My first job out of college was teaching biology, chemistry, physics, and vocational agriculture at Triway High School in rural Wooster, Ohio. I lasted for six weeks. The school environment was such a downer, from the smoke-filled teachers’ lounge to my young co-workers who were teaching mainly, it seemed to me, to avoid service in Vietnam. So when a reporting job became available, I jumped on it, leaving Ohio forever. Years later I returned to teaching, this time at Stanford University, where I worked for six years. Now, 37 years after Stanford, I’m teaching my kids at home thanks to COVID-19. You may be teaching your kids, too. This column is my attempt to make your job easier.

It’s not that I’m God’s gift to teaching, but I got something of a head start by homeschooling both my son Fallon, who turns 14 on Sunday and Channing, who is 18, for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years. My third son Cole, who turned 16 last Sunday, remained in public school during that time as our statistical control.

Homeschooling wasn’t my idea, but Fallon hated the very good charter school his brothers had loved and begged to come home. Channing was the exact opposite. Channing loved school, just not school work. When I pulled him out of high school his GPA was 0.167. Think about that number for a moment. How is that even possible for a big strong kid who takes a physical education class every semester to score that low? I still don’t get it.

Fallon didn’t like the social environment of school while Channing — riding some kind of hormonal high — loved the social but completely ignored the educational parts. With Mama at work, however, homeschooling was an all-male experience, which turned out to be half the solution for Channing, who was much better at concentrating without the distraction of pretty blondes and Latinas.

Homeschooling is not simply transferring the educational experience from one setting to another. They are inherently different activities and it is a huge mistake to think otherwise. If you are a month into teaching because of COVID-19 maybe you’ve noticed this.

Around here at least, the schools are pretending it’s just a change of venue rather than a change of philosophy. The schools are wrong about this.

It’s important to think here in terms of aligned interests. This COVID-19 academic impact has been forced on all of us — students, parents, and teachers alike — but we all come to it from different positions and with different values. In California the school district is very much vested in keeping money coming from the state, so they are leaning hard on distance education. Teachers are, too, because they want to keep their jobs. But here’s the important thing to remember: teachers — even teachers with decades of classroom experience — often have ZERO homeschooling experience. So what they tell you to do and what they expect is often just plain wrong for your kids.

I took a very analytical approach to homeschool back in 2017. First I looked at how the school district ran its own homeschooling programs. Homeschooling is popular now and if the district can keep its hand in, then they can keep getting that money from the state. But inherently, since they run schools with buildings, the districts tend to look down on homeschooling and prefer bricks and mortar. This is not a recipe for homeschooling success, where their programs often aren’t very good.

Then there are third-party homeschooling programs where you use someone else’s syllabus and tests, whether it’s a for-profit program or even Stanford, which runs its own online secondary school. These programs are often expensive and they don’t know your kids. Certainly, they didn’t know my kids.

Now, this goes beyond the scope of COVID instruction, but I created my own private school with just two students and got it approved by the State of California, which allowed ME to create the curriculum and decide what constitutes success.

Then I looked at a normal brick & mortar school day. When did it start, when did it end, how much time was spent in actual instruction, etc.? It soon became clear that public school is actually a three hours-per-day activity. That’s how long our school day became. For three hours per day (typically 90 minutes in the morning and 90 in the afternoon) we three sat in a room and worked at school.

No matter what your school may say, three hours per day is plenty of time if used properly.

My boys were four years apart in age so it wasn’t a matter of me teaching them together. For that matter, there wasn’t that much teaching at all. We did a lot of talking. We solved a lot of problems. We used some on-line resources, sure, but mainly we didn’t. Mainly we followed their interests and tried to connect those to the curriculum plan.

COVID instruction is hopefully just for a few more weeks, so here I’ll diverge from telling what seemed to work for us. Don’t sweat it too much. The schools here have said that grades can only be improved during this time and can’t go down. So no kid is going to flunk COVID unless they were flunking pre-COVID. But being kind to yourself and to your kids does not mean doing nothing. Spend time with them, do at least some of the work they’ve been given, but mainly talk about stuff. This is a unique chance to get to know your children.

Remember Cole, the one who stayed in school? He had all A’s going into lock-down. How could he improve on that? So Cole has been taking it pretty easy and who am I to argue against that? After all, this is the kid who pulled himself out of bed at dawn for two years when his brothers were sleeping-in. 

Cole is fine. And most likely your kids are fine, too.

If homeschooling is something you’d consider post-COVID, there are two additional points I’d like to make. The first is about testing. While I was very relaxed about the day-to-day I was very concerned about achieving our goals as students and parents and that required testing. There are a ton of standardized tests you can find online for your kids. We chose to use the Stanford Achievement Test Series from Pearson but there are many others. At the end of every semester, we’d take a day to test the kids and figure out where they stood. That way Fallon, who was home for sixth and seventh grades, could be assured that he was prepared to go into eighth grade. And Channing knew he was ready to graduate from high school.

Testing also showed where we needed work and it’s there where I reached out for professional help. I chose Wyzant, one of many online tutoring companies, to fill some holes in math for both boys and to help Channing with English.

The trick here was to choose the right tutor. It took us a while to find the right people, but once we did it was amazing. Ninety minutes twice a week for a month or two was enough to fill those holes because the tutors we chose were superstars. Like Mr. Salome, the retired high school math teacher from Sacramento. Imagine the best math teacher you ever knew — that was Mr. Salome, who worked with both boys.

Sal Khan of Khan Academy is great, but Sal doesn’t know your kids.

By the same token, Mr. Salome wasn’t my kids’ teacher, he was a specialist tutor. I was the teacher, just as you are with your children.

Fallon could have continued homeschooling, but he decided it was time to go back to the eighth grade. Geeky little Fallon had grown six inches and spent two years arguing with his big brother and me, so he was more than ready for middle school, where he is now a leader.

And Channing, with his 0.167 GPA, aced the California High School Proficiency Examination and moved on to the local junior college a year ahead of his peers. Once this COVID business is behind us, he’ll move on to a four-year college or university, possibly to study — I kid you not — vocational agriculture.