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We didn’t choose to become home school teachers, but a more important choice remains open to us

Our kids deserve the best education possible, right? What if this was a chance to actually give it to them?

I should probably be working on a lesson plan, but I’m writing this instead. But then, maybe this is my lesson plan. 

Maybe this is what I need to do — to stop looking online for ideas, or through the resources friends have sent us, and just clarify for myself what kind of teacher I want to be. 

The truth is, I never wanted to be a teacher, and was conscripted solely by the forces of COVID-19 and the social distancing measures that are now keeping me housebound with my wife and three children. I have had many teacher friends, and I like teachers, but the teaching of my own children was a duty I had been happy to outsource. 

Once the schools were shut down, however, and the prospect of two weeks turned into an indefinite period, my wife and I realized we had to do something. Specifically, we had to do more than our school boards, whose primary “learn at home” webpage suggests we basically have our kids watch our local public television station all day. 

It’s probably unnecessary to say this hasn’t been easy. It may be more helpful to say that, after a week of home-schooling my kids, I have recognized that the unique situation of this global pandemic has an onion-like layer of secondary uniqueness underneath it: a chance to give my kids something I never thought I’d give them. 

Teacher? Me?

I am the father of two boys, aged 11 and nine, and a seven-year-old daughter. At some point, when we were dealing with one of those parenting issues for which we’d been woefully unprepared, I found myself reading an article which said, “Before they reach school, you are your children’s first and most important teachers.”

“You’re telling me this now?” I silently replied. Though this should probably have been obvious the moment I’d become a dad, it hadn’t. And now it was too late. 

There have been times, of course — particularly during parent-teacher interviews — when I had started to question the abilities of those spending the majority of the day with my kids. Occasionally I might have thought I could do better.

That didn’t mean I was actually prepared to try. 

In my fantasies, I would have wanted to be like Henry James — no, not the famous author of The Portrait of a Lady. I’m talking about his father, Henry James Sr., a theologian who had decided, at some point, that his children would have a superior education if they travelled abroad with him across Europe and elsewhere. 

To say it worked is putting it mildly. Apart from his namesake — who would also write The Bostonians and Daisy Miller — James Sr.’s children also included William James, often considered the father of psychology and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Alice James, a celebrated diarist. 

In contrast, I am not only unable to take my children around the world to educate them, but can’t even take them outside our own neighbourhood until the spread of the Coronavirus is over. 

That’s when I remembered a blog post — it’s actually 10 years old now — written by Seth Godin, whose thinking has influenced those teaching all kinds of in-person or online marketing courses.

In “Two Types Of Schooling,” Godin suggests that all the rote information we try to absorb and then regurgitate back to our teachers should not be the primary focus of education. Instead, he suggested students should primarily be taught to lead, and to solve “interesting problems.”

As someone who has worked in both very large companies and small businesses, this made a lot of sense to me. In any other time, I would probably have resigned myself to the fact that my kids would only learn these things on the job, like I did, and shrug my shoulders. 

But these are not ordinary times. 

Daddylosophy 101

When I sat down with my kids on the first Monday morning of our home-schooling class, I conducted a review of what they’d been doing in each subject, so I could get a sense of where we could keep up or even advance.

There are gaps, of course — my youngest son can’t even remember his last social studies class — but that’s okay. 

Once we had identified the math drills we’ll be practicing and some themes to build lessons for subjects like science, I sat them all down on the couch and told them about Seth Godin’s thesis. I said there was one thing he had left out. 

“What was it?” they asked in the kind of unison you normally only see in TV shows. 

“The most important thing to learn, especially at your ages,” I said, “is how to learn.”

They all looked back at me blankly. I realized I would have to do better. 

“Imagine you’re an explorer and you’re visiting a new country where you don’t speak the language,” I said. “How would you learn it?”

They offered ideas, some of which were basically to search for the equivalent of ESL classes or French classes, but my daughter figured it out. “You’d listen to what they said and see if there was a pattern, and then you’d imitate them.”

We brainstormed some more ideas: using gestures to point at things and writing down the words that were said phonetically, or just immersing yourself in the culture long enough that you picked it up almost by osmosis. 

With this concept in their minds, I outlined what has since become a probably overly-ambitious attempt to impart some of the things I know — things that I’m pretty sure will never be covered when (or if) they ever get to go back to their school. We call this time in our home schooling ‘Daddylosophy.’ 

Keeping “how to lead” and “how to solve interesting problems” as my guide, this includes: 

  • How to prepare for a job interview: you do this all your life but you’re lucky if it comes up with a high school guidance counsellor. We’re going to role-play this until they have absolutely no nervousness, even if they’re applying for a job at the U.N.
  • How to hire: Even if job interviewing skills come up in school, I am pretty sure this one never does, and usually you become a manager and are asked to hire with little to no training. I’m going to discuss how I’ve tried to not only assess qualifications, but bring out the best in a candidate. 
  • How to coach as well as manage: I have seen first-hand how situational leadership and servant leadership works. The earlier they hear about it, the better. 

I’m also developing ideas around navigating office politics (which, let’s face it, don’t change much from what they already experience in the schoolyard), and explaining what I’ve learned about technologies — cloud computing, the Internet of Things — that will continue to change everything about the world they will inherit.

As nuts as some of this may sound (especially considering my daughter’s age), I  started off on an even more cerebral level by teaching them the basics of Stoicism, or as I put it, “How to deal with anything bad that’s ever going to happen to you in your whole, entire life.” 

This seemed particularly relevant amid COVID-19, and we talked about Epictetus and what he learned about how to be free. I made them think of a situation in which they’d been unfairly treated, then had them create Venn diagrams that showed what they couldn’t control, what they could control and what they could do as a result. 

A day or two after they’d presented their work, my daughter showed me a “cootie catcher” she’d made with “can’t control” and “can control” among the options. 

I don’t know how much of this will stick. I don’t know how much of it they’ll use. But I know I can teach it, and it brings a deeper sense of purpose and commitment to this special time we’re spending together.

What would otherwise have seemed a chore is now an opportunity — possibly the only one of its kind I’ll ever have. 

I was not, as it turned out, their first teacher. But I’m now determined to be one of their best ones. 

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