Homeschool parents don’t need to be teachers


Our farm is magical right now. All the animals are having babies. My husband is giving the animals more and more freedom. This year he took the pigs out of farrowing crates and let them farrow in a big, open building full of sunlight and hay. He was worried that the moms would lie on the babies and crush them. This is what hog industry wisdom says will happen. But in fact, the pigs were excellent moms, better than he has ever seen them be before. And the piglets grew up faster, and disease-free when they were left alone to be a variation of free-range pigs.

This will come as no surprise to those of us who have already bought into free-range parenting. But in the hog farmer world my husband looks absolutely crazy. A lunatic. He does not even count as a pig farmer in some peoples’ eyes because his pigs are not caged.

My sons watch this. They do not need a teacher to tell them the baby pigs are looking for their mom to eat. My sons don’t need a teacher to show them the mom’s milk leaks when she’s getting ready to give birth. They don’t need a teacher to learn which feed the pigs like (the goat feed is a favorite). The kids are learning through seeing and doing. And living.

This is why my kids don’t need a teacher. Because they learn about what they are interested in. Linda Dobson has a great post about why kids don’t need teachers. And Zach Sims is a great example of kids needing teachers to get out of their way. He dropped out of Columbia University because, he says,  “it was interfering with my learning.” He started Code Academy instead. So that other kids could learn. Wihtout a teacher, of course.

Homeschooling is not about a teacher-student realtionship. That’s for the religious fanatics that think school is great if you’d just get the heathens out of the way. Those people are trying to recreate school at home. For the rest of us, though, we an see the school model is broken, and we are not recreating it at home. For us, homeschooling is about the parent-child relationship.

People say to me, “What about math?”

This blows me away. It blows me away that people trust that my kids will ask to learn to read and write, but they will not ask to do math. Believe it or not, my kids know how to buy stuff on Amazon, and they need to figure out how much what they want to buy will cost. And they need to know if they will be able to pay for the feed for the Alpacas they want to buy. They need to know how many times they’ll have to play Hunter’s Chorus if they practice it for their whole 30 minute practice.

They learn everyday math. If they want to get an 800 on the SAT, that’s all they need to learn. (Well, and then they have to take a cram course to memorize test question types and test-taking strategies.) You are not using calculus in your life, so why do you think your kids will use it? I am using geometry to plan my garden, I’m using algebra to figure out how to make enough money to buy the oven I want, and I trust my kids will have basic, every day needs that will require math. So they will figure out how to learn it.

I trust my kids to be passionate about life. I trust that if I give them love and stability and the opportunity to explore, then they will find what they need to be passionate and engaged. There is no teacher in this equation. Only a bond of trust between a parent and child.

And look, it’s not that math requires a teacher. It’s that convincing a kid to learn math he doesn’t need, ever, requires a teacher. You need a teacher to make a kid learn stuff they are not driven to learn. Which is why my kids don’t need a teacher.

38 replies
  1. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    Okay now we are hooked on codecademy! Thanks!!
    I totally agree with what you are saying here but it’s hard to let go and difficult to not worry that your kids will learn what they need to learn to be successful.

    You don’t get a do-over. My sons are now 18 and 20. We followed a literature based homeschooling approach, somewhere in the middle of formal school and unschooling. It seemed to work well and they are doing well in life and in college and in the entrepreneurial pursuits.

  2. Greg
    Greg says:

    I think someone will say “what about engineering/finance/something else?” This is difficult to believe if you haven’t seen it happen, but you can teach yourself the high school math required for these courses in a pretty short time. 6 months intensive study is way more than sufficient. If you can’t study math for that long than you are poorly suited to the type of job where you will regularly use calculus and would be better off doing something else with your time.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, I totally agree. And I’d like to add that I am a very good example of self-taugh finance. I was in special-ed math in high school and never got past geometry. I took no math in college.

      And I have managed the financial planning and projections for three startups. I taught myself finance in order to write business plans. Then I got millions of dollars in funding and I taught myself how to do financial reporting to investors via Excel.

      To say I taught myself is not totally accurate. I paid a CFO to spend a week showing me how to run financial models. And the controller of my second startup stayed up late with me teaching me to think in terms of formulas when I thought about profit and loss.

      But my point is that when I was engaged and determined I was a great math student. And when I was in school I was chronically unable to pass math tests.


