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Posted by on December 22, 2013

Like most parents, Karen and I wanted to make sure that our children had every chance to succeed in school. We sometimes joked that this was because we were anxious for them to get successful jobs and move out so we could have the house to ourselves, but that was just our warped senses of humor talking. What we really wanted was to make sure that they would one day be financially secure enough for us to move in with THEM.

Call it our retirement plan :-)

After spending our own childhoods moving around and changing schools every few years, it was our hope that moving to Huntsville would provide our boys with more stability. As it turned out, it did. We’ve been here for over fifteen years now and, besides Gerrit getting jerked around a little between Kindergarten and the Second Grade while we got settled, our boys have been able to go all the way through elementary, middle, and high school without a move.

We experimented with home schooling for about three years, beginning when Tucker was old enough for Kindergarten. We didn’t have any particular problem with the Huntsville public school system. There was just a really good home schooling organization in our area and, since Karen had been home schooled growing up on the mission field, it seemed like it would be worth a try. At least to us.

Our social butterfly, Tucker, decided after six months of home schooling that he wanted to go to “real” school so he could take his lunch and eat with his friends. After some lengthy discussion we decided to let him. Like I said, we didn’t have any problem with the Huntsville schools, so if Tucker was going to do better there we were OK with the idea. It didn’t take long, though, for him to decide that Gerrit was getting the better end of that deal. Getting to take your lunch and be around your friends all day is one thing, but getting home and finding out your brother finished up his school work early and has been playing most of the afternoon is another thing altogether! Tuck tried his best to convince us that he should be able to switch back, but we told him he’d have to stick with his decision until the end of the year. We figured that by then he’d be so entrenched in Kindergarten that he wouldn’t want to switch back, but when the time came he still wanted to. So he rejoined the Burke Home School the following year.

We home schooled both of the boys until Gerrit finished the 5th grade. After three years, Karen was starting to have a hard time remembering why we thought homeschooling was such a great idea. It had been great for the boys, but it put an awful lot of pressure on her. Since all the kids who were Gerrit’s age would be changing from elementary school to middle school the following year anyway, Karen and I agreed that it would be a good time to transition him back into the system. Tuck was ready too, so we put them both back in public school that fall and they made the change without a hitch.

Our “many choices” philosophy of making sure the boys understood the connection between their choices and the resulting consequences translated well into their school work. We didn’t make any pronouncements mandating that they achieve certain grades, nor did we have any established reward system for getting A’s. It was just understood that their grades were a reflection of their efforts. The fact that the local Krispy Kreme franchise had a policy of giving a free donut for every “A” on a report card was beyond our control. :-) Whether the boys were ultimately motivated by the donuts or by pure personal desire didn’t really matter to us. What mattered was that they were usually so concerned about their grades that we didn’t need to be.

We did stay tuned-in what was going on, though. The Huntsville schools introduced an on-line grade reporting system while our boys were in school, so we were able check up on them whenever we needed to. When there was a hiccup, we did whatever was necessary to get things back on track. A couple of times that meant meeting with a teacher to get to the root of the problem. Sometimes it meant hiring a tutor for a few weeks until they got through a particular rough patch. Usually it was enough to sit and help them through their homework until they got the concept. This job normally fell to me.

I had the grand notion that this was because of my superior academic skills and my ability to recall things that neither of us had done in decades, but eventually Karen pointed out what was really going on. I was being had. In my enthusiasm to help the boys understand, I was often being duped into “helping them” do large portions of their homework. “I think I get it now, Dad, but can we do one more just to be sure?” Then it was another. And another.

No wonder they were coming to me.

It wasn’t just homework, either. My contribution to science fair projects over the years probably crossed the line more than a few times. I was pretty proud of those experiments. I still have pictures. I guess the extent of my involvement should have been obvious to me when the grades for the projects came out and I took them so personally. Still it wasn’t that or Karen’s warnings that finally broke me of the habit. The real turning point was when they started coming to me with questions about stuff that I had no idea how to do.

For the most part this was restricted to things like physics, algebra, and calculus, but I was a college graduate and worked as an engineer, so you’d think I’d be able to help them, right?


Talk about your humbling moments. I tried to save as much face as possible by flipping back through the chapter material in hopes of finding an example similar to the problem in question. Sometimes that worked and we were able to figure it out (whew!), but as time went on there were more and more occasions when we were both left scratching our heads. In those moments I felt like it was important for me to provide a little wisdom and some heart-warming perspective.

“You know, son, I’m probably just confusing you by trying to explain this. What’s important is that YOU understand this material, so maybe you should work on it some more by yourself. Besides, I’ve already passed the ninth grade.”

Recently I stumbled upon an amazing resource that would probably have saved my boys and me a lot of head scratching. It’s a completely free tutoring site that patiently teaches everything from basic addition and multiplication all the way to algebra and calculus. It’s set up like a game. It also has lessons on physics, chemistry, and several other topics. It’s called Khan Academy. The story of how it got started is pretty cool.

Life can be a lot like school. Sometimes we understand what’s going on and sail through without a problem. Sometimes we get stuck and have to struggle for a while. Sometimes we can’t figure it out alone and need someone else to help.

In the end, all that’s really important is what we’ve learned.

originally published 1/19/12| next post Jesus Freaks

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