Monday, September 3, 2018

A Charlotte Mason Teacher

By Karen Glass

Not long ago, a homeschool mom on our AmblesideOnline Facebook group (link is in the menu above) was struggling with all that a Charlotte Mason education entails. She is not alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed! This is part of her dilemma:

“"Now I've signed on to CM's philosophy of education. So this means I simultaneously believe ON TOP OF TEACHING ALL BASIC SUBJECTS I need to:
•Secure AT THE LEAST a half day a week in a rural setting, and even in this I’m failing my younger children who ought to have 4 hours a day or more.
•Sustain constant vigilance in habit training
•Feed my own knowledge of wildlife so I have something to pass down
•Feed my own intellectual life so I have something to offer my children as they grow
•Constantly be modeling good habits in everything
•Lead my children in daily devotions

While teaching my 6yo:
•A foreign language
•Art appreciation
•Watercoloring painting
•To play an instrument
•Music appreciation
•A purposeful handicraft
•Folk songs

This is on top of the basic responsibilities of caring for my 4 yo and infant son."

I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but then it hit me. There is a philosophical problem here, and I'm writing this is because I hope it will help bring things into focus for this mom and others like her. The problem (I think) is the word "teach." That implies a certain picture, in which you, the teacher, are imparting knowledge to your student, and that he is receiving it from you. That’s not the relationship between teacher and pupil in a Charlotte Mason paradigm.

Let me recast your question in a different context. Suppose you were feeling conflicted in a different area, and you felt like this:

“You mean in addition to providing seasonally appropriate clothing, shoes and outerwear for my six-year-old 365 days of the year and maintaining a safe shelter adequate to protect him and keep him warm, I also have to insure that he grows taller and heavier? That his hands and feet grow, and his bones? That his blood supply increases as he grows to meet his larger size? That his heart and lungs develop greater strength to support his larger body? How am I supposed to do all that for him, and my two younger children as well??”

Do you see the problem? You aren’t responsible for insuring that your child grows larger, let alone looking after specific details like making sure his blood supply increases. He will do those things for himself—all of them—under the right conditions, and the condition is that you provide him adequate and nourishing meals. And yes, several times per day, 365 days per year, and if you think of it all at once, it’s overwhelming. But you do it one day at time and one meal at a time. You consider what kind of food will make the most nutritious meals, and you will even take your child’s taste into account, but you’ll also make it a point to introduce him to a wide variety of things and give him a chance to learn to like all the best kinds of food. And it’s a big job—it takes time and money—but it’s done in small increments and one “off” day in appetite or indulging in extra junk food doesn’t ruin the long term effect. Your child is fed and grows physically, as he is made to do.

Now, that is the right picture for a Charlotte Mason paradigm. You aren’t going to “teach” your child all those things, any more than you are going to eat and digest your child’s meals. You are just going to put that food in front of him—you might insist that he eat, but hunger is on your side—and he does all the rest himself. You are going to spread a wide feast for your child—an intellectual banquet—and make him sit down to the table. His natural appetite for knowledge works in your favor, but you don’t force-feed him. He’ll take what he needs, intellectually, and he’ll grow—oh, how he’ll grow. Long before he is old enough to leave home, you will come face to face with a situation in which your child knows more than you do about something, and how did that happen? Because that’s how this works. You feed them; they do the growing themselves.

In that context, a Charlotte Mason education becomes no more complex than some basic meal planning. You aren’t making your child’s liver function properly—you’re just making him a sandwich. You aren’t “teaching art appreciation”—you’re just looking a painting. Or a tree. Or reading an interesting bit of history or singing a song or enjoying a great story.

Education is the science of relations is the principle that lies underneath what we do, and ties everything together. When you break it down into all its component parts—as you must do when  put it on paper with labels like “history” and “science” and “art”—it can feel a bit overwhelming,  just as it would if you had to break down all the necessary vitamins, minerals, phyto-nutrients, etc, that your child needs to grow properly. But what it still looks like, on a day to day basis, is breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and healthy snacks (most of the time). When we talk about the theory and philosophy of what we do—nutritional science or educational philosophy—it sounds more complicated than it actually is.

You can over-complicate anything. Suppose you approached the making of a single meal with the same analytical micro-focus. You have to make sure that you have 20 separate ingredients, as well as bowls, pans, knives, and other utensils. You have to wash and chop carrots AND onions AND celery. You have to peel eight potatoes and cut them into pieces. You have to measure five different seasonings; you have to keep the heat at the correct temperature, etc, etc, etc, and that’s just the soup course. In practice, it’s far less complex than it sounds on paper, and that’s true for education, too. When we talk about it and look at all the different bits individually it feels like a huge, overwhelming job, but when you get in there and start doing it, it all falls into place. You feel how forgiving some things can be. You have two carrots instead of four? It will be okay. Throw in some extra celery or onions, or half of a chopped bell pepper. Some things are less flexible. Don’t mess with the baking powder measurement if you’re making a cake, but experience will teach you (quickly) which things are flexible, and which things needs to be firmly adhered to.

This is firmly embedded in the principles. The twelfth principle is “Education is the science of relations.” That’s a little bit like “Hungry growing children need to be fed meals.” You absolutely can do this if you keep “education is the science of relations” firmly in mind and don’t let yourself get bogged down or overwhelmed by the details.

“Education is the Science of Relations”; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of––
          “Those first-born affinities; That fit our new existence to existing things.” (Principle #12)

Did you catch that? Our business is not to teach him all about anything. That’s a principle (or part of one). Just fix the plate and set it in front of him. Encourage him to take a bite. Take a bite yourself and let your children know it’s delicious. Listen to music. Read a book. Talk to each other about it. Observe the ants on the sidewalk. Take delight in a sunset. You don’t really remind yourself every day that your children are hungry and need to be fed—that becomes a part of your life and you live it. If you can embed “education is the science of relations” that deeply and intuitively into your educational life, you will be a Charlotte Mason teacher.


  1. Bravo. Such a wonderfully clear analogy. I hope it helps the mom who posed the original question - and so many more like her!

  2. Beautifully said, Karen. Even those of us who have believed and practiced this way of life for ages need to be reminded of these truths periodically. Thank you!

  3. OH MY! This is such a Beautiful response to that question which i saw and remembered feeling, "yes fellow Mama, i have felt the same way so often" Thank you!

  4. I think I need to read this over again at the beginning of every school year, so I'm going to print it out and put it at the front of my planning binder. Thank you!

  5. Great analogy. I wasn't feeling as stressed as the OP but I really get on a deeper level what my responsibility is.

  6. Such wonderful practical encouragement.

  7. Thank you for this. I love the connections in Mason's writing between feeding the body and feeding the mind.