Friday, September 13, 2013

Being Cool About School, a series: 8 Things to Consider if You're Thinking About Public School

Friends, I can't believe we're finishing the third week of this series. When I began this crazy idea of writing a whole series about school, I thought I might have two weeks of material. It turns out that I'm going to have four weeks. I guess there's more to say than I realized. 

Want to know the really crazy part? I could keep going after that. But I won't. The posts I have planned for next week will wrap things up rather nicely. Also? There are other things I want to write about. Like pom-poms and my new writing nook and our favorite fall things. 

But we're not there yet. If you are sick to death of these posts about school, just come back in about week, okay? I'll try and serve up a post about pumpkin bread and candles and books. Books that I've had to stop reading. Because I'm writing this series that will not end.

But that's okay because my writing has taken on a deeper sense of purpose during these last few weeks and that has been a rich gift indeed.  

The first week I shared our own story of school and indecision and weepy days of moving my homeschool books into the attic after we'd put our kids in public school. I spent the following week talking about homeschool, what I loved about it and what I wish I'd done differently

This week I've discussed public school and on Wednesday I may have published my longest-ever post in the history of this blog. It broke every best-practices "rule" of blog posts, smashing the suggested 700-word cap by about 7,000 words. Or something in that ballpark, give or take a few thousand. Consider it a free book. Merry Christmas. 

Today I'd like to speak to those of you who are considering public school. Maybe your kids are still little and you haven't had to make the decision about how you'll educate them. But you're thinking about it. Or perhaps you're homeschooling or private-schooling but for one reason or fifty, you're toying with the prospect of public school. If public school is a consideration but you're not sure if you can really do it or if it's best or what it will look like, this post is for you. 

There's not much I can "answer" for you. Like I mentioned Wednesday, there are a million variables. It depends on your particular school and your particular child and your particular lifestyle. It also depends a lot on you, the parent. There is no identical experience. But there are things you may want to know and consider, everything from calendar freedom to educational approaches to authority issues.

This isn't an exhaustive list but it's a start. Maybe it will get you thinking in some directions your mind and heart haven't ventured yet. 

In no particular order, here are some things to consider about public school: 

1. How tightly do you cling to or idealize a certain model of education?

A number of people choose alternatives to public school because they've found a method or model they like better. Maybe it's classical education or Montessori or Charlotte Mason. There are many dozens of educational models out there. If your heart is really attached to one of these or a blend of these, even if it's maybe not working out so well in practice, you might be frustrated by public school. 

Sure, you may see elements of all sorts of methodologies in public school depending on your particular community, the age of your child, the teacher, etc. But you're probably not going to find a public school that adheres to your ideal, whatever that may be. Can you let go of that? Does the mere thought of your child learning in any other way than the Classical Model, for example, give you heart palpitations? If so, public school may not be for you. You'll be frustrated, to say the least. You'll look at everything your child does or doesn't do and compare it to the tenets of your model. It will inevitably fall short and look very different. If you can't cope with that, save yourself the angst and choose something you can better embrace. Or take a hard look at your motivations and see if perhaps your ideal has actually become an idol. 

2. How well are you able to submit to others in authority over your children?

It may seem like a silly question but I'm actually quite serious. You are obviously the primary and most important authority figure in your child's life; this is your God-given privilege and responsibility. As children gradually become older, they are also accountable to individuals and institutions who help us teach and govern them. To a certain extent this is a partnership between you, the parent, and other authority figures. And when authorities collide, sometimes this gets complicated.

Do you feel the need to defend or explain when someone doesn't have the whole story about a situation, big or small, in which your child is involved? Can you submit to various protocols even if they seem ridiculous and unnecessary? Would you be able to live with a grade your child receives that you feel is unfair? Are you a "helicopter parent?" 

