Homeschooling abroad – How it all began

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When we moved abroad from Boston to Guatemala for my husband’s job in the Foreign Service, homeschooling wasn’t anywhere on our radar.

It was February, and I was tired. We’d moved into our permanent housing a few months prior, but I still didn’t feel settled. The grandparents had been in town visiting for a week, and as a result, we had had many early mornings and missed bedtimes, too much junk food and too little sleep, a lingering family cold that none of us could seem to shake, not to mention the sadness of the grandparents’ departure on Sunday morning.  When Sunday night included a very public meltdown followed by 14 straight hours of sleep for our three-year-old, I knew that we needed some recovery time.

We needed a day off, free from schedules and to-do lists and real pants. We needed a “mommy school” day.

My goodness, it was a beautiful day.

We were all able to sleep in a bit — instead of blearily trying to get myself dressed in something reasonably acceptable for the preschool drop-off routine, I was able to stay in yoga pants until 11am.  My older daughter slept until 7:45 (vs. 6:15), and it was awesome knowing that she was getting exactly as much sleep as her little body needed.  We had breakfast at a leisurely pace, and there were no urgings to finish so we could get dressed and leave for school.  We lingered over oatmeal and then decided to make smoothies.  We read a few books at the table, and I didn’t worry about the schedule when she asked for a few of the stories to be repeated.  We took as long as she wanted.

Then I asked:  Was she ready for some “mommy school”?

She shouted “YES!” before I even finished the sentence.

life with kids
A rare morning free, in Boston, MA

But first, America.

We had dabbled with homeschooling back in Boston, beginning when she was 2.5-years-old.  I was working full-time as an ER nurse, which required an hour commute each way (on a good day; a New England snowstorm could turn that into two+ hours, easy).  I was working the evening shift, which meant I didn’t get home until 12:30am most nights, and I was up with my kiddo at 6am every morning.  The ER was in a rough town, and I was getting jaded, fast.  I was routinely verbally assaulted, screamed at, and belittled by my patients.  I pulled people out of cars who had overdosed almost every week. 

That didn’t even take into account the inflexibility of the job. I worked the day after my D&C after my first miscarriage. I was on shift when my second miscarriage began, and I was back at work the next day. When my daughter was admitted to the hospital for an asthma flare-up, I stressed about finding coverage for my shifts instead of focusing 100% on her. I woke up every morning tense, wondering if my kid might be sick and if so, how I would find childcare so I could still go to work.

It was incredibly tough, and I was exhausted in every sense of the word.

We had just moved to the Boston area after three years in Bogota, Colombia, where I had had full-time help with the house and the baby, a great circle of friends, and a cushy work-at-home medical editing job.  Now, I was totally alone — the characteristic New England reserve made it tough to make friends, and I was lonely. 

And the daycare costs blew my mind.  I picked the cheapest option near our house, and tried to ignore the nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right.  It was clean, our daughter seemed happy to be dropped off (most mornings), and the classroom was large and well-lit.  Plus, they provided meals.  And yet…and yet.  Something bugged me about that place, but I brushed off my concerns as being a worried first-time mom.  Sure, my kid was always sick — I mean, ALWAYS sick — but isn’t that normal in the first year of daycare?  And yes, she had three new teachers in less than 10 months.  And one day, I went to pick her up early and realized the meals they provided were just delivery pizza every week.  I didn’t love it, but I was working myself to the bone in the ER and trying to cope with two miscarriages in the space of one year, and I didn’t have a single brain cell left.  I just needed this place to work.

It honestly wasn’t a huge surprise when we got The Email.  It was from an anonymous account, and the email was empty except for a 26-page PDF attachment, topped with letterhead indicating that it was from the state childcare investigation organization.  And those 26 pages included dozens of allegations, including days where there wasn’t enough food for all the children and finding staff intoxicated on the premise.  Worst of all, there was a claim that my daughter’s teacher had been seen, on camera, giving…pills? Candy?…we’re not sure.  Giving these…small, round objects…to the toddlers right before naptime.  Based on the footage, they believed it was Benadryl, and that the teacher was using this, as well as “aggressive swaddling of the toddlers” to keep the kids quiet during naptime.

I immediately called the State Board and requested my own copy of the report.  I was horrified to find it was all legit.  The director had apparently known for months what was going on, and she had covered it up.

We pulled her out of the center that day, without a clear plan of what to do next. The very next morning, I discovered I was pregnant for the third time in less than six months, just six weeks after my latest miscarriage. 

Meanwhile, I had just two months to go before I would hit the one-year mark at this ER job.  I needed to hit this one-year mark for resume purposes (or so I believed).  So we enrolled my daughter in the crazy expensive fancy school down the street, where she received gourmet meals from the on-site chef and a carefully calibrated preschool program from a masters-level early education teacher.  And she blossomed.  She stopped getting so sick.  Her behavior improved.  She started talking more.

