Homeschooling: weird or wonderful?

TRISTAN OGDEN
Last updated 05:00 17/08/2014

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"What school did you go to?" goes the age-old question. "Do you know X, Y or Z?" "Actually, I was homeschooled."

That is what you might call a conversational curveball, according to ex-homeschooler Dominica Leonard.

People aren't ready for it. "Whenever I've met adults who asked what school I went to, and I reply that I was homeschooled, you can see their immediate reaction. They aren't trying to be mean, but you can tell by their changed demeanour - and the way they look and talk to you - they think you're at least a little weird," she says.

To be fair, receiving an education at home is out of the norm: according to the Education Counts government website, 5521 students were homeschooled in New Zealand home last year - 0.7 percent of total school enrolments. 

Dr Leo Roache, a former principal, teacher and special education advisor who wrote his thesis on homeschooling, says it was the only option for many of the immigrant families in New Zealand in the 19th century, "as schools varied in quality and availability".

These days, says Roache, remoteness isn't one of the major motivators. "Many homeschooled kids live in the city and there are buses as well as other forms of transport available for children living in remote areas."

Which begs the question homeschooled adults are so often confronted with: "Why?"

Roache says there are plenty of reasons, "from parental experiences and philosophical beliefs to concern about teacher behaviour and sustaining their culture."

Some parents see homeschooling as an opportunity to gain some control over the education of their children, and as a way to "strengthen the family unit whilst providing opportunities to cater for individual needs".

Of course, not everyone agrees. In 2009, Professor Robin West of Georgetown University Law Centre in the US published an article titled The Harms of Homeschooling. She argued that "the school classroom, ideally, and the relations within it, is a model of some core aspects of citizenship".

In other words, limited contact with the outside world leaves homeschool kids with a narrow worldview and scant social smarts.

However, in his study, Roache observed that parents tended to be very conscious of this, and made "extra effort to make sure their children could get out amongst it" as much as possible.

"Most parents made contact with the Home Education Groups so they could help their kids socialise with other children," he says. "Together they would organise group activities and day trips to places that offer an opportunity to learn and socialise at the same time."

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Naysayers are also doubtful when it comes to the quality of the education, but - as Roache points out - that depends on the parents' ability to teach. In his research, he discovered some were not very good and others were exceptional, just like schoolteachers. One advantage of parents becoming "facilitators" (their official title), he says, is that they know their kids intimately. 

Having spent decades working in the state school system as well as countless hours interviewing homeschool families, Roache ultimately feels that "homeschooling is a viable option" - maybe it's not for everyone but, then again, neither is regular school.

SAM GILLGREN, 28

 Joining the army straight from school isn't so uncommon - one uniform is simply traded for another. What you don't hear so often is someone enlisting straight from homeschool, which is what Sam Gillgren did when he decided a career in soldiering was the right move. 

After 16 years of homeschooling he had already experienced a life less ordinary. What he wanted more was a life less isolated. If there was one aspect of the army he was fascinated by, and ultimately needed, it was the comraderie. That one word is all the recruitment posters needed to say.

"It was a good way to dive right in and experience the real world. There were people from all walks of life there. It was bizarre but I loved it," he reflects years later.

Gillgren, who is now well on his way to becoming an accountant, found being a soldier came to him naturally - after six years he had risen to corporal and commanded a section of 10. But for a long time "chilling out after training was nerve-wracking".

Sam says he could calmly stand inches from a screaming drill sergeant but if he came face-to-face with a group of girls in a pub he would wilt. He didn't know how to act because he had never been in that situation before. It was a culture shock, he says; the only meaningful interaction he had experienced was almost exclusively with his immediate family.

 

Along with his brother and sister, Gillgren was homeschooled on a farm in Whakapara, a rural community just north of Whangarei. And growing up in pretty much the middle of nowhere made it hard to make friends. So why did his parents opt for homeschooling? Partly because of their Christian values, but also because "Mum just thought it'd be fun to have us around.

"I was very isolated," he says. "I had church on Sundays but otherwise not a huge amount of interaction with other kids. I was stuck all day, every day with Mum, my brother and sister. I felt like I was missing out.

"I didn't know what other people's lives were like. I had no clue about how other people were, especially with no TV. We'd go to town to do the grocery shopping and the local kids would be speaking in slang. Of course I didn't know what they were talking about because I had no life experience."

Other children probably thought he was a bit odd, he admits. "We weren't well-off and would wear hand-me-downs from our cousins. Nothing fashionable. And I was quite introverted, an observer. I would just sit there watching the other kids. It was interesting to watch but tough being on the outside, looking in, knowing you weren't part of them." 

Instead, he sometimes socialised with youngsters from church and the handful of other homeschoolers from the area. For the most part, though, Gillgren was alone, which wasn't always a bad thing - with no one to hang out with he had plenty of time to bury his head in books.

"I enjoyed the independence of homeschooling and I was motivated to learn. If I wasn't studying I'd have odd jobs to do, then play around on the farm or go down the road hunting. Mum left me to it.

"Once I got past her level I worked through the textbooks by myself. There was an answer book, so I could mark my own work. Even now I have no qualms about being alone or thinking for myself."

Because Gillgren was the eldest, he sometimes helped out his sister and brother who are two and four years younger respectively. His sister enjoyed homeschooling but found it tough later on.

"She is socially awkward now and frightened by the outside world. She's struggled for a long time, and after six months away from home moved back. It's a big scary world for her and she can't interact with people."

