I wrote this survival guide in response to friends asking me how I managed to educate my three boys alone on an island. No-one had really asked me before, and I knew that some people thought I was somehow depriving my children of a ‘proper education’, by not sending them to school. In fact I had no choice as there was no school, so I just had to do the best I could; just as so many parents have been doing during lockdown.
I hope that my ‘tips’ have been helpful to those of you thrust suddenly into home-educating without a clue as to how to do it. I spent 18 years learning how to do it, and just when I was feeling OK, Hamish turned 14 and it felt as if my teaching days were over. It was not the end of course, as I still had chances to participate in their education, but in other ways.
When Rory was 14 we decided that he should go to Kirkwall Grammar School. This meant that he had to make a two hour journey every Friday night, and then again on the Sunday evening. Even during the months from April to October there were often weekends when the weather only allowed for him to be home for one day with a late arrival or an early return. It was always horrible to watch him go, but even worse when the boat was disappearing between the waves and I had to turn away from the pier.
As the weather deteriorated in late September, we all moved to the town except Simon. It was a hard decision to not see him for three months but there is almost never a weekend in the winter that stays calm enough for a boat to be able to get to Auskerry. It was either this or not see Rory. As a result the younger boys went to school in Kirkwall for six months, returning to Auskerry with me in April where I again took up the education baton. I made contact with all of the boys’ teachers to discover what they would be covering in the months to come. Many teachers were really helpful and supportive, although a few appeared resentful of my decision to home-educate. In those days, home-schooling was often seen as a selfish experiment. I see that a lot of parents are now being criticised for wanting to stop home-schooling – how times have changed!
Once I knew each teacher’s plan we would follow it, but even the best laid plans go wrong. Half way through the term I would sometimes find that the class were now studying something completely different. I would then have to decide whether to finish the topic we were on or very quickly learn about another baffling maths concept like differentiation in order to teach that. When this happened it was frustrating for me, but much worse for the boys if they returned to school ill-prepared. Hopefully if you are sharing the teaching on a weekly basis there should be fewer problems, but it will be much easier if you know what each teacher is planning ahead of time.
Spending three months away from Simon was not easy either. Suddenly I was a single parent with three boys who were discovering that there was a whole different way of life in the playground, including another gender! Everyone now knows what it is like to be away from loved ones for long periods, and the boys found it very hard to get used to not having dad around. We went on Sunday bike rides to maintain family time when we could all talk and have a laugh.
Going back to school part-time will be a difficult period of transition for everyone. I loved having a break from teaching but I missed the connection I had with the boys on the island. With all the distractions of life in town, there never seemed to be much time for family discussions over meals or playing games.
Writing this column has enabled me to look back and see how lucky I was to have the time to learn with my children. The things that bonded us as a family like attempting to make haggis (a disaster); practising stone skimming; picnicking on the beach and rounding up the sheep were important learning experiences for us all. It was not just about learning facts and doing sums.
I was often frustrated; frequently I felt that I was failing them and was not good enough. However, at the end of 18 years, to my utter amazement they, and I, survived it. They even thrived on the experience.
I treasure the memories of the time we spent together and I am sure you will too. Good luck.