Dawn Francis-Pester chose to teach her sons at home and discovered that her own spiritual path was affected by the experience…
Today is a rainy summer’s day and, although it might not look like learning, all sorts of thought processes are going on in the kitchen. Inspired by a recent birthday present, my eldest son adds intricate touches to the house he has been building out of construction blocks, next to his younger brother, who is painting. Their middle brother stands at the end of the table mixing cake ingredients, snatching the odd sneaky lick.
Twelve years earlier, recently promoted to Head of French in a large secondary school, I was all set to return to my full-time teaching post, 6 months after the birth of my first son. But once my little passenger was out and the full impact of motherhood, as well as the wonder of babyhood, hit me, things took a very different course. One afternoon, as I sat breastfeeding my tiny charge in the sunny conservatory I realised this child needed me more than any class of other people’s teenagers.
Doing things to a different drumbeat can take some courage, but it also involves following your own instincts. It seemed very natural to “teach” my baby and then toddler at home. After all, people generally accept that small children work out how to walk, talk, eat and learn numerous other small tasks alone, if they feel confident and have others to watch. But not long after these first hurdles, I began to see that a little loosely directed curiosity could fuel their learning for many more years and hopefully set them up for life. Taking a largely autonomous approach, I encouraged their individual interests and rather than teaching them, tried to “facilitate” their learning.
Whatever your lifestyle, a new baby is programmed to shake you out of your routine. At first I dug my heels in, desperately clinging onto mealtimes, television programmes and long hot showers, to keep some shape to my day. But once I started to let go and follow my son’s cues, days began to work differently. Rather than teaching him to fit in, I realised he was teaching me to fit back into the natural world, leading me to a more mindful, spiritual path.
As this tiny baby, and later his brothers, grew older and our home schooling path began to evolve, I started to develop a new relationship with time. Without rushing off to school and work at some unearthly hour, we wake up fully rested, and are able to make the most of our days. Rather than frantically planning and squashing activities into predictable slots, I try to allow my children to choose which activities to do, and for how long. While we choose to attend some group activities or clubs at particular times, and aim to complete certain tasks each week, nothing is set in stone. Where possible, we try to respect each other’s needs and interests, and I feel we become more tolerant and aware of the diversity of the outside world, by doing this.
With a different pace of life I feel more grounded and in touch with my natural rhythms, as well as enjoying each season to the full. Obviously summer is a great time for staying out late and making the most of the daylight and warmth, but we also look forward to the cosiness of snuggling up in bed to read together on dark, cold winter mornings, lighting candles at sundown, and gathering sticks, leaves, conkers and chestnuts from the park.
But most importantly, as you adjust to this new way of life, you start to live in the moment, enjoying what is in front of you rather than constantly looking for distraction and stimulation elsewhere. You learn to really engage and connect with your children, and this filters through to other relationships. This is no mean feat in the world of modern technology and involves some strict discipline and interesting thought processes. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my mobile phone internet free, and only check text messages and emails a couple of times a day. Even seemingly good technology, such as digital cameras, can spoil the moment if allowed to get out of hand.
As home schoolers, holidays are a great extension to the home learning process, but when you are focused on feeling at ease with whatever is in front of you, there is no need to keep jetsetting off across the world to add drama or interest to your life. A fairly constant and stable connection with loved ones who share large parts of your days with you also means you don’t seek out holidays as a way to re-establish closeness, or a way to distance yourself from people! When you do get away, not restricted by school holidays, you can see places at the right time of year, perhaps have time to research more unusual ideas, or explore paths further off the beaten track. You may be able to stay for longer too.
Home schooling has also changed my relationship with the material world. I’ve gradually built up work from home as a freelance writer and language tutor, but at first the loss of a stable teaching post was a source of anxiety. Gradually, as I’ve learnt to value time over money, possessions that were seen as necessities have become less important. I have halved my wardrobe and the remaining clothes are more informal, versatile and alternative – reflecting “me” rather than advertising a soulless brand or uniform. Packaged food, takeaways, ready meals and frozen fare are mostly a thing of the past in my household, with my cupboards full of fresh ingredients and food cooked from scratch, taking time, but saving money. We have time to do DIY and decorating at home, rather than paying for these services, and consequently feel more connected to our living space.
But be warned, home educating can spawn a lot of clutter! Well meaning relatives will buy you the latest educational toys and games, half finished craft projects hang around for a rainy day and charity shops and car boot sales are always there to tempt us. But just as you learn to cut down on pressured time tables, you have to learn to be ruthless with clutter. With four of us and two guinea pigs squeezed into a two bedroom cottage, I have learnt to value space and light over storage and possessions and find we all feel calmer this way. While I sometimes resell more expensive equipment, many items are passed on to friends, or the charity shop. In the same way we trust that the universe will provide what is needed, and someone usually turns up with a bag of books or games, just after I have finished clearing out the last lot.
Since I started home schooling, socialising has become a new experience for me. Once a separate part of life, the different clothes I wore to go out of an evening, often hefty alcohol consumption and usually unknown venues almost turned me into a different person when I socialised. Now I tend to socialise during the day or early evening with my children in tow, meeting up with one or two families at once, perhaps in someone’s home, or outdoors where we can connect with nature. I make it a rule not to socialise with anyone I would need a drink to feel comfortable with, and in a relaxed setting the conversations are usually thoughtful, self-reflective, and often revolve around relationships. We also brainstorm ways to explore particular subjects or avenues of learning, perhaps suggesting resources or museums to visit. This makes me very aware that learning is a life-long process for me too. I find myself devouring books about children and development, as well as my old interests of languages and literature, and I’m freshly inspired by topics such as geography and history that I was quickly turned off by my own school teachers, several decades ago.
With our closely connected and more spontaneous way of living, we also find ourselves dealing with emotions and facing conflicts head on in a way that isn’t possible when you are hiding behind rules, procedures and classroom or office walls. Rather than sanitising what would be seen as negative emotions, I try to respect and respond to my own and my children’s and friends’ feelings, whether of excitement and anticipation or anger, pain, sadness and disappointment. In a hurried and largely controlled world, it is extremely liberating to be allowed to feel your own feelings, or allow other people’s feelings to trigger your thoughts and memories, which in turn help you deal with your own issues.
Eventually what is left of the cake mixture is cooked and we clear the table to sample it together. Without a recipe or scales, the cake making was a hit-and-miss process, and the end result slightly uneven in places, but I hear no complaints as every morsel is savoured. I feel confident that the spontaneous, intense experience of home education will also yield positive results for all of us.