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Gettin’ Schooled—At Home

A few years ago, before relocating from the Gulf to the US, I homeschooled my daughters for one term. I already had a full-time job—teaching at a university—so it was hard work, but it was also fascinating to interact with my kids in a new way. The experience was rewarding, challenging and extremely inexpensive. It was also a lot of fun.

Homeschooling is on the rise throughout the world. Why? According to homeschooling curriculum experts Calvert Education, the top five reasons for parents are: to get a better education for their children; to escape from problems at school; to accommodate a special needs student; to cover missed schooling during a family move; and to create a safe, supportive environment for learning. Parents want to control what their children learn, what kind of environment they do it in, and the values that are instilled during the process. They want to opt out of bullying, peer pressure, relentless test-taking, and other threats lurking in school hallways. 

Homeschooling isn’t easy, and it’s not for everyone. If you try it, your experience will inevitably have its ups and downs, successes and failures, joys and frustrations.

How It Works

Homeschooling refers to children learning at home, usually taught or facilitated by parents. However, some families hire a tutor for specific subjects or the entire curriculum. Most homeschoolers today use materials and courses purchased from an education provider, though some parents design their children's programmes.

What’s the best method? It all depends on how much time you have and how comfortable you feel teaching your children. Some use a hybrid system—the parents teach geography and history, leave science and math to the online experts, and hire a local music teacher for piano.

The internet is obviously a great source of learning materials. You can find courses, reading lists, class outlines, and entire schools online. Some prominent platforms include The Well Trained Mind, University of Nebraska Online High School, K-12, Singapore Math, World Education Services, Laurel Springs and International Virtual Learning Academy. There are also companies such as Homeschool Tracker to help you plan and organise. Their software records and keeps track of grades, assignments, course outlines, syllabi and other items.

Your child can even take university courses or whole degree programs online through the Open University, Stanford Online, Coursera or other programmes. Some, such as Khan Academy, are free. Margaret Douglass of Doha Home Educators recommends the Core Knowledge series by Dr E.D. Hirsch, available in book form for those who prefer the look and feel of real paper. “These are fantastic basic primers for a thorough American- or British-based education,” Douglass said. “I highly recommend them to anyone looking for a way to get started in homeschooling with a younger child.”

Do your homework if you plan to transition to a mainstream school or university after homeschooling. Academic institutions vary widely regarding procedures and flexibility for homeschoolers. Rules differ according to grade level, region and country, so check with the relevant schools or government ministries for up-to-date information. Planning early and doing thorough research goes a long way toward making the homeschool experience positive and frustration-free.

Why Homeschool?

There are many great reasons to homeschool. It’s often much cheaper than private school, for one. There’s no commute. No inedible cafeteria food, no wild dodge-ball games in PE. You can focus on whatever you want your child to learn, what you think is important, and what your child needs and wants to study. You’re no longer limited by whatever the school system, teachers or compulsory textbooks have to offer—especially if you design the materials yourself. Homeschooling can be extremely streamlined. No wasted time, no pointless field trips to museums your kids have already visited six times. You control the quality, the content, the values. You can slow down or speed up. You can take a family holiday whenever you want. There’s no need to check your calendar for classes, exams or school events.

Homeschooling allows you to step outside the world of formalised academics and rethink what education is. For many, this means exploration, experience and adventure. 

Douglass, who has homeschooled for eight years, has been happy with her choice to homeschool. "We’ve been blessed with the opportunities it gave us. We’ve travelled a great deal, giving our children amazing experiences. My older son fell in love with sailing in Doha, taught at the local academy, got his credentials in Britain, and now will sail for his American university. My younger son is a true foodie and has a wonderful time with homemade dishes from everywhere."

For the Douglass family, homeschooling means their children have the space to discover and cultivate their own interests rather than having their choices dictated by the school.

Caroline and Cihangir Demirkol have also enjoyed homeschooling their three children, Kylie, Kerim and Kayra. Based in Doha for the past 11 years, the kids initially attended international schools but later transitioned to homeschooling. According to Caroline, “Home education is a family lifestyle by choice. Learning is like breathing oxygen for all and should not be defined by timings and age.” 

The kids didn’t find it difficult adjusting to the new dynamic. In fact, homeschooling made the Demirkols closer than ever. “Our family became stronger,” Demirkol said. 

They also took advantage of the financial savings. Instead of paying expensive school fees, they use the money to travel. For many families, this is a rewarding trade-off. Travel and life experience, they feel, is more enriching and valuable than a conventional education.

Most homeschool families try several different education providers before finding one that best meets their needs, and almost all of them supplement this education with trips, self-studies and enrichment activities. Many parents have discovered that homeschooling allows for greater flexibility, provides more opportunities to socialise with friends, and leads to a more relaxed and stress-free learning environment.

Difficulties in Homeschooling

Homeschooling isn’t all sweetness and light. Just like traditional school, there can be problems. When the campus is your dining room table, there are no mean teachers, intimidating jocks or boring assemblies, but there’s also no rugby team, school dances, chess club or French Honor Society. There’s nothing much at all, except what you create. This can be liberating, but it’s also a serious responsibility. You are the whole school; whatever needs to be done, you have to do it yourself or find someone to do it for you.