His brother on the other hand knew that "he needed to get out of the bubble" and moved to Auckland when he was 16 to attend high school before ending up at university.

"I don't think homeschooling has had any lasting impact [on me]," Gillgren says. "It's an individual thing. From the social point-of-view, maybe I'm more independent and don't need as much approval." 

When people find out he was homeschooled they're often surprised. "They say, 'I thought you would be less social'.

Years ago if I had told them they would've said, 'that explains a lot', without a doubt."

XAVIA HEALEY-DIAZ, 30 

When Xavia Healey-Diaz was a kid, homeschooling was virtually unheard of in her area. And if people had heard about it, they were quick to judge. In their eyes, Healey-Diaz should've be going to school in Leigh, a tiny coastal town about an hour north of Auckland - and only a stone's throw from her home near Goat Island.

"Mum copped a lot of flak. She felt like people thought she was crazy. It's more accepted and known about now but back in the day I think I only ever met one other homeschool family," says Healey-Diaz, who moved back home, after a couple of years in Wellington, to build a house on her parents' property with her partner.

"Mum believed in homeschooling and kids being at home. She wanted us to have an enchanted upbringing so we could keep the magic of being children as long as possible." 

Healey-Diaz and her three siblings eventually ended up at schools. Her older brother and sister went for sixth and seventh form, her younger brother started in standard three, and she began Mahurangi College in the last term of form two because she was champing at the bit to go.

With an outgoing personality and loads of mates already enrolled, it wasn't a difficult transition for her to make. Her sister, on the other hand, hated it. "She found it stressful and exhausting to not have done that until she was 16. I went when I was 12."

Like her mother, Healey-Diaz believes children should be brought up by their parents, not the state. She now homeschools her eldest child, six-year-old Rico, on the same plot of land she grew up on, and will do the same with her two daughters when they're school age. 

Sharing the property with her Mum and Dad also means responsibilities can be shared. Her sister lives there too, with her two kids. 

"I liked the freedom of learning at home and I like that as a homeschooling parent, even though it is intensive," she says.

Healey-Diaz and her partner decide how and what their children learn - a departure from her own education; she did schoolwork prescribed by the Correspondence School in Wellington because her mum "didn't like the stress of creating lessons".

"We don't sit down with Rico from 9 to 12 every day. We might practise our letters for the day after dinner, before breakfast, or in the sand at the beach. Homeschooling gives you freedom - we fit the schoolwork in with our lives. If a child does a six-hour day at school, then has homework to do, when are they supposed to play? When are they supposed to be a kid?"

While Rico might not know the months of the year, his reading and writing are at the required level for his age. Plus, he knows how to churn butter and mature cheese.

"At school they teach you what they think you need to learn. I haven't balanced a quadratic equation since fourth form. And with homeschooling there's more one-to-one - two parents to three kids is a better ratio than one teacher trying to keep 20 new entrants under control.

"Also, as their parents, we know them the best - how they learn and what they're interested in. We love them the most; they're more than a tick in a box."

MINNIE LEONARD, 25 

Growing up in a big family, Dominica Leonard was never short for company. She had two brothers, four sisters and countless cousins, yet when Minnie - as she's known - transitioned from homeschool to college, all she wanted to do was make new friends.

Leonard and her gang grew up in Galatea, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it settlement of 400-odd people overlooked by the forested hills of Urewera National Park in the Bay of Plenty. A family as large as hers stood out in their small community.

"Because there were so many of us, people always thought we were a bit different," Leonard says. "And when I told them I was homeschooled, then they definitely treated me differently. I didn't know any other families in the immediate area who were homeschooled. 

"People think it's weird because most of them can't wait to get their kids out of the house and away. That sounds mean but I think they're relieved when their kids go to school."

Raised eyebrows, she notes, have followed her into adulthood. "When my friend's boyfriend found out I was homeschooled, he said to her, 'So what's with Minnie, what's her weird thing?'

And she said, 'What do you mean? 'Well she was homeschooled, there's going to be something weird about her. What is it?'"

At the time, homeschool was the only option for Leonard. She was pulled out of primary school after a few short terms because she was being bullied. It was so bad, she would cry every day getting ready for school. But from age six to 12, she was educated by her mum at home, where taunts about the size of her family couldn't reach her.

"The pros for me were that I got to grow up with my parents and my brothers and sisters. That was really cool. I got to learn the way I wanted to. I lean towards book-learning anyway. My brothers are both really hands-on learners and I feel sometimes the traditional school system isn't that supportive of it," she says.

Leonard read a lot. Encyclopaedias, dictionaries, children's books - she couldn't get enough. At least four hours a day was spent devouring books because her mum saw it as an invaluable form of learning, even if it was a little disproportionate, and allowed it to count as part of the curriculum.

By contrast, her more mechanically-minded brother chose hands-on subjects like learning how to fix farm machinery with their dad.

"It was really creative and I learnt the way I needed to and I had heaps of fun. We even had athletics," she says with a wry smile, "which was running to the end of the farm and back. They'd time us but I'm pretty sure they just wanted us out of the house."

When Leonard first entered high school, making friends rather than proving herself academically was the focus.

"Everyone thought I was English because I didn't use slang and my accent was slightly removed," she recalls.

"My siblings and I had just been talking amongst ourselves and didn't know any of the cool words or what to say. But we were lucky because we picked social skills up off each other. Having lots of friends was important because I didn't have many growing up."

- Sunday Magazine

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