The Reluctant Unschooler: How To Shake Off “Teacher Mode”

Photography: Hadas Images | www.hadasimages.com

By Holly Jones

One time my 6-year-old son willed a golden eagle into existence. This was before he knew anything about Harry Potter, card tricks, or even the most basic magic. He just followed his heart. It always does the trick (as I had to learn).

I describe myself as a reluctant unschooler. We don’t follow any one curriculum, yet I start to get anxious if there are too many consecutive free-form days. So I get in my “teacher mode”. It’s a sure-fire way for me to be on the receiving end of a lesson.

I was in this mode when I decided on one random Wednesday that my son and I would be doing a “sit spot” in nature, where we would spend some moments simply observing quietly. It sounds like a fun adventure except that I was trying to force a lesson into it. I had each of us come up with a question to “wonder” about. Wondering, I had read, is how you make curious life-long learners and inquisitive scientists. Again, this might sound romantic and inspiring, except that I was so serious. So when my son told me his question was “I wonder if there are any golden eagles in Del Monte Forest,” it was a struggle not to roll my eyes. This question was big, too big. How were we supposed investigate that?

Wondering, I had read, is how you make curious life-long learners and inquisitive scientists. Again, this might sound romantic and inspiring, except that I was so serious.

Twenty minutes later we’re in the forest at our “sit spot”. I’m the only one doing any sitting. I’m also straining my eyes in binoculars, looking for songbirds in the tree line across the path. My son joyfully scampers up and down the hill we are on. When he tells me he has to go to the bathroom in a way that necessitates running water, I know we have to leave. I feel deflated, like no lesson has been imparted. We walk across the path to pick up our backpacks, which are right under the trees I was looking at through my binoculars only minutes before. We both hear (or feel) something and simultaneously look up. There, perched on a branch, is a beautiful bird, a golden eagle. If it hadn’t sat there for a full minute afterwards, and weren’t so close, I might have doubted it. I think it wanted to make sure I really understood.

Now when I notice I’m getting into “teacher mode”, I remember that moment in Del Monte Forest. It may be one of our most precious shared memories, a story we can tell together. That treasured moment has taught me to redirect myself and the way I approach our learning together when I feel myself holding on too tightly.

Here are a couple of ways I do it:

1) GO FOR A WANDER

Set out on a journey with no purpose in hand – no distance goal, no mastery of botanicals, no questions to wonder about. Just go. See what comes up for your littles. Then follow that spark for as long as it lasts. My son is now eight years old and usually welcomes this event. My six-year-old daughter can whine for the entire first half, until the spark sets in. The spark could be hide-and-seek, throwing fir cones, a caterpillar. I’m not promising golden eagles. It’s all magic, no matter the size.

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