email her at tammy.takahashi @ gmail(dot)com.