What if there’s tension because of a challenging assignment or trouble conjugating Spanish verbs? It’s essential that you remain patient and understanding with your homeschooled child because, if there’s any frustration, tension or conflict—and there will be—it spills over into your home life. With no absolute division between home and school, a bad day in class can be a very bad day indeed. There’s nowhere to hide, for you or your child.

At the same time, however, you need to be firm, organised and disciplined to make sure you stay focused and on-schedule. You can’t skip a few math lessons here and there just because your daughter prefers history. Putting emotion aside and getting the job done is key—but also difficult.

Douglass stressed the importance of looking out for kids’ social and emotional well-being. She said, “One of the downsides to homeschooling in Qatar can be loneliness." She urges homeschool parents to get their kids involved in sports, clubs or other activities to keep them happy, healthy and adequately socialised.

Jackie Richardson moved to Qatar two years ago from South Africa with her husband Gary and their children—six-year-old Daniel and three-year-old Rebekah. She said there are very few obstacles to homeschooling in Qatar though the intense heat keeps the kids indoors more than she would like. Doha is quite a bit smaller than Richardson's home city, with fewer attractions and educational resources to occupy the children and enhance their academic work. This is a challenge for all home educators. Finding social events, field trips and teaching materials often means hard work and ingenuity.

Another potential problem is comparing your family’s teaching and learning experience to others'. 

Richardson said, "The thought of homeschooling can be very daunting. Don’t compare yourself to other families and your children to other kids. Make your style your own. You have the freedom to adapt to the way your child would learn best, that might be sitting on the floor, or on a yoga ball. It might mean you look at an online curriculum where they work solely on the computer. What works for one child might not work for another."

What’s essential, according to both experts and homeschooling parents, is to set a daily schedule and stick to it. You and your kids need to see a clear distinction between home and school because they both occupy the same physical space. Organization, planning and discipline will make this possible.

Homeschooling in Qatar

According to Emiri Decree 25, from the 2001 SEC reform, traditional education is “free and compulsory” for Qatari nationals from primary school through the completion of secondary school or age 18, whichever comes first. For expats, however, schooling is not mandatory.

Enrolling in a Qatari school, after being homeschooled, is another issue. It is essential to check with the school in question as early as possible to get your documentation in order. Some schools may ask for a certified transcript whereas others will conduct an assessment of your child’s needs and readiness. Sometimes it depends on the child’s age.

Umm Maimoonah, a former teacher, has been homeschooling her daughter for several years. She uses a hybrid method. For most subjects, she relies on an established online program. For Islamic Studies, however, she creates her own lesson plans, supplemented with teachings from Islamic scholars. Like many parents, she chose to homeschool to have greater influence over her child’s values and beliefs.

As Umm Maimoonah told Doha News, “Homeschooling has become a way of life for us, and the joy of witnessing every milestone…in learning and developing is something that I hold very dear.” She encountered other homeschooling families on QMuslimah, an online platform where expatriate women discuss Islamic values and practical information about living in Qatar. QMuslimah also includes a homeschooling group, which holds educational events and shares teaching materials.

Doha Home Educators (DHE) is another great source for local homeschoolers. With more than 100 active members, they meet online and in person to share ideas and resources and to provide mutual support in homeschooling. DHE organises activities for group members so that homeschooled kids get a chance to socialise and learn in a group setting. 

The Demirkols initially homeschooled using online curricula from Calvert, Global Village School and other providers, but they gradually moved toward “unschooling”, a child-centred movement in which the academic structure is relaxed, and education is built around the kids’ interests. Their aim was “to raise global citizens” rather than to adhere to any particular system or educational philosophy. “Location does not matter,” Caroline Demirkol said. “The intention does.”

Jackie Richardson attributes her success to getting involved with other homeschooling families. She calls Doha Home Educators “a great support group of friends that are like family.” Her children enjoy the group’s athletic, artistic, educational and culinary events. Richardson notes that homeschooling has allowed her to see her kids grow and learn, enjoying activities that are particularly meaningful to them. Her son Daniel is involved with Evolution Sports, where he plays soccer and swims. He also has time for classes at Qatar Music Academy and workshops at the Museum of Islamic Art. Her daughter Rebekah also swims at Evolution Sports and practices ballet at Doha Dancers. If they were enrolled in a traditional school, they might not have room in their schedule for all this.

Does it work? 

As with mainstream education, it all depends on the student and the teacher—you and your child. Nonetheless, the research is encouraging. Recent studies—from Texas A&M University and the Journal of College Student Development, for instance—have concluded that homeschoolers perform as well as and often better than traditional students—their scores on standardised tests (such as the SAT and ACT) are higher, their freshman grades superior, and their graduation rates better. Also, homeschoolers are just as able to cope with the social and emotional aspects of university life. 

How did it work for my family? I spent years complaining about my kids’ schools. With homeschooling, there was no one to blame but myself. I got to see firsthand what challenges my children (and their teachers) faced. We struggled for a few class meetings. My daughters laughed at my “serious teacher face”, but we quickly settled into a routine. School only took three hours a day, not seven. I didn’t waste time. I got to bond with my daughters. They used the spare time to pursue their interests—music, sports, writing and art. They said that I taught them much more than they ever learned in school. The only hitch was that I wasn’t voted teacher of the year. I’m still upset about that. 

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