I teach fifth grade in a homeschool co-op. For those of you who may be new to the homeschooling movement, a co-op meets the needs of two different groups—-those parents who want their children to be taught at home and those parents who feel their children are better off in a school, but don’t want them stuck in the public school mire.
Our classes meet five days a week, in a very small make-do school building. The teachers are unpaid parents who agree to teach other children in addition to their own. I teach math, spelling, reading, language, science, geography and history. A grandma of one of my students is the art teacher. A high school girl, proficient in piano and harp, teaches music. Another mother comes in one day a week to read the kids a story. Together, we are all invested in the education of our own children, and the children of our friends.
The atmosphere is “homey” in that there is freedom in our days. Sure, we have four walls, brown desks, books, maps, multiplication charts, grade books and fluorescent lighting, just like your average public school. The kids have to “serve” 180 days in class. The difference lies in how I, as a teacher, can choose to run my classroom.
If a little girl loses her favorite pink mechanical pencil, we can stop the class to pray that it is found. If a young boy’s parents are going through a divorce and I happen to see him crying in the restroom, I can go give him a hug without fear of sexual harassment charges being pressed. If during the winter, the weather is uncharacteristically warm, I can take my class for a surprise afternoon walk, with no permission slips required. Try doing any of those things in a public school and see how quickly you would be looking for a new job.
My math class began one day and most of the children entered the classroom unusually quietly. I asked them if something was wrong, and one girl responded, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I just feel like reading the scriptures.” One by one, several children voiced their agreement. “Yes, please can we read the scriptures instead of having math today?” There was no desire to get out of math work. There was no begging or pleading. There were just quiet requests to read scriptures.
How could I refuse? How rare is it to have eleven fifth graders asking to read scriptures? How many inner city public school teachers would rejoice in such a moment?
Because we are not controlled by the government, there were enough sets of scriptures on the bookshelves for every one of my eleven children. The books were passed out, and for the next 45 minutes I enjoyed a sweet spirit in my classroom as heads were bent over desks in study, or children were curled up in a corner or under a desk reading. I wish every teacher could have had that experience, or even the freedom to let it happen.
I first came to those students last year, as their new fourth grade teacher. The previous year, third grade, had been rough on them. There had been a lack of parents available to teach that year due to mothers having to go to work. As a result, they split the third grade in two, and gave each class a teen-age girl as their teacher. The girls did the best they could as teachers, but their inexperience as teachers, and as mothers, showed. The kids were devastated to be separated, especially since they learned that they were separated, for the sake of ease, into an advanced and a slower group. Over the year, the two groups competed with each other, deriding each other as they compared who had progressed more rapidly through the texts. One group had a teacher who liked to have frequent parties, and the other group felt left out.
When I was able to quit work in 2007, I was asked by the co-op to be the new fourth grade teacher in the fall. The principal explained the challenges I would be facing. The two groups saw themselves as adversaries. They would be combined back into one class and I would be responsible for creating a sense of unity in them. I was told that their third grade year was almost a waste and I would be responsible for catching them up to speed.
The first day of school, I asked the kids if they had ever seen the movie, Fantastic Four. They all had. I told them they from that time forward, since they were fourth graders, they would be known as the Fantastic Fourth. We also went over class rules. They were not allowed to degrade each other in any way. They were to help each other learn. They were to act as a team.
We had many memorable experiences that year. They all memorized their times tables and as a reward got to go on a helicopter ride over the mountains and out to eat at a fancy restaurant. They got to visit a local cattle farm. In April we took them to Northern Utah for a two-day field trip. They visited Antelope Island and saw buffalo cross the road. They saw the Great Salt Lake. They stayed overnight in a resort in Park City, in two huge suites that slept ten apiece. They splashed in the hotel pool and soaked in the hot tub. They walked downtown Park City and got to see the upscale stores. They visited Temple Square and This is the Place Monument. They ate dinner at a restaurant that featured cliff divers and a fire show. They fell asleep on each other’s shoulders on the way home.
I was lucky this year to be able to teach them again. On the first day of school we changed our name to the Figure-it-out-Fifth. For short, we are called F5, a force of nature to be reckoned with. I was happy to get my same class because I had grown to love them immensely, and of course because my own son is in that group.
Shortly after the “we want to read scriptures” event, our idyllic school life was disrupted.
One of my students came to me and confessed that he had been stealing after school. He had gone to a local grocery store and had made a habit out of putting things in his backpack and walking out. He said that he wanted to repent because he no longer wanted to be that kind of a person. He implicated another one of my students as his accomplice.
As the details came out, we learned that these two students had been stealing from other students, from other local stores, and from parents and relatives. Because of the seriousness of the situation, and because these were almost life-long habits of these two young men, the principal made the decision to expel them from our co-op.
It was a very emotional day for my students when they learned that now our class was down to nine. I took my students to an empty classroom to explain the situation, while the principal removed the two unused desks from our classroom. Many of the students wept openly, saying, “Do they still get to be a member of F5?” It was a rough day for all of them.
Over the Christmas break, we were faced with another difficult decision.
My own son, Jeremiah, never did catch up from third grade. He has struggled mightily to keep up, only to get further behind. Recently I showed the principal some test scores. On three different tests, my son scored Fs while everyone else got As. The principal and I discussed options. Should we keep him in fifth grade and have him keep feeling like a failure? Should we move him back to fourth grade where maybe he will feel some success? As it stood, he would be failing every class on his next report card.
After to speaking to Jeremiah, we decided to place him back in fourth grade when school started again after Christmas. I would no longer be his teacher. He would no longer be a member of F5. But maybe he would stop feeling like he was always at the bottom of everything.
When I told my class that Jeremiah would be going back to fourth grade, there were tears once again. One little girl asked me, “Why does it feel like we are being slowly ripped apart?” Another girl said, “I wish we could go back to our fourth grade history trip when we were all back in the hotel having fun together. We were a team then.”
It’s been a week and he has survived, though it has been difficult. He has run to me happily proclaiming, “I got four As this week!” He has also hugged me in the hall at school saying, “Mommy, please can I come back to your class?” He has a gem of a teacher who has made him feel welcome.
Have I survived? It has been hard to see my son struggle. I have shed a few tears myself. I think Jeremiah summed it up for me after school on Friday after I asked him how he thought his first week went.
“Mom,” he said, “sometimes I cry in my mind and other times I just cry right in my eyes.”