With 12 years of experience teaching her five daughters at home, Melissa McMahan, as the school year approaches and families decide what their children’s educations will look like, has become a go-to resource.
“There is one thing for sure. There will be nothing typical about this year, not even for us,” McMahan said. “The only thing any of us can expect this year is the unexpected.”
Decatur’s McMahan family — Mike, Melissa and daughters Elizabeth, 17, Amelia, 15, Madeline, 13, Anna Kate, 12, and Lucy, 8 — offered a peek into how one family created a school environment at home.
“There has been a lot of interest in home schooling recently. Some parents were already considering home schooling and the coronavirus was the push they needed to commit. Others are considering it for the first time,” McMahan said. “I encourage them to look at all of the options, in the public school and beyond.”
Faced with concerns over the coronavirus, Decatur City Schools offered students the options of traditional, blended or virtual instruction. Last week, Superintendent Michael Douglas reported 30% of students opted for virtual or blended, which means children will be learning from home and connecting with teachers via the internet.
While elements of virtual school and home school overlap — with students in both situations learning from home — McMahan stressed that virtual learning looks very different from home schooling.
“With virtual, you still have a teacher leading the class and the parent is there to make sure children are doing the homework,” McMahan said. “With home schooling, the parent is responsible for creating the lessons and deciding what to study. If people want to home-school, it is important for them to know the reasons why and what direction they want to take their child’s education.”
For the McMahans, a desire to spend more time with their oldest daughter spurred Mike and Melissa, both products of public schools and neither with a teaching background, to start home schooling.
“We were both happy with the education we got in public school, but this was something we wanted to try for our family. We decided to take it child by child and year by year,” Melissa McMahan said. “I’m probably as surprised as anyone that we are still doing it.”
Now, 12 years later, Melissa McMahan oversees the education of Elizabeth, a senior, Amelia, a junior, Madeline, an eighth grader, Anna Kate, a seventh grader, and Lucy, a third grader. At the end of each year, Mike and Melissa talk to their daughters about whether they want to continue with home schooling or transition into public school.
“It’s been wonderful,” Elizabeth McMahan said. “For me, I’ve always wanted to continue with home schooling because I’m able to spend time with my family and it gives me a lot of flexibility, which has allowed me, this year, to enter the EMT program at Calhoun.”
Instead of the August to May session followed by public schools, the McMahans start in June, take an extended break during Thanksgiving and Christmas and end in the spring.
The school day typically begins at 8 and ends at noon. From the kitchen table, which overlooks the pool in the backyard — an incentive during the summer months — the girls study poetry, Shakespearean plays, artists, composers, history, math and science.
When Elizabeth and Amelia advanced to higher level math and science courses, they began taking classes at the STEM Academy in Huntsville, where they also study Spanish.
“As their parent and their teacher, I have to know my limitations. On the internet, you can order lab science kits with calf brains, but I knew I wasn’t that kind of mom,” said Melissa McMahan, who uses a free curriculum on the internet and the Decatur Public Library as resources.
Along with the core subjects, the girls explore topics interesting to them. That led to Elizabeth enrolling in Calhoun’s EMT program, Amelia studying cybersecurity and Anna Kate creating a comic book.
While the flexibility of home schooling allows the McMahans to participate in community arts programs and take extended field trips — last year, Melissa, Elizabeth and Amelia traveled to London after studying about England’s history and culture — Melissa McMahan acknowledged that public school provides opportunities not offered in home school.
“Our home-school community has a prom and sports team and my girls are involved with the arts, but they’ve missed out on the clubs and activities schools offer and the leadership opportunities that go with them,” Melissa McMahan said.
As far as the assumption that home-schooled students lack socialization, Melissa McMahan said her daughters remain connected through church, arts and community activities.
“People usually ask about socialization. Yes, they aren’t in a classroom with 30 people their own age all day, but they are around lots of different people and different ages because of their varied experiences,” Melissa McMahan said.
Before deciding whether to home-school, the McMahans encouraged families to research the different philosophies associated with home schooling.
“Each home-school family will look completely different depending on their needs,” Melissa McMahan said. “Some opt for a very traditional school where others are on the other end of the spectrum and follow unschooling. It’s good to find people who share your same philosophy. Once you start digging, you find out the home-school community is much larger than you thought.”
While the McMahans miss out on sick days and snow days, Melissa McMahan said the time spent with her daughters made home schooling the right decision for their family.
“Every family has to decide what is best for their children. For us, that has been home schooling. I have really enjoyed spending the extra time with my children. I especially appreciate it now, knowing that my oldest is about to graduate. This has been a very special time,” Melissa McMahan said.