The Best Teachers Are Tough on Us

teacherI came across a great article today from the Harvard Business Review. I had a good writing teacher a few years ago when I went back for a refresher class. We had a project that I just didn’t get, wasn’t inclined to get and felt would end in abject failure anyway. I was ready to quit the class, thinking I was in over my head, when the gruff woman teacher looked at me and said, “What, the first thing that’s hard for you, you quit?” I sheepishly went back to my labors and eventually passed the project and class having learned something new. Yes, our best teachers are tough and honest and they expect the best of us.

What does it take to achieve excellence? I’ve spent much of my career chronicling top executives as a business journalist. But I’ve spent much of the last year on a very different pursuit, coauthoring a book about education, focusing on a tough but ultimately revered public-school music teacher.

And here’s what I learned: When it comes to creating a culture of excellence, the CEO has an awful lot to learn from the schoolteacher.

The teacher at the heart of the book Strings Attached is on the face of it an unlikely corporate role model. My childhood music teacher Jerry Kupchynsky, who we called “Mr. K,” was strictly old school: A ferocious Ukrainian immigrant and World War II refugee, he was a tyrannical school orchestra conductor in suburban New Jersey. He would yell and stomp and scream when we screwed up, bellowing “Who eez DEAF in first violins?” His highest praise was “not bad.” He rehearsed us until our fingers were raw.

Yet ultimately he became beloved by students, many of whom went on to outsize professional success in fields from business to academics to law, and who decades later would gather to thank him.

Read the entire article here.

Home Education: 7 Blind Spots to Consider

homeschoolAs a former homeschool mom, I am glad that the movement has matured sufficiently to be able to self-assess. For many years, any comment of concern or analysis of both pros and cons, challenges and problems with home education were frowned upon. Pioneers who fought for the right to choose to home educate worked long and hard to win the legislative victories that now make it legal in all 50 states. We owe these pioneers a great debt for their sacrifice and commitment. But because home education was so hard won, public discussion of inherent problems in the movement were discouraged for many years.

As the first generation of homeschoolers has grown up and had children of their own, there is a refreshing candor these days about both the blessings and pitfalls of educating in a home setting. The Christian homeschool movement has much to commend it, and the freedom to choose to educate as we see fit is a great blessing. But there are pitfalls specifically within the Christian movement. One homeschool father, Reb Bradley, has written a detailed article about seven specific blind spots, as he calls them, that Christian parents need to know about. The article is not new, but having re-read it recently, I found it helpful as Tom and I consider education options for our youngest daughter. I have seen and personally experienced many of these “blind spots.” His article is right on target, and hopefully, it will be a help to those who are homeschooling or planning on homeschooling in the future. Here is the article.

P.S. I was not an “ideological” homeschooler, meaning, I did not home educate with the belief that it was the only Christian way to raise children. With multiple children and with the high cost of private education, school at home was sometimes the most affordable, common sense option for our children. Some Christians hold to the view that home education is the only correct, biblical way for children to get an education. Many of the blind spots listed in the article are most often a problem among those who believe that homeschooling will somehow help them achieve what home education advocate Michael Pearl claims in the following:

 “In the final analysis, it is not the community or the church that produces great children and tremendous young adults; it is home life rooted in sincere, relaxed love of God and family that bears eternal fruit. Genuine, laughing love immersed in creativity is a miracle cure-all that supercharges the soul and grows up children that are too healthy to come down with soul diseases.”

Michael Pearl means well, but he is wrong. There is no “cure-all” in a family, no matter how loving and Christian it is, that will “supercharge” a child against “soul diseases.” As the article I linked to points out, homeschool  parents who had visions of all their children becoming vibrant, committed Christians as a result of their exhaustive labors are sometimes devastated to learn that their children have chosen a very different path, one that doesn’t comport with what they were told by homeschool leaders like Pearl. The heart problem of rebellion comes from within, not from outside (Jeremiah 17:9), and no amount of tweaking an environment is going to guarantee a certain outcome. We are called to be faithful as parents to love and teach our children biblical truth. To put more than this on the backs of parents is a false burden of guilt. We are all responsible for what we do with what we are given.

