In this homeschool interview, we speak to Kathryn Butler, MD about why she chose to give up her career as a surgeon to home educate her gifted son. Kathryn’s interview is an amazing story of a woman who left a career that took years to build to homeschool her son who was having difficulty with the traditional education model implemented in many schools.
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In this homeschooling interview, we ask Kathryn the following questions:
- Tell us about your family and home life
- What made you stop your surgical career to start homeschooling?
- Did you feel it was difficult to give up work for homeschooling (and was it worth it)?
- Have you noticed any benefits of homeschooling compared to school?
- What are the top reasons you chose to homeschool?
- How did you choose your homeschooling method and curriculum?
- Do you use technology a lot in your homeschool, and why do you/do you not choose to use it?
- What is homeschooling like? Would you say it’s harder work than you expected or not?
- What is the biggest problem with homeschooling and how have you gotten around it?
- You blog on many topics. What topics do you prefer writing about and why?
- You have written a book. Why did you write it and what is it about?
Let’s go and meet Kathryn…
1. Tell us about your family and home life
I’m a trauma and critical care surgeon by training but have swapped the operating room for a living room littered with kids’ books. My husband, two children, and I live in a wooded area north of Boston.
My son is nearly 6 years old and is highly gifted with sensory processing differences, and my daughter is 3.5 yrs. We spend our days reading (and reading and reading), playing games, visiting with friends, and playing at the parks and in the forest near our home.
2. What made you stop your surgical career to start homeschooling?
The most all-encompassing answer is that it was a calling. I loved my work, but it kept me away from home 70-90 hours a week, leaving my husband to juggle caring for the kids with working a finance job from home.
Not only were my hours demanding, but I also felt an overwhelming obligation to my patients that kept my mind always at the hospital, even when I was physically home. Meanwhile, my son started to read on his own when he turned three and was having daily meltdowns of nuclear proportions.
It was clear he was going to need more than traditional schooling could provide. Most importantly, I was reading the book of Deuteronomy, and Deut 6:7 convicted my heart. It so clearly indicated that teachings about God shouldn’t be compartmentalized to Sundays, but rather should infuse our days.
As I reflected upon the passage, it was clear I could not impress the ways of the Lord on my kids when we rose, and when we walked in the way, if I was never there. We live in an area of the world that frowns upon Christian values, so I knew the schools couldn’t provide this either.
The turning point was when I saw a patient in clinic whose life I had saved after he’d been stabbed in the heart. He was homeless and struggling when he came through the hospital doors, but after his traumatic ordeal, he turned his life around and was studying to be a nurse.
Talking with him after he recovered was one of those incredibly satisfying moments in medicine, but all I could think was, “If I hadn’t been on call that night, one of my partners would have done the same thing for this young man.”
I realized that although my career had seemed so crucial, I was replaceable at work, while my kids only have one mom. And my family was really suffering in my absence.
Dallas Willard wrote a wonderful quote, that really resonated with me: “You give to God not through your accomplishments, but through the person you become.” I realized that if I continued in my current trajectory, I would be risking my family’s well-being for the sake of my pride.
3. Did you feel it was difficult to give up work for homeschooling (and was it worth it)?
Yes, and yes!!
I left practice at an inflection point in my career when my department had just announced my promotion as the director of medical student education in surgery at my hospital. I had my dream job. Furthermore, my work had defined me for so long, that it was incredibly difficult to leave.
Even afterwards, when I was well into the rhythm of homeschooling, I struggled with the issue of stewardship – was it right for me to put away these finely-honed clinical skills when God had carried me through a decade of specialized training?
Now, those anxieties have ceded to gratitude.
Homeschooling was never “the plan,” but it has been such a rich blessing for our family. Especially given my son’s unique needs, it is a point of grace that we were able to walk down this path.
4. Have you noticed any benefits of homeschooling compared to school?
Yes! My son is very cognitively advanced (he is not yet six but reads at a middle school level, and just this week told me he wanted to move onto 4th-grade math topics because 3rd-grade work is too easy), yet he has a severe sensory processing disorder, and struggles to handle everyday life.
Trips to the store, rambunctious kids on the playground, and any event in a crowded room are all too much for him to handle. He becomes very irritable, starts to panic, and ultimately melts down. The traditional school setting would have been a nightmare for him.
Homeschooling has been such a beautiful, gentle way to meet his needs. It at once allows us to tailor his learning to the academic rigor for which he thirsts, but within an environment that does not threaten to overwhelm and crush him.
We can delve deep into topics he’s passionate about, but that he wouldn’t touch for many more years in traditional school (the periodic table, anyone? or dark matter?), but if he’s having a rough time sensory-wise, he can stay in pyjamas without the pressure of enduring more than he can handle.