When I hit the one-year mark at work, I went to my boss and handed in my resignation.  I was tired of the abuse, the long hours, of being so chronically tired that on my days off, I didn’t even have the energy to shower, much less play with my kid.  Not to mention, I had horrible morning sickness and just felt miserable.  Additionally, this fancy daycare cost $2500 per month, which was most of my salary.  With another baby on the way, there was no possible way to pay the tuition for two kids. We pulled her out after two months.

My ER had lost NINE nurses in the last six months, so my boss was pretty desperate to keep me on board, and offered me per diem work instead.  I only signed up for daytime weekend shifts (so I was home by 8:30pm every night).  Yes, I rarely saw my husband, and family time was non-existent.  But I was sleeping regular hours again, and my kid was home with me.

I worried about losing the progress my kid had made in the fancy daycare, so I researched some homeschool preschool curricula and stumbled across Mother Goose Time.  It’s a thematic curriculum that sends a box in the mail each month with twenty lessons, all packaged individually by day.  Each day, you pull out a bag and have all the materials (minus some basics, like markers or paint), for an art project, a literacy activity, a math activity, a community-building activity, and some sort of STEAM project.  It includes high-quality puzzles, storybooks, original music, and math manipulatives. We both loved it.

homeschooling
Preschool at home with Mother Goose Time — Boston, MA

More so, it gave structure to our day.  It was something to do when I couldn’t bear to watch another Peppa Pig.  After a few months of using the program, my daughter knew all her letters and their sounds, she could do simple mental addition, and she could happily tell you about her favorite dinosaurs or which planets in the solar systems had rings.  We had so. much. fun.

But homeschooling was never a long-term plan, rather a temporary solution to sky-high daycare costs and a desire to have something to fill the hours between breakfast and bedtime. I always thought she’d go back to school.

And onwards, abroad.

In the meantime, we decided not to extend our tour in Boston and instead requested to be assigned back overseas. We found that suburban life in America with small kids was way more of a hardship than life overseas as an expat in a developing country.

When we arrived in Guatemala in the summer of 2018, I killed myself researching local preschools. I toured ten different schools, I made spreadsheets to evaluate their various qualities and assigned a point system to how well each one fulfilled my top criteria.  But my daughter, now three, was seriously struggling — she had a new baby sister (five months old to the day when we moved), she had just left her grandparents and cousins after a month of 24/7 playtime, and now we had a new house, a new nanny, and new neighbors — all of whom spoke only Spanish.

I thought preschool was the answer — it would provide rhythm and structure to our days.  Plus, I felt like I was falling apart.  There had been a third VERY unexpected miscarriage the week of pack-out from our Boston house (just two months post-partum), and I was exhausted from the previous two years in the U.S.

We needed formal preschool at the time.  I needed the structure.  I needed my daughter out of the house so I could unpack and get some work done.  But, oh boy, was she struggling.  We’re talking epic daily meltdowns, spitting, kicking, screaming, literally climbing the walls (or trying to run away).  It was rough.

So, how does this all bring us to our current homeschool morning in February of 2019?

Our daughter will turn four in April, and she will be old enough to attend the fancy pre-k program across the street starting in the fall.  This school is THE elite school in all of Guatemala, and we’ve heard amazing things about it.  Of course she would attend!  We had to apply a full year in advance, and the application itself cost $270. There were admission essays. Interviews. Multiple tours. I rolled my eyes, but I did it all.

After she was accepted, we had thirty days to provide the enrollment fee of $3200.  No, this did not include tuition, uniforms, school bus fees, or any other materials. And then I learned the school bus arrived at 6:20am for four-year-olds.

Um.

Waffling.

I had joked to my husband about homeschooling since my oldest was born back in 2015. I read Susan Wise Bauer’s “The Well-Educated Mind” just for fun before I was even married.  It all sounded lovely and idealistic, but I was a professional and I would never stop working to homeschool my kids.

With the advent of this fancy (read: “expensive”) pre-k on the horizon, my jokes about homeschooling became more frequent, until I realized…I was serious. 

Besides, I missed my kid.  Since arriving in Guatemala, she had learned how to use the swings, write her name, and cross the monkey-bars, and I had missed it all.  I was so busy with getting the family settled, that I had spent very little time actually just hanging out with my kids.  I missed them.

So I posed the question about homeschooling to the universe (aka: posted it on Facebook) and started reading books. I started questioning everything — why did my kid need to study Native American log houses or Ancient Mesopotamia?  No, really, WHY?  Why did my kid need to spend three of the five hours of school-time lining up, walking to the next classroom or activity, waiting her turn at the literacy center?  How could a teacher, even a great one, possibly teach my kid better than I could, when he or she had to manage 20 other students of wildly differing abilities?  And what if my kid sparked an interest in volcanoes or bumblebees, but it wasn’t on the curricula?

