Like a lot of other families, we recently completed Term 1 of the NSW school year. Only this year our first term has been very different to any other in the past nine years because we are travelling through Latin America. School, for the moment, has been replaced with laptops and tablets.
In June last year my husband, Gary, and I sold our house in Little Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, quit our jobs and bought a one way ticket to Mexico. We have two daughters, Amalia, just 12 and in Year 7, and Ruby, almost 10 and in Year 5.
The single biggest reason we decided to take this journey was to reconnect as a family and spend quality time with our kids. We arrived in Mexico in mid December 2015 and have spent the last four months traveling through Mexico and Cuba. Since the end of January both girls have been attending school online via the NSW Board of Studies Distance Education program.
Before we left Australia life was hectic. School hours aren’t really designed for families where two parents work, so there is the inevitable juggle of drop offs and pick ups and after school activities. Living in Sydney we were out of the house at 7:30am (or earlier) and home around 7 or 8pm most nights. Weekends involved sport, grocery shopping and cleaning, and there wasn’t much time in between for quality family time. We spent all our spare money on holidays where we could spend time together but it just wasn’t enough.
I know I am not the only mother who struggles with both the need to work (life is expensive) and desire to work (I actually love working), and the need and desire to spend more time with my kids. I felt like I was going to click my fingers and my daughters would be all grown up, and that I was going to miss the essence of that time because we were on the treadmill. I felt like time was running out before they weren’t going to need me so much any more, and that scared me.
Listen to Rachel talk to Holly Wainwright and Andrew Daddo in the latest episode of The Glorious Mess. (Post continues after audio.)
I wanted to have a relationship with my girls that was more than ‘shouty mummy’, who is always nagging about getting out of the house, cleaning teeth, finishing homework, and the rest. How the hell was I going to find more time so I could be the mum I had hoped I could be? The mum who, like my mum, managed to work AND teach me how to cook, how to sew, how to be a responsible citizen, and who is the person I can always talk to and rely on, no matter what.
When we sold our house suddenly all of a sudden everything fell into perspective. The need to work, at least for the short term, was reduced. Amalia was finishing primary school and I knew there was a small window before she needed me less and her friends more.
So we decided to take a different path and to invest the money in a new way. Rather than a different house with a bigger mortgage (and all the trappings), we opted to buy time with our kids and a set of experiences that in some ways money just can’t buy. A one way ticket to Mexico and a journey through Latin America.
But what about Amalia and Ruby’s education? Up until this year our daughters' school years have been fairly straightforward. They had been to the same NSW public school since Kindy and apart from the occasional news presentation and Mathletics tasks, most of their school work was done at school. Which means I didn’t have much insight into what they did in the classroom or the volume of work. Boy has that changed in the past 2 ½ months!
Before we left we explored the options for schooling on the road. Philosophically we hoped this journey would give them an education that reaches far beyond the classroom, and open their eyes to the wonder of the world, along with giving them an appreciation for what they have and what they can offer.
Practically we decided that we probably should keep up their formal education so they could fit back into their year groups when we eventually come home. Initially we thought homeschooling would be the answer, but it turns out you can’t be on the road for that. So we opted for Distance Education through the NSW Board of Studies.
The application and enrollment was pretty straight forward. We sent in the required reams of paperwork, paid a minimal fee (around $150 for primary and $500 for secondary), received our acceptance and welcome packs and we were ready to go.
All of Ruby’s lessons and coursework is done on the iPad using a variety of different apps. Amalia’s work is done via a combination of scanned worksheets and an online education portal where she submits her work. On the surface of it the learning that follows should be similar to face-to-face learning in the classroom. But is it really? What is doing Distance Education really like?
Overall I would say that it is a good program, and we are lucky to have access to it. When we tell people from other countries that our girls are studying Distance Education through schools in Australia they are blown away. Not many kids would have such an amazing opportunity.
