Take it from a Teacher – Thoughts about Daycare
by Beverley Smith
I am a teacher, at levels K-12 in my city. I currently am a supply/ substitute teacher but before that I taught full time at various schools. When I had my own child however, I chose to proof him against some oddities of public schooling because I had seen where it might have gaps. Most teachers do.
The rates of teachers who home school kids is quite high as are rates of public school teachers who send their own kids to private school. How odd.
I chose a compromise. I wanted my own four kids to get the social benefit of a large public school, and the great equipment benefit of chemistry and physics rooms that my own budget could not provide- so I was not tempted to homeschool them in high school. But I certainly wanted to ensure some basic skills were taught to them, even if in its large group settings the public schools did this imperfectly. I decided to provide home preschool. Daily. From birth to age 5-6.
I also did supplementary home-schooling with the kids till they were in grade 9. I created courses in the history of science experiment, the history of the world, math – (7 volumes), medicine, French, creative writing, law. My goal was to help my kids go deeper than the schools did, and to learn in a more chronologically logical style than the schools did, and to make sure there were no gaps.
Homes have a terrific advantage. The first is of course the small group, the one-on-one attention of the adult to the child’s needs, interests, skills. But the second, very close to that is the flexibility. We could ‘do books’ at 7 AM or 4PM, in a hotel room or in the car, at home or on holidays. When the child was sick we could skip a lesson and when the child was keen we could do two at once.
Parents know their kids. They are the first teachers and all along the road, even if not great at teaching a specific skill, are deeply cared about by the child, all their lives. It stuns me sometimes to realize how little children’s world really is based on what we show them . There is an odd expression lately that putting a child in daycare will help develop his ‘readiness to learn’. It is an illogical expression. Children are born ready to learn and you can’t keep them from learning. They soak in what we say and what we did not think they heard. They are always ‘on’. That is why all parents are teachers, like it or not.
Contrary to many arguments lately that children need daycare to provide ‘early childhood education’ I would simply suggest that we think again. All children already are in ‘early childhood education’ just by being alive. They are learning to walk, to talk, to hold a cup, to use a spoon, to use a toilet. Yes it is true they by playing with others learn social skills like sharing, taking turns, being quiet when others are speaking, speaking softly to not disrupt others. But it is not accurate that those ‘social’ skills can only be learned in large groups. They can learned in social situations – even with just one other person – say mom, or dad. They can be learned with siblings and one of the great virtues of siblings is that they are nature’s built-in cotravellers through life. Learning how to get along with each other is a vital skill siblings teach each other, with careful parental guidance. So let us not assume that ‘socialization’, the new buzzword, is the domain only of daycares.
My four kids learned how to get along with others when neighbor children came over. I also took them to library story hours, to swim classes, art class, pottery class, dance class, as their interests suggested so they learned many things about group dynamics. What I have found though is that long long exposure to large groups is hard on little kids. It is OK to have to be one of many for an hour or two a day but for 8 hours, having to never be the ‘special’ one, the cuddled one, is hard on the fragile sense of self. Little kids need in this big world to each feel they are unique, worthwhile, loved for what they are right now – and large groups settings cannot do that. There is no time. There is no staff. And mostly , there is no bond of love. Caregivers however warm and wonderful they may about children in general, do not have the same vested interest in a given child that the parents do. They do not know the background, the health concerns, the little fears, the shy interests. They can do their best but it is only the parent who really does understand. I think parents have been tricked if they have been led to believe they are not as competent as some ‘trained professional’ early childhood educator. What a lot of fancy labels for basically someone who took courses and has a piece of paper.
There are some fields that develop expertise by book learning. I would imagine history and logic are two. But other fields are hands-on. You can’t win the Olympics only by reading about skiing. Airlines don’t hire pilots based just on written exams. Mountain guides are hired not from their c.v. of diplomas but also from their years of experience. The same holds true for parenting. The experience teaches you how to do it.
We all realized when we had our first child, how incompetent we were and yet within a few weeks that baby had taught us a lot about babies, how to hold them, how to feed them. It is true that books help and that having courses, role models and mentors helps but in parenting, expertise also vitally comes from doing. The same is true with many things, like medicine and law. When you need a heart surgeon you want someone who has done the surgery many times before. Experience.
Sadly society does not seem to value experience at all in regards to parenting. A mother of six children is considered to not be an early childhood expert, oddly enough, while a fresh-faced 18 year old just out of college is. There is something wrong with that. We need to value both types of learning, but never undervalue the hands-on.
Parents are great teachers. Because they are with the child long hours the kids see us in all moods and we as adults have the opportunity to not only clean up our act and be calmer, as good mature adults now, but also we admit to ourselves and the kids when we make little mistakes. This admission, this honesty, helps the kids accept themselves when they too are less than perfect and gives them the will to carry on and try again. Parents can do this way better than teachers can because teachers come into and out of a child’s life too briefly for any deep friendship to grow.