Thursday Notes

An interesting piece at CNN today, written by a teacher, describes the difficulty teachers have in working together with parents in the best interest of students. The undisciplined, rights-over-responsibility mindset that dominates in our culture has caused a catastrophic breakdown in many schools. The teacher describes how parents are increasingly turning up with lawyers for meetings with principals and teachers regarding students’ behavior.

You can’t do anything in schools where this kind of mindset rules among parents. It’s little wonder that the average teaching career spans a little more than four years. Burnout is high when teachers have to walk on eggshells, are not allowed to maintain discipline, and where parents enter a school year with their elbows out.

Obviously, multiple factors play into the overall downfall of American education. When some teachers make headlines weekly in this country for sexual involvement with their students (one news site has a running list just of the female sexual predator/teachers who have been criminally charged. It is mind-blowing) it is plain that the breakdown of family and morals has consequences at all levels of society, and education is no exception. When parents refuse to grow up and take responsibility, and when children are taught zero respect for authority, it cannot end well.


Into an otherwise mundane work day, Tom and an organist colleague brought some musical beauty yesterday. I acquired a babysitter and left everything for a noon hour concert at the Cathedral in downtown Milwaukee. Lake Michigan was at its most beautiful, and the music was heart-lifting.  Tom played the regal Prelude to the Te Deum by Charpentier.

And the lyrical side to the trumpet and organ was heard in the lovely Bist Du Bei Mir (If You Are With Me.) – J.S. Bach. Thanks, men, for such a wonderful lunch hour.


Very abruptly, the days are getting shorter. It’s 6:50pm and it’s dusk. It was down to 43 degrees two nights ago. Time for the warm pajamas, at least this week. Next week, we may need summer ones, as this time of year you just never know.

I pulled my acorn people out of the hutch yesterday. Every year they sit on the piano. They’re my Dollar Store tribute to fall, along with my scarecrow Welcome sign for the front door. I also put my autumn colored runner on the dining room table with a candle that smells like pumpkin pie. Not to rush things, but I do love this time of year. Soon I can write entirely  new posts filled with rhapsodic prose on the glories of autumn. “October is my favorite month of them all. Flaming trees, alive with color, the spicy scent of leaves as they crunch under your feet…”

School has started again. Will is a sophomore with plenty of challenging classes to keep him busy. He has also been asked to play the organ to accompany his dad for two separate events, so that is exciting news.

Emmy has school, too. She gets books off my shelves, kicks back on the sofa and “reads.” She’s had Dante’s Paradiso out, wrong way up, of course, and seems drawn to my Russian history section of books, Lenin’s essays in particular. I’ll have to balance her out with Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot when she’s through with the Russian revolutionaries. In between her literary efforts, Emmy can be found with her chunky crayons at her pink Dora the Explorer table she received as a gift for her birthday. She has also learned her first color. You guessed it, it’s pink!

Back to School, Kids!

Will’s school starts shortly, so I had him try on his uniform pants from last year. It’s no surprise that none of them fit. 15-year-old boys have a way of shooting up several inches while they sleep.

It won’t be long before the neighborhood children will be seen walking up the hill to school, their new backpacks on display. There is something about those first warm days of school when summer is just transitioning into autumn that I have always loved.

I have written before about my love for school as a child, more in elementary than in high school (but that’s another post.) My elementary school years were happy ones educationally.

A triumphant return from my first day of kindergarten, 1971.

