‘Tis the season of back to school pictures! I’m sure your Facebook’s feeds, like my own, are full of many back to school pictures. My wife and I did not upload any pictures this year since our children are not going back to school. That’s right, we homeschool.
Now, before you begin with the outrage and bewilderment, let me explain things to you.
My wife and I are the rabbi and rebbetzin of a wonderful Modern Orthodox community in Lido Beach, New York (Long Island). We moved here about three years ago from a small community in Pennsylvania where we had previously served. Our children were going into 1st grade, pre-K and preschool when we moved here. In Pennsylvania there were no Jewish schools and although we looked into some public and private preschool options, we ended up falling into homeschooling at the very elementary level that was appropriate at that time. Upon moving to New York, there was no question in our minds that we would find a day school to our liking and enroll the children. After checking out several of the broad selection of schools in our area (we are 15 minutes away from the 5 Towns and Far Rockaway) we enrolled our children in school.
To be clear, our kids loved school! They did well and they enjoyed going to school each day. We were happy with the administration and the teachers. We could not have asked for more. It was a very proud moment for me as a parent to stand and wave my first-grader “good-bye” as she drifted away on the school bus on her first day of school, smiling ear to ear. It felt good to be “normal,” and to be living in a place with not only a Jewish school, but a fine selection from which to choose. Michal and I could not be happier. So what went wrong?
In essence, nothing. Nothing went wrong. Like I said, our kids were doing well and were happy and so were we. At the same time, during the nearly two years our kids were in school we felt it was a shame that children as young as 1st or 2nd grade would get home between 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM or even later. At that late and usually dark hour, the kids were absolutely exhausted. Next, would be the hectic rush to get everyone’s homework done. Somewhere in the middle was bath time, dinner and bedtime. Family time, extra curricular time or just plain time to be kids simply did not exist. Then came the mad rush in the early morning, peeling the exhausted children out of bed, and rushing to get everyone’s bag packed, uniform on and be ready for the bus well before 8:00 AM. Life was perpetually extremely hectic, and we were only at the very first years of elementary! At first, we just accepted that this is the price to pay for “normalcy,” to have one’s children attend a Jewish day school in New York and we continued with our very strained routine.
As time moved on, and our son and daughter finished 1st and 3rd grade, half-jokingly Michal and I said to each other, that if we spent the same amount of time we spent on homework with the children, homeschooling them instead, we could accomplish much more and work with them when they are fresh in the morning and not worn out after a full day of school. We said it to each other a few times as a joke, because it just seemed like such an outrageous thing to do; to homeschool when there are so many fine yeshiva day schools right here! After a while, we started to take ourselves a little more seriously and we got curious.
After some basic internet research we discovered that there is a large community of homeschooling families in Long Island, including a growing Orthodox contingent. We were very hesitant to even be considering homeschooling and were relieved and excited to discover this unique and special community. We corresponded with some families, spoke with others and met up with several as well. What we discovered was a really wonderful group of people. Some were just starting out with their young children, others were seasoned homeschoolers whose children were already in high school. Speaking with them, we understood what challenges and potential benefits homeschooling has to offer. We had a big decision to make.
At this stage (July 2015), all three of our children were enrolled in school. We thought long and hard — and I cannot stress more, how long, and how hard we thought this over — and finally we came to a decision. We were going to homeschool our children, despite the backlash we knew we were going to get from friends, family and congregants.
A year later we could not be happier with our decision.
Many people have reservations, even strong reservations about homeschooling. By telling you a bit more about our story and why we are so happy with homeschooling, I hope I will be able to answer some of the questions people have.
“Homeschooling is bad for children because they don’t learn how to socialize.”
It is true that a homeschooled child will not be sitting all day in a classroom with their peers. However, the reality is that there are many other opportunities for children to socialize. Since leaving school, my children have made far more friends and have many more playdates than they ever did while in school. Like I mentioned before, in school, there is no time for anything, playdates on a school night are taboo and not practical, not leaving many chances.
