Juggling Parent/Teacher Roles

by Pam Gentry1

How do I juggle the roles of parent and teacher?

Our family breaks many of the “rules” of school. We don’t have a defined school year. We start each school day “whenever we start.” Our village home, where we live nine months out of the year, is less than 500 square feet inside. It provides shelter for our family of six, but no space for a school room. Our remote living situation and family personality have necessitated a flexible approach to school. It has worked well.

When we left the U.S. four years ago, we were an average suburban family with three children in public school. We entered village-based translation work with kids 4, 7, 8 and 10 years of age. At the time of this writing, our oldest is in his first year of high school, and the youngest is beginning second grade.

Kids Can be Candid!

All in all, I would say that our experience as a village-based home school family has been a success. But everyone has limits. When our kids are asked if there is anything they do not like about school in the village, they are unanimous: “Our parents are our teachers.”

This is not meant as an indictment against our abilities as teachers, or as parents either. In a candid moment my son told me, “The topics we are studying are OK, I guess. And I like the books pretty much. It’s just that . . . well, . . . you are my mom!”

Our family has found that adding the role of teacher/student to that of parent/child puts a big stress on both parties. My husband and I struggle as our children explore new ways to resist authority and shirk responsibility. The kids are often frustrated by our insistence that they complete work neatly, write in full sentences, and explain how they derived the answer to an equation. Teaching our children has been a test of our patience and emotional resources. Some days we don’t pass the test.

Stress Can be Positive

There are, however, positive results of this stress. We are all learning to listen to one another. We are finding ways to work together. Hopefully we are all becoming better followers of our Lord as we daily depend on Him for wisdom, patience, and strength to do what is right.

As my husband and I have juggled the roles of parent and teacher, we have stumbled onto a few principles that help smooth out the wrinkles as we try to provide an education for our children in the village.

Spiritual Growth

We are pretty good about maintaining family devotions when in the village. As you might guess, this is an informal affair for our family. It includes prayer, reading, and discussion. The reading may be a portion of Scripture we are memorizing, a daily reading from His Word, or a related biography or book. The content varies according to the issues we are facing as a family. Taking time to focus our hearts on the Lord has become so essential to family relationships that even our kids are hesitant to begin the day without it.

Learning Is a Life-style

When our children were babies and toddlers, we explored the world together with them. As they’ve grown older, we have tried to foster this desire to learn. We read all kinds of books together, ask questions, and encourage experimentation. Learning is an all-day activity that even includes mealtime when we discuss current events, a book someone is reading, or activities in the village.

“Why do I have to study?” is an old student complaint. In 1831, a Mrs. Child had this to say about it:

If you grow up in ignorance, you cannot do half as much good in the world as you can if you gain all the knowledge in your power. Now, while you are young, is the best time to fit yourself for being useful” (The Mother’s Book, Applewood Books Globe Pequot Press, 1989).

Individual Responsibility

One of the keys to juggling the roles of parent and teacher is that of assigning individual responsibility.

During School. Each child has a work space which he or she is responsible to keep neat and supplied with school materials. Each child is also given a week of assignments at a time. The assignments are broken into days, and each individual determines how quickly or slowly the days’ assignments get done.

In addition, each child chooses which subject he wants to tackle first and what he wants to save for last. Sometimes the kids choose to do two days’ assignments on one day so that they can have a long weekend. This is allowed as long as they are thorough in completing their work. Each child is encouraged to give input regarding topics to study, stories to read, etc. Whenever a child shows inherent interest in a topic, I allow him or her to pursue it as independent study and write it into the lesson plan.

Around the Home. The use of chore charts (see below) radically changed our family dynamics. I no longer had to nag to get the kids to do their work. Their work became their responsibility. Now my mind is free to concentrate on school, and the kids don’t bring extra frustrations with them when they sit down to study.

Chore Chart

Reading and Writing: A Part of Family Life

We have always read lots of books together; as the kids grow older, we continue with this activity. When the kids were three or four, I took dictation as they made up stories. Whenever we traveled, I kept a journal with each child. Now that they are older, our kids write letters and contribute to our newsletter. We leave notes for each other on the blackboard. I try to make writing assignments relevant to their daily lives.

Finding an audience for our children’s writing has taken creativity. One child was encouraged to submit his story to a magazine. Another wrote a short story book with illustrations for her cousin. Grandparents enjoy anything written by their grandchildren. Once we sent a message in a bottle while sailing to the village. We received a reply from a nearby country.

Even the most experienced authors cringe when their writing comes under scrutiny. So it is no surprise that our kids often balk in the same circumstances. I encourage lots of writing, but choose only one selection a week to take through the full revising and editing process. This helps to ease the impact of the “editor’s” red pencil. It also helps for our children to see us struggle with similar discomfort when we write our own quarterly newsletter. They watch my husband and me go through the same process of writing, rewriting, and rewriting again.

Long- and Short-Term Planning

It is a lot easier for the kids to follow when I know where I am going. I’ve found it important to think ahead about a year so I can gather materials and anticipate holidays and travel. On a weekly basis, I’ve found it essential to make lesson plans. These plans define each day’s work for one week. Such planning helps me see where we have been in our studies and where we are going.

If our school morning is interrupted by village activities, these plans help us get back on track quickly. A defined lesson plan also keeps the kids from trying to argue about how much work they have to do each day. Each child knows his assignments. It is written. No argument.

Outside Accountability

Some kids just don’t have internal motivation, at least not for the things that parents wish them to be motivated to do. It helps our kids if they feel they are accountable to someone besides our immediate family. The outside party may be an itinerant teacher, someone in the home country, or a correspondence school.

This has been particularly important as our kids approach adolescence. I understand that the primary developmental task of preteens and teens is to break from and redefine their relationship to their parents. This piece of information motivated us to find a correspondence course for our son when he entered high school. The independence that correspondence work allows has made a big difference in his attitude toward school.

We have also successfully used other means of accountability. Giving our children a public forum for their writing through our newsletters or other publications improves their attention to detail and willingness to do a thorough job. In addition, we keep a file of the kids’ representative work for each year. Knowing that an assignment is going into the child’s “permanent record” is often motivating.

Related to accountability are rewards. When our kids have been working hard, we like to encourage their efforts with relevant consequences. Their favorite reward is a “school holiday.” These are hard to earn but well deserved (and very motivating). The kids get a one day “math holiday” for a score of 90% or higher on a math unit test. A child can earn an entire day of no school by earning 500 points on his or her chore chart.

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