Not sure how to get podcasts in to your phone? It's free, and easy, and now even easier with our new app for iPhones. Here's how it works:
The girls have both been challenged and have felt a huge sense of achievement in finishing the first term. They are keeping up with maths, which I think is important, and are learning a few things along the way academically. The biggest lessons they are learning, however, are not academic and can’t be found on the worksheets.
They are learning about themselves - what they are willing to put into their own learning, how to work and follow instructions independently (often with no teacher input), resilience, about not giving up or giving in no matter how hard it feels, how to dig deep and finish things they don’t enjoy and/or don’t want to do.
And as a byproduct, Gary and I are learning too. Importantly, the time we spend together as supervisors and students, we are developing our relationships in ways we never could have back in Sydney.
Are you ready to see the photos of this amazing life change? (Post continues after gallery.)
However, although the program is good, there are some drawbacks and some challenges that we never anticipated, some good and some not so good. Here are a few pointers on our perspective:
For starters, we are on the road and that creates its own challenges, school or no school. We are constantly on the move, and school days sometimes fall on days we are visiting sights and museums, traveling long distances in the car, or going on an adventure (snorkelling, whale watching, climbing pyramids, that sort of thing). Which means that there are no ‘typical’ school days. Before we left we were encouraged to get into a routine for school each day. We try, but on many occasions it is just not practical.
We are very reliant on the internet for research and for submitting work. And the internet is not always reliable or available, which presents its own set of challenges. Just after the beginning of term we flew to Cuba for a month, where the internet is only available in some cities and towns, and accessed by hour long wifi connections in a central park or plaza.
Sitting on a park bench trying to submit work is not ideal, especially when the connections are diabolically slow and constantly drop out. We got quite behind in that first month and had to spend an intensive two weeks in Mexico City doing 8 - 10 hours every day, including weekends, just getting up to date. It was really, really challenging and at times we all felt like we wanted to give up.
The workload is big, especially for Amalia in Year 7. The program is designed around set weekly tasks which in theory is meant to be 3 - 4 hours / school day / week. In reality the workload is probably double that. Let’s not forget that this is new learning for the girls, not revision, so a lot of the work requires sitting together to understand the lessons and set tasks.
Supervision is HARD! We are, first and foremost, parents, and the role of supervisor can be hugely challenging. As supervisors, Gary and I are responsible for ensuring the girls complete their work and submit it back to their teachers by the due date. We are also part-time teachers, working through problems and concepts, helping research and so on. This is a role outside our normal relationships and can present some issues.
It was especially hard when we were catching up in Mexico City and the girls were working long hours day after day. Tensions would mount, they would fight back and sometimes would get in a real funk about the whole program. That’s usually when tempers would fray and we’d end up in an argument.
The interaction, or lack of it, with peers and teachers is incredibly isolating and challenging. The Primary setup is somewhat better that Secondary. Ruby has scheduled live lessons (which we can’t always make due to the time zone), and she has a closed social media group with her peers and teachers where she can interact and post photos and stories. Amalia unfortunately has nothing like this, and for a Year 7 student where peers are so important, this has been one of the most disappointing aspects of the year so far.
So overall it has been challenging. There have been days when we have felt that our trip is being ruled by Distance Education and that the balance hasn’t been there. After all, we didn’t come on this journey to be a slave to the laptop and tablet, and to spend our days inside hotel rooms so we could get worksheets done.
But on the other hand we have all learnt a great deal about ourselves, parents included. The feeling of achievement when Amalia handed in that final assignment was felt by us all. I asked the girls if this had been the hardest school term of their lives, and they didn’t hesitate. “Yes!” they both cried, “so hard.” But with grins on their faces, knowing they really had achieved so much. Bring on term 2 (I think!).
OMO tackles tough stains from your clothes, so that you can give your children the freedom to get dirty and experience life through real, unstructured play. We believe that dirt shouldn’t be a dirty word as it helps our kids prepare better for tomorrow.
Discover exclusive real play ideas at www.omo.com.au/realplay