I am no one special. I am just an ordinary Mom who has learned a lot about teaching. More specifically, I have learned a lot about learning, about how to learn, and about how to help someone else learn.
I grew up in a very small community, went to the same small school from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and graduated in a class of fifteen. I was always scolded that I was not working up to my potential, no matter how hard I tried or how much I did. My teachers discouraged anything that wasn’t already part of their tried-and-true lesson plans, and as a not-always-by-the-book learner, I did not enjoy school (in fact, I hated school) until I went to college—the second time.
I know first-hand what it is like to feel trapped in public school. I know the ridicule, the bullying, and the torturing, and I know the sinking feeling of helplessness that comes from the inability to change anything, including teachers’ preconceived notions of who you are and what you can or can’t do. Now, decades later, I also know the freedom that homeschooling brings. Through homeschooling my own children, I was able to break free from many of the stigmas that accompanied me through the first portion of my education. I say “first portion” because I now recognize education as a life-long endeavor, and the most recent portion of my education has been acquired through homeschooling my kids. Having done as little as possible through most of high school, I welcomed the chance to try again, and I learned many things right along with my students.
I enjoyed learning creation science with my kids and studying its relationship to God’s Word, something I had never thought about in my school days filled with evolution-as-scientific-fact. I learned much more about history, while helping my kids learn, and was able to connect the random facts I did know into a more accurate timeline of civilization. Reading was no longer a tedious assignment that I despised and avoided, but it became an enjoyable leisure activity for me. I grew to love reading aloud to my children as much as they enjoyed listening to the daily installments.
Back in public school, I’d had mediocre teachers, poor teachers, and absolutely horrible teachers, all of them with overwhelmingly discouraging attitudes. I’d had a few good teachers here and there, but it was not until my second try at attending college that I found some truly excellent teachers, and I attempted to recreate their methods later on when I began homeschooling. They had not rejected questions; instead, they had convinced me that the only “silly” question is the one which a student is too intimidated to ask, and they further convinced me that any intimidation at all is the teacher’s creation, not the student’s personality. These teachers did not criticize incorrect answers or solutions, but kindly and gently showed students the proper methods for proceeding. At a point when I had never even heard of homeschooling, those teachers fostered the teaching techniques that I would utilize years later.
One thing I had learned during my public school education was that students didn’t matter. Students who didn’t immediately grasp every concept as first presented were being purposely dense and stubbornly making the teacher’s job more difficult. The teachers could only be bothered to explain tings once, and if you didn’t understand right away, there was something wrong with you. These were the required subjects that must be taught, and if you didn’t find them delightfully interesting, there was something wrong with you. These were the few elective courses they had the resources to offer, and if you didn’t find them endlessly fascinating, there was something wrong with you. A student who dared to object to the standard fare or dared to suggest possible alternatives or dared to desire anything more interesting was met with horrified gasps. The professional educators knew what was best, and they were in charge. End of discussion.
And then I met Mr. Benbow. Mr. Benbow taught engineering, math, and programming classes at the community college, but Mr. Benbow taught me so much more than just trigonometry. He could elicit a response from even the shyest, most introverted student, because he eagerly waited for and listened to that response. It was as if everyone else in the room disappeared when he spoke to you, and you knew he was truly, genuinely interested in your opinion on the subject at hand. He didn’t seem to want to leave the room without hearing your thoughts and having the opportunity to discuss them with you and ask another question or two for clarification. Your response, no matter how tentative, no matter how ill-prepared, was important to Mr. Benbow. And after only a few weeks in his class, you began to feel that maybe you were important to more than Mr. Benbow.
I recall a rather under-achieving student who described an incorrect method for solving a particular math problem. I was groaning inside, realizing he was wrong and feeling sorry for the humiliation I thought he was destined to endure as his error was pointed out, ridiculed, and corrected. But Mr. Benbow didn’t do that. He listened to the student’s entire explanation of how he’d arrived at his wrong answer, and then Mr. Benbow thoughtfully considered each misstep and gently replied, “Well, you could do it that way… but think about this… If we go back to this step, and instead of what you did there, we do this…” and he went on to fully detail the correct method, step-by-step, arriving at the correct solution, while keeping the errant student’s dignity intact and giving the rest of us a beautifully practical lesson in humility.
