Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teach Your Children Well

Everyone who has ever read this blog knows that we're all about homeschooling here.  You know I don't spend much blogging energy defending the "educational system" as a whole.  I am much more likely to defend homeschoolers and their right to teach their children as they see fit.  As a general rule, I don't believe that professional teachers are better equipped to teach children than parents are.

However, I've had a rant building up over a number of months.  Years even.

But first a little background.  First, I am a veteran homeschooler.  I have homeschooled my four children for more than 20 years.  Second, I work on a part-time contract as a homeschool consultant for Alpha Omega Publications (AOP), a large homeschool curriculum publishing company.  I represent AOP at homeschool conventions all over the country, as well as help to administrate AOP's social media presence.  (Oh, and by the way, yes, it is Alpha Omega's curriculum that Arby's wife hates!)  

As a homeschool consultant, I answer lots of questions about homeschooling in general and about AOP's curriculum in particular.  I am usually a pretty strong believer in the adage "the only stupid question is an unasked one."  However, there's one question in particular that I'm getting a little tired of hearing.
"Are your Teacher's Guides really necessary?  I mean I think I can do 4th grade Math!"
Now, I know I'm gonna step on more than a few toes here, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

Yes, teacher's guides can be expensive and I know that lots of families are necessarily trying to save money these days.  And yes, that mom probably does know how to do 4th grade math.  But does she really know how to teach 4th grade math?  And is knowing how to teach really that important for homeschoolers?

I'll get back to the actual question of the necessity of teacher's guides in a few minutes, but first I want to address the more important issue of why I'm so bothered by the question to begin with...and keep in mind I've been asked this question more times than I can begin to count!  Over the months I've grown more and more convinced that the question itself is a sign of a bigger (and somewhat troubling) issue.  It seems there are growing numbers of homeschoolers who are trying to take the "easy road" to homeschooling--a road that costs little in terms of time and/or money.  But children cannot teach themselves.  While I believe that most parents can do at least as good a job (and often better) as most trained teachers can, the fact remains that teaching a child at home is a job not to be taken lightly.  It requires a tremendous level of commitment.  It can cost a great deal of time and money.  If a homeschooler isn't willing or able to spend a lot of money, the commitment in time will likely go up significantly.  And for parents who don't want to (or can't) spend large amounts of time, the financial commitment should go up considerably.  

I am a trained teacher.  But when I started homeschooling I didn't make the assumption that my teacher training meant I could do it all on my own.  I used the resources that were available to me to assist me in teaching my own children.  Over 20+ years of teaching my four children at home, I purposed to equip myself to educate my children.  I spent countless hours learning how to be a good homeschooler.  I spent money on resources that I knew would help me teach them.  I learned Algebra and Chemistry so that I could teach it to them.  I read books that I never wanted to read so that I could discuss them with my daughters .  I invested a great deal in my children's education.  And that investment has paid off in the lives of my children.

The changes in the homeschooling movement in the last 20 years are staggering.  Those changes are mostly good ones.  But in my opinion, they have created a problem as well.  The exploding growth of the homeschooling movement and the plethora of available resources may have created the illusion that homeschooling is "easy."  And it may be easy to homeschool, but it definitely isn't easy to do it well.  By choosing to homeschool, parents are taking full responsibility for the academic development (and futures) of their children.  I don't believe it is possible to overstate the importance of the task at hand.  It is a huge, life-impacting decision.  Parents who purpose to homeschool should also purpose to do everything in their power to do it well.

So, what about Teacher's Guides?  Are they really necessary?  Unfortunately, I can't answer that question for every parent.  Some parents may be equipped to teach without them.  But in many cases, the use of a teacher's guide is the most effect way to ensure that a child will receive the instruction they need to fully grasp the content of the lesson. Even trained teachers use teacher's guides.  They are, in many cases, the main source of instruction. It puzzles me why so many parents insist that they are unnecessary.

So is the question of the necessity of teacher's guides really the right question?  A far more important question to ask is this:

As a homeschooler, what is your goal?  Is it simply to homeschool?  Or is it to "teach your children well?"


  1. Haha! Stuck my foot right in my mouth. Retweeted your post with "Nah, they bore me." because I was feeling frisky. Then I came over here and read this and realized I agree with every word. I *do* use teacher's guides. That would be because I have no idea what I'm doing yet. However, I just read through them, get the idea of why I'm doing what I'm doing, then I drop the script and tailor things to my children. Which is kinda like using a teacher's guide, huh?

  2. I think the underlying question is, “Is there anything contained within the teacher’s guide that is so critical to the instruction of my child that it justifies the additional expense, that without it my child’s education will suffer, or will I be able to provide my child with a good quality education and save my limited resources for other purchases?” It is a fair question. It is a necessary question for some limited budgets.

