Discovering a different way of schooling

For so many of us homeschooling during lockdown was an exhausting trial; in fact the collective sigh of relief when the schools reopened recently could be heard all over the country. Although of course there were fun and satisfying aspects to it as well ¬– most of these were reserved for parents who didn’t have to juggle working eight-hour or longer days in the home with feeding, entertaining and educating their children. We came to really value the role that teachers play in our children’s lives. Despite this, in a climate where wearing masks, maintaining social distance and flexible working have become the norm, more and more people are turning toward homeschooling. In fact even before Covid there was a growing, active community of homeschoolers in Ireland. The Collins’ are a home-educating family of seven who live on a busy dairy farm in West Cork. Pearl Collins tells West Cork People why she decided to educate her children at home and why isolation or pandemic schooling is in fact not the same as home education at all.

“This year was hard,” says Pearl, who emphasises that pandemic schooling is a lonely pursuit and certainly not the same as home education. Like everyone else the Collins family found it very tough not to see their friends and family and to have to call a halt to their many activities and pursuits out of the home. “It was lonely,” says Pearl “and we had to discover new ways to spend our time within the restrictions of being home 24/7. We missed our old life and had to adapt to the new circumstances just like all other families.”

Four out of the five Collins children (aged three, eight, 10, 13 and 15) are schooled at home. The children pursue individual passions, as well as learning together, each to their age, ability and interest “and our 13-year-old daughter currently attends secondary school,” says Pearl. “They are all free to choose their path and we support them along the way.”

Pearl, a ceramicist, who also works as a stylist, content creator and business and marketing mentor, says that home education has transformed her family’s way of life.

“Some years ago we found ourselves completely stressed out! I would spend nearly three hours driving everyday for all the school runs with a newborn in the car; we had an 8, 9, 12, 2, 3 and 5 o’clock school run. We felt our quality of life was low with little time for connection and nurturing. I felt I was rushing the kids and myself constantly! I was burned out and I think the kids were too,” explains Pearl.

“We are now so very grateful to have discovered a different way of life, one that is for us richer in connection with each other and in mindfulness. It is satisfying to think that we were able to adjust to what was best for our family and the physical and mental health of our children.” 

Pearl acknowledges that every family will have different needs and what suits one family may not be right for another but she says this was their calling. 

As well as keeping chickens, ducks and geese and sharing their days with two wolfhounds, the family grows a lot of their own produce for a large part of the year, trying to live as sustainably as possible. Pearl works from home, her husband works on the farm; they all navigate life, the ups and downs, together. 

Where do they find time for homeschooling? “But there is is so much learning in everyday life too,” says Pearl.

We love to be active,” she explains “we hike, we surf, we love taking the boats out on the lakes. We read an awful lot. We cook together, we garden together, we laugh and we cry together. I love to learn artisan or heritage skills such as basketry, weaving, sowing, beekeeping and the kids often join me.” 

All of the Collins children love performing chemistry and science experiments (the kitchen at times becomes a lab) hearing tales of history or doing woodworking and tinkering. “One of our daughters is very musical and plays the piano and harp for a couple of hours each day, another one lives for art,” says Pearl. “We are always looking for opportunities to build on and expand the diversity of skills we have. In our eyes the children’s education does not cease at any one point throughout the day or during the holidays. When we do not have our heads in books or in a hands-on experience – we may be still busy learning through free play, simply by observing, discussing or exploring.”

Pearl says that the incessant monitoring and evaluation of pupil’s performances caused their children to develop anxiety, angst and trepidation about school, which is why they decided to take them out of mainstream education.

Their creativity, natural curiosity and love of learning and their problem solving skills eventually became very inhibited,” she explains. “Close family members, describing one of our children, said ‘the spark was gone.’”

Through discussion, Pearl and her husband discovered they had a different idea of what an education looked like for their family. ”Foremost we wanted to nourish our children’s faith in their own competence and nourish their self-awareness and self-confidence,” she explains. 

All of the Collins family craved more family time, nature, free thinking, hands-on learning and physical activity. “Simply put the children were just not happy people anymore and eventually enough was enough, we said we would give it a go!” says Pearl.

She says there are many options available to choose from for whatever style of home education might suit your family. “You can explore different curriculums, unschooling, self directed learning, Charlotte Mason approach, Waldorf etc. it takes time to work out what suits. We don’t personally put a label on how we do home education, probably we have learned something from all the styles and have over time created our own.”

While not following a curriculum per se in home educating her children, Pearl shares how her eldest daughter is currently working her way towards her International Highschool Diploma (Leaving Certificate Equivalent) via Clonlara (www.clonlara.org). “It works via a credit system,” she explains “there are no exams and she is free to create her own curriculum. She will be able to apply for college just like any student that has come through the Leaving Certificate.”

The children take their learning from a wide variety of resources ¬– explorations, books, interactions, museums, exhibitions, hands-on workshops, documentaries, podcasts or audiobooks…but predominantly people, moments, experiences and lots of discussions and debates!

A huge part of the learning happens outside of the home and the family interact with lots of people on a daily basis. “We meet with other home educators once a week and we have several activities we go to, for example the kids attend oil painting and classical drawing classes at the Clonakilty School of Painting,” explains Pearl. 

“Don’t be afraid!” is the message Pearl wants to get across to anyone considering home educating their children “Parents embarking on homeschooling tend to worry a lot about Maths; our eldest has taught herself (supported by us) all of the advanced algebra and is currently working through trigonometry. There are such fantastic resources out there to assist and support our children’s learning. Some of our favourites are Mel Chemistry (subscription-based), A letter from Afar and the Life of Fred Maths books for something online-based; Khan Academy is brilliant and free.”

The main challenge for Pearl and her husband is getting to spend quality time with each other. “Sometimes it’s hard to have a longer conversation, as there always seems to be an interruption, a curiosity that needs investigating or a question that pops up!” she admits.

“I would be telling lies if I didn’t say that it is really tiring and trying at times but it’s so worth it seeing those happy faces every morning full of zest ready to start another day of home education.

“It took a lot of time spent together and much perseverance…but I believe all the hard work too has made me be a more resourceful, understanding and a happier mum!”

For anyone looking for help to get started on their home educating journey, Pearl is happy to be contacted on Facebook (Pearl Collins) and she will add any interested parents on to the home education Facebook groups. 

WCP Staff

WCP Staff Writer

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