As I was thinking through these issues, her current preschool called us in for the semester evaluation. We were told our kid was bright, but struggled to sit still.

“Um, she’s only three…” I tried to say.

“Yes, but she will need to be able to sit on the carpet during circle time next year and stand in line when she’s in formal school,” replied the teacher.

“But really, she’s only three, and extremely high-energy…”

“Still, she will have to master these skills,” the conversation went on, in an endless loop of frustration.

I started to wonder, why in the world do three- and four-year-olds even need circle time?  Is this a vital part of their development?  Why does my kid need to spend time standing in line and walking to the library, when we can just go as a family?  I’m not saying that patience and self-regulation aren’t important — these are vital! But I’d rather that she learn how to hold my hand and safely cross a parking lot, how to wait patiently in line with me at the supermarket, or how to calm herself down when I tell her that no, she can’t have ice cream for breakfast (as much as I’d love to eat ice cream for breakfast, too).

In other words, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that most traditional school environments were inefficient, out of touch, and one-size-fits-all in a way that didn’t match real life. 

And I really wasn’t happy about that 6:20am bus ride.

More so, I had started worrying about something else. Since we started the lovely Montessori preschool in Guatemala, it was true that my kid was better behaved and calmer.  But it also seemed like she had lost that spark.  The one that made her run up to the librarian and beg for a book that explained how fish could breath under water.  Or where penguins slept.  Or (my favorite), did cats fart?  

She did her schoolwork. She was sweet and attentive.  But that over-the-top enthusiasm for life?  Her trademark energy and joy in even the smallest discoveries?  These were being trained out of her in favor of standing quietly in line while the class walked to the playground.  Explosive joy was discouraged in favor of playing quietly and independently during tray-play time.

And again, I’m not saying that I don’t want my kid to be able to sit still when appropriate.  I want her to play independently.  But more than any of that, I want to hear her bursting with excitement over the leaf-cutter ants we’ve been tracking during our daily walk, or to wonder why some of the flowers in the field by our house are closed in the morning but open in the afternoon. 

I want to hear her exclaim to the neighbor, “I GOT NEW SHOES!!!” in utter joy at the pink sparkles, rather than a bland “Good morning.”   These are the qualities that make my daughter who she is.  

I want to teach respect and calm when we do a day trip to a colonial city and tour the local churches, and I want to teach how to manage money while she helps me do the weekly shopping.

I wanted to give them the kind of education that I wish I could have had, if only it had been an option.

As sweet as the local school was, it lacked so many elements that I felt were important in early education. I wanted to spend time reading amazing literature, conducting cool science projects, making fun recipes, and engaging with nature.  I wanted to do weekly poetry teatime,  a la Brave Writer.  I wanted to do extensive read-alouds from quality literature, per Charlotte Mason.  I want to spend oodles and oodles of time outdoors, exploring, journaling, observing.  I wanted to study real art and listen to real music, not just kids’ songs.  I wanted to learn right along with my kids, and give them the kind of education that I wish I could have had, if only it had been an option back then.

Most of all, I just wanted to be with my kids.

Despite all of this, I still wasn’t convinced. We live in Guatemala, and I wanted my kids to become fluent in Spanish. And I was scared about losing my personal time to work on other projects that I cared about. And I was theoretically about to start a new job as a nurse in the Embassy medical unit.

So I figured I would just have to do it all — enroll her in the super-expensive local pre-k for the Spanish immersion, spend the afternoon afterschooling to study the things we REALLY want to learn about, begin the nursing job, and continue working on the novel I’d just written, a process that I found incredibly rewarding and enriching.

Besides, how would I homeschool if I was working as a nurse? I couldn’t possibly turn the job down. After so many years of school, of striving, of resumes and cover letters…how could I walk away from it all, especially when there were perfectly acceptable schools nearby?  My girlfriends, all of whom are incredible professionals making truly important contributions in their fields, thought I was crazy.  They told me I was taking on too much.  They said I should wait to homeschool until we’re posted somewhere with terrible schools.

What would I talk about at reunions if I wasn’t Very Important?

This was inexpressibly difficult. I was the one in high school and college who was SO achievement-oriented — I was in every club and on every team, I went to all the camps and did all the extra credit.  I was going to Make a Difference.  I was going to be Very Important.

What would I talk about at reunions if I wasn’t Very Important?

This is still hard for me, but I just keep thinking about my parents. 

First, my dad was Dean of Admissions at two prestigious universities — the Naval Academy, and then Johns Hopkins University.  I nervously ran my homeschool plan by him, and I was shocked when he supported it.  I thought for sure he’d be opposed, based on his experience reading college admission applications.  And my mom, who stayed home to raise five kids while moving around in the Navy?  I thought she’d want her grandkids in school, both so I could work and Achieve My Potential and so her kids could go to a good college.

