Unschooling: When School Fails

I am the child of two teachers, I felt strongly that the education system was good but that wasn’t what I was seeing and it sure wasn’t what my daughter was experiencing. In that exact instance my cognitive dissonance snapped.

Unschooling: When School Fails

When my eldest daughter was in year 5 I pulled her out of school. I think most people assumed I’d send her back for year six, or at least for high-school. But here we are, seven years on and she hasn’t attended a single day of formal schooling since. When school failed my daughter, I had to find a different path for her, and luckily, I discovered unschooling!

I pulled her out of school because she was starting to get in trouble. She’d been the victim of bullying, and the school failed to address it adequately. One day she left the school at lunch time and went to a friend’s house. She and her friends were caught as they crept back into the school.

She had spent lunchtime in the friend’s neighbour’s back yard (having crawled through a hole in the fence) eating kfc and drinking black death (sometimes referred to as pepsi) that was provided by the friend’s mother. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the appeal in that, the alternative was to hang out at school with the free-range bully. But to me, alarm bells were ringing. Why was my daughter getting into trouble? Was I a rotten mother or was there more to this story than the obvious “blame the single mother” angle.

The school wanted to suspend the girls but decided to do some weird internal suspension thing where they are sent to another classroom for three days. My daughter spent three days in another classroom facing the back wall and being ignored except for the odd snide remark from the teacher. The principal stressed to me that children have to know they get in trouble for breaking rules and she made them write out the school rules for three days. She also said that my daughter was lucky she hadn’t been fully suspended, and that they  hadn’t wanted her education to suffer so they’d done the internal suspension ….. the irony wasn’t lost on me.

I asked if  maybe it would be more beneficial to address WHY they had broken the rules given that they were all quite aware of them, or they wouldn’t have been sneaking, they’d have walked out the front gate. Apparently that just showed my inability to comprehend the serious nature of the situation. I thought that constant bullying, sexually based letters in our letterbox and prank phone-calls until late at night (from a known phone number of a  male classmate) were actually quite important but apparently he just did those things because he liked her.

That year my daughter lost her baby brother, she lost her beloved grandmother, and the bullying was escalating when she started getting herself into trouble. I went to see the teacher and ask if maybe she could offer a little bit more support in the classroom.

The teacher looked at my daughter and said:

“She can’t hide behind her problems forever, the gaols (jails if you are American) are FULL of people who think life is too hard”. And that was the end of the discussion.

It was the end of more than just the discussion though, it was the end of my faith in the education system, and the beginning of our unschooling journey.

I am a child of two teacher parents, I felt strongly that the education system was good but that wasn’t what I was seeing and it sure wasn’t what my daughter was experiencing. In that exact instance my cognitive dissonance snapped.

So I sent them a letter and told them that I would be withdrawing my daughter. They sent me a letter threatening legal action. I sought urgent registration from the home-school department, fortunately it was granted, and from there on we were out of reach of the school and we began unschooling.  It was slow going at first, we all needed to de-school (a process of learning to see things differently without a curriculum as the staple for education).

De-schooling was a complicated process, it was all about ebb and flow, finding the right balance between freedom and boundaries, and relearning who we all were as a family. It wasn’t just my daughter who had to de-school, it was all of us! There were times when it was challenging, it wasn’t all roses and rainbows, but it was an exceptionally rewarding process because at the end of it all we came to be unschoolers, and unschooling has changed our lives.

unschooling teenager with pigtails sitting in the woods
When school fails, unschooling might work!
Credit: License: Creative Commons CC0.

After six years of life based learning fuelled by her interests with no framework that could be understood in a schooling sense, she has reached a point where her life is taking off. She’s selling paintings on facebook, planning to travel to see friends and family on the mainland, and she’s also planning to enter university and study veterinary science.

After researching university she decided that it’s a good idea if she completes year 12 level maths and chemistry so we rang around and learnt that she can do that via correspondence starting next year. Her plan is to spend the rest of this year getting a feel for the subjects as they will be presented in a formal framework.
We had a curious conversation this afternoon, she said “Mum, I’ve been doing chemistry for years, I just didn’t know it was chemistry”. Then she started talking in a foreign language about (and I’m translating this for the layperson) the chemical composition of frog toxin. If she could learn that stuff on her own I’m quietly confident that unschooling has paid off and that she has what it takes to get herself all the way to wherever she decides to go!



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