When I was little, I used to play teacher with my sister. I would write letters on a little chalkboard and sound them out for her in an effort to teach her to read. Later, as a teen, while working at some horse stables, my boss recognized in me a gift for teaching and appointed me the tour guide and leader for groups of visiting Girl Scouts. The Scouts would gather around while I taught them grooming, saddling, bridling, and general etiquette for safety around a horse. I loved this job! Clearly, I had a natural inclination toward being a teacher.
As an adult, while obtaining my Master’s in Counseling Psychology, I worked as a substitute teacher in four different school districts around town. It was a great way to supplement my income while learning valuable skills in working with children, as well as helping me to clarify my own thoughts on the educational methodology of the traditional American school model. I knew, once I had children of my own, that I wanted to homeschool them.
Despite my interest in teaching, I had no idea how to go about actually homeschooling. I had not been homeschooled myself, and as a 13-year veteran of the public school system, my experiences shaped my idea of what education was supposed to look like, and it wasn’t entirely positive.
I had not yet been introduced to the world of alternative education, but as I began to research, I came across one name repeatedly that has greatly influenced the homeschool movement, and eventually my own philosophy of homeschooling: Charlotte Mason.
Charlotte Mason was a British educator who, at the turn of the 20th century, reformed views on the way children learn. She believed children should be viewed as whole persons, capable of showing great curiosity, understanding, and ability to learn.
The hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education include a great deal of time outside reading nature’s “living books,” as well as having exposure to art, poetry, history, and the literary canon of great books (such as Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer). She encouraged teachers and other adults to not just lecture children but to give them the freedom to follow their curiosity, bolstered by time outdoors and exposure to good books.
Furthermore, Mason believed in educating the whole person, not just the mind. In her book Home Education, she challenges the idea of a child being a blank slate and suggests that each child has innate individual preferences. She suggests that children need a certain amount of masterly inactivity—that is, being left to freely “develop in their own way according to their own environment and hereditary traits.”
Along with this freedom, Mason proposes that education be three-pronged, having an Atmosphere, a Discipline, and a Life.
An Atmosphere includes a child’s home and surroundings. The emphasis is on the parent-child relationship as well as the environment of the home. Through interactions with parents, grandparents, neighbors, and even the family pets, a child learns empathy, intimacy, affection, boundaries, taking turns, and more. This kind of learning happens naturally from the child’s being part of a community. Mason warns, however, against the usual school atmosphere as being contrived, and possibly condescending, with the teachers in charge and the children not being given enough opportunities for real learning and relationships.
By Discipline, Mason refers to habits that develop as a child learns to actively participate in his or her own education. One of the ways I apply this principle in our own homeschooling is by empowering my children to follow their natural curiosity. If they have a question about a certain idea, story, or mathematical principle, I listen and show them how to effectively investigate it. By my allowing this curiosity, my children have taken an active role in their education.
Discipline refers also to the daily habits that are cultivated by living and working together as family. Mason points out that “habit is like fire, a bad master, but an indispensable servant.” Good habits cultivated early on serve the children each day and set them up for success in furthering their education or whatever vocation they choose to pursue. Good habits also make parenting easier. According to Mason, “The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days; while she who lets their habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction with the children.”
Lastly, Mason says, education is a Life. Life, in this sense, refers to the mind, body, and spirit. Just as food nourishes the body, education nourishes the mind and spirit. It does this by virtue of ideas: interesting, stimulating, imaginative ideas. Ideas are food for the mind. There is no point at which learning is complete. By instilling children with a hunger for learning at an early age and teaching them the tools with which to cultivate learning, we offer them a lifetime of food for their minds and spirits. Regardless of the paths my children choose in life, it has always been my hope and dream that each of them would love learning, and Mason’s approach showed me how I could bring this dream to fruition.
Now that I am 15 years into my journey as a mother and homeschooler, I can testify that Mason’s approach, as applied in our homeschool, has borne the hoped-for fruit.
My love for and natural inclination toward teaching has been made much more enjoyable by seeing education as a lifestyle, rather than something to force upon my children for the purpose of completing standardized tests. I want to develop them as persons, and Mason’s educational philosophy provides beautiful and rich guidance to this end. As Mason herself said, “The function of education is not to give technical skill but to develop a person; the more of a person, the better the work of whatever kind.”
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