Instead of meeting children in the classroom, my kids meet friends through our homeschool network of families that get together during the week for playdates, educational outings and extra-curricular activities. Many more homeschooling families have visited our home and synagogue than their schooling counterparts.
As a homeschooling parent, you do need to take a proactive role in ensuring that your child has socializing opportunities, as opposed to letting this automatically happen at school. That should not be a deterrent for a homeschooling parent; everything in homeschooling requires much more effort and one should not attempt to homeschool if they think it is going to be easy.
Another nice thing about the social aspect of homeschooling is the diverse range of friends my children have. Attending yeshiva day schools, my children were exposed to children from more-or-less the same sort of families from a socio-religious and cultural standpoint. My kids now have a very diverse group of friends, including Jewish friends from all kinds of levels of observance and expression and non-Jewish friends too. Some people may not welcome that sort of exposure, but my wife and I are very much in favor of our children learning to appreciate, value and befriend all kinds of people, not only people that have (virtually) the exact same hashkafa, beliefs and lifestyle as we do.
“Most parents are not trained teachers.”
While it is true that not all parents are good candidates to homeschool their children, it has little to do with formal training. There are so many resources available for the homeschooling parent today, that as long as the parent is dedicated and capable, they will be able to provide an excellent education to their children.
Being your child’s educational director puts you directly in charge of their educational development, which is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility. We really enjoy the ability to customize our children’s curriculum according to their own progress and disposition. If one child is particularly good at math or science, they can move as far ahead as they want in that area, as long as they stay on grade level in other areas.
Being a rabbi, many people wrongly presume that Michal and I homeschool because we are “so religious.” If you’ve read this far and learned about our socialization preferences, you probably would know by now that that is not the case. We are firm believers in “Torah uMada,” in the importance of a solid and sophisticated Torah and secular education. I have no greater joy than learning with my children, whether it is mishnayot, social studies or math. Being able to customize our children’s curriculum and work with each one individually allows us to give each child a more robust and fuller secular and Jewish education, without having to compromise on one on account of the other.
Perhaps one of the greatest perks of homeschooling is the freedom to enroll your children in extracurricular activities. My children love their ballet, tennis, parkour, ice skating, swimming and piano lessons. We are always looking at adding new things as well. Homeschooling makes it possible from both a financial standpoint and a practical one as well.
“The purpose of homeschooling is to save money.”
An additional mistake people make is they assume we are homeschooling simply because of the high cost of tuition. Well, let me tell you right now, if the only thing you find attractive about homeschooling is the tuition bill, then you had better stop right there. Homeschooling is a commitment to personally ensure that your child gets educated, properly advances and thrives in life. It also means being with your children (for at least one parent) 24/7. It is exceptionally difficult. Rewarding and fulfilling, but difficult. It would be a foolish move for someone to consider homeschooling solely as a solution to high tuition bills without properly considering everything that it involves. While saving on a tuition bill, homeschooling also means that one parent will not be doing any (or at least not much) paid work outside of the house, in which case it may not end up being a net saving.
More than choosing a school, choosing to homeschool is a lifestyle choice. It is a lifestyle where parents are deeply engaged with their children every day. It is a lifestyle where learning is a part of what we do as a family, so while driving to the grocery story, we might discuss something we just read together about the Declaration of Independence or the Viking conquests, or the weekly Parsha. Homeschooling families have the added luxury of being able to take vacation days with their children when it is most convenient for them, not during the busiest times of the year. Homeschooling life is about reducing the stress level of daily family life and accomplishing more together, and loving it!
As I mentioned before, homeschooling is not for everyone. Nor is it forever. We don’t know how long we will continue homeschooling. Right now it is working for us; both parents and children are happy and the children are really thriving. At some point it may not continue to work so well and it will then make sense for the children to go back to school. If and when exactly remains unclear, but almost certainly it will be different for each child. We are taking it one year at a time.
We have many homeschooling friends as well as many friends who send their children to school. We do not look down at anyone; we respect everyone and the decisions they make as parents. To those of you who may have misunderstood what homeschooling is and have looked negatively at parents who choose to homeschool, I hope that after reading this you will be able to view their decision in a more positive light.