How would you naturally handle a situation in which your child gets in trouble for something that's technically against the rules but that "everyone else" is also getting away with? I'm not talking about big, bad, ugly infractions. I'm talking about bermuda shorts that are half an inch above the dress code standard or eating an Altoid in class or leaving a book in one's locker, "minor" things like this that are, technically, still a violation of stated rules. 

How difficult would it be for you if your child sat in a class for a whole year with a teacher whose methods, style, or personality was an affront to you and / or your child?

Do you see where I'm going with this? If your face turns splotchy and you get a crazy rash on your neck just imagining these situations, well, that's something to consider. You will encounter all of these realities in one form or another. Probably not all the time or even all that frequently. Can you deal? Can you put on your introspective cap and confront some attitudes that may be off-kilter? 

I am not talking about wholesale oppression of our kids here. I'm not granting you permission to throw your kid under the bus for the sake of submission to authority. There are times when you'll encounter a battle worth fighting. My kids are all still rather young and I wouldn't ever allow them to face a gross injustice. But a little injustice can be a powerful lesson. Constant reminders to submit and respect, even toward those who don't always earn or deserve it, can be an even greater lesson.

3. Your lifestyle & vocational calling. 

This point is a big lengthy but that's because it's so significant and personal. Over the years I've observed that lifestyle and family schedules, dictated by vocation and other circumstances, are often taken for granted when families consider schooling options. 

For several years my sister and brother-in-law served as "parents" for at-risk teenage boys. They worked for a faith-based non-profit alongside other amazing families, most of them also raising their own biological children. These families modeled a healthy home life and trained these boys in everything from manual labor to success in school to handling conflict. 

Their full-time job was parenting. Twenty-four / seven they parented their own kids and parented other kids. When the  boys came home from school, it was busy until bedtime. Matt and Emily helped with homework, picked them up from practices, attended parent / teacher conferences, dealt with discipline issues, and supervised every inch of these boys' lives. 

Now, imagine if they had sent their own children to public school while the older boys were also in school. Matt and Emily would have enjoyed little to no time with their own kids. And so my dear sister, who never saw herself homeschooling, chose to homeschool. Not because she thought it was ideal or wonderful, but because it was the best option for them as a family due to the particulars of their vocation. 

The other house parents they worked with chose the same route for largely the same reasons. 

I know of families who are vocational farmers and this is an all-encompassing endeavor for the entire family. I know of families in remote rural areas whose children would have to get on the bus while it's still dark in the morning and who wouldn't get off that same bus until 5 pm or later.  Public school may not be compatible with the calling and lifestyle of the families. Thank the Lord for options. I hope we continue to live in a land that allows parents the freedom to live and educate in a way that promotes healthy, diverse families and livelihoods. 

By the way, this same sister and brother-in-law of mine now live about thirty minutes from me and they're doing different work. Called to live among those they have always had a heart to befriend and serve, they recently bought a home in an urban, rather impoverished area. There are small pockets of revitalization and large swaths of marginalization. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't jealous of the diversity that is their "normal." Matt and Emily's white kids, my nieces and nephew, are way in the minority at their neighborhood public school.

That's right. The same sister who homeschooled her kids because it was most compatible with their former vocational calling now sends her kids to public schools for the same reason. They moved into this community for a reason, to live shalom and hold out hope. They want to serve by living among those who need a bit of goodwill. Or even a boatload of it. Their meet-the-teacher night required a translator because there were so many non-English-speaking parents. And the administration is already recruiting my sister to serve on the PTO. My brother-in-law is volunteering for much-needed male initiatives and to serve as a school "watchdog."

Most lifestyle considerations aren't as extreme as the ones I've mentioned. I'm simply trying to make the point that you have to consider everything from work schedules to kids' extracurricular endeavors. There's a reason that kids like Olympic gymnasts, child actors, and Taylor Swift don't often choose public school. They don't have the time. Their pursuits require an academic efficiency that public school doesn't provide. 