    I’ve always wondered whether or not my purchase of a teacher’s guide was a sign of intellectual laziness on my part. Was I purchasing the book so that I wouldn’t have to prepare? Was I purchasing the book so that I could read a prepared statement out loud to my child and not have to think? Sometimes, that is all a teacher’s guide is – a script that if followed completes a lesson with very little thought invested by the parent/teacher. Saxon Math parent guides for grades k-4 are completely unnecessary. I haven’t found a concept that I could not teach, teach well, and in less time than Saxon suggests, without their teacher’s guides for those grade levels.

    It takes a tremendous amount of work to read through a teacher’s guide and determine whether or not there is a schedule worthy of following, with information worth using, and with activities that are a good fit for my child (a very subjective question) all while standing in a crowded, noisy vendor’s hall at a convention. Those are questions that need to be researched at home, online, and through discussions with other homeschoolers.

  3. I usually do opt for the teacher's guide "just in case." Even in subjects that I could teach myself, I have found them helpful for understanding how that curriculum takes the students step by step through the lessons and clarifying ambiguous instructions. Sometimes the fully scripted lessons are helpful. Sometimes I take the guide and workbook and tailor my own lessons. If I don't see the need for the teacher's guide, I probably need to re-evaluate the need for that curriculum. So far, I've mostly been pleased with curriculum choices for my oldest, so I can justify the cost shared over three later siblings yet to cover that material.

    I do agree with your point about the effort needed to be put into homeschooling. When things are going well, it is tempting to say how easy it is. When things are difficult, it is tempting to whine. It is a big commitment. There are many ways to accomplish that commitment, but there are not any "easy" routes.

  4. My first reason for using a teachers guide several years ago for even the most simple things was because I had 4 different levels I was schooling and when I finished helping with Algebra and 7th grade math, I really didn't want to spend time figuring out the 2nd grade and K or 1st grade math answers.

    Then I found the content for lessons helped me explain certain concepts better. This was after I'd explained a concept several times and my child still had the deer in the headlights look. I opened the teacher guide, read it's explanation and the light came on inside that head. "Why didn't you say that to begin with?" was her question. "Ummm... I thought I'd said exactly that 3 times already."

    Then there are the additional activities they suggest which make this lesson (including the AOP "independent learning" curriculum) a much more hands on and teacher intensive program. It lets you make the curriculum work for YOUR family!

    I much prefer having the teacher guides at my disposal, even if I don't use them EVERY day!

  5. I might have taken this post more seriously, even knowing that you work for a curriculum producer, but when I read, "But children cannot teach themselves." I was totally turned off and lost any open-mindedness! The attitude that we must directly instruct our children in all aspects of learning lest they won't "learn well" has that 'I am a trained teacher' background of yours rearing its ugly head. You may say that "While I believe that most parents can do at least as good a job (and often better) as most trained teachers can, the fact remains that teaching a child at home is a job not to be taken lightly. It requires a tremendous level of commitment." These statements reek of hypocrisy to homeschooling in general. It's as if you are saying, 'I was able to homeschool my children because, of course, I was a trained professional teacher and I invested both extra time and money in my children's education. And look how well my children turned out. You should do it the same if you want your children to turn out well. Especially since many of you homeschoolers are NOT trained teachers.'

    I must say that I have found most teacher guides in elementary level curriculums to almost laughable in what they add to a curriculum -- especially considering what they charge for the guide. Then again, I find curriculums for K-3 rather ridiculous anyway. I always find it amazing that people who have a background in "education" need to justify their education by continually saying there's more to it (teaching) than letting your children learn and explore on their own. This attitude is carried over when they choose to homeschool and they continue with their education by “spending countless hours learning how to be a good homeschooler.” Because, of course, children cannot teach themselves.

    By choosing to not purchase a teacher’s guide, it’s as if you are saying that those homeschool parents are not investing enough in the education of their children. They are not taking their job seriously enough. They are not taking this huge, life-impacting decision to teach their 7 year old “well.” They have no common sense. They are incapable of explaining something to their child. And the child is incapable of figuring it out themselves. Because, of course, children cannot teach themselves.

    When folks question my ability to “teach” my children I turn to them ask them, “What does it say about my education if I cannot teach a six-seven-eight-nine year old what they need to know?” We are not talking rocket-science here. I have yet to meet a homeschooler that believes they know everything or can do it all on their own. Or, for that matter, a student who is incapable of teaching themselves something they want to learn. (Continued below)

  6. We are very lucky today. With so many resources available so easily, no one needs to go to a traditional school to “learn well.” I believe my children are the finest examples of that. With only guidance from me, they continue to acquire knowledge, skills, and make oneself master of their own education. But I don’t believe that you believe they are capable of doing it. Maybe it is you that should go back and read history books about the education of Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Leonardo Da Vinci, Alex Haley, Robert Frost, Louisa May Alcott, Agatha Christie, Ansel Adams, Joan of Arc, or Susan B. Anthony, to name only a few. I doubt they used teacher’s guides.

