Not Just for Financial Reasons
A Perspective on Homeschooling in the Torah World
I am woken up by little voices screaming “Moooommmmmy” in their adorable sing-song style. My eyes are not fully open as we go through the motions of netilat yadayim. I hurry them through breakfast while simultaneously preparing lunches and then tackling the battle of getting dressed.
The flurry slowly calms, and the kids share an idyllic brotherly moment reviewing animal sounds with a board book. Their play is abruptly interrupted as the clock strikes 7:55. “Time to go!” I exclaim, happy that we are relatively on time. Yet an unexpected diaper change pushes us into emergency mode, and I hear myself barking orders like a drill sergeant – “Put on your shoes, now! Ugh! Where did your kippah go?!”- as I rush to get them to their ride on time. Gently, and then not so gently, I coerce my reticent children onto the van, and then breathe a sigh of relief, taking in the silence of their absence.
Yet my relief that the morning hustle is over and my kids are safely on their way to school is quickly replaced by a flood of Mommy worries. Will they be greeted by their teacher with a kind word and a smiling face? Will their friends include them? Will they understand the material that is taught? I say a quick heartfelt tefillah for their success and bolster my spirits with the knowledge that I am giving my kids the gift of a yeshiva education.
My workday ends and my real job begins as I welcome my children returning home from cheder and gan. Seeing how they are visibly cranky and tired after the travails of school I try to provide them with a positive environment and time to decompress. Their play now is more aggressive and competitive and I overhear words and attitudes that were not learned at home. I notice the transition throughout the afternoon as their tension slowly dissipates and they transform back into the sweet boys of this morning who played together calmly.
Conventional wisdom touts the benefits of a mainstream school education for social and academic development, but when the schools are riddled with issues – bullying, overcrowding, negative influences, and cookie-cutter lessons – the question that begs itself is why parents are handing over their precious charges to such institutions.
“Do They Wish They Had an Alternative?”
In the Torah world, where we so value yeshiva education, we might bemoan the failings of standardized education and aim to improve schools, yet it rarely occurs to us to leave the system altogether for the alternative of homeschooling. Avivah Werner, founder of the annual Torah Home Education Conference, took the courageous and out-of-the-box step to homeschool her children both in America and Israel, and she writes about her refreshing and inspirational views at her website, www.avivahwerner.com.
As I combed through her website, soaking in her wisdom, I found myself nodding in agreement with so many of her ideas. The contrast between her day and mine is stark:
This morning we enjoyed a family breakfast once everyone was dressed and ready to start their day. This was so much nicer than rushing to get sandwiches prepared for the day and searching for this one’s shoes and that one’s permission slip and rush, rush, rush. I often looked around at other parents rushing to take their little children to school in the morning, rushing to pick them up, rushing, rushing, rushing… I wondered, are other people also thinking that this feels insane, do they wish they had an alternative?
She then describes a peaceful day of reading books, playing games and informal learning initiated by her children’s requests. “It’s amazing to see the kids’ interest and even excitement about learning – each morning they tell me what they want to learn about that day and I try to follow through with that.” Avivah explains that a child’s natural love for learning is often stifled in school: “Kids learn to keep quiet rather than ask questions and be engaged […] When it comes time for a test, they scurry to study, spit back the information they learn and then promptly forget it all again – unless a person finds value in information, he doesn’t have reason to remember it.”
Echoing the teaching of our sages, “Le’olam yilmod adam Torah bemakom shelibo hafetz” (Avodah Zara 19a) – learning is best when a person is drawn to the subject matter. Avivah understands that “people learn much more when they’re engaged and having fun.” She therefore offers her children a wide variety of educational games to make learning enjoyable. While she provides structured learning time for her older children to master reading, writing, and math, formal learning is a small fraction of their day. The majority of their lessons are gleaned from the classroom of life. Avivah views a dentist appointment or trip to the grocery store as an educational opportunity, no different than her trips to the zoo or Colonial Williamsburg. “Taking your kids with you to various places is the ideal way to teach them how to behave when in a store, a doctor’s office, when visiting the elderly. They don’t learn about it from sitting at home and hearing you theorize about how to act in public.”
Individualized Education vs. Institutionalized Education
Yet, despite her focus on free time, play, and individual interests, Avivah’s kids are not missing out on high-level academic skills. Taking advantage of the many homeschooling resources, the older children start their day with traditional book learning. As free time follows study, they are self-motivated to focus and get their work done. Without the distractions and limits of school – it is estimated that between 30-50 percent of classroom time is wasted on behavior management – Avivah’s children are able to advance swiftly. Sometimes they cover an entire year’s worth of material in just a few weeks.
Her educational philosophy is extremely powerful and speaks to the beauty of a customized education provided by a loving parent:
As parents, there is no one more committed to our children’s success in every area of life than we are. Teachers have classes with a large number of children and limited time and ability to get to know each one as an individual. As parents, we know each child’s needs and abilities, we know his learning style and interests, and we are able to tailor their education to them specifically. This means that they benefit from individualized education versus institutionalized education. They can be taught according to their unique needs.
Avivah has a unique perspective, as her kids have studied in both traditional school and at home, and so she is able to appreciate the difference. She writes about how her children are happier and calmer in a loving home environment. She says of one of her sons, “Something changed once he went to school, when we began seeing an upswing in resistance, defiance, and aggression.” Recognizing that children need to feel emotionally attached and safe to facilitate optimal learning, Avivah explains the natural consequence of large classes. “In a class of 33 other boys, I don’t think my son felt connected to those taking care of him. When you’re a teacher managing such a large group, your priority is on management, not attachment.” On the other hand, when at home, “He feels loved and secure, and gets lots of time with me. He doesn’t have to vie with a huge group of other kids for a minimal amount of attention. He doesn’t get lost in the crowd as a result of being a well-behaved child.”
Learning Healthy Social Strategies
Despite these beautiful benefits, there are still many fears about homeschooling. Do homeschooled children learn proper social skills? Do untrained parents know enough to educate their children? And, as observant Jews, how can we deprive children of the rich communal experience of learning Torah in the yeshiva system?
Avivah, in her signature logical and thorough style, addresses common concerns about home education. In contrast to the attitude that school is necessary to learn social skills, Avivah reveals that the opposite is true:
…many parents have personally experienced that most of what kids learn from their peers are the things we want to “unteach” them! Children don’t learn healthy social skills from their peers. They learn coping mechanisms and how to conform to the current fashions. Healthy social strategies are learned by watching and modeling mature healthy adults.
Avivah’s children have no lack of social outlets. Homeschool gatherings, communal functions, and time spent with friends provide adequate socialization.
In response to parents lacking confidence as educators, Avivah points to the abundance of both Jewish and secular resources available on the internet for homeschoolers. There is also the benefit of parents broadening their knowledge. “You don’t always have to know something before your children do – you can learn alongside them. And often your children will teach you about new things!”
When it comes to the idea that a yeshiva is the only place to receive a solid Jewish education, Avivah believes that although Jewish schools “have widely been credited with saving American Jewry,” Torah and Jewish values can be transmitted by parents, as was done traditionally before Jewish education became institutionalized.
Giving children a customized education in a loving environment without the confines of a school schedule is a beautiful ideal. And whether or not homeschooling is your preference, everyone can benefit and take lessons from the eye-opening inspirational methods and philosophies espoused by the Torah homeschooling community.