      • emily
        emily says:

        Some people just are never going to care about math, the way we think about math, one way or another. They are always going to need someone else to balance the books if they want to let their free thinking fly. Richard Brandson, one of the most successful entrepreneurs, said in an interview that, for years, he couldn’t remember the difference between net and gross. One day someone finally took him aside after a meeting and told him to think about net like if you’re fishing: it’s what you get to take away when you’re done. It’s just another kind of language – one that’s sometimes made out to be a lot more complicated than it needs to be to get the job done.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      Yes, Greg, you’re right! Not everyone will be a math or engineering major, schooled or not. Those suited for it will pursue it and be successful. The difference with unschoolers is they won’t waste years of their time building up to something they won’t even do.

      That said, I love math study for the development of the mind and thinking. The challenge is to force someone to do it against his will. We didn’t start out unschoolers; it was the only way we could coexist peacefully!

  3. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    I think the reason for that knee-jerk ‘but what about math?’ reaction is that so many people don’t enjoy math at school, so they figure no kid in his right mind would voluntarily learn it if given the choice. Which saddens me.

    Codecademy is just what we were looking for! Thanks from us too!

  4. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    Yes, “What about math?” is the big question these days. I don’t even hear “socialization” as much. People’s minds immediately jump from a 6 year old to calculus. Bec has it right. People can’t imagine a child voluntarily doing anything with math.

    Exactly what about math do they want to know? Can they get there? Yes. How? They don’t need to know because their kids aren’t unschoolers and everyone’s path is different.

  5. Beth
    Beth says:

    I think you are right in saying that parents don’t need to be teachers, but that to say kids don’t need any teachers at all might be a bit of a stretch. At one point you posted about following your kids’ interests and finding them teachers when they needed it (I think it was about learning to throw pots or make ceramics?) and I think that makes your point much more strongly. In my own experience, I’ve used Code Academy but I had a really hard time with it completely on my own, even with all the forums and such that are available. I found a friend who knows code to go through the lessons with me, teaching along with the lessons, and it’s been a much better experience. So I think I agree with the point as stated in the title but not necessarily the generalization at the end.

  6. CJ
    CJ says:

    This is one of your best Penelope! When my daughter was born, her announcement said how grateful we were to have a new teacher bless our lives. I have felt for so long that our children really educate us, much more than the other way round. But, I wanted to share a story about the ‘what about math?’ question many ask. My childhood was pretty lousy and public school was a nightmare for me- like you, it was no vacation from home. I grew up thinking I was not smart enough to accomplish math or complex problems and the adults around me reinforced my lack of confidence, both at school and at home- my grades were horrible. I dropped out and had to go back and graduate at 19, because the military wouldnt take me on a GED and even then, i made Cs and Ds.
    Flash forward to college where I finally made it in as a 26 year old freshman after coming back from the first Gulf. I became fascinated with social sciences, especially macroeconomics and distributions of foodstuffs globally. But I began dismally in the math/quantitative testing which was not going to work out if I didn’t figure it out. I, quite by accident, came across the historical test bank questions at the library- literally thousands and thousands and I began to spend weeks and months in between classes practicing every single one of them until I had exhausted the list. The librarian declared there was no more. I had done them all and many multiple times. Then we had a big midterm. I recognized every single question on the exam, got a 100% on the test, after failing most quizzes up to this point. Teacher pats me on back, my name goes up on door, “top grade” for not just ours but everyone of his classes. I couldn’t sleep, eat for days. I felt like a cheat and a fraud. Integrity is huge to me and always has been so I went to the professor open hours, walked in the room and cried and told him I needed to withdraw and explained my crime. I told him I was horrible at math, lousy at calculations, that I didn’t deserve the grade. I even remember saying, “anybody will tell you I am not “math smart enough” to be in the program.” he came around from his desk, seriously almost weepy himself, sat across from me and touched my hand and said so many beautiful supportive things but mainly that if I was not “math smart” there was no way I could have passed these complicated equations and that if I wasn’t “smart smart” I couldn’t have remembered all those equations, and that if I wasn’t “work smart” I wouldn’t have spent all those hours trying to learn. He was mostly shocked at the amount of time I spent, knowing how vast the test bank was. lastly, he told me he wished every one of his students would try even a little as hard as I did to learn the material because it would “open so much of the world to them if they did it for themselves.” I now believe I could have learned the quantitative skills at any point, yet I learned when I was ready and when it mattered to me because it was a key to other things I wanted. No person could have taught me. That professor and others mentored me, gave suggested materials for the furture, I had some tutors along the way and I still think of them like coaches, rather than teachers. I graduated with high honors, international economics (not that the grades are the point, they truly aren’t to me- it just signifies that I had to have taught myself enough to get the high grades for the degree). And, like you, this is one big reason why I know my children will be just fine in the world after growing up as relaxed homeschoolers. They will get what they need when they need it- just the difference is they will be supported all along that they have all that they need right here in my loving arms and in their own great big brains. Math will come when it needs to come, just as they walked when they were ready. Ps. Today is my sons birthday and I read this post to him- and he loves the pic of the pigs! We thank you for a great birthday post! CJ

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        Oh my goodness Neicie, Daniel and Carmen- you honor me! Thank you for your warm feedback. Peace and Love, CJ

    • rachel
      rachel says:

      What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.
      I’m so inspired, I’m thinking about skipping our son’s mandatory kindergarten “entrance exam” next month.

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        WOW, Rachel!!!! Thank you!!! I am so grateful we have Penelope’s forum to get this opportunity to commiserate and learn from each other in this way. I cheared when I read that you might skip the test. I have too many lesson-learned examples to share to support you and your choice….I can’t believe the pressure the system places on parents and children, entrance exams for five year olds sends my brain to boil. I struggle with how to answer people when they ask things like how my children will learn enough early enough? Won’t they be behind? One of my usual rants is that I cannot accept that we force our (fill in your child’s age), children to act like adults: get up at the crack, clean up, hurry out the door, we are going to be late,” you have to pass these tests, then we have a busy schedule right after school, eat fast because we have a busy night, hurry up and go to bed so it starts all over…people say, well they need to learn sometime and I say yes and they will when they are an adult. Should I give them drugs today because they might one day be exposed to drugs? Shouldn’t they be in drivers ed in first grade? I mean they are going to need to drive and the sooner the better. Get the phone book to boost them over the wheel! Those tests provide anxiety for the parents, anxiety for the children and a competitive superior-aired environment for the system. I am one mommy strongly behind your choice to avoid the machine.

  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    I remember the time when I best enjoyed school. It was the time when I was very young and so I was made to sleep early, wake up with enough time to eat breakfast, etc.

    But then I’d go to school and learn about basic things I didn’t know, like how to count, read, write, etc.

    It opened up the world to me! But then, when I had to learn through long days of school, very little socialization, not allowed to bring food in the classroom and my blood sugar would plummet and I’d feel panicky…ugh!

    I didn’t enjoy school then. I was a constant mess of anxiety.

    I am so super excited about the link for code academy.

    And I agree with the guy who said he got out of school because it impeded his learning. I feel my hunger for learning has multiplied since I finished school. I am so excited and ready to learn something new today it’s crazy!

  8. Katherine Carlson
    Katherine Carlson says:

    If you define a teacher as someone who pushes a set curriculum, then sure, parents don’t need to be teachers. However, being a mentor through such activities as reading aloud, facilitating library and museum visits, modeling daily work (here, farm work/speaking and writing work,) is definitely teaching, and in an extremely important way. It seems to me that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to not be afraid to show our passions to them, along with all that it takes to make a dream come alive.

    There is a reason that our society is quite different from that of a tribal society in the Amazon, and that reason is because we are not either blindly following our elders or re-inventing the wheel at every turn. To me, the role of parents is to nurture the spark of creativity and love of learning, and in so doing, help the child to develop that strong inner core that allows him or herself to pursue their dreams through success and failure. That, in itself, is a teaching role.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      I think you get to the crux by using that powerful word DEFINE. It is troublesome to use the word teach because it does mean many different things to people. I have said things like, “I taught my children to read.” what is really the case is that I read to them every day, I demonstrated key rules and sat by them while they practiced giving encouraging hints, etc. But, they most assuredly taught themselves after modeling my Qs and only when they wanted to/want to read does this happen. Oliver DeMille says it well when he states that it is a myth that we educate our children because they, as we did, educate themselves. We provide the materials and they build their own bridges.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a really interesting issue – the definition of teacher. I didn’t really think of it before, but really, when someone says to me, “Doesn’t your son need a teacher???” My response should be, “What do you mean? What is a teacher?”
      The person will either give me a broad definition, which I can say that I am. Or the person will give me a narrow definition, which I can explain to them is not something they actually believe in themselves.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        This post very much relies on the following quote from above – “This is why my kids don’t need a teacher. Because they learn about what they are interested in. Linda Dobson has a great post about why kids don’t need teachers.” – and Linda Dobson’s post.

        Linda Dobson did a really good job of distinguishing between a teacher and a homeschooling learning facilitator –
        “The idea of a homeschooling parent who is facilitating learning turns attention toward the one being helped, whereas teaching, “to impart knowledge or give instruction to,” shines the spotlight on the helper. With the homeschooling facilitator, the goal is to clear the path for an active learner. With the teacher, the goal is for the learner to remain comparatively passive while the active participant is the teacher who doles out knowledge, doing something for or to the student. The implications of these differences are astounding.”