    So, even though you may type “As a general rule, I don't believe that professional teachers are better equipped to teach children than parents are” your post actually says the opposite. It is saying that a dedicated parent wanting to teach their children well, should be using a teacher’s guide. After all, ‘even trained teachers use teacher's guides.’ You wouldn’t want to deny your children the instruction they need to fully grasp the content of the lessons, would you? Since you are taking on full responsibility for the academic development (and futures) of your children it is imperative that you teach them well, because whether or not they are enrolled in school, children cannot teach themselves.

  7. Moe, the line that offended you, “But children cannot teach themselves,” was not a blanket statement concerning every point of instruction in every homeschooling day. It was clearly directed at the unfortunate instances where some parents homeschool their children but attempt to invest as little time, energy, and money as possible into their children’s instruction. There are homeschooling parents who are lazy. I know they exist. I’ve met some personally.

    I respectfully suggest that in your reaction to her writing you read between the lines and discovered something that doesn’t exist. Linda was, is, and always will be a dedicated proponent of homeschooling for all parents, whether or not they have a college degree, or whether or not they are trained teachers. I have been spanked (figuratively speaking) by her on more than one occasion for appearing to defend former public and private school teachers who now homeschool over parents who homeschool without such experience. There is no hypocrisy in her post.

    The point of the post was not whether or not homeschooled students can learn on their own. The point was that if parents are taking on the enormous responsibility of homeschooling their children, are they dedicating themselves to the effort, or seeking to take the easiest road possible? Her post suggests some important questions that every homeschooling parent should consider. It’s called Reflective Practice, and it is the trademark of a good teacher. A good teacher constantly monitors their own professional development, asking themselves if their presentation was as effective as it could have been. Was their lesson planning adequate? Do they have enough resources? Are they using the resources that they have well? Are they being too hard? Too easy? Did they grade fairly? If they use the same lesson again in the future, will they change any part of it? Speaking for myself, a teacher who doesn’t have an active reflective practice is not a good teacher, no matter where or what they teach.

    As a homeschooling curriculum saleswoman, Linda meets hundreds of homeschooling parents and is exposed to (more than most of us) parents from all points on the homeschooling spectrum. Her post is a reflection of that interaction coupled with her dedication, passion, and undying support for homeschooling.

    Finally, Moe, thank you for reading this blog and leaving a comment. Thank you, also, for admitting that you lost any open-mindedness concerning the content of the post. Your response, rather than being a discussion of the issues, was an attack on the writer. You put words into her mouth. I will say here and now something that I’ve never written to a commenter before today. You owe Linda an apology.

  8. Dear Moe,
    Comments are always welcome here. However, when I suggested that I might step on some toes, or even predicted to a friend that I might get some emotional responses, I never expected that it would be because I was misunderstood so completely.

    As Arby stated in his comment above, if you were a regular reader of this blog you would know that your assessment of my attitude toward homeschoolers AND toward educators and the education "system" in general, could not be further from the reality. I am first a homeschooler. Second, I am a consultant to homeschoolers. As such I am paid, yes, by a curriculum company, to help homeschoolers. I am not paid to sell curriculum. And finally, third, I am a teacher. I do not believe that being a teacher made me a better homeschooler. In fact I believe the exact opposite is true. Being my children's mom has made me a better teacher. Because I assumed my audience was likely to be our regular readers, I did not take the time to make sure this point was clear.

    I'm not really going to try to respond to your assumptions/accusations. For one, I believe you and I come from very different ideological viewpoints. I am assuming (from the passion with which you responded to certain aspects of my post) that you have adopted a "delight-led", or unschooling approach for your homeschool (if my assumption is incorrect, I apologize). I am more traditional, eclectic. You probably do not use many textbooks, let alone teacher's guides. That's okay. That’s the beauty of homeschooling. We each have the freedom to teach our children as we see fit. Unschooling is a valid and effective method of homeschooling, and contrary to your assumption, I do believe that children can learn in this way. I wonder, do you believe that children can learn from textbooks and workbooks in a school-like setting at home? I do, and my children (three high school grads/two also college grads) are proof of the success of the method that I have chosen. Your reply to my post really seemed to have much more to do with your disdain for my chosen method than with the actual point I was trying to make. The point was NOT whether parents should use teacher’s guides. I felt I made that fairly clear at the end of the post. The point was that homeschool parents...no matter the method they choose...need to purpose to teach their children well.

    The statement which seemed to bother you the most was “children can’t teach themselves.” I intend to write another post later today defending this statement. I still believe it is true, and I believe that most homeschoolers, even many of the unschoolers I know, would agree. I hope my position will be more clear to you if you choose to read my follow-up post. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. I consider blogging a dialog, and I hope that you’ll join this one.