Homeschooling has not only provided him with an individualized approach to learning but has done so within a safe space.
Speaking of safe spaces, I’m pretty sure both my kids would be easy targets for bullying in traditional school. My son can tolerate only a limited range of clothing, and so he literally wears the same type of outfit every day, because it’s the only way he can feel at ease.
I shudder to imagine the comments from mean-spirited kids in a school setting. My daughter, too, seems to be an easy target, based on playground interactions. Both kids are developing social skills through frequent visits with friends of all ages, but we can do this in a way that doesn’t subject them to needless and hurtful bullying.
Finally, homeschooling is just such a rich way to learn! I appreciate that it cultivates a love for learning and discovery. There’s no pressure to pass a test or retain information to be forgotten in a week. . . it’s about learning how to think, and finding meaning in the world.
5. What are the top reasons you chose to homeschool?
- To daily teach my kids to live justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.
- To provide my son with special needs with an individualized education that takes into account his developmental asynchrony
- To provide a safe space to learn and grow
- To cultivate a love of independent learning
- To teach my kids that learning is a lifestyle, rather than a process restricted to brick-and-mortar buildings and worksheets
6. How did you choose your homeschooling method and curriculum?
As the tenor of our days depends greatly on how my son is handling life, we needed an approach that provides routine, but also flexibility. As such, I don’t follow a set curriculum.
I have a general routine that we follow every day, to help lessen my son’s anxiety, but our topics of study are heavily dependent upon the kids’ interests. We cover math, Bible study, and reading from a children’s novel every day, but thereafter what we learn depends on a set of “exploration questions” the kids have formulated for the month.
Last month, we spent a lot of time learning about ancient Egypt, as per their request. This month, we’re learning about the International Space Station and woolly mammoths.
This approach encourages the kids to be engaged and to ask questions about the world, while still covering the major subjects. It also leaves plenty of flexibility to harness teachable moments – the opportunities that arise, unexpectedly, to delve deep into new topics.
With all the above, we rely heavily on high-quality kids books (mostly story-based), and educational games. I’ve described our approach as “Charlotte Mason meets unschooling” . .. but I’m sure purists from either of those camps would object. 🙂
7. Do you use technology a lot in your homeschool, and why do you/do you not choose to use it?
We don’t use much technology, because my son is easily overwhelmed by television. We do use the occasional YouTube video – one on identifying local birds by their calls is a particular favorite. And we subscribe to Gravity Stream.
But, we really don’t use any medium very often. We rely most heavily on books, games, and being outside as much as we can.
8. What is homeschooling like? Would you say it’s harder work than you expected or not?
I don’t think homeschooling is hard.
If I was trying to follow a set curriculum, I think that would be more onerous, but we’ve really tried to make homeschooling a lifestyle, rather than something we “do” for a few hours of the day. It feels like an extension of parenting to me.
Yes, I need to think ahead to what we’ll be doing next, and yes I need to keep records of what we’re doing and report to the school district, but the actual stuff of homeschooling is really a joy, not a hindrance. I imagine it will get harder as my kids grow older.
9. What is the biggest problem with homeschooling and how have you gotten around it?
I’ve found that the hardest part is actually finding time to yourself. I’m an introvert in the extreme, and I burn out quickly if I don’t have regular time by myself to write or read.
At this stage, opportunities for quiet are scarce! I try to enforce quiet time each afternoon, and I also try to get up before the kids each morning so that I can center myself for the day.
The comments from others about homeschooling (about socialization, etc), can also be frustrating, however, I realize they arise because the idea of homeschooling just makes people uncomfortable. People dislike what they don’t understand.
10. You blog on many topics. What topics do you prefer writing about and why?
In many instances, this manifests as a deliberation of how medicine and faith intersect. In others, it’s about the trials of parenting. I write a lot about idolatry, and the pressure to meet the world’s standards.
I comment on my blog frequently on how this journey supporting my son’s needs has revealed my own brokenness. Common to all is an emphasis on what Christ has done, and how that should inform how we live. A list of my articles appears here.
11. You have written a book. Why did you write it and what is it about?
The book was another example of God’s grace!
The book is called Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care and will be released by Crossway in April 2019. It aims to equip Christians with discernment as they consider the complex and often heartbreaking scenarios that greet us in the hospital at the end of life.
The idea actually began as an article series that I pitched to DesiringGod.org. After I left practice, I was unsettled as I reflected upon the frequency with which my patients’ families struggled to understand very complicated medical issues through a Christian lens. There is very little support in this area.
I had an idea for an article series, and the editors at Desiring God suggested it could actually be an ebook. I wrote them a proposal, and they thought it was actually better suited to appear as a book in print, and so they sent the proposal to Crossway.
It was not at all anticipated, and I pray that it helps others navigate these difficult situations.