        It was Linda Dobson’s definition of a teacher (above) that made your assertion in the last paragraph (“And look, it’s not that math requires a teacher. It’s that convincing a kid to learn math he doesn’t need, ever, requires a teacher. You need a teacher to make a kid learn stuff they are not driven to learn. Which is why my kids don’t need a teacher.”) total sense to me.

        This is the thing though. It doesn’t hold true just for math. It could apply to any kind of learning.

  9. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I have a degree in Engineering Phsycis, I am really good at those higher level math courses.

    However, in grade school I was in the slow math track. Thank goodness my Algebra teacher in the 10th grade recognized that I was actually really good at math, and talked me into doubling up on my math classes for the last two years of high school. This caught me up with the “smart” kids, and I entered college as a physics major (later transitioning into engineering).

    Why was I in the “slow” track? I think it was women teachers, and worksheets. In grade school I remember being terrified of worksheets. They always had confusing pictures, and still to this day when I’m in a panic, I remember those worksheets. After an engineering degree, I still probably couldn’t do a 3rd grade math worksheet. What are they trying to explain? Too much explanation for some very simple ideas.

    And I hate to say it, but women teachers. When I had men as math teachers I started to do much better. They don’t try to spoon-feed everything, and thus over-complicate things. When it comes to math in grade school, most women don’t see the forest through the trees.

    • Isabelle
      Isabelle says:

      In a way I hate to agree with what sounds like a terrible sexist stereotype, but wow- I had EXACTLY the same experience with male vs. female math teachers, and never realized it until I read your comment!

      The male math teachers I had recognized that I had a natural aptitude for math, and was frustrated beyond belief by the spoon-feeding and show-every-single-step requirements, and basically just let me learn the material my own way. My 6th grade teacher realized I was bored, and gave me the textbook for the next year’s math and let me teach myself. I loved it. In high school geometry, my teacher “overlooked” the fact that I never did the homework because I was always engaged in class, asked and answered questions all the time, and got A’s on every single test. I liked it, I enjoyed math those few years, and I learned a lot.

      The female math teachers, on the other hand, wanted everything done a certain way (presumably designed for the slow-to-average student), insisted on at least an hour of (unnecessary) nightly homework (which I refused to do- I had better things to do with my time!) and totally killed any interest I may have had in pursuing math past the minimum requirements in high school.

      Now I’m married to a physicist and kind of wish I knew more advanced math, but am thankful that he’ll be there to guide our kids through whatever level of math they wish to pursue when we (eventually) homeschool.

  10. Karen Loe
    Karen Loe says:

    I am a prime example of a self-taught adult.
    Sure, I have a masters degree, but every single thing I really use and of which I am terribly proud: I taught myself.

    Another great post, P!

  11. Katy
    Katy says:

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but in grade school I was a poor math student and fell behind. I was in the classes with the “bad students” and didn’t think I’d ever get past algebra in high school.

    I was homeschooled in the 8th grade. Once I could work through a Saxon math textbook ON MY OWN, I flew ahead. I nailed algebra. I went back to public high school, got through calculus, and now I’m an engineer.

    It is horrible to me that I am capable of understanding engineering concepts, and yet I was terrified and crying over math when I was 10 years old.

  12. Michelle Cusolito
    Michelle Cusolito says:

    I just landed here from Lexi Grant’s blog and started poking around. We have similar positions on education. Even though I chose to work within the educational system, I always worked to get kids outside and to help them be self-directed learners as much a possible.

    Now I write for children and blog at Polliwog on Safari. My blog focuses on getting kids out in the world and learning by doing. (Blog tagline: Muck about. Meet the locals. Expand your world.)
    I hope you’ll hop over and check it out. I’m going back to poke around here some more…

  13. Grace Kelly
    Grace Kelly says:

    From a fellow Teacher, I LOVE this post Penelope!

    I want to share it with the school I just left and my headmaster boss.

    Children learn when things support their values.
    We all have attention deficit order in areas that bore the hell out of us mine is Maths actually.

    Funny how kids can spend hours on video games but we label them addicted yet they’ve no attention span at school and their labelled ADHD!
    Schools are teaching children to memorise facts and figures they’ll never use then they grow up doing jobs they hate and wonder why they’re alcoholics or whatever at the age of 35.

    Yes having a rant here, I know

    Gratitude for having the balls to write this Penelope

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