Perhaps your family life requires an efficiency that public school can't accommodate or your spouse works crazy hours and would never see the kids. For several years my husband was often gone three nights a week because of work. I wish we had tossed these scheduling realities into the mix with our school considerations and appreciated these real-life variables. Sometimes our ideals can squash our common sense. 

It's easy to make decisions in isolation. As families, however, one decision affects something or someone else. All of our decisions, our yes's and our no's, work together and create a natural cause and effect. Consider your family's particular lifestyle as you make decisions about school.

4. Your goals and their gifts. 

Do you have more of an apprenticeship approach to education? Is it really important to you or to some of your children to have lots of time to pursue individual passions?  Is it important to heavily and explicitly impart your faith into all the subjects your kids are learning?

I'm not going to provide possible answers for all of these because I can't. Depending on your public school, "apprenticeship" may or may not be possible. If your kid is a computer genius and he's building motherboards in your garage into the wee hours of the morning, make sure he's got time to really pursue this. Your school may provide awesome opportunities to further this passion, like Bill Gates's school when he was a kid. Or it may not provide any. But if your child has a gift that might change the world, consider whether your schooling option is helping or hurting him. Most of us aren't raising prodigies but if you are, make sure school isn't getting in the way of his or her education.

Regarding faith, I've actually become more intentional since my kids have been in public school. I think I feel more pressure to make the most of our opportunities to dialogue. But I'll be completely honest, there are not enough hours in the day to reinterpret everything your child learns in public school through the lens of faith. If this is a must for you, you'll be very frustrated. 

As our kids get older, I want them to know that sacred vs. secular is really a false dichotomy. We believe that it's all sacred, that our creative God's imprint is stamped on every part of the universe, that his orderliness is revealed in math, that He has given us his Word in order for us to know him; therefore words and language are a divine and good gift, worthy of understanding and mastery. 

But am I breaking down every science lesson they have and reteaching it from a Bible worldview? Um, no. We give them guiding principles and we encourage a lot of dialogue about their day and what they're learning. 

We engage with it as best we can, given the time we have. It's not perfect. But if this more general approach is not enough faith-based learning for you, public school may not be a good fit.

5. Your kids.

This one point could obviously be a book, right? We are not robots; we are human beings. There is no one-size-fits-all education. That means we sometimes have to try on different "outfits" until we find what works for all of us, kids and parents. 

If all of your children are pretty "typical," if they're able to learn and get it and succeed in a regular school setting, that's awesome. And if these are your kids, perhaps it's easy to be less than open to others with kids for whom public school is simply not working. 

I have one who breezes through school, one who has needed accommodations, and one who seems to be right in the middle. I have two nieces with Down Syndrome. I have plenty of friends who have children with learning disabilities and other challenges. I got an e-mail just this morning from a loved one updating me on their family. Public school has been a huge struggle for their sweet, bright child. Right now they're doing an on-line public school program while they search for answers and options.

There is no shame in accepting that the "norm" isn't working for your kid. And there's no shame in accepting that your ideal {like homeschooling was for me} isn't working and so you're forced to enter into the norm that you hadn't planned on. Sometimes there is just a lot of "trying on" in the process. 

And this doesn't only deal with academic issues; the spiritual and emotional piece is even more important. Certain schools and certain situations and certain peers can be really negative triggers for certain kids. There's not always a way to predict this but we must respond when the deep waters of our child's spirit are in dangerous turmoil. Each circumstance is different but public school {or any type of school} is never more important than the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of our kids.  

In light of all of this, have grace for yourself as a parent. Lavish grace upon your beautiful and unique children. Extend grace to your friends and neighbors who are trying on options that are different from your own. Trust God to lead each of us as we seek to understand how He's uniquely designed our children and our families. 

6. How are you with a mandated schedule?

I won't lie. A huge appeal for me with homeschooling was not having to rush around and say cuss words and pack lunches and find a missing Nike at 7:30 in the morning. During my first year of homeschooling I had a 6 year old, a 4 year old, and a baby born that November. 