Nope.  The both said that being home with my kids was something I’d never regret.  And that they knew me, and they knew that if I decided to homeschool, my kids would be EDUCATED.

And my mom — the one who stayed home for 25 years raising those five kids?  Within ten years of us leaving the nest, she had worked her way up from part-time accountant to CEO and President of a naval defense contracting company.  She sold aircraft carriers to the military.  She was (and is) so incredibly badass, and she has shown me that it’s still possible to have an amazing professional career later in life.

So yea.  As the start date for the job inched closer, I felt the dread rising. I didn’t want this. I felt guilty for not wanting it, but I didn’t want it. The pre-k kept calling me, asking me to submit our matriculation fee, and I kept delaying. I did more reading, I made more spreadsheets. I waffled, oh boy did I waffle.

I drafted the email to turn down the job, and kept it in my inbox for a week.

And finally, terrified I was about to make the biggest mistake of my professional and parenting journey to date, I pressed send.

Simple joys in homeschooling abroad
Snuggling on the couch in-between read-alouds

So here we are.

Which brings us back to a Monday morning in February.  What did we do?

We lingered over breakfast, and read books.

We did pages from a workbook, and we were able to blow through three days of assignments in less than half an hour because my daughter loved having my full attention.  We jointly colored in the pages, hurrah-ed when she completed an exercise, and high-fived when she identified her letters.

We easily moved into playtime, driving her toy cars around a map pull-out from one of our readings, talking about different routes the cars could take to reach the library, the park, the houses.  We talked about the map key, so we’d know what all the buildings on the map were.

When a friend called and invited me over, it was easy to say yes — there was nothing scheduled! 

After we got home, we spent lunchtime reading more books.  After re-reading The Run-Away Bunny, we wondered aloud about burrows and how bunnies dig.  We looked up some You Tube videos and were both surprised to see how rabbits also use their noses to dig.  We listened and sang to some Spanish sing-alongs while we finished our lunch without rushing to the next thing on our list (because we had no firm list!)

Then, we snuggled on the couch while she had a small bowl of M&Ms (what a treat!), reading even more. After reading the story of The Nutracker, we turned on YouTube and watched a ballet version of the Nutcracker.  My daughter instantly started trying to dance along, which led to dress-up play and a full make-over and lots of twirling around the living room together.

We went out for a family walk around the neighborhood and played in the park, chatting with our neighbors.

We lingered over dinner.

The kids played for 45 minutes in the bathtub while I folded laundry.

By 7:15, hubby and I were on the couch eating homemade carnitas and homemade mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.

Guys, it was a great day.  It was quiet, it was relaxed, it was family-oriented.  We didn’t have a single meltdown.  This is huge.  Instead of fighting her to finish her breakfast and get dressed for school, we just…hung out.  Instead of a big meltdown after school because she was exhausted and over-stimulated, we snuggled on the couch and ate treats.  

And I still had time to meet a friend, work on some projects at home (today it was batch cooking), and take care of the house. And lest you think I was ignoring the baby, she was right there in the room while we were reading, or in her high chair while I had a book propped up.  She was in my arms while hanging out with my friend, and she was digging through the stacks of books while big sister danced like a ballerina.

In one relaxed day, we covered literature, classical music, geography, outdoor play, TONS of reading and hand-writing practice, natural science, physical education, and math.  We snuggled.  We cooked real food.  We followed our interests.  I was able to get some of my own work done.  I spent time with my husband.  I went to bed at a reasonable hour, and I was able to read a book for pleasure before I did so.

Less “musts” and more freedom.

I find the joy from simple days like these to be addictive. Sure, the money and professional advancement from the nursing job would be great. And if my kid thrived in a traditional school setting, we’re lucky enough to have good local options. But we moved to Guatemala to have a different life: quieter, more connected, more joy, more adventure. Less “musts” and more freedom.

I can’t imagine trading that for a life of hustle and stress, just to have a few more dollars in the bank account or a better answer to “What do you do for a living?” at dinner parties.

I know it’s not for everybody. And I know there are families that depend on two incomes. Not everyone has the ability to move abroad. But it’s not about re-creating this exact scenario – it’s not even about homeschooling.

It’s about figuring out how we want to spend our days, what gives us joy.

It’s about re-assessing the traditional “school-SATs-college-graduate school-fancy job-mortgage-kids-minivan” trajectory.

I am learning to follow the joy. To embrace the slow. To accept that — this is it. This is our life, right now.

We’re are already in it. No matter how many spreadsheets I make, the days will keep ticking by.

At some point, you just have to jump.

So here we are, expats in Guatemala, homeschooling abroad, following the joy.

What about you? What would your ideal day look like? How would you spend your time? More importantly, who would you spend that time with?

homeschooling abroad
Hopping through the park at sunset — Guatemala

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