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What I want you to know about homeschooling

Sara Foster is an internationally best-selling author and has recently completed her PhD. She also home-schools her two daughters. This is what she wants you to know.

“I think most homeschool parents approach conversations hesitantly because some people are obviously disapproving. But I’m often pleasantly surprised at people’s responses and how open and interested people are in discussions around homeschooling. We also have a lot of homeschool parents in the community who are also teachers (often disillusioned ones).” Sara Foster

If the name Sara Foster is familiar to you, it’s because you might have one of her seven novels on your shelves. She is internationally published, she’s on the best-selling lists and was recently awarded her PhD. She is a regular at writing festivals, and a keen traveller and adventurer. Born and raised in England, she now lives in the northern suburbs of Perth.

She has also been homeschooling her two daughters for the past nine years.

Sara introduces her daughters: “My older girl is Hannah is 14, a gifted artist with a love of wildlife, mystery stories and basketball. She has a big heart and loves coaching her own basketball team for younger girls. My younger daughter Isabelle is 10, also very talented with her art, craft and sewing, loves books, science and animals and is very compassionate, thoughtful and loving.”

But what led to the decision to homeschool?

“I’d always liked the look of homeschooling, but we started out with Hannah at a beautiful play-based kindy, and then transitioned to a state school for pre-primary. It was quickly apparent that Hannah was getting lost in the structure of this school – and she began coming home telling me she was stupid – at five years old,” explains Sara. “I’d had my suspicions that she might be dyslexic ever since she was tiny as she didn’t engage with books in the same ways as other children – she loved the pictures and could memorise stories, but it was almost like she didn’t see the words. And despite easily grasping the alphabet, she didn’t progress in her reading.”

“I felt Hannah also needed specific learning methods to help her with dyslexia and dyscalculia – and the teachers were refusing to believe she needed additional support and doing things like keeping her in at playtime to catch up with work – at five! I didn’t want to shop her around schools trying to find the right support, so we began homeschooling instead.”

Despite the frustrations that led to the decision to homeschool, Sara’s earliest reaction to the idea was one of delight. “I have a natural love of learning that made me really excited about the possibilities of teaching the girls at home.”

Sara Foster and her daughters, Hannah and Isabelle

Advantages and disadvantages of homeschooling

“The advantages are the ability for each child to learn at their own pace and to their own interests.

“My kids are very engaged learners because we’ve followed their passions, and we’ve also dug into subjects that they’re not so keen on to make sure that they get a wide range of knowledge and skills. It also makes for a really close and fulfilling family life because we share a lot of time together, and get to know and support one another well. They get lots of space and time to think deeply about things they’re interested in, and getting to know other homeschooling families has been lovely too.”

“The disadvantages are the pressures on parents to have to explore and create their own structure, adhere to the expectations around the curriculum, and also organise their children’s social lives.”

“A lot of people ask ‘How are they socialised,’ but in fact I find many homeschooling kids are beautifully social, but it’s often harder for them to get to spend regular time with their peers. There can also be an intensity around homeschooling if members of the family/siblings are with each other all the time, but that can be mitigated by finding different classes and opportunities to keep the kids busy and give the parents a break.”

Misconceptions about homeschooling

“People sometimes prejudge reasons for homeschooling, but there are many different reasons for homeschooling. There are also many different ways of homeschooling – some people follow strict curriculums or join online schools, while others unschool their kids, which is a free-ranging child-led approach to learning. We are all different. Some people seem to think that many homeschoolers are helicopter parents who can’t let their kids go, but in reality, most homeschooling parents are keen to find support groups and classes for their kids.” Sara Foster

Homeschooling does not need to be isolating, Sara explains, neither for the parents or the children. “Many homeschool families find real support in developing co-ops so they can share some of the teaching and the kids get more time with one another. I’ve been running a local homeschooled girls group for 10-12-year-olds for six months now, and that’s been really rewarding.”

Another misconception is that the kids are not socialised and spend most of their time in the home. Sara says: “Most homeschoolers I know are struggling to get enough time at home as they take part in so many activities!”

Sara explains that despite what many might expect – that a homeschool day runs according to the same hours as mainstream school – there is incredible variation in what a school day looks like, and can be substantially shorter than a typical 9am-3pm school day.

“We don’t have too many typical days as I have changed our structure continuously according to the girls’ needs,” Sara says. “We get our core maths and English work done on the days we stay home, but on other days we’re out at homeschooling groups or events. Or we might do independent visits to museums and libraries. We often go with the flow of what the kids are interested in.”

“Another misconception that parents who want to try homeschooling can have, is that they’re not good enough to do it,” says Sara. “I didn’t have any direct teaching experience, but both my parents were teachers and lots of my friends too. I’ve found that my role is to support the kids’ passions and find appropriate resources or mentors – so there’s no need to be an expert in everything.”

Finding resources

One thing Sara wishes she knew when she started was what resources are available. “There’s a lot out there, but apart from some general guidance from the Education Department, it’s left up to the parents to find these resources,” she says.

“I chatted to a few other homeschooling mums before I made the decision to homeschool, and they were very encouraging.  I also called the Education Department who sent me registration details, and I began familiarising myself with the curriculum online.”

“It would have been helpful to have a clearer take on the resources out there, and expectations on parents. I wish there had been someone there to encourage me to take my time and not put pressure on myself to do all the things, as I caused myself a lot of stress in the beginning, trying to do too much at once!”

Dear Teacher, what I want you to know

“I would love teachers to know that homeschool parents think you’re amazing! We’ve seen how much organisation it takes just to give a few children a good education, and when we try to extrapolate that into a classroom scenario, it’s obvious that teachers do incredible work!”

“I would love schools to know that I’ve seen many kids who struggled in school begin to thrive once they feel loved and safe with good boundaries, and they naturally begin learning and exploring the world around them. I hate seeing how many students feel under so much pressure to master everything and how inadequate they feel when they either can’t keep up or can’t explore their unique abilities and passions”.

Sara wants educators to understand that homeschooling brings its own unique sets of rewards and challenges, usually based on the specific circumstances of the family. “Whatever choices we make about our child’s education, we’re all loving parents looking to do the best for our kids!”

Something all educators – both homeschool and mainstream – would do well to remember, is something Sara believes strongly: “Learning happens best when it isn’t forced, and when it’s mixed with fun. My kids work better if they know why we’re doing something. As a result, I’ve had to focus much more on my why too.”

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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