Even with a new baby, especially with a new baby, homeschooling was a glorious thing where our schedule was concerned. I didn't have to wake a kid or baby from a nap in order to get kids to or from school. I didn't have to function or drive in my sleep-deprived state unless we absolutely had to go somewhere. 

We took vacations when we wanted, took field trips when we wanted, and slept in when we wanted. As my kids got older, I was more strict about starting at a set time but when they were all little, the schedule was rather leisurely. After all of those years in college, grad school, and teaching, I enjoyed the "rest" of a more relaxed schedule. 

Sometimes I miss the flexibility we enjoyed. My friend in Seattle just told me that their public schools have early dismissals on Wednesdays at noon and a delayed start one morning a week. So now I want to move to Seattle. Sometimes my kids miss the flexibility too. 

Every option has trade-offs but we try not to define our current school option by what we're missing. Instead, we try to define it by its overall fruitfulness for our family.

Still, the schedule thing is a big deal. If you tend to buck the system regarding calendars and times, you need to know that about yourself and proceed accordingly.

7. Your kids will be exposed to more of the "world?" How do you feel about this?

We all have different levels of "worldliness" that we can live with. There are things that violate your conscience but not mine and vice versa. 

I don't have an easy answer here. 

Public school means that my kids are "in the world" in a more intense way than they were. This reality sort of breaks my heart and inspires me at the same time. There are conversations we've had to have earlier than I'd wanted to. At the same time, there is a lot of unsavory stuff my kids learned early on...when we homeschooled. You'd have to live under a rock in the desert to keep your kids totally "safe." If you're going to live in community--with extended family, with neighbors, with friends--your kids will hear and see and know things.

If they're in public school, they may simply hear and see and know more of it. Yes, they may become more numb and callous toward sin. Yes, they may be tempted to try on certain words or attitudes or behaviors for themselves. And yes, these possibilities can smother me under a blanket of fear sometimes.

I have a dear friend whose children are now grown. They did a combination of homeschool, private school, and public school over the years. She's good and wise to remind me that the evil is not out there; it's in hereIn here meaning that it's in us, it's in our kids, it resides in our hearts. When we externalize and regionalize evil, when we assign it to one place and not another place, we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable. We can become less vigilant but more condescending, less concerned about our hearts {and our childrens' hearts} but more self-righteous. Let us not forget that the religious, law-abiding Pharisees were the real antagonists of Christ while the thieving, lawless, repentant sinner dying beside Him on the cross was the one who joined Jesus in paradise. 

Wherever our kids go to school, we must turn away from recognizing that the issue is the heart.

Instead of seeing public school as a place that promotes the world, I've decided to see it as place to practice our faith. Every day, we practice. And practice is preparation for how to be in this world but not of this world. I know that they're going to get it wrong. And I also know that my response is going to be wrong. 

Because children and teens are so much in formation, so vulnerable and impressionable, it's scary to plop them down "unattended." But here's what I'm learning. They're not alone. Most importantly, God is with them. But they also have teachers who care and kind friends to join them. They're subject to rules that help protect their environment, their bodies, their time, and their learning. 

It is not perfect. No system is perfect. But contrary to some belief, public school is not mob rule and marijuana smoke snaking its ways down the hallways and into our children's lungs. Are there extremes? Yes. Are there news stories that make me want to live in a bunker? Absolutely. There are healthy fears, to be sure. But fear should not motivate our parenting. This job is monumental and we must draw from a well that is deeper and truer and more life-giving.

We can view challenging situations with peers as opportunities to pursue relationship restoration or, in some case, to know how to recognize a "fool" and to run. Fast. 

We can see frustrations with teachers as opportunities to practice submission, respect, and grace. And sometimes, in extreme situations, our children need to see that we totally have their backs and we will not allow certain lines to be crossed.

