The Damage School Can Do
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Our journey from private to public to homeschool
Please know this is not a story that is told easily and as such I ask that you be kind should you choose to provide feedback. This story is shared not only with my children's permission but their blessing. They know that sharing stories is a way to help others learn and it could ultimately help another family who is going through something similar.
We live in a country where schools are abundant. There’s private, public and boarding schools, there are co-ed, all girls and all boys schools. So why are we homeschooling? Ultimately, for us it came down to a few things that were not even on my radar at the beginning of our journey… safety, respect, acceptance. Not for the teachers, or the ones in charge… but for our children.
The Private School
We thought we were lucky, getting our 5 year old son accepted into a lovely private school with a great school community. Our daughter, just two, was transitioning into daycare and still catching every single germ that went through the centre. We thought that was the cause of her fussiness. Though the carers there were lovely, she never seemed happy at daycare.
We found school and daycare drop offs the single most stressful times of our life. Our children were inconsolable with my leaving them and I realised quickly I was a "soft" Mum. Everyone kept telling us, "once they get older they will toughen up and need you less, then you won't feel so guilty about working."
I couldn't hide my shock in how okay other Mums seemed with their children's resistance to school. I watched them gently pushing these tiny little beings into their seats, pencils placed in hand. And as the bell chimed my son would jump with fright and panic, as I would be reminded once again by the teacher to "drop and run" (this was a term that was explained to me to avoid anxiety building in the child knowing that I would have to leave).
I had a little reassurance, seeing this "tough love" approach working on other children. I watched them gradually stop getting upset and start to accept their new roles as students. We persevered and tried everything to help our son settle. But as time went on it only got worse. Things seemed hopeless.
Even though my son was making some beautiful friends and connecting with his teacher through their love for Star Wars, he had complete school refusal. He would refuse to get dressed in the mornings for school, then he would refuse to get in the car, he wouldn't eat, he wouldn't drink. As a Mum I was jumping from issue to issue and never really getting to the root cause. Never being able to catch the teacher to discuss. And it was growing more apparent that I was the only one with these issues. Less parents were present or needed at drop off and it seemed my son was the only one left to cut the ties of dependency. "It's anxiety, it will pass. He just needs to get used to school" our doctor would tell us.
With guidance from the school we tried some different approaches, for example, arriving late after everyone else was dropped off, and giving the teacher a present to give our son after I made a run for it. After school the teacher would tell me the wonderful day he had. I would listen proudly and tell him how happy I was for him. Then, in the car he would explode with grief as he would tell me how heartbroken he was that I ran away from him and tricked him. The meltdowns after school were absolutely frightening. I learned quickly that just because a child is quiet in a classroom, does not mean he is okay. Yet, as we moved forward in time, it seemed to be the general belief.
After some alarming health issues and more researching, I persisted with doctors. By the start of grade one our son was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome and ASD. I remember feeling relieved that we had some answers and that, now, perhaps things will be easier. Because, as everyone had told me, there are great supports in school once diagnosed.
Another year passed, and we had grown accustomed to the high level of stress and constant waves of guilt whilst dealing with school, drop off, and the impending outbursts at pick up. I was still desperately held onto by my son. I had cut my work hours so I could volunteer in the school more to try and help him sense my presence without the need to leave him straight away. The teachers I worked with at this time seemed to truly care for our son. I appreciated them and they confided in me their frustrations with the system, advising me that the funding my child had for his diagnosis would go into a general pool of money from which the principal would then decide where it should be allocated. By the end of that same year my son was given a fidget spinner… this was to be all he was given from said funding. Ironically the school had some lovely new computers to use in the classroom also.
That same term the special needs teacher had resigned, and as a new school year approached we were left feeling even more isolated not having her in our corner to assist anymore. So I had started to look at other schools in the hopes of a better environment.
The Small Country Public School
We are spoilt for choice with schools in our area. As the new year approached and my leave balance dwindled to nothing, we decided on a very small country school. Although they didn't have a special needs component in their school, the class was significantly smaller and we thought that the overall quiet school and simple layout would benefit our son greatly. We were given so many promises and I was so relieved, sharing our families wonderful fortune with my work colleagues on his first day. He was happy to have his Dad dropping him off.
