An Act of Love

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For some, it may seem hypocritical for David Guterson, a public school teacher, to keep his own children out of school and teach them at home—a decision not unlike President Clinton's to send his daughter to a private school even though he opposes parental choice programs that include private schools. But both the Gutersons (the family featured in this month's cover story) and the Clintons did what parents are supposed to do: act in the best interest of their children, as they perceive it.

In his book Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, Guterson recalls how the momentous and life-altering decision was made:

“I wish I could write that my wife and I had excellent reasons for deciding to homeschool,” Guterson writes. “We didn't, however. It was not a matter of compelling logic (although sound reasons have kept us at it since then). It was in the gut, and the gut, we knew, could be wrong. In May of that year—six years ago now—we contemplated books on education; in June we talked, July we wrung hands, August felt deep and hot and still, September came, and then one morning the big yellow school bus arrived, waited for a moment with its doors swung open, and our child did not get on it.”

The substantial majority of parents who homeschool make the decision very consciously and deliberately for religious reasons; they seek to shelter their children from the secular and relativistic influences of government schools. But the Gutersons simply knew, instinctively, that they were “uniquely well-positioned to nurture learning in the lives of [their] children.” The Gutersons believe that “true education always begins with the child and with an understanding of her individual needs.” Who knows a child better than her parents? Who cares more about her welfare?

Most public school teachers undoubtedly share the Gutersons' belief. But there are powerful circumstances that prevent them from acting on it. David Guterson understands that. He moves constantly between the world of homeschooling and the world of the public school, where his teacher colleagues are charged with transmitting an inert body of knowledge on a rigid timetable to 125-150 students daily.

How, in such a situation, can those teachers know their students well enough to know what they need, how they learn best, what they aspire to? How can teachers and students forge the kind of personal relationship that is so conducive—perhaps even essential—to learning?

When it comes to deciding what and how to teach their children, the Gutersons' first considerations are their children's needs, their learning styles, and their interests.

Ellen Silverman believes those concerns should also be the paramount priorities of public school teachers. An elementary school teacher in Yaphank, N.Y., Silverman has fought an ongoing, sometimes losing, battle with her principal to turn her classroom into a student-centered learning environment that would embody many of the principles to which the Gutersons subscribe. Seeking validation for her educational ideals, she journeyed more than 9,000 miles to New Zealand last summer to see how they've been implemented in a national system.

New Zealand, with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, incorporates in its schools many of the ideas that American school reformers advocate: national standards, cooperative learning, whole language, teacher empowerment and site-based management, and student-centered classrooms.

Silverman's description of what she saw during her two-week trip could also describe what goes on in the Gutersons' home half a world away: “The children are just not given an opportunity to lose their self-respect. They don't get lost in a sea of children. It happens from being able to express themselves; it happens from writing every day and knowing that what they write means something.

“In New Zealand,” she continues, “the educators, the professors, and the Ministry of Education know about and care about how children learn. They actually think about that when they decide what is good for the children.”

David Guterson puts it another way: “Teaching is an act of love before it is anything else.” And that is just as true in a public school as it is in a private home.

Vol. 04, Issue 05, Page 4

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