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How we became an unschooling family

Post · May 7, 2019 ·

It’s 2003, and while a 26 year old Angelina Jolie is busy divorcing Billy Bob Thornton there’s a new romance taking their place on the other side of the world. 

At least it was until the lecturer of the Education paper they’re taking snaps them back to reality – “Hey, you two! If you have something to say, perhaps you could share it with the rest of the class?”

They politely decline, but boy had met girl, girl had met boy, and from that moment on they were inseparable.

Over the next 16 years the two would finish their degrees (ok, only one of them did that), work in retail jobs, get married, start and grow a business, start and grow a family, sell a business, buy a home, learn one of them has a chronic, permanent illness, lose a job, lose a home, send their kids to kindergarten and three different schools, teach in a school, move countries, help grow a software startup from very small to very big, buy a camera, start a blog, and finally settle into unschooling after a failed homeschooling attempt.

(among other things)

This is the story of the very, very squiggly line these two love birds took towards bucking societal trends and removing their children from mainstream education forever.

Class dismissed

In an ironic twist this whole story starts in a classroom. I’ll never forget the day I first saw Kate walk into that busy lecture theatre at Otago University – time morphed, and it was exactly like one of those slow motion rom com movie moments (sans Ryan Gosling). Our eyes actually caught that day, and over the next few lectures we awkwardly chose seats closer and closer to each other. I think it was Kate who made the final, bold move of picking an empty seat right next to mine, and once we started talking we just…never stopped. 

Kate was a focused, diligent student majoring in music after an achievement-studded journey through high school. I was distracted and flakey, changing my focus every year but never fully committing to any one thing, having brought the lack of application I showed during my just-scraping-through school years with me to Uni. We wrapped up our University careers at about the same time – Kate because she was graduating (from both University and Teacher’s College), me because we had a wedding to pay for and my studies were going nowhere anyway.

Kate jumped into the perfect first teaching role in a small rural school down the road from where we lived, and I found a job selling and delivering beds for a local store. Not the lawyer I’d set out to become in my first year of University study, or the computer scientist in my second, or the psychologist in my third, or the web designer or maybe even philosopher in my fourth…but it started paying for our wedding (or should I say, it started paying off the money we’d borrowed for our wedding), and – as the old saying goes – helped me cut my teeth selling things worth a fair bit of money. That, later, would become quite useful.

It was around this time that I had a little health scare. Something that had the potential to be pretty serious but, I was relieved to discover after a couple of visits to my doctor, wasn’t. I vividly remember telling Kate the good news and sleeping like a log without worry for the first time in weeks. 

It would be another few years before I found out that doctor’s diagnosis was very, very wrong.

It was also around this time that Kate was becoming disillusioned with the structure and rigidity of the education system she was trying to inspire our future generations from within. That diagnosis would only grow in conviction. 

A baby and a business

In mid-2007 Kate closed the door on her classroom for the last time. Our first son, Joseph, was due in August and her blood pressure was getting high. We were told she’d be induced which meant everything was happening a few weeks earlier than expected, but that didn’t matter – we’d read all the parenting books and we were totally ready.

We were also completely deluded. 

New parenthood is one of the most intense, overwhelming, terrifying, exhausting, rewarding, work-it-out-as-you-go things a human being can go through. So through time in the hospital stabilising Kate’s blood pressure, finally getting to go home, then going back to the hospital for another stint of blood pressure management, we set about working it all out. 

Very early on we made a decision together – that having at least one of us at home with our children for as long as we could possibly make it work was going to be a top priority. 

With Kate’s teaching salary gone I scrambled to find a role that would give me more earning potential, and moved from selling beds for a retail store to selling websites for a web development company. An amazing business with an amazing team, the dream ended quickly when it was acquired by a business that wasn’t so amazing. The new owners stripped out the management team, put in their own, and in a pretty short time asked those of us left to relocate to another city to keep our jobs. I was at a crossroad and saw an opportunity to create something – I sat down with a couple of the other guys still there and, over a McDonalds lunch, we made a plan to start our own website building business.

With no money in our pockets but a signed web development contract with a local media production company in our hands (thank you, bed selling years), we got to work in a spare bedroom of our home. And, just to make sure Kate and I felt like our plates were nice and full, we had our second child William – born at home in a beautiful, empowering experience that couldn’t have been more different to his older brother’s birth and early months. No blood pressure issues this time around.

In retrospect, starting and running a small business when you’re relying on it to provide a weekly pay check from day one to feed your growing family was probably completely crazy, but we grafted hard and made it work for close to three years. We lived on rice and beans, cut our own hair, never went on holiday, spent hardly anything on birthdays and Christmases, and lived in second hand clothing. But Kate was able to be a full-time mum to our children, and I was working on something I enjoyed with people I respected. 

We had hardly any money, but we were in control.

Through all this we were starting to learn that life is actually just a series of these crossroads – some trivial some significant, some obvious some subtle – that offer chances to take less travelled paths. We were also finding that those paths are never as easy to navigate, but that they usually take you somewhere pretty interesting. 

Thanks, doc

We arrived at one of those interesting places in early 2012 when the path we’d been slashing and hacking our way along opened out into a beautiful clearing. There, two life-changing things happened almost at once.

The first, an acquisition of my team and I by a Silicon Valley company run by two of the original founders of Youtube. The second, a recurrence of that earlier health bump that flared aggressively and rapidly into something a specialist would soon diagnose as severe ulcerative colitis (a bit like Crohn’s, if you’ve heard of that).

A financially life-changing moment had arrived hand in hand with a debilitating, incurable disease. After years of giving up almost everything material, right down to the quality and volume of food in our cupboards, I tried to ignore the latter and focused on the former. Maybe I should have stopped and respected my health first, but I decided to chase the dream…and with treatment medication on board, I chased it hard. 

The months that followed are an absolute blur – I dined in a Youtube founder’s penthouse apartment high above San Francisco, and promptly threw it up again through a haze of immunosuppressants and steroids back at my hotel. I spent hours and hours in meeting rooms talking, planning, scheming and presenting with nausea and crippling abdominal pain as constant companions. I was losing kilograms of weight a week in a country 12,000km from home. Looking back, I probably should have hospitalised myself.

Back in New Zealand Kate was hunting for a new home. We weren’t going to waste this opportunity – the money from the acquisition had helped us line up a mortgage with our bank, and with the final weeks in our rental ticking down she found us a lovely brick home in a nice suburb. We owned our own little slice of the world, a massive life goal in the bag. 

But life very rarely trundles along in the way you expect it to. That’s true for most, but especially so when you’ve chosen to head down a series of untrodden paths. Less than 6 months into owning that piece of New Zealand I was made redundant from the company that had acquired us and literally collapsed under the strain of my disease.

Two young kids. Six weeks until Christmas. Two weeks until the next mortgage payment. Meagre savings. Disease ravaged body. No job between us. We were screwed.

We weren’t at rock bottom just yet, though. That would come when my specialist hauled me in for a talk with a surgeon. I sat holding Kate’s hand, everything a blur while they talked about the situation. The treatment drugs were damaging my organs, stripping my bone density, taking me towards acute pancreatitis…they didn’t want to put me back on them.

“You’re young, you need to think long term.”

The surgeon told me the plan would be to fully remove my large intestine and reroute my small intestine through a hole in the side of my stomach. Multiple major operations extending over a few months. Completely and utterly life changing.

But…we had bills to pay. Children to feed. A dream of having one of us home with them as much as possible. Kate had picked up some casual work to contribute to the bank balance, but we’d need much, much more to cover the costs of a family of four with a mortgage. I gritted my teeth and managed another few months in a marketing job before I finally, finally threw in the towel. The one I should have thrown in some time ago. I was a physical wreck. After pushing last time around, Kate was this time insistent she pick up the earning mantle. I didn’t argue. I said we needed to sell our home before we were forced to. She didn’t argue.

We cleared out our house, moved back with my parents, and at the age of 30 accepted we were pretty much professionally and financially back at square one.

To school, or not to school?

At that stage our two boys had been in a Montessori kindergarten for a few hours on a few days each week (which is pretty much fully funded for kids aged between 3 and 5 in New Zealand). It was a lovely environment where they played, read, created, and gardened. We’d been talking of the idea of homeschooling by school age since Kate’s eventually-suffocating experiences in her teaching days, and probably even earlier than that, but she was now working again to support the family and I was just too sick to take it on. 

We enrolled Joseph in the first of three schools he would eventually attend, and I became a stay at home dad. The Montessori drop-offs for William were easy, the school drop-offs for Joseph a nightmare. Tears in the car. Tears when we arrived. Tears when I left. Tears again when I returned. He’s an academically minded kid so had no problems at all adhering to the ways of a classroom and the type of work that was expected, but he was emotionally drained every day. He hated the long separation from us, the big scary fields, playgrounds and corridors, the older kids teasing him about his height…he was just miserable.

Meanwhile, I was building back my strength through rest, gentle exercise, some diet fine tuning, rest, and more rest. Being back at square one sucked, but it was also a bit liberating – there was no work stress, money stress, overflowing inboxes, people dynamics, deadlines…

The stripped back life version we suddenly found ourselves living – along with, presumably, a bit of luck – was helping me push my disease into remission. I had dodged the surgery bullet (for now).

With my health returning through the middle of 2013 I started opening my eyes again to work opportunities. I got talking to a guy I’d met in the local tech scene who was building something cool with a couple of other people, and I was excited about their vision. They planned to grow as a remote company rather than an office-centric one, and clearly respected and valued family life and balance. I wanted to be involved, they wanted me to be involved, and so I was back at work – but this time it was from my kitchen table.

With life settling into a routine over the next 6 months or so – Kate working at a medical clinic, me from home with the flexibility to run the kindy/school drop-off and pick-up rounds – we decided to get back to growing our family. Kate worked well into 2014 before winding down and preparing for our second home birth – one that was as uncomplicated as William’s but significantly longer and more difficult. Florence would begin life as she intended to go on – in her own time, on her own terms.

2014 was coming to a close, and after a year and a half in the school system Joseph was still miserable. With my health and work role stable (plus the fact it was remote, so I was in and around the home most of the week) it was finally time to kick off the education approach we’d always planned. Out went a New Zealand homeschooling application to exempt him from attending school in 2015, and in came an approval call shortly after. 

The relief Joseph expressed that day, the weight he clearly felt had been shifted from his 7 year old shoulders, spoke volumes.

Queue the happily-ever-after music? Not quite. The year that followed was one of the hardest of our lives, and we’d had some challenging phases by then. Florence was an intense baby, William was morphing from the most snuggly, gentle toddler into a rambunctious ball of energy, and we spent much of the year carrying guilt around not ‘teaching’ Joseph. We’d committed to homeschooling him through a curriculum we’d designed and had signed off by the education authorities here and we just weren’t executing on it. By the end of the year we were exhausted and felt we’d let him down. With William also now coming up to school age we reluctantly enrolled them both in school (a much smaller one than last time, though) for the 2016 year. We just didn’t believe we could deliver the education they needed.

It’s ironic, really – we made that decision for them thinking we were doing them a disservice, but we’d later realise our less instructional approach from the year before was exactly what they needed.  Continued to need. We just didn’t understand the concept of unschooling enough at the time to realise we’d actually started doing it, and that it was just our measure of success that was wrong.

The 2016 school year was…ok. The smaller school size helped Joseph’s anxiety settle, and William is super social so had no problems making a bunch of friends and having some fun. But the tone of our parent-teacher catchups became more and more tense and urgent as the year went on, and by Term 4 we were being told William had serious focus issues and had a long way to go to catch up on his math ability, writing neatness and reading comprehension.  

Meanwhile, the business I had joined from the kitchen table back in 2013 was going well. In those first few years we’d gone from a team of 5 to 35 and had started turning our growth eyes toward our big brother across the Tasman: Australia. Another cross-road, another well trodden path to the left and rambling overgrowth to the right.

Naturally, we turned right.

New country, new school

In early 2017 Kate and I packed up three suitcases, two backpacks and a baby stroller, hugged our family, said our teary goodbyes, and boarded a plane to move our life to Melbourne – a city we’d never even visited, a country we’d spent a grand total of 9 days in on our honeymoon 12 years earlier.

Our first step after arriving was finding somewhere to live. But with the guilt we built up through our first homeschooling experience still feeling fresh, the next cab off the rank was finding a good school. We moved into a lovely suburb close to the city (nothing like sacrificing space for location – hello tiny, basic rental apartment) with a well-regarded and well-funded public school close by. 

On that first day of school Joseph and William put on their matching blue and gold uniforms (second hand), matching blue and gold backpacks (second hand), and ate their breakfast on the lounge floor. We’d underestimated the cost of securing a rental in Australia, and the small budget we’d set aside for IKEA furniture had been mostly drained before we even turned the key to our new place. We bought some mattresses (for the floor – bed frames were pushed to the nice-to-have list), some bed covers, a small table, and some kitchen basics. 

I walked the boys to school, hugged them at the gate, and with tears in my eyes headed toward the co-working space I was basing myself in. Both Kate and I felt a gut-wrenching sadness about our failure to homeschool successfully despite believing so strongly that it was best for our kids, but it hadn’t worked. Plain and simple. We had to let the dream go. And besides, we were going without – materially – in a pretty extreme sense. A family of five is hard to fund on one income, especially after ending up back at square one so recently in life. Not only did we not even have a sofa to sit on in our apartment, we didn’t have a safety net of any kind. Kate had to add an income to the mix.

Then, when she was on the cusp of accepting a part-time role in a medical centre near our apartment, life did it again – our next crossroad appeared.

School’s out for good

“Your son is immature”, William’s teacher said to us across the classroom desk. “He doesn’t listen, he can’t keep up, he can’t focus, and he needs the toilet far too often.”

We were at our first parent-teacher interview at our new Australian school, perched on those tiny little classroom chairs designed for kids. There are many, many wonderful teachers out there doing amazing things despite the constraints of the education system, but William’s teacher that year was not one of them (for him, at least). She was a nice enough person, but her approach toward children couldn’t have been more jarring for someone like him. She used tactics like restricting his monkey bar time in the playground – the thing he loved most, and that helped him get all his physicality out after long periods of being still – when she decided he wasn’t listening enough in class. She delayed his playtime if he needed the toilet – trips he tells us now were used to just get some space, to breathe –  too often. 

Carrots and sticks. Rewards and punishments. Continual, relentless consequences for being who you are (if who you are doesn’t fit the required mould), or for finding ways to manage your mental health in an environment you’re uncomfortable in (if such ways disrupt the continual pursuit of progress).

We left that talk feeling scolded and with what felt like an order to pull our son in line. Our gut was telling us we were on a slippery slope, and we started talking about the option of homeschooling again late into the night every day, but our confidence had been knocked so badly the first time around we just couldn’t take the leap. Besides, money

We tried to fix William’s school issues. To fix him. We reluctantly took his teacher’s feedback on board. We clamped down on anything too physical inside our home. We relentlessly shushed his noise. We pushed him to practice his writing, his school reading books, to complete his homework each night. We tried to create an environment of quiet obedience.

Our home adopted the paradigm of a classroom, us the teachers. No learning was happening, though – just a whole lot of attempted behaviour shaping, arguments, frustration, timeouts, tears (from us as much as him)…it was exhausting

And through it, we watched him disintegrate.

He came home one day, burst into tears on his bedroom floor, and shouted over and over that he “hated himself at school”.

After the shock of hearing those words from our 7-year-old child had subsided, they started to sink in.

Hated himself…at school. He knew what was required of him in that environment, knew he was failing to live up to the standards, knew he couldn’t be himself. And because we were trying to set those same standards at home as well, with more and more desperation, he had no release. Our precious 7-year-old boy had that tension between who he was and who others were asking him to be sitting squarely on his shoulders, and it was crushing him.

He clearly saw and understood what his teachers, principal and – for shame – his parents hadn’t:

To make it through school successfully he’d have to become someone he wasn’t. He’d need to chop off some edges so he’d fit in the mould.

He would never be comfortable in a quiet, obedience-oriented, mostly sedentary environment for six and a half hours a day, five days a week, for 13 years. He was screaming inside and had no idea how to express it all.

We took the foot off the pedal at home. We made noise with him. We hung out at the park where he’d run, cartwheel, forward roll, play fight with sticks and dance. We let him dismantle stuff (turns out, he can put things back together again). We dropped homework. If he was fully engaged in something and we noticed he’d left his towel lying on the floor, we – gasp – just let him carry on. 

We reflected more. Our first attempt at homeschooling had been a failure, but only when measured against the academic progress benchmarks we were holding ourselves and our children to. When measured against what we truly feel are important – things like happiness, meaning, purpose, connection, and exploring our passions – we were actually heading down the right path all along.

We discussed the option of homeschooling again with William and Joseph. There was a chorus of excitement and relief, but it was William’s face that really told the story when the spark we knew so well but hadn’t seen for so long flashed in his eyes.

After having delayed her job decision for a couple of weeks Kate officially pulled her hat from the ring. Our children’s lives were more important than material things, and we’d continue backing my role – one that had been ramping up in responsibility over time – to support our choice. We would rather go without material things than have our children go without the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.

Besides, it was kinda fun using an apartment as a tent.

A story to tell

So here we are – May 2019, and the inner city apartment near the well-regarded school has been replaced with a beachside home well away from the hustle and bustle. We’re halfway through our second year of unschooling with no curriculum, academic achievement standards or progress measures to speak of, and all three children are flourishing. My professional role – where the 35 people have turned into 80 while keeping that same significant remote aspect and family-first culture – has progressively done the same. After fighting for years to make sure it happens on our own terms, in balance with our family life, we’re finally moving towards feeling financially comfortable on one income.

Our fourth child, a baby girl, is due in September.  Life is full but unrushed. Adventurous but calm. Stacked with purpose and meaning. Flexible. Lovely.

We’ve come to crossroad after crossroad in the past 16 years, but I can’t help feeling we’ve ended up exactly where we were always meant to. It was that jagged journey we needed to go through to learn from, because it’s the feelings and emotions from those experiences that we’ve been able to start putting into words for others. To inspire and motivate, encourage and support…we both feel a deep sense of that being a part of our life mission now.

In the year 2040 our kids will be hitting their 30s. What will the world look like then? What challenges will we be facing as humans? What will we need people to stand up and fight for?

Big questions to answer, but I’m confident saying one thing – free thinking, expressive, passionate, energetic boundary-pushers will have a huge role to play in tackling those future challenges, and I intend to foster those qualities for as many days and years as they’ll let me.

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