4 Reasons you don’t need to be a teacher to homeschool

Part of what makes public schools widely supported is that everyone buys into the idea that kids need teachers in order to learn.

Yet, if you look closely at the arguments for teachers it becomes clear that kids do not need teachers trained in curriculum-based education. Kids need teachers who can accommodate self-directed learning. And anyway, a 1:30 ratio is fine for a babysitter, but not a teacher. All of which leads me to make a list of reasons why parents don’t need to be teachers to homeschool.

1. Parents are facilitators, not teachers. And love drives competent parental facilitation.
The Suzuki method for learning music is that the kids learn from the parents. Music is like a language and kids learn language from parents, so kids can learn to play music the same way. This is the theory. In practice, Suzuki kids play music well, but they aren’t that great at reading music. Because that skill has to be taught in a more systematic way.

I have dyscalculia which means that I am pretty much unable to understand how to read music. Yet my older son is excellent at sight reading. This is because I don’t have to be good at something to teach it to him. I just need to give him the tools to learn it.

And this is true of all teaching. Kids learn what they want to learn whether or not you are there to teach it. Ironically, my son would learn to read music the same way he learns to make movies for the Internet. You don’t need a parent who is an expert in order for you to learn the stuff you want to learn.

2. The selection process for teachers is awful, so how could you be worse?
We have no decent system for evaluating teachers and getting rid of bad teachers. Which means we actually have no idea if we even have good or bad teachers.  But we do know that in the work world we fire people who do not innovate, and we force retirement for people who are too old, and in the schools we do the oppostie of those things.

I was struck by an article in The Week about a teacher who is 96. She is the oldest working teacher in the country probably. What struck me is that no company would let her take care of their business, so why do we let her take care of our children? Why do we have mandatory retirement for business but not for school? On top of that, she said that “The children are what make me get up in the morning,” which is believable but it makes her teaching about what works for her (which is merely keeping the system going), not about finding what’s right for the kids.

3. Teachers at school can never enable self-directed learning better than parents can at home. 
Here’s a post by Diane Ravitch about why teachers are still important. The piece is written in a black hole of education knowledge, as if it is not controversial to have a “standard” curricula. As if for the first 2000 years of civilization there was not formal teaching. Most people who changed the world were educated in a self-directed way at home. Then education became more about babysitting for parents working in factories, and today we have teachers entrenched in the idea that kids need to learn what teachers can teach.

What blows me away about this “teachers are essential” argument is how it completely ignores the discussion of self-directed learning. Because teachers cannot do self-directed learning in a classroom. We can’t afford that in this country. We’d have to have a single teacher for every four students. Which means that teachers can’t facilitate self-directed learning. So where is Ravitch addressing this point? She ignores how education reformers widely agree that self-directed learning is best for kids.

4. A parent’s  lack of teaching experience at home is offset by the terrible learning experience at school.
Time magazine recently ran an article about test-taking strategies that help reduce anxiety. A girl is quoted saying that she calms herself down by reminding herself that she goes to The Laurel School, an all-girls school, and girls at all-girl schools test better than girls at co-ed schools. (The boys test scores are a moot point because they don’t score as high as girls.)

Then I realize that if girls do better with just girls then why force the girls to learn with boys? What is the point? There is no evidence that if you go to The Laurel School and then Wellesley you don’t know how to deal with men.

And we know that if you homeschool kids, and let them pick who they hang out with, they generally pick their own gender. So, with this logic, homeschooled girls create stronger learning environments for themselves by intuitively structuring the best of an all-girls school environment around themselves. And homeschooled boys intuitively avoid everything about school that makes them look stupid, like trying to sit still before third grade, and all the other stuff girls excel at doing.

The evidence that our education system favors girls is enormous. It starts from the minute boys enter school, and all evidence points to the fact that boys need a completely different type of school than girls do. And, we know that boys stink at school. Probably because they want to be at recess most of the day, (which studies now show is a reasonable demand).  Christina Hoff Sommers argues in the New York Times that we should start finding ways to cater to the needs of boys, because they’re doing so poorly in school. A great idea is to get the boys out of classrooms that cater to the strengths of girls.