Every Wednesday, Mr. Benbow began class with a quiz—always just one question or just one problem, but it always reinforced what we’d just learned. Every Friday, he began class with a joke—it was his way of starting the weekend with a little fun. Any time someone asked him for help on an assignment, he gave that student his complete attention and always hinted at the answer just enough to help the student discover it for himself. Mr. Benbow knew that telling a student the answer outright taught nothing, but guiding the student on the path to discovering the answer taught much more than the answer to that single problem.
I eagerly signed up for Mr. Benbow’s introductory course in computer programming. It was required for my degree, but I knew that he was capable of teaching anything to anyone, even programming language to someone who had never seen a computer before, and I knew he would make it a fascinating class. When my first complex program failed to run as intended, I sought his help. He quickly read through the cryptic steps, smiled with that intriguing little twinkle in his eyes, and simply said “Computers are stupid. They are machines that can only do exactly what we tell them to do.” And there he left me, both feet firmly planted on the path to discovery. Obviously, he meant that my program was telling the computer to do the wrong thing. More precisely, as I soon discovered, my program had not told the computer to do the right thing. Mr. Benbow’s programming hint became a life-lesson for me. It’s as important not to do the wrong thing, as it is to do the right thing. When teaching and training my children, I have tried to remember to show them what not to do, as well as what to do.
All of Mr. Benbow’s excellent teaching methods influenced me heavily. When my children asked questions or gave answers to my questions or offered their opinions on random topics, I tried to give them my focused attention, as if their ideas mattered—because their ideas really did matter. When I listened to every little thing my 7-year-old son wanted to tell, he learned that Mom cared, that his thoughts were either funny or thought-provoking, that he could make people laugh, and that he was important, and he mattered. My kids learned to give answers with confidence, knowing that if they happened to be wrong, they still weren’t subjected to ridicule, taunting, or shame. Any incorrect assumptions would be gently but thoroughly straightened out, until they had a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand.
If I expected my kids to learn, I knew they couldn’t feel intimidated. Our classroom had to be a place where they felt safe enough to ask any question and discuss any concept that they didn’t fully understand. If I wanted them to learn, I had to find an eleventh way to explain or illustrate or demonstrate what my first ten tries had failed to clarify. Their lack of understanding came from my failure to teach, not their failure to learn. In order for my kids to learn, I had to find better methods of teaching.
Because my early teachers had turned “Go look it up” into a discouraging punishment, I was determined to transform educating my children into a delightful challenge, an eager race for knowledge, a dare of discovery that they couldn’t help but pursue. Whenever we came across something of uncertain meaning, I looked my students in the eye with the most intriguing twinkle I could muster, then I dashed to the bookcase to grab the dictionary or whatever reference book might hold the answer. They enthusiastically joined me for a cheek-to-cheek search through the pages, as we found the answer together. Before long, they were the ones dashing off to find the answer, proudly beating Mom to it, but still generously sharing the moment of discovery as we read and discussed the treasured facts together.
To encourage my kids in their learning, I made up examples and story problems that were personal to them, I involved them in the illustrations and the demonstrations, and we worked together to build the models and create the learning aids that finally made the concepts clear. We converted our board games to use the facts and skills they were trying to learn and played the games over and over to practice their new knowledge. As Mr. Benbow had done, I used impromptu questions now and then to prove to them what they had just mastered (instead of shaming them for what they didn’t yet know), and I made time during our classes for an abundance of jokes and silly stories and amusing tricks, just to keep life fun.
Learning is encouraged when fear is removed and confidence takes its place. Learning is encouraged when the student sees each question as a game to be played, a challenge to be attempted, a goal to be conquered. Learning is encouraged when the student is intrigued to the point that he does not want to walk away without knowing the answer. Learning is encouraged when the examples are personal, when the problems become tantalizing puzzles to solve, when research begins an exhilarating bunny-trail adventure through a hundred twists and turns, and when every question opens another new door to wonders yet undiscovered. If learning is not fun or exciting or satisfying or rewarding, who would waste a single moment in its pursuit?
For more tips on getting your students interested and encouraging their learning:
10 Ways to Improve a Lesson
How to Adapt Lessons to Fit Your Student’s Interests and Make Learning Come Alive
Looking for the “Hard Part”
My Student Is Trying, but Just Not Learning as Expected
The Know-It-All Attitude
Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson