Words to live by: An interview with Tyrone Cherry
CommUNITY. This one word is at the heart of everything Tyrone Cherry does and his homeschool experience is no different. Founder of the Petersburg League or Urban Growers (P.L.U.G.) and Petersburg Oasis Youth Farm & Petersburg Oasis CommUNITY Farm, and long time professional educator, he is working to sculpt how we educate our children, one humbling lesson at a time, which is why we invited him to speak at this year’s VaHomeschoolers [un]Convention.
Chatting with him as we walked around his garden made for an insightful and inspiring start to the day. His story is one of many where COVID provided the opportunity and push to build the life he dreamed of.
Cherry, as he introduced himself, homeschools his 4 children, ages 6-10, with his partner. His background is in education, he has taught almost every class public school has to offer from Kindergarten to Middle School gym to High School Pre-Calc and Yoga; from large classrooms full of rambunctious children to one-on-one private instruction. Cherry served as a principal of a charter school in Charlotte, NC as well as teaching at public, private, and charter schools in Hopewell, Petersburg, Omaha, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Sussex. Education is something he feels comfortable with, to say the least.
As I walked up to the Petersburg Oasis Youth Farm, a 5 acre plot surrounded by neighborhoods, I could see him busily working across the field, but even at that distance, his smile was evident. It didn’t take long to notice every inch of the farm has been planned with purpose and meaning. The chicken coop, set up for little people to interact without help from someone taller, had chickens running about, ducks grazing alongside them, with rabbits in the mix, raised garden beds, rows of vegetables just starting to sprout, large stumps in a circle around a fire pit being built. The Medicine Maze, also in progress, intertwined among a future herb and sensory garden; every space intentional for healing, learning, and growing. “We’re here as stewards of the environment,” he stated while explaining why it’s important for all of the animals to have a comfortable life on the farm, “I want [children] to see that that’s possible.”
It’s a piece of land he cared for long before he owned it, “I used to mow the lawn here, and have notes from 2016 on how I wanted it layed out: the George Washington Carver Outdoor Learning Lab, Papa Kelley’s Vegetable Garden. I didn’t know how it would look, but I knew it needed to be here.”
His decision to homeschool was made before he even had his own children. “I took all the things I learned in education and knew my babies deserved [homeschooling].” The push came when, as an educator who often encouraged his parents to be present with their children, he recognized that his long hours were not allowing him to be present himself. “We started making that transition slowly, and then we, my partner and I, decided to do it full swing. We pulled our second one out of elementary school, we had our two younger ones start early, and we’ve been rolling ever since.”
Starting homeschooling had its challenges. “I had the confidence of being an educator,” he stated, but his fear was balancing the expectations of public education and his own desired teachings. This fear quickly fell away when he witnessed the love of learning his children possessed. “As we started rolling and seeing how they were absorbing everything,” he paused as he thought back to those early days, then continued with how his own worries had fallen away, “I realized, who cares, what does it matter? They’re enjoying themselves. They’ll learn what they need.”
Although his background in education gave him confidence, he also had to break out of the assumptions he brought with him. His biggest surprise? “Thinking that it was going to be a typical school day. Thinking it was going to be 7 to 3. Or thinking that you need to spend a certain amount of time on worksheets.” He adds that he completely understands why parents feel that way, “what other model do they have to follow?”
When asked if his approach to homeschooling has changed, he stated, without hesitation, “For sure! Week to week.” It was the reason his plans for the day had changed and he was working on lesson plans instead of building a larger rabbit pen. He continued, “We adjust. Home is school so there’s no days off.” Clarifying that this doesn’t mean you have to do worksheets or formal studies everyday, giving a quote I would like to put on my own wall. “Everyday you need to be looking to learn something. Even if it’s learning something about yourself.” He offered some examples of what that meant, including learning that you like to relax on Sundays and lay in bed on rainy days or that you find certain pillows uncomfortable. “Anything that betters your life is the goal!”