The irony of public school is that it puts all the kids together whether it’s good for them or not. Clearly, kids do better divided by gender. This would be a controversial step to take in the public schools, so it will never happen. But kids know instinctively who they’ll thrive next to, and homeschooled kids naturally gravitate toward their gender. So homeschooling confers on kids the benefits of single-sex education without the exorbitant cost of private school.

20 replies
  1. Amy
    Amy says:

    Penelope, I’m interested in what you think about the Montessori method, which is classroom based, but rooted in self-directed learning. We’re leaning toward sending our daughter to Montessori schools–we’re lucky to have several respected public and private options where we live that carry the Montessori approach all the way through high school. Thanks!

    • Chloe
      Chloe says:

      Montessori came to mind when I read this as well. It is all self directed (or should be) with an emphasis on a “humble teacher” that removes herself as head of the classroom to be more of an aide in the wings.

      Still, it doesn’t work in the traditional school system. My kids attended a stellar private Montessori school where there were 11 1st-3rd graders in a class with two teachers. When it became apparent that we couldn’t afford send all 4 of our kids there, we transferred to our public Montessori charter. It was a joke. You can’t teach so much as manage at a ratio of 24:1, especially when half the kids are coming from a traditional learning environment. You can’t apply state standardized testing to a class that should be led by the child’s passions and have a decent result, so of course they couldn’t teach that way.

      Montessori is brilliant when done right (but it rarely is).

  2. Julie
    Julie says:

    I think there was a study about homeschooling that addressed this, comparing children who were homeschooled by a parent with a teacher’s license to those taught by a parent without one. There was no advantage to the kids with a parent who had also been a teacher. That was one of the few things I didn’t worry about when we were deciding about homeschooling, that I don’t have an education degree.

    My teen daughter said she would like to go back to school if she could go to a girls’ school. She wants to go to a women’s college.

    Have you read anything about nonverbal learning disorder? It has a lot of similarities to Aspergers and math is a big deficit for the vast majority of people who have it.

  3. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    As a teacher, I’m continually amazed at an interested / self-motivated student’s ability to learn, from square one–no previous knowledge headstart. I put something difficult in front of them that may require several tiers of previous learning to figure out. And they find a way to understand it. They try things out. They think. They ask questions.

    School administrators and teaching teachers say we need to be teaching critical thinking in schools because every kid needs to be able to think critically. Well, every kid already has the means to learn / practice critical thinking–they just need something they care enough about to allow themselves to really get in the zone for.

    Even my students who typically take longer to process / seem mentally slower, if they are interested in learning, they will outperform any of my students who don’t care as much.

    And on the other hand, it’s amazing how useless it is to spoon feed certain students with the most well-thought-out lessons. Sometimes, if I’m extra nice to them, and butter them up, and give them alternative reasons to try (extrinsic motivation), they’ll “learn” a little bit. And by “learn” I mean they will learn just enough to receive a reward (grades, kindness, candy, whatever), but not enough to actually use a critical investigation process.

    Anyway. It’s a constant source of frustration that I can’t just instead teach one class of orchestra for all who really want to learn (even if they are all different skill levels, it works out because if they all care a lot, they will help each other out so that they all sound good–I’ve seen it happen with highly interested students), and teach four different interest-based classes.

    Chasing after people who don’t care about what you have to teach them doesn’t feel like the right way to do things.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The part you wrote about how slower processing kids perform well if they are interested — that makes me think that school functions to make kids who are not interested in all subjects equally look stupid.

      And, conversely, if you let all kids learn what they want, they look brilliant and inspired.


  4. Lori
    Lori says:

    “Because teachers cannot do self-directed learning in a classroom. We can’t afford that in this country. We’d have to have a single teacher for every four students. Which means that teachers can’t facilitate self-directed learning.”

    this is actually not true. teachers can facilitate self-directed learning just like parents can. it’s easier, actually, to have a group of kids who are all approximately the same age (multiage classes are wonderful — kids who are within 2 yrs age difference of each other) rather than spread from infant to teen.

    if kids are allowed/encouraged to work independently in the classroom and in small groups and if they’re allowed to collaborate/talk to one another, the teacher can work one-on-one with students or small groups while the others manage themselves. you also create a classroom system where kids ask other kids for help before they seek out an adult. this is how multiage classes worked in my private school.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Lori this is only true for kids who want to learn something that you can learn in a classroom. For the most part, classrooms are for learning by reading about doing not learning by doing. I mean, most of the world happens outside the classroom, right? So it’s a very very narrow part of the world that can be learned inside a classroom.

      Which means that if you would, on your own, choose to spend your time doing something that you can do in a classroom, then you can do self-directed learning in a classroom.


      • Julie
        Julie says:

        Not to get too snarky, but it seems like your kids are in front of some type of screen (watching, playing video games, finding porn) a whole lot, and then there’s the cello–all of those things can be done inside a classroom. They don’t *have* to be done inside a classroom–nothing does–but they certainly can be. Granted, I doubt your sons would be allowed to watch Rihanna videos in the classroom, but I’m not sure that counts as a loss of educational value.

        I homeschool, and my sons do spend much of their day doing things that wouldn’t work well in most classrooms (though I do not rule out the idea that many of those things are possible in a classroom; they could build with Legos in an unstructured, self-directed way in a classroom instead of in our playroom, for example). But there are very few things that they do in a day that truly could not be done in a classroom.

  5. My Boys' Teacher
    My Boys' Teacher says:

    Montessori schools typically have 30 students and one teacher. Generally all 30 are doing something different from one another at any given time unless they are working in small groups of their own choosing on projects of their own choosing. The idea that one would need a 4 to 1 ratio is untrue. The way the classroom is run and prepared just needs to be different than is traditional.

  6. My Boys' Teacher
    My Boys' Teacher says:


    I didn’t mention the assistant because not every Montessori classroom has one. A quote:

    E.M. Standing (Montessori: Her Life and Work):
    “Montessori regards forty as the outside number of children who can live and work happily together in one group under one directress.”

    Here is a link to info from the Montessori Foundation on class size (summed up 225-35): http://www.puremontessori.com/explained/j.htm

    PUBLIC Montessori schools make compromises to work under the government umbrella. Many state regulations require one adult to every 14 children which would explain the class sizes in some public Montessori schools.

    I just wanted to point out that IF a person wants to outsource their child’s education, no one should feel like it is “impossible” to have individualized learning when it could be done with a Montessori model.

    I know Penelope has suggested in the past that Montessori is better for boys than girls. I homeschool both of my boys in a Montessori-inspired way and I chose the method because I felt it was the best choice for boys. We have even more latitude because we are home, but some of the best Montessori schools often provide nearly unlimited access to an outdoor space. The children move around at will. Almost all learning is accomplished by DOING something with the child’s own two hands.

    I think we all know the whole country isn’t suddenly going to start homeschooling. It is a shame that every kid who is put into schools can’t have the best education that is available outside of a homeschool because people think you need to have such expensive student/teacher ratios. You do if you are simply tweaking the current model. You don’t if you throw it out and try a different model. The reason they won’t is that Montessori schools don’t fit into their little assessment box the way they would like.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is what I was thinking when I was reading this: What is the difference between good babysitting and good Montessori? I think that once you give a kid access to great toys, and they choose what they want to play with and when they want to play with it. Once you give kids unlimited access to outdoors. Then you’re not saying that school is better than homeschool, you’re just saying that you don’t want to be with your kids all day.

      So what I want to know is, why don’t we call Montessori babysitting? Why don’t we call the best schools the best babysitting?


        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Okay. I have to think about that one. This is a new way to see things for me. Like, if we just admit that school is babysitting and that we are trying to figure out the best babysitting. I actually love this way of thinking. And it also makes me able to love Montessori.

          So then the conversation could be about babysitting. Which I think is an interesting conversation that we don’t really have because we are assuming most of the benefit of adults in kids lives is during school, not when there is a babysitter around.



          • Cathy
            Cathy says:

            I have always thought that one of the best aspects of changing the name of schools to something else is that we could at that point change the compulsory nature of schools, too.

            Like, really good babysitting for our kids can be awesome–but it would be a TON less awesome if we had to use that babysitting service only during certain days and hours–but ALWAYS during those days and hours. Just as it would seem irrational to have to go to a library program BY LAW, five days a week–just as it would seem crazy to have to go to a city park BY LAW, six hours per day–one of the things that makes schools so bad is that we are mandated to use them by law, specific days a week, specific hours a day.

            If we thought of schools as good-quality babysitting, we could interject the idea that it is a good service for when it suits the parents and kids, when it fits into the family’s life.

      • victoria
        victoria says:

        You might find Maria Montessori’s book The Discovery of the Child interesting. (I confess I haven’t read the whole thing, but what I read was interesting.)

        The big differences between Montessori and babysitting (or between Montessori and unschooling) from what I understand is that it’s actually far more structured than it appears to be from the outside. It’s not just having access to these materials — it’s using the materials in a certain way, the way they’re intended to be used. (There may be access to a lot of different musical instruments, for instance, but you can’t use the xylophone as a Playmobil hotel or bang on the violin.)

        There are set work periods and work contracts for the older kids. And as much as possible kids are to be working on things that are “real.” Rather than pretending to cook at a play kitchen, the kids would do real cooking as much as is developmentally feasible, and serve the snack and clean up themselves, for instance. So it’s not just choosing what to use and when to use it, although there is an element of choice.

  7. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I don’t know that the text under point four is really consistent with the title.

    Is the principal reason kids have a bad time at school that gender stereotypes are universally valid? That hasn’t been my experience.

    It seems like a title that might fit your argument better is “Schools are for Girls.”

    I certainly agree that many children (mine included) have a bad time at school, and any way in which I am likely to fall short is still an improvement. But I don’t think the problem was that schools are for girls.

    In the matter of sight reading, you seem to indicate that, given your math disability, you don’t have much of an idea what would be involved in learning to read music either.

    I agree with your fundamental premise that you needn’t be an expert to help your kid learn. But I wonder if there isn’t a contradiction between the assertion that note reading “has to be taught in a more systematic way” and the assertion that “I just need to give him the tools to learn it.” Are these tools teaching him in a more systematic way?

    My experience (and nobody in my family has a math disability) is that after a couple years of playing with the letter notes written in the sheet music you can just stop doing that because you really don’t need them anymore. The transition is fairly painless. It’s like taking the tapes off your fingerboard and realizing they had become irrelevant months before, because you already find intonation by ear and muscle memory.

    I think the more systematic methods (such as note reading drills, etc.) probably contribute to learning, but I also don’t think they’re really necessary. That said, the ipad games like NoteWorks seem like a good way to get your practice.

    Re whether kids need teachers to learn, it’s obvious you don’t entirely believe this. You’ve lauded your son’s music teachers here repeatedly – they are teachers, and your son does need them. Prodigy though he may be, he would not become a great musician without teachers. You do need a teacher who is an expert to become a good violinist.

    Does the model for learning music with the help of teachers differ that greatly from the model for teaching a class? Your son works with his teacher for an hour or so and then practices by himself for five or ten more hours. I wonder how the contrast between this and what in theory happens in a classroom (the teacher works briefly with each child or group of children, then the children work on their own) really works.

    It seems to me that the biggest contrast may be between theory and practice, not theory and theory: instead of each child working for a while by himself, they all start doodling, spitballing, and punching each other as soon as the teacher turns around.

    Maybe this goes back to the point you’ve expressed in terms of gender assumptions: most kids may have only so much time they can spend really focusing on something each day. If that’s the case for your kids, I applaud your choice to make that thing music.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, interesting point. If I were going to argue that teaching music is consistent with what I’m saying, I’d tell you that the teacher sees him 30 minutes a week and he practices seven hours a week, so it’s self-directed.

      But that would not really be true.

      What’s true is that I force him to do a lot. Because I don’t need to teach him music, or notes or whatever. I need to teach him how great cellists practice. Which means I have to make him focus and sit still and do many things I say I don’t believe in.

      It’s a conundrum. I mean, I don’t even have a great thing to say about this. Except that the drive to do cello is all his. When I ask him do you want to quit cello (or at least get a teacher who is not four hours away from home) he says emphatically no.


  8. Maria
    Maria says:

    Be careful about your reasons for homeschooling, because it can and will challenge you. Schools are far from perfect, and lots of parents can improve on them by homeschooling, but don’t expect it to be an effortless happy-go-lucky experience. A good education can be had either way. And be ready for your house to be a mess–a consequence of homeschooling for most that isn’t really talked about. With that warning out of the way, welcome!

  9. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    The teaching/learning relationship between a mentor/mentoree in a personalized lesson cannot be compared to the same relationship between a teacher with a classroom of students using a standardized curriculum.

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