As a teacher I feel that two basic skills must be taught by parents if at all possible – literacy and numeracy- and if you had to choose, pick literacy. All kids need to learn to read if they are to have a chance at school success and to increase their odds of career success exponentially. I have been teaching kids for 30 years now and there are many many styles of teaching kids to read that make me feel sad and even revulsed. It is not fair to make little kids memorize words. That is not reading. That is parroting, memorizing and guessing. Yes it works for a while but then the child, told he is reading, proceeds to assume any new material is therefore open to him, and quickly discovers he was misinformed. He has no skills to figure out what words not on the memorized list said. No skills. He guesses only. That is nearly criminal. We need a method of teaching kids to read that helps them identify the letters, sound out the word and actually figure our for themselves what it says. That is step one.
But many schools do not have the time for instruction that intense. They want the quick fix, the list of words to chant, the coloring books and early readers that make kids just overlearn that set of words. It makes me so sad to see kids in grade 3, taught that way, who still can’t really read. We needed to teach them one on one, better.
Parents can do this. Parents can take 5 minutes a day, introducing an alphabet letter every week, from age 3. Parents have the time, and what is even better parents have the environment. On the day the child studies m, they can spend parts of the rest of that day pointing out bumpy m’s on embossed park signs, can eat food starting with m like marshmallows, muffins, can sing songs starting with M – like Mary Mary quite contrary. Parents have the time to immerse the child in each letter so it becomes as natural to them as breathing. And parents can do it casually as they play in the park, as they make supper, as they look at pictures together at naptime. Schools don’t have the time or enough laps to sit on for 30 kids to each get this level of attention.
But I guess what always made me feel convinced I should stay home with my kids instead of going back to paid teaching while they were young was this – I was not sure what happened to questions that did not get answered. If my child was puzzled about anything, and I was not there to answer, who would they ask? And if there was no one there to hear, would there become in the child’s mind a bigger and bigger vault of ‘things you are not supposed to know’ or ‘things you are not smart enough to know’? I was concerned as a teacher that the inquisitiveness of youth, its first foray into knowledge, would be roadblocked dozens, hundreds of times a day if my child was in a large group setting. And over time my child would dull his mind, would stop asking, would give up and settle back into not knowing.
I love kids’ minds. Isn’t it electrifying to hear their questions, the innocence of their ‘why’ questions and the oddity of their responses? It knocked me out. “How many spots can you see on this page?” “All of them mommy”
And I figured I had not quit teaching at all- I just now had a class of one, and when the others were born, of 2, then 3 then 4. Parents who home-school understand this. We are at work. We are embarked on developing the human mind.
My four kids are the joy of my life . They are now ages 24-29, and have between them 9 post-secondary degrees. Some are anthropology, philosophy, engineering, journalism, medicine, and law. My son at 29 has two doctorates. And I just love him because he is so humble that when he introduces himself to anyone he is ‘Jason’, no title. One of my daughters is a family and immigration lawyer and has actually saved lives of people trying to escape persecution by moving to our country. I am so proud of them all, the journalist who interviews for a national magazine, the razor-sharp mind of the girl trained in Latin and philosophy who can help me fine-tune any logical argument. I love talking with my kids. I raised them for one thing to value sharing opinions. When they were ages 5-10 we were holding formal debates at home giving them impromptu topics to discuss pros and cons of as a contest. It was hilarious and good training. I love the exchange of ideas.
When I returned to full-time teaching about 5 years ago I had the pleasure of welcoming into two of my big high school classes, a boy and girl who had been home-schooled. The girl was entering grade 10 and the boy was entering grade 9 – and neither had been in public school before, at all. How would they manage?
They were amazing. Did they have trouble making friends? Not at all. They were attractive, friendly and they had been on lots of sports teams all along. Were they hard to teach, spoiled, needy, behind in skills? In fact they were not the top of the class but they were well-rounded in knowledge, very conscientious to get the work done and they passed with good grades. But what struck me was that in a rowdy classroom, they were not rowdy. They were very mature, as if adult even. They were aware of me as a human and kind to me and when you have about 120 students, having a few who are mature enough to know you are human is very pleasant.
So I can honestly say that home-schooling has definite educational merits. I have only seen a few instances where it was less than ideal. One stands out – a mother who herself could barely read or spell. I feel that there should be some standards and so I endorse having to follow a standard curriculum and to pass official exams to get official qualifications when needed.
But I just wanted to say to homeschoolers – carry on! You are doing something that is a great gift to your kids.
Right now in most industrialized nations government policy lags about 20 years behind. It has moved to funding more and more daycare for kids but has not yet recognized the growing trend of at-home care, and home-schooling. That then is the next hurdle. All kids are equal and deserve equal funding from the state wherever they are. Austria’s voucher system and Norway’s funding for home-based care as well as daycare are steps in that direction. We in the west should do the same.