Every situation is a sacred opportunity, a springboard to reinterpret real life in the real world through the filter of our faith. 

Sometimes we hear horror stories and adopt reactionary attitudes that are fatalistic and reductionistic. But you must see for yourself and not swallow someone else's propaganda or platform because it strikes a chord. 

We have to keep engaging our kids' hearts and our kids' communities, no matter what schooling road we choose. 

If God, through adverse circumstances or his Word or the leading of his Spirit, is calling you to a schooling option that scares you half to death, run from the fear and into his gentle and humble heart. Take his yoke upon you and rest.

8. Are you still prepared to homeschool? Because even if you send your kids to public school, you still "homeschool."

The complaints and conflict and circumstances your kids bring home from school each day? They're "educational opportunities." See all of that stuff above about engaging their hearts and putting everything through the filter of our faith. This is what homeschool really is. You are teaching them at home, in the minivan, when you tuck them in at night, around the dinner table, and when they get in a fight on the basketball court. This is modern-day Deuteronomy 6:6-7. 

And that's not all. You'll help with homework. You may proofread a writing assignment that has to do with a sweatshop factory collapse in Burma. And then you may spend the next 30 minutes talking about all the ways we view labor and all the irresponsible culprits and how does this affect us as Americans. This is homeschool too. 

Sometimes I struggle to believe this, but we, as parents, are still the greatest influence on our children. If we abandon them, we influence. And if we show up, we influence. How much more do we influence when we can do more than just show up? 

Last night my daughter and I had a 30 minute ride home in the van, just the two of us. I was weary. She was weary. Several unplanned inconveniences had presented themselves throughout the day. I was unhappy with a certain attitude being displayed. But I'm writing this series and it is the best sort of accountability for me. I'm writing this for whoever wants to read it but you have to know that I'm writing it for me too. I need to know these realities. I need to be confronted and comforted by these truths. I need my own words to remind me how to live out my faith, crazy as that may sound. 

And so we talked. Well, first we got a chocolate milkshake and then we talked. Amid the venting and the tears, we covered everything from issues of respect to issues of compassion to issues of time management. This too is homeschool. 

But do you see? It's not really homeschool or public school or private school that defines us or our kids or determines their future. I just used three separate situations and referred to them as "homeschool" but even that's not really an accurate reduction. 

This is simply parenting. 


I had two more points to write. Originally this was going to be 10 Things to Consider if You're Thinking About Public School. But this post is already too long and I feel like each of these points could have been its own separate post. 

There are so many more considerations than these eight, just like there were so many more considerations in a similar post I did about homeschool. 

I couldn't have learned any of this without experience. And much of what you'll learn will also come through experience. But if I've helped to "prime the pump" in your own mind and heart, if I've shed a bit of light and testimony here and there, I hope it's fruitful and helpful. I hope that it leaves you with inspiration and freedom instead of guilt and duty. 

It's all grace, my friends. Truly it is. 


This is the eighth post in a series: 

Being Cool About School: 
Finding Grace & Freedom for Ourselves & Others in Our Educational Choices

{Whether We Teach Our Kids at Home, 
in School, or on the Moon}

You can read the earlier posts in the series here
Feel free to subscribe to the blog if you'd like to receive the rest of the series in your e-mail's inbox. You can do that in the right sidebar. And you may unsubscribe anytime you like. 


  1. ugh.....those curls.....those apples and that town!

  2. I have really enjoyed this series. Thank you for taking the time to process so many of these thoughts for us and present an incredible series for anxious parents. Be blessed!

  3. Oh man, Oh man, Oh man.
    This: "She's good and wise to remind me that the evil is not out there; it's in here. In here meaning that it's in us, it's in our kids, it resides in our hearts. When we externalize and regionalize evil, when we assign it to one place and not another place, we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable. We can become less vigilant but more condescending, less concerned about our hearts {and our childrens' hearts} but more self-righteous." BOOM.

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