Comment by David Dixon
Kids come first in the McCutcheon household.
Recently-returned to Orange, Liv and husband Tom have made the difficult but increasingly-
common decision in our post-COVID world to home-school their son Dan and his pre-school sister Kate.
With all the doubts, fears, and concerns for what — in the past — was seen as a radical departure from the standard 13-year educational treadmill, Liv remembers vividly one incident that confirmed her decision.
“That was the moment when I knew that I had done the right thing. Month’s after the lockdown, one of Dan’s friends from school came over and Dan went to hug him, but instead of their usual embrace, his friend pulled away from him and kept his distance. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
For Liv — like many new home-schooling converts — the six-week coronavirus lockdown in early 2020 proved a catalyst. Pre-coronavirus, the couple were happily-domiciled in Sydney’s south at Yarrawarrah with Dan seemingly-enjoying kindergarten at the local small school.
Now Liv says that, if someone had told her a year ago, she would be back in Orange and home- schooling: “I’d be like ‘what planet are you on?’, I don’t see that happening,” she smiled.
Spending a decade teaching at the Museum of Contemporary Art, she said that clouds had already appeared on the horizon in regards to the modern curriculum that Dan was on the first rung of.
“I was already very concerned and quite disquieted with the amount of screen time in school, especially via the ‘whiteboards’.
“I wasn’t aware of this from the start, but what the teacher’s referred to as the ‘whiteboard’ is
actually a projector screen; an interactive computer screen and everything from roll-call to songs to reading are on it.”
Liv said that dropping Dan off late one morning, she saw his classmates sitting on the floor staring entranced at the screen as the teacher talked.
“I was shocked to the extent that Dan would say, ‘I’ve seen that movie already Mum’, later finding out that on rainy days all the students were taken inside the hall to watch a movie at lunchtime,’.”
Tom and Liv had only moved to the Sutherland Shire suburb because of the small school
atmosphere at Yarrawarrah Public. “It was a beautiful little community with the school having composite classes - all the parents knew each other, but there was just not much communication from the staff.”
She said that Dan, returning home exhausted and strung-out from a day’s schooling, was now drifting away from his younger sister who was also affected by the change .
“School drop-off was the worst time of the day, I was so stressed. Dan and Kate would get-up to play or read together first thing in the morning, and I’d have to come in and break it up, trying to get him ready in time.”
“I had already been considering home-schooling in the second term of last year, but then the lockdown happened, and I had a chance to give it a trial run. As I had suspected, it worked a lot better for us as a family.”
The order to return to school after first term with demands of a parent-free environment and
sterile cleaning throughout all schools, was the final piece in the puzzle.
“It was the last straw for me,” Liv said. “No adults allowed in the school, drop-off at the gate,
excessive cleaning,... I didn’t want my son exposed to all that on a daily basis.”
With her previous doubts and the success of having Dan back at home for two months, Liv and Tom made the call. “I realised that it was achievable, for primary school at least, and that I could do this,” Liv said.
Without the daily round of school and home and sleep, she found her children far happier and settled. “Now we do baking in the morning with no rushing off to get anywhere, and they are learning so much from day-to-day life... when Dan first came home for the lockdown, I was surprised that we were getting through his school worksheets in just a few hours - then have the rest of the day to play and explore.”
“When I thought about it, me giving Dan my full attention is very different to a teacher who has 30 other kids to organise, support and supervise.”
The reaction of the school and the State’s Education department to her clear-headed decision though verged on intimidation and harassment. “The school was not exactly supportive of our decision.
“I sent the principal an email, and was very clear that, with our lived experiences and the new
scenario, I was no longer comfortable with Dan being at school and was applying for homeschooling.
“They were unwilling to support us in our transition and said, ‘Dan has to go to school until you get approval’, (which, in NSW can take weeks for them to process the paperwork). Following the lockdown, I did not believe it was in my son’s best interest to stop homeschooling, now that we were settled, and return to school for a few weeks, only to be pulled back out again - the year had already been traumatic enough, for all of us. Although I communicated our reasons and intentions quite clearly, the school saw fit to send the police to our house for a welfare check,” Liv explained. “They then said they’d elevate the matter, making threatening mention of Children’s Court merely days before we were approved for homeschooling. I was very shocked and disappointed in the way we were treated.”
Finally getting department approval, Liv and Tom and Dan have never looked back. New
technologies like Zoom have made meetings with officials much easier, and the Education
Department now leaves her largely to enjoy her children’s schooling.
While Liv was intending to return to work last year, running a small business from home, she says that home-schooling does have a number of cost-benefits.
“We are learning to grow our own food in the garden, and cooking all of our meals at home, so we rarely get take-out these days. You’d be surprised at how much science, maths and creativity is involved in something simple like baking…we’re learning together to be a lot more self-sufficient, and saving money in the process,” she said.
She said that the implicit career-first message for many talented young women today was one obstacle that she had to face.
“I think for women my age, there’s a huge mental obstacle to overcome when choosing to stay at home and raise your family. You have to be prepared to re-evaluate what ‘achievement’ and ‘success’ really means to you. Homeschooling has also shown me how reliant I was on external validation - at home, if you want recognition and praise for your work, you have to be willing to give that to yourself,”
“I quickly had to learn the importance of silencing my inner critic; to choose to focus on what went well, what was achieved, and what lessons could be extracted from the things that didn’t work so well,” Liv explained. The same has become the case for Dan and Kate, she believes.
“Being able to know, listen to, and trust yourself is such an important life skill; they’re learning a lot of stuff in the home environment that, for most of us as adults, would take a great deal of un-learning.”
The experience, Liv says, has changed not just her children but her own world-view.
“I’ve come to learn through our experience last year that the world is not what I thought it was, and what I thought was important in 2019, doesn’t really matter that much any more. 2020 was a gift, because it taught me that life moves fast, and making family a priority was the best way to slow it down ” she concluded.