We walked the two short blocks after our family moved a few weeks after school started. The Lutheran day school and Neeskara Elementary kids walked on one side of Washington Boulevard, and the St. Sebastian’s Catholic school kids in their uniforms on the other side. Occasionally, a little inter-school rivalry would take the form of shouts across the boulevard, but it was always pretty good-natured.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my first day of kindergarten and the joys of Miss Weber’s class. First grade, however, was a bit of a shock. Having come from a largely non-academic, half-day kindergarten, first grade was very serious business. The teacher was not a grandmotherly teacher like Miss Weber. She was tough and got us right to work. Rather than tables and chairs and a big play area in the classroom, the desks were all lined up in straight rows in first grade. It was time for serious work.

They did not push reading in kindergarten back then. I was more than ready and had learned my letters even before kindergarten, but it was in first grade that phonics were taught. I remember the magic of finally being able to de-code letters in a book. It was thrilling to know that I didn’t need anyone else to help me with reading anymore. The world of books was all mine.

The highlight of the year was the spring concert where the girls in each class dressed up like a specific kind of flower. I only remember that my flower costume was a sort of periwinkle color and that we were instructed to leap around the stage while the piano played. Hardly any first-grade girl wouldn’t love being a dancing flower, and I was a very enthusiastic one.

I feel sad to think of children for whom school is not a joy, but an endless source of misery. It doesn’t take much money to prepare school-ready children. It does take a commitment on the part of at least one parent to read and converse thoughtfully with a child, to train a child behaviorally and of course, to provide a stable and loving emotional environment. Without these key elements, children are hindered from learning properly, and are potentially negatively impacted for the rest of their lives. It all starts with the family.

The bins of school supplies are all out again at the stores. I bought Emmy some big chunky crayons today. She likes to scribble with pencils, so I thought she’d like to make some colorful swirlies. Before we know it, she’ll be ready to sit down with me on the sofa with the old phonics handbook that has served our children well. I took 15 minutes a day to drill the sounds, and within a short time, they read beautifully. I’m looking forward to the day when the world of books is Emily’s for life!

For some American children, back to school means back to home-school. The world of American education isn’t what it was. Schools, both private and public, are often a microcosm of the moral anarchy of our culture today. Case in point: I saw pink girls’ notebooks today at Wal-Mart that read, “Eye-Candy” and “Love Muffin.” Seriously. Parents have to weigh carefully what is best for their particular child. Thanks to technology, home educators have an endless array of quality options to choose from.

Even when we home-schooled, it was a delightful day when we all sat down to get started, pencils sharpened, text books and notebooks crisp and new. Each school year is a new beginning with many joys and many challenges ahead. Another one is just about to begin…

Home Education: A Viable Option

christmaseve-004This is the time of year when parents begin to think about the next school year for their children. For those who are displeased with their child’s educational setting, it’s usually the time when options for the following year are analyzed and plans begin to take shape.

Home education continues to be an option available to parents in America, and for that, we should be deeply thankful. In some European countries, like Germany, you can go to jail for attempting to keep your children out of official, government sanctioned schools. It is a precious privilege and hard-won freedom that we parents enjoy today to be able to school our children according to the dictates of our own consciences and our own beliefs. We are deeply grateful.

At various times in my children’s lives, we have had them in private Christian school, a public school, and in home school. Each year presented a new set of circumstances and set of needs and we have tried, year by year, to meet each child’s unique needs as they have arisen. I have home schooled using various means and methods as well. What works well for one student does not work well for another. It is a case of analyzing each child’s academic and spiritual needs and doing the best you can to address those as a mother.

I am not an ideological home schooler. By that I mean that I am not one of those who believes that God commands parents to teach children academics in a home setting and that any other choice is unbiblical. There are groups that teach that. Tom and I believe that we are allowed to delegate academic teaching to others, just as Jewish parents delegated the teaching of Hebrew to the synagogue for their young sons in Jesus’ day. Parents bear the ultimate responsibility for their choices, however, and we need to bear that in mind.

