Parenthood requires making innumerable complex decisions. One of the most pressing and crucial choices that parents must make is where — and how — to educate their children.
Today, parents have more options for schooling than previous generations had. Public schools, private secular schools, and Islamic schools are available in many cities. In addition, mothers and fathers around the world are increasingly choosing to homeschool. With so many pros and cons to each education option, it can be a difficult choice to make.
What is best for our family? For our child’s individual needs? For our family budget? For our child’s Islamic foundation and academic future? These are just some of the topics that guide parents’ thinking and decision-making.
Throughout seventeen years of parenting five children in the United States, I have realized that the education quandary does not ever really resolve itself, since family dynamics and circumstances are ever-changing. What works for a few years with certain children might not be the best solution down the line, when new parameters are introduced.
For my own family, depending on where we were living, our resources at the time, and the ages and personalities of our children, we have actually embraced the whole gamut of education options. Over the years, we have enrolled our children in public schools, private secular schools, and Islamic schools. We also spent five years homeschooling. One constant, however, has always remained: we have always strived to provide the very best education for our children and to make their Islamic formation a top priority.
When people ask my opinion on the best way to educate children, I always tell them that no system is 100% perfect. Each educational option has pros and cons, so a family must decide which one most appeals to them at a given time and then embrace the positive aspects of it. The following list is meant to provide food for thought for parents who need to decide how to educate their children. Obviously not everyone will have the same experiences, choices, preferences, and circumstances, but I hope my observations might help guide you to the best decision for your family.
Pros: Homeschooling your children can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling. Each and every lesson taught in a Muslim’s home can potentially be infused with Islamic values and presented in a way that honors the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh). Furthermore, lessons can be tailored to each child’s academic needs, learning style, and preferences; if a child excels in a certain area, she can proceed at an accelerated pace, and if she is struggling, she can go as slowly as she needs to grasp the material.
With homeschooling, no time is wasted on school drop-offs and pick-ups, unnecessary classroom “busy work,” daily wardrobe drama, or on the mundane necessity of compelling 20 or more children to do the same activity all at once. Imagine how efficient it can be for a parent to teach one child a lesson at her own level, versus a teacher instructing a whole classroom of children at various levels of ability, maturity, and focus!
I found that I could easily complete my young children’s daily lessons in 3 hours or less, leaving plenty of time for unstructured play, reading, crafts, and outside activities.
Homeschooling allows children to experience learning outside of classroom walls and away from the confines of a desk. Most homeschoolers spend very little time, actually, in the home, but instead enrich their education with field trips, activities, volunteer work, travel, sports, and social activities. The world becomes their classroom, and they experience the joy of interacting with people of different ages and backgrounds, and exploring so much more than a traditional school can provide.
Homeschooled children tend to be more resourceful, creative, unique, and adept at interacting with others. They do not feel as much pressure to conform to their peers, and, because their social life is orchestrated purposefully by their parents, they usually spend time with like-minded people of whom their parents approve.
The other side
Cons: As wonderful as homeschooling can be, it is not for everyone. Obviously at least one parent needs to stay at home with the children and be the primary educator. Not all families can manage this financially, and not all parents have a personality that is conducive to teaching and guiding children all day long.
In nearly all the homeschooling families I have known, the mother is the primary stay-at-home homeschool teacher while the father is the breadwinner, but this need not be the case. Fathers can and do become very active in the homeschooling process, taking on the responsibility of teaching one or more subjects, coaching sports, taking children to activities, and helping to plan the religious and academic curriculum.
However, even with a supportive spouse, the bulk of the responsibility falls on the stay-at-home parent. It can be exhausting and overwhelming to juggle the day-to-day duties of child care, cooking, cleaning, errand-running, and homeschooling. For me, trying to educate my older children while simultaneously meeting the incessant needs of an infant or toddler was the most challenging aspect of all.
A final note about homeschooling: it can be difficult for parents to see their own children clearly. Without expert training and/or objectivity, a parent might not recognize if their child has a learning disability, developmental delay, speech impediment, or a special need that might require an individualized education program or even medical intervention.
Sometimes it takes a trained, objective outsider to spot a child’s idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, whereas a public school will often cover the cost of specialized help, homeschoolers usually need to pay for services (like speech or occupational therapy) out of pocket.
Pros: If you are blessed to live near a full-time Islamic school, it might be an excellent choice for your children. Quran, Arabic, and Islamic Studies are core subjects in most Islamic schools, and children usually make rapid progress in these important areas, especially when they are introduced to them at a young age.
Interacting each day with teachers and staff who wear Islamic clothing and use Islamic manners inspires youngsters to see their faith as normal and positive. This is particularly important for families living in a non-Muslim-majority country. Children at Islamic schools have role models wherever they look, and they usually feel valued and comfortable in their environment.
Most Islamic schools introduce children to the masjid at a young age, and it becomes a second home to them. They learn how to behave properly in the “House of Allah” and to associate it with peace, unity, and learning.
Islamic schools obviously celebrate Muslim holidays, so Ramadan and the two Eids are full of meaning, joy, and camaraderie. Children at Islamic schools usually do not have to navigate the tricky world of non-Muslim holidays, or decide whether or not to partake in their school’s Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter festivities. Finally, children easily make Muslim friends at Islamic school. Positive, wholesome friendships are of crucial importance, especially as children enter adolescence.
Cons: Islamic schools can be expensive, and not all families can afford the tuition. Also, since they often try to hire only Muslim teachers, Islamic schools might have a small pool of educators to choose from.
While many Islamic school teachers are well-prepared, proficient, and up-to-date with the latest educational trends, it must be said that some of the teachers are stuck in the past and/or inadequately trained. Some of them employ techniques that are inappropriate in modern classrooms.
For instance, at my children’s former Islamic school, one teacher implemented many of the same “strategies” that she had experienced as a schoolchild fifty years ago. She would routinely walk around sniffing the little girls’ hijabs “to see if their mothers had been cleaning them” and scolding them if they were not fresh enough for her liking.
If a student’s handwriting was not up to her standards, she would crumple the work up and throw it in the trash, in front of the whole class. Those kind of tactics might have been considered normal decades ago in the country she grew up in, but nowadays most educators know that humiliating children does not inspire them to learn, and such teaching practices would not be tolerated.
Furthermore, when sending a child to Islamic school, a parent must realize that not every teacher in the school will have a strong Islamic studies background, and might not practice the deen in the same way they do.
Unknowledgeable teachers might present cultural beliefs and superstitions as “facts.” Also, parents who choose Islamic school should not assume that their child’s peers come from like-minded families.
I was surprised at how many of my kids’ classmates casually, openly talked about having boyfriends and girlfriends (at the ages of 8 and 9!) and other practices that opened my eyes to the wide spectrum of Islamic adherence (or non-adherence), even amongst families who voluntarily pay extra money for Islamic education. If you choose Islamic school based on the assumption that your child will be surrounded by wholesome children from extremely pious families, you might be disappointed.
In the next part, the author will explore other education options like private secular schools and public schools.