I eagerly awaited a text or call to say it went well, to be assured our decision was the right one. My husband did call, but it wasn't good news. It did not go well. When I picked up Isaac, I was met with the school principal and the teacher, it was quite confronting. They had him sitting at his desk in the classroom, other children all gone. He had an empty look on his face, his tics at this point were an indicator of his stress. They were as if guarding the door... teacher and principal united against parent. I was then subjected to a 20 minute lecture on how my son was disrupting the class on his first day, having brought a toy to school! This toy was in fact a sensory palm stone, a worry stone he would keep in his pocket and bring out during times of stress. The teacher advised that she had confiscated it and he then was disruptive for the rest of the day (referring to his tics and requests to use the bathroom).
I was dumbfounded, these two lovely people that I recall listening and promising to help had so quickly changed their idea on what they would help with. Apparently it was my parenting that needed help! They went on to advise that, as parents, our duty was to assist the teacher by incorporating this drop and run approach. Apparently my husband had lingered a little too long at drop off and this resulted in less productivity during the day. Once again, we found ourselves dubbed the "soft" parents. A parent meeting was set and the next evening we were to sit and watch a powerpoint lesson on what our duties were as parents. We were given an A4 sheet of rules to abide by, which consisted of a 10 minute window for drop off and no discussion with the teacher in the morning, as her duties were to prepare for the lessons that day. The same was to be expected at pick up. It seemed that grade 2 was taken very seriously at this school.
I was sure there was just some sort of misunderstanding. I kept going over everything, all the discussions and plans we had made. I was determined to make peace and find a way to make this work with the teacher onside. I was used to working with teachers by now. But at this school, my help in the classroom was not allowed. This teacher did not feel the need for volunteers in her classroom. On reflection, I fear this was because she did not want to be open to criticism.
The list of rules grew longer... Now at school pick up we needed to wait 200 metres from the classroom. Apparently the parents were disrupting the afternoon class whilst waiting to collect their children. I could still hear her yelling from that distance. “What on earth have I got my child into?!” was all that I could think. The notes coming home outlining the issues we were to work on increased. It seemed that this teacher felt our son was faking his Tourette's syndrome and she suggested a second opinion. Her ignorance of special needs was obvious, and I could only assume she just did not care, given the way she spoke of it as an inconvenience to her intended productive day. These notes were constant and the homework was gruelling.
By this time I had hired a therapist to work with Isaac and I had asked her to make contact with the principal to discuss our concerns. This was my last option as he had spent more days unwell than at school. The therapist had not had a reply but when I would walk the school grounds I could feel all eyes on my every move. The stories of this teacher were nothing short of appalling, not just from my son but, gradually, from other Mothers as well. I watched over time, as other children left. I truly feared for my sons safety and it was no longer a matter of choice we had to get him out of there.
The Well Equipped Public School
Onto our third school in as many years. I opted to take more time off work unpaid. Our financial problems were the least of our worries at this point. Our concerns for our son to heal from his experiences was our main priority. We had lengthy discussions about what to do next. This next step was vitally important for all of us as our daughter was due to start school herself. We had organised extra supports for her, as our concerns for her wellbeing grew.
We found another school, this time the largest school in the area with an exceptional special needs program. We liked the principal, she insisted we meet with the special needs principal. We hit it off instantly, she wanted to know everything about my son. It was the first time anyone had actually asked me who he was instead of what he had. I cried like a baby. Funnily enough she did too, having a child herself with special needs, she got it.
Isaacs teacher was a breath of fresh air. He loved her, and though he did still hate being left, and was very much traumatised by his experiences at the previous schools, he gave it his every effort. He had good company, with quite a number of students enrolled here recently from the previous school we had left!
At pick up, Isaacs teacher loved to chat about his day. She would usher me inside, sit me down with Isaac and tell me how many breaks he needed and asked him how he was feeling about everything. She had organised a reward system for him and had even provided some calm toys for him. I cried… again. I hugged her and thanked her for being such a beautiful person. She was somewhat shocked, advising me that he really didn't need all that much, just a little check in now and then and a reasonable expectation. What she had said to me struck me at my core. I thought to myself… how can so many teachers see things so differently, aren't they going through the same training?
Over time this lovely gift of a teacher confided in me that she was growing exhausted and needed more assistance in class. The school had appointed a teacher aide to help with this particular classroom as it had a number of children like my son with extra needs. However, these teacher aides had been relocated to assist on a more important task of getting all the students falling behind in reading up to standard. I offered to help as much as I could. On my days off I would volunteer in class, but I didn’t feel overly helpful as I had my very unhappy toddler alongside whom was not in the least bit happy to be in the classroom.
Within a few weeks this teacher disappeared. At first we were told she was unwell, and unsure of her return. It was whispered she had a nervous breakdown, I do not know if this were true but I would not be surprised. Isaac was devastated, as was her entire class. The school refusal started again, and, as we needed more therapy, so did the absent days.
One day at pick up, Isaac handed me a red paper slip with a frown face on it. He said "Sorry Mummy." I turned it over and it said his attendance had fallen below the 98% rate the school required. This resulted in a punishment of not being invited to a special party at the end of the year that only the green slip children could attend.
Eventually Isaac’s class was provided a replacement teacher who, frankly, seemed a little out of her depth. Though she did try, and on my volunteer days I watched her with empathy as she fought for the classes attention and failed. She quickly was replaced with another, whom decided to move the entire classroom around, resulting in a HUGE meltdown from Isaac. He refused to step foot in class. The change was too big, his beloved teacher was gone and, having had a different teacher each week, it seemed no one would stay!
We had received word that our favourite teacher would not be returning to school for the rest of the year and, possibly, not at all. I was left with so many questions. But the one question I had that no one could answer... if we can't trust schools to look after these beautiful teachers how can we trust them to look after our children?
When systems are favoured over people, when time and again, test scores, statistics and attendance are more important than mental health and health in general, I can’t help but feel that schools have lost their way.
These systems are teaching our kids to ignore their feelings, to conform to rules provided by the people in charge despite not knowing them. It’s teaching them to stay silent. It’s teaching them that how they feel does not matter, and their voice is not important. They are not important. They are only worth their test scores.
It's hard to imagine that they feel safe or feel respected. And I highly doubt they feel accepted.
Through all the advice I found myself more isolated than ever, like our issues had been going on for so long it could only be assumed we were the cause. We were weak. Too soft. Our children needed more discipline. More rules. More boundaries. We didn’t fit. We were broken.
We were broken. One morning my husband called me at work. I still remember that way he said “Hi” in that tight voice, he didn’t sound like him. My heart sank. What he then said next changed everything. “ I can’t do this anymore. He’s not going back to that place. He’s not going anywhere. We need to homeschool.” There were too many unknowns to list. But I didn’t care. If there was one thing I did know at that very point in my life, it was that we could do better than these schools.
It didn’t feel like a victory, it felt like we were bowing out, like we were giving up and admitting defeat… they win, we can’t do this anymore. We were shadows of ourselves. We were ashamed and hurt, we had little support, too exhausted to try and maintain any friendships. Most were lost. Financially we couldn’t survive, so we put our house up for sale. There was so much to grieve but for the first time in a really long time we stopped. We stopped rushing. We stopped crying. We stopped worrying.
A breath of fresh air... Homeschool
Homeschooling saved our family in so many ways. It breathed life back into our children, it allowed them to be kids again. It brought us closer. It gave us time together. Now, looking back I can see we didn’t know what it was we were looking for, but we didn’t stop trying. We knew there had to be something better and when we didn’t find it, we created it.
Though I have regrets of my own in this journey I take comfort in knowing that we showed our kids that we wouldn’t give up on them. We listened to them, and we showed them that it’s ok to have a voice and that their feelings are valid. We created an environment where they felt comfortable to learn. A safe space. A place they can use their voice as loudly as they need, and it is heard! An environment where no question is stupid or unanswered. An environment where they are free to be themselves, unapologetically.
Although we finally found our way, many others have not. There were so many things that had to fall into place for us to have arrived where we are now. It was so much harder than it had to be and our child suffered because of it, we all did. We can’t get those years back but we can speak up about what we have learned. There is always a way to find balance and, although it may seem scary or unconventional, homeschooling is not something that should be a last resort. It isn’t the mediocre alternative to mainstream school. In fact, I have come to believe the opposite to be true. Children can do better with homeschooling.
Until next time, take care