Not all parents are experts in all subjects, not all parents are financially able to have one parent home full time, and some mothers are not physically, emotionally or educationally equipped to educate their children at home. I am for good home schooling and opposed to  disorganized, careless and poor home schooling, just as I am for good schools and opposed to bad ones. It is a decision that parents need to make together with much prayer.

Let me tell you why I am home educating our youngest, Will. Last Spring, Tom and I talked about putting Will in a Christian school for junior high in preparation for high school. While Will attended school for 1st, 2nd and 4th grades, we thought that having him in a school setting for these junior high years would perhaps be a help to him as high school looms. I made an appointment to visit the Christian school nearest us. It has a solid academic reputation, is not large, and uses a good Christian curriculum. They have a uniform dress code, which I think is wise these days, and an award winning history program.

We sat in the 6th grade classroom that day with the 23 or so other students who would be in Will’s class for the next two years. The male teacher, who seemed like a very sincere young man, asked each student to stand up and give a name, an interest they had, and a reason they liked the school. This was for Will and my benefit as visitors.

The first boy stood up. At first I thought he was mentally disabled. Rather than obey the teacher, he began making bizarre noises with his mouth. As the class tittered around him, I realized that the boy was fooling around. The laughs of the class got louder and louder. Eventually he spit out his name and some incomprehensible gibberish and then sat down to the howls of approval from the class. The teacher remained silent at the podium with something of a vague smile on his face. That slight encouragement led to the rest of the class behaving in a disrespectful and foolish manner. Only a handful of the students obeyed the teacher. It was an embarrassing spectacle that was never stopped by the man in charge of the class. I was unimpressed.

I came away that day thinking, how can we send William into an environment like that? He loves to learn. He’s becoming a World War II expert from all of his reading. He loves history and math and science. Furthermore, he enjoys talking with older people, respects authority and knows how to obey. What becomes of a serious student when you place him in a setting where behaving like a fool and disobeying a teacher is the cool thing to do? Those children, as silly as it was, were showing disrespect not only for their teachers, but for us as visitors, and for themselves. The peer pack madness was in full evidence that day.

The child who is an individual thinker, who can concentrate for long periods of time on subjects of interest, who respects authority and likes communicating with adults because of what he can learn is a rare breed today. Home education is able to produce this kind of character largely because a child is socialized across generational lines, is removed from the tyranny of peer dynamics and is given the freedom to explore what he is interested in for more than chopped up little time increments.

Tom and I believe that character is primary. A child may possess a lot of knowledge, but if he has never been taught to honor the Lord, be respectful and to think of others first, of what use is all that knowledge?

A neighbor man of ours thinks a lot of Will. Will thinks a lot of  “Mr. John.” I saw them outside last week talking at length. Our neighbor is a golf lover, and Will likes to learn things from him. Did you catch that? A 12-year-old has learned the value of listening and learning from his elders. What a concept. Sadly, this whole idea has been lost in the idolatry of youth culture that teaches children that their world is the only one that matters. Marketers have a vested interested in convincing the young of this point, and it is to the children’s detriment.

I could write much about the various options in a home education setting. Technology has created an exploding array of high quality choices for parents. Each family has to determine what works best for each child. When you are home educating multiple children at different grade levels, this can be an enormous challenge. William has an auditory learning style and has done best with a structured, distance learning program. He has master teachers who lecture on DVD through the Abeka program in Florida. He uses the Saxon math program. His teacher has a doctorate in math and through the use of a CD-rom, turns Will’s computer screen into a white board where the math lessons are taught each day. He is in Algebra 1/2 this year and is doing very well with it. 

This home educational setup, while more costly than if I taught each subject, only costs us about $1100 a year. For this price, he is getting top flight teachers and academics at a fraction of the cost of a Christian school. (Schools in our area run $5,000-$6,000 a year.) I serve as coach and test grader. Will files his work away each day and records his grades. He’s learning to manage his own education, and it has helped instill discipline in him. He found out that if he gets up at 6:15 each day, he can be done with school largely by noon and still have a good portion for the day for his music practice and his own interests. The flexibility it affords him has been a real blessing.

Each child is different. Each of mine is different. One child does best in a highly structured formal school setting. One of our children needed English as a Second Language classes and special help to catch up. Each need requires thought and attention. Will’s home education program would not have worked at all for some of his siblings. With the Lord’s help, each parent can find out what works best for their children. But I continue to be grateful for the opportunity and privilege of home education. In a world that is increasingly spinning out of control, and with much of Christianity taking cues from the popular culture, sometimes home education can provide the best opportunity for spiritual and academic development.

If you would like more information on the subject, has an info packet they can send you for free that will help you understand your own state’s legal requirements and introduce you to the multitudinous home education curriculum offerings available today. There are satellite services, CD-roms, DVD classes, correspondence courses, computer based schooling, and gorgeous educational materials of every description. Tomorrow (Thursday, April 23), I will be interviewing a lady on Crosstalk who will discuss the opportunities available in home education. If you have a chance, tune in live at 2pm Central or listen to the archived show any time, both at our website.)

Here’s a little WWII history on the Eastern Front with Will.  🙂

School Daze Return

It’s back to school today for our son, William, and a whole lot of other children in our state. Do you remember that first day of school feeling? I remember very clearly the first day of kindergarten, which was the most thrilling event imaginable. Every year, I never could sleep the night before that magical first day. Everything was laid out to wear, and the new school supplies were all packed away in our book bags, and our lunches were packed and waiting in the fridge.

It was of the utmost importance what one wore on the first day of school. A false step could ruin the whole year, I used to think. Back then, girls had to wear dresses at our Lutheran school, so much attention was paid to just the right dress and matching socks. Mom would also get new hair yarn for the end of my braids. Finally, my sister and brother and I would give our mother hugs and get out the door to walk the two blocks to school.

Walking into our new classrooms was about as exciting as things got. I was a neat freak and setting my new desk up was done with military precision. I once saw a teacher empty out a school desk by shaking it upside down because some messy kid finally pushed the limits. The sight of that humiliation always stayed with me, and I wasn’t about to have that happen to me. I relished the newness of the notebooks and folders, and the smell of the new crayons and markers. Then there were the new kids. It was always exciting to find out that some new students had arrived. I loved elementary school, every minute of it, and nothing beat that first day of school for excitement.

Not everybody goes off to school these days. Thanks to the proliferation of home education, some children don’t have to go far for school. Will started school this morning. I snapped a photo of my scholar in his school area. He is a distance student for Abeka Academy, and his teachers are on DVD on a laptop. His desk unit has everything he needs with his text books and test keys at the ready. He enjoys being in control of his education, so he gets up early and begins school before most kids are eating breakfast.

This method allows enormous flexibility both for Will and our family. If we want to take a week and travel somewhere, we can schedule it in.  He is also able to take music theory and performance classes at the conservatory one morning a week, work on his model ship building and do his piano practice, and still be able to get his work done.  He is especially looking forward to his first football practice tonight. A local home school league plays many of the middle schools in our area and he is raring to go.

Will, too, gets excited about first day of school, but I have to say it’s sure a different world than when I was a girl. Bricks and mortar schools no longer have the lock on an excellent education. Thanks to technology, I can bring a private school into our home, provide flexibility for our family and for a fraction of the cost of a traditional private education. It makes me grateful for the home education pioneers who fought for the right of parents to take control of their children’s education.

Will humored his mother and posed for a first-day-of-school photo for 7th grade.

Will humored his mother and posed for a first-day-of-school photo for 7th grade.

Will points to all the books he plans to read this year, including those blue Harvard Classics, ha!

Will points to all the books he plans to read this year, including those blue Harvard Classics, ha!

Mary's 1st Day of School at St. James Kindergarten 2001. She was so excited.

Mary's first day of Kindergarten at St. James. She was so excited! "Little" brother was seeing her off.