Cherry and his partner take time every evening to discuss their day, what worked and what didn’t, and he appreciates her non-education background grounding him when he gets too worried about fitting into the education box. In fact, he said it’s part of one of his views on life, one he instills in his children as well: “Sit back and evaluate, analyze, assess, and figure out how you can improve.” He uses each day as an opportunity to learn, “We’re good, but how do we get to great?”
It is no surprise that his homeschool can be aptly defined as eclectic, admitting he has yet to find a single curriculum that fits his needs. But his education philosophy has been the same since it was once given to him in an interview early in his career. It’s something he has shared with every educator he taught since, and continues to share it today.
“Children don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
He wants every child in his life, including his own, to understand that he is truly invested in their love of learning, and that is what drives him.
It’s not hard to see that Cherry is a busy guy who works hard to ensure everyone in his world feels seen. When asked about how he balances all of his community outreach projects and his homeschooling, his response was quick, “There’s no balance at all. I blend them now.” As he stated many times during our morning, “Home is school and life is the lesson.” Which also happens to be the title of his talk for the VaHomeschoolers [un]Convention. A talk that will no doubt lead to many more quotes I need to print out for my wall.
His advice for new homeschoolers or prospective homeschoolers, “You have to jump in to swim. Just jump in.” Adding it’s okay to make the leap on paper first to see how it would work, because “these waters can be a little choppy.” His second piece of advice: “Start by looking at your family’s morals and goals and reverse engineer from there. Start with family mantras, morals, dogmas, values, principles, whatever you want to call it. What does your family believe in, what is your family legacy, and then how do you educate your children to be aware of and carry on that legacy.”
It may seem that Cherry has shifted his focus to homeschooling and left his formal education background behind. Quite the opposite. He is focused on strengthening his commUNITY by working to bring them together. Recently, his family was invited to attend the local Fine Arts Festival at a nearby public school. When he noticed homeschoolers were not involved, he decided next year, “if we can’t be there, we’ll put on our own festival and invite them here. Show them we’re all in this together. We’re all one.”
We finished up talking about his favorite homeschool memories, and he had two tear jerking ones to share.
The first: “We do a class called Earthworks and our four lil’ lights were studying herbs, then we built a garden bed. I have a time-lapse of it and I didn’t understand how powerful it was until I looked at the time lapse. They literally took grass and turned it into a bed… To see the four of them working, no shoes on, in our front yard, in a garden I built before any of them were born. For them to be adding energy into a space that already had so much energy invested into it. And then to know that my four babies know how to survive together. That they can at least feed themselves … The foundation is set. We can build from there.”
The second: “A time I took them to Eno River. Our oldest was like, ‘Daddy I want to go swim.’ I hadn’t put my head under water in a river. I rode bikes, played in the mud, but I wasn’t going in the river. You just didn’t do it! So I was shook. It was one of the moments where I had to be real with myself. You can tell this girl right now that she can’t do it, knowing she is going to end up doing it anyway. Then it will change her perspective on you. So what did we do? I said alright baby, let’s go figure out how to do this. … so together she and I went under … When I look at pictures of that day, I sometimes get teary eyed because they pushed me to grow and they grew in the exact direction I wanted them to grow in. You and this river are one, don’t ever be intimidated by it, respect it but don’t be intimidated by it. And she wasn’t.”
Adding it’s those “natural moments, those organic moments” that make homeschooling worth it, repeating once again his philosophy about it all:
“Home is school, and life is the lesson.”
Tyrone Cherry is a Homeschool parent of 4 elementary school aged children, previously a professional educator of over 20yrs. Cherry served as a principal of a charter school in Charlotte, NC as well as teaching at public, private, charter, and public charter schools in Hopewell, Petersburg, Omaha, Boston, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Sussex. Eventually, he left traditional education to spend more time with his “lil lights” and to customize their curriculum to fit our family values. Recently he has partnered his passion for the little people with his passion for plants and founded the Petersburg Oasis Youth Farm to provide experiential education in the area of agriculture. His teaching philosophy? “A child doesn’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” – Charlie Sposato
Check him out on Instagram and follow along with all of his adventures!
Interview conducted and written by Jess Koller. Jess is a homeschool mom of 3 and current President of The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers.