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A Former Public School Teacher on Homeschooling Her Kids 

click to enlarge Measuring the backyard pond's ice - KATE FARRELL
  • Kate Farrell
  • Measuring the backyard pond's ice

In the fall of 2020, two months into overseeing remote learning for my three older kids, I wrote in my journal: I'm lucky to exercise one day during the week. I work on Friday and Saturday nights. I miss joining family movie night. My days are spent smearing peanut butter on bread, graham crackers and our puppy's Kong. I'm so torn about all the cajoling to do remote school. What has happened to the joy of learning?

By that time, I had lost touch with the natural, healthy flow my family needs. My husband, a college professor, would emerge from his basement office for lunch and brief me on how stressful things were down there — tech issues, grading, endless emails tied to COVID-19-related uncertainty.

My typical lunchtime update to him would sound like this: I spent an hour trying to get son No. 1 to engage with a remote lesson. He wouldn't. Our other son went to a lesson but then spent 45 minutes telling me that it was stupid, he'll never go again and he now "deserves" to watch a show. Our older daughter told me that she's exhausted from going to all her classes and will be working on a project all afternoon. Our preschooler has tried three different kinds of yogurt today.

Why not just set clear limits on screen time and food? Well, it needed to be quiet. Those university students didn't want to hear kids screaming at their mom about watching shows or eating yogurt in the middle of a physiology class. And my grade-school kids should be able to turn on their mics without the embarrassment of a tantruming sibling in the background. Cue the hushed stern mom voice: "Fine. 30 minutes. It has to be PBS Kids, and then you are going outside!"

I was a high school science teacher for 16 years. I left in early 2019 after developing PTSD when a student threatened to shoot a classmate in my class. While my spring of 2019 was marked by intense pain, it was also a chance for me to reconnect to a healthy biological rhythm. By then, I had three kids in elementary school and one in pre-K. On weekdays, I exercised every morning before tackling whatever small project I could handle. We had dinner together every evening, followed by read-aloud time with my "bigs," then my little one.

In early March 2020, I cut the last ties to my teaching job and committed to start my own photography business later that spring. I was relieved to have some closure and a little scared of, but also excited for, what lay ahead.

Then the world paused.

We were all home, 24-7. In the early days of the pandemic, life in our bubble followed a comfortable routine. Remote school was pretty loose. The adults' and kids' work got done. Both parents got out to exercise most days. The kids spent hours riding their bikes and adventuring in our woods. I had tons of time to read aloud to them.

Our family anxiety profile demanded that the coronavirus risk be really low before we went back into a school building, even with masks, distancing and all the rest. So last fall, we enrolled our kids in our school district's remote-schooling option.

By November, I was in a quandary. The pace of our lives had become synthetic, driven by Zoom classes and arguments over screen time. Yet biology is in control; a virus has governed our daily choices for nearly a year.

Public school was a square-peg/round-hole challenge for my kids before the pandemic. Once the novelty of remote school wore off, we were again faced with a tough situation. I was struggling to balance my relationship with my kids against their educational needs, all while starting a new career. I knew they needed to be learning in real life, reconnecting with their curiosity and feeling comfortable in their own skin.

That's how we became homeschoolers. I filled out all the state-required forms, withdrew the kids from school and dove into lesson planning. We began homeschooling after Thanksgiving. Our focus is on play, learning, curiosity and rest.

The pond behind our house has long been our natural gateway to seasonal living. To find out if it's raining, we glance out at its surface. The first ice at the edge signifies that summer has lost its grip and the winter half the year has arrived. In the deep of our Vermont winters, we measure the thickness of the ice. It has recently become the grounding point for our homeschool science lessons.

Now, rather than fitting in a few minutes of read-aloud between remote classes, my big kids and I gather for more than an hour on most days to "travel" away from our pandemic-plagued world. We snuggle on the couch near the pellet stove while I sip tea and read aloud. We love the way Harry Potter transports us to a magical world. As we work our way through the sixth book in the series, conversation often turns to J.K. Rowling's imagination and how the movies just don't compare to the books. Our reading has inspired drawings, writing, Lego creations and role-playing, as well as discussions on racism and sexism. I'm so glad to see these signs of creativity returning to our house.

And still, these are tough times. We are sheltering at home. I am responding to the heightened needs of my family, while actively building a new career. Being flexible and intentional in our daily life helps us to be our best selves and remain hopeful for the future.

Just as the pond changes its rhythms with the seasons, so will we. If we are attentive, we'll know when a new one arrives.

Kate Farrell is a photographer, writer, endurance athlete and former science teacher. She and her husband live with their four children in Vermont. Learn more at katefarrellphotography.com.

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