Heather Gustafson tutors her three children from home
Brooke Roush, her son Sam, 9, and daughters Molly, 7, and Annie, 4, came to Kuala Lumpur in December—only four weeks after receiving news that they were going to follow Brooke’s husband here. “There was no time for a pre-assignment visit, no time to research. It was crazy,” she recalls. “And to make things even more complicated, we didn’t know how long we were going to stay in Malaysia.” So she decided that there was only one thing she could do to make sure that the transition for the children would be as smooth as possible while not upsetting their education: pick up a couple of homeschooling curriculums in one of the many homeschooling shops in the United States—and start homeschooling.
Homeschooling (also called home education or home based learning) is the education of children at home, typically by parents or by tutors, rather than in other formal settings of public or private school. It is increasingly popular in the United Kingdom and the United States, where experts estimate between 1.5 and 2.5 million children are being homeschooled. Parents cite numerous reasons as motivations to homeschool their children. The three reasons that are selected by the majority of homeschooling parents in the United States are the school environment, to provide religious or moral instruction, and dissatisfaction with academic instruction at public and private schools. Expatriate parents who choose homeschooling might do so because the international schools may exceed their budget, have long waiting lists, lack religious convictions in line with their own faith, or don’t offer education for their child with special needs.
For Heather Gustafson and her husband John Tinsley, parents of twins Divon and Zephan, 11, and daughter Dazjah, 9, time was one of the main factors—just like it was for Brooke. “Our kids act and model and we already felt they were missing too much school before we moved to KL. We did have a look at the different international schools when we arrived, but there was so much paperwork, there was a bit of a hurry and we didn’t want to make a rushed choice, pay a lot of money and regret it later. So I told John: you know what? I’ll homeschool the kids, at least for the rest of this school year. That way, they won’t miss anything and we will have more time to make a better choice. The teachers from their old school in Nebraska gave them all their books, and I found some great resources online, so after a few weeks to get over the jetlag and learning the way around KL, we started. Now we can adapt our school schedule to the modelling jobs!”
That flexibility might well be the biggest asset of homeschooling for expatriates. Brooke explains, “Because we don’t know how long we are going to stay, we want to see as much of Asia as possible. This way, we can take vacations whenever we want. And if we go to museums—or any other place—it’s always completely empty.” But the flexibility can also be useful on a more personal level. One of Heather’s sons suffers from allergy and has to take medication that makes him very drowsy. “So he gets up really early in the morning, does a lot of his schoolwork and then takes his medicine and goes to sleep. It works best for him that way, but it wouldn’t be possible in a normal school.”
Is it difficult to morph from being a mum to being a teacher? It differs from person to person. Brooke admits to still being in the process of sorting it out. “I might have underrated it a bit. I thought: how hard can it be? But I’m not a teacher. And classroom management is quite hard, especially with three kids in this wide range of ages as ours. The big benefit is that I feel I now really understand the intellectual capacity of our kids, that I can help them chase their interests. But there’s no line between me as a mum and me as a teacher.”
The Tinsley children benefit from homeschooling
For Heather it comes easier. “I was good in school and college, I’m a confident person and I’m good in ‘selling’ my ideas—also to my children. I love teaching them what I know and exploring with them the things I don’t know yet. Plus: it’s just what I have to do. I won’t shy away from that.” But she does agree that having your children’s education completely in your own hands is a big responsibility. “As a parent you are always wondering whether you’re doing it right, but as a homeschooling parent that is even worse. You have no school, no teacher to rely on, who you can trust to be right. You have to be the one deciding whether this Math curriculum is going to be the right one for your child, or that English program. There’s always that voice in the back of your head, saying: ‘It will be your fault if they can’t get into college later’. That is quite hard. So that is the reason why we will join an online homeschooling program next school year: somebody else with more experience is going to set the curriculum. I need that.”
Both Heather and Brooke agree that the biggest downside or challenge is the social aspect. While the daily structure of schoolwork might help make the transition from old to new country easier at the beginning, children might start to feel a little bit isolated after a while. Or, as Heather’s son Zephan put it, “I see my brother all the time. I don’t really need to see him even more.” Kids (and mums) make friends at school. At home, they lack the dynamics of the classroom and playground.
“They are learning on their own and from me,” says Brooke. “But of course in a normal school they would also learn from other children: they would have to go to the process of finding a peer group, making and keeping friends… We are still busy trying to find another way to meet other children.” Heather considers herself lucky with her ‘social butterfly’ of a husband: “He takes care of the social stuff. They do sports, they do meet friends—not at school, but at modelling, at the rugby pitch… everywhere.” Other ways to meet new people would be to check online homeschooling resources and forums to see if there are any other expatriates or local parents who are homeschooling in this area, so you could arrange social and ‘school’ trips.
Since homeschooling does mean a major time commitment for the parent who’s teaching, it might not be the easiest way to familiarise yourself with a new city. “I find that I’m always exploring together with the kids,” says Brooke. “That is lovely, but sometimes it would just be easier if I could concentrate on the exploring and not so much on what the children are doing. There isn’t much time for me.” Heather, on the other hand, sees it differently. “Before, I would be working 12, 13 hours a day. I would be in Parent Teacher Conferences, but I would always be very task oriented: what do we need to talk about? I didn’t have time for small talk. Now I have the time to sit down and talk to people. I really enjoy that.”
In the long term, both mothers see their children return to school. “Homeschooling started as a short term solution for us,” says Brooke. “If we decide to stay, we’ll have to take a closer look at the international schools. The fees are very high though, and we don’t have a company to pay it for us, so we will have to see. I would prefer sending them to school, for the social aspect of it, but I am convinced that this period of homeschooling is good for them. We’ll just order a set curriculum if we keep on doing it.”
Heather will keep homeschooling for a couple more years. “I’ll get additional support for the years to come, but other than that it’s still the perfect solution for us. We have talked about transitioning them back to school, but that will be in three, four years: late middle school. My son wants to go into engineering, and that is really not a field where I can help him. He needs a good solid base to help him on that way.”
The Khan Academy
Non-profit organisation with free videos, challenges and assessments on every subject you can think of. Parents can keep a close eye on the progress of their child by setting up their own classroom, and it tracks what the children do and accomplish, what objectives are being worked on and how long each student spent working each time they logged on.
Web shop for education materials and online classes, everything downloadable. All workbooks are in PDF format.
Not so much a website for homeschooling per se, but an all-round educational site where parents can find all kinds of information, workbooks and worksheets (organised by grade and subject matter), an online community and now even app reviews that help you find the best educational apps.