A Work-from-Home Dad Learns to Educate, at Home, with Some Surprising Results

If I’ve learned anything from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that while there’s no playbook for dealing with the unknown, or the day-to-day household tasks of confronting our “new normal,” there is an exciting opportunity to reimagine education with my son.

A long-time work-from-home dad, my experience with my children’s education was almost exclusively built around traditional schooling: helping with homework, attending conferences, shuttling the kids to and from activities etc ., etc. COVID and quarantining turned that model on its head. Education instantly changed from a more passive approach to a much more hands-on scenario. And frankly, what the heck did I know about educating my child? Turns out, a lot more than I’d imagined.

For starters, my 10-year-old son, Max, seemed to actually enjoy the one-on-one time (so did I). I knew more about Max than almost anyone (my wife excluded, of course). I knew what motivated him and how to keep him feeling confident and secure. The setting created an immediate and palpable excitement in him. He was ready to learn, ready to have experiences with me. He was free from traditional expectations of the “lesson/test/move-on” cadence. And, while I was holding true to what was being sent to me by his public school teacher, in terms of a daily lesson or subject focus, I was free to explore these lessons and subjects in a way that resonated with Max, not 30 other kids. Mostly, I was able to do so at our pace. I quickly realized that we were not simply making it work, we were learning—together, quicker—more thoroughly, and with unforced discussion. Suddenly, the “deer in the headlights” scenario became a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Un-Lesson Planned Lesson, Un-Planned

Some of my favorite examples include a music lesson (again, sent by Max’s public school teacher). It was a time-tested (pun intended) recorder lesson about learning to play Hot Cross Buns.

**Full disclosure, I was astounded that they still taught this and it only reinforced my ever-growing feeling that traditional schooling might be not so much about educating my child…but more about getting him ready to take a test. But I’ll save that for another time.

Max learned to play it, painfully. And, when he asked why it was necessary to learn to play the recorder, my response was simply, “so you can have a better appreciation about what it takes to play music, naturally.” He wasn’t buying it.

What he learned was that he had to figure out where to put his fingers and blow to hopefully create a pitch that didn’t send me running fingers in my ears. He asked whether he could learn to play something else. And, why not? Why did we feel hemmed-in by what the teacher sent; what the other kids were doing? Why, if it didn’t excite Max, would we force it?

So, we listened to a few of his favorite songs and explored how we could turn this prescribed lesson into something he led. I dusted off the old Washburn guitar from my college years and tuned it up as best I could remember. We scoured the internet and found hundreds of tutorials—dozens simplified for a first-time player—about this specific tune. He quickly learned that it takes a lot of work to play an instrument. More importantly, he learned that music isn’t made, it’s created. It’s math AND magic…

There are some very regimented and mathematical concepts, sure. But that’s theory. Ironically, it was the math and theory part that seemed to intrigue him the most. We then recorded a podcast where he critiqued his favorite songs. To this day he begs me to record another podcast and to listen to old records…and, of course, dance (what we like to call physical education). When we threw out the rulebook, we made learning fun again. By the end of it, we had learned far more, far faster, and were both far happier. Maybe rules were meant to be broken?

The Crossroads

The above is just one of many examples that illustrate how and why I have come to this COVID-induced crossroad: Should Max go back to public school ? There, I said it. And it’s not an easy decision to make. Not because I haven’t become a true believer in home-based learning and education, but because I am a product of what can only be described as “the way it’s always been” thinking. Questions like, “Will Max have friends?” and “Can my spouse and I really provide the level of education Max needs?” and my personal favorite, “What will people think of ME if I decide to take Max out of public school?!”

Fortunately, these questions and many, many of the others swirling around in my brain have answers…like, professional answers from people who have asked these very same questions millions of times.

The Right Decision, For OUR Kid

As a  self-described research junkie, the number of resources available became a bit of a playground for Q&A / Pro / Con development for me. The point here is that there is no shortage of resources, both written and human to explore, including Very Well and Homeschool.com. 

And, when I took a look through those resources, asked parent groups, and thought long and hard about what learning should be… the answer was pretty clear. We’re trying something new this year— and probably for the rest of his school career.