I am so honoured to have her interview on my blog and to have her in my life ❤ She inspires me to be a better person, I am sure you will also find her life story interesting, and that you will find your own inspiration in her words and practice.
Apart from the fact that she is an Australian/Malaysian living in Sarajevo, mom of four kids, Maisarah Skaka is also known for the interesting way of educating her children.
Maisarah, can you please, at the very beginning, give us a couple of tips for the education of children at home and how to work on their early development?
M: First of all thanks so much for having me, I've really enjoyed reading the other interviews and have learnt a lot so thanks for sharing all the inspiration! 🙂
In terms of education at home, I would first say that all children are born with a natural love of learning. Children wouldn't learn to walk, talk, and do everything that they do if they didn't love learning. Once they start talking, they start asking questions, a lot of them! “What is this? Who is that? Why does this happen? Why not this?” These are all signs that children are driven by a natural curiosity to learn about the world around them, and I really believe that for the most part parents just need to allow this inherent love of learning to follow it's natural path.
Often as parents we get in the way of our children's learning by imposing our own expectations as to what and how they should be learning. This is not to say that of course we shouldn't guide our children, as that is our obligation as parents. But I strongly believe that if we work with our children and the natural love of learning that Allah SWT has given them, we can prevent a lot of the struggles that we might face in later years.
Even though I really believe in and have seen the results of child-led or interest-based learning, I am personally a very structured type of personality. So when my children were little, I came up with all sorts of plans of what I was going to teach them, when, which curriculums etc. And although the ideas looked good on paper, implementation was another story. For the most part my general idea of what I would like to teach them, and what I consider important in terms of their education hasn't changed, but over the years I've learnt that I need to be more flexible in my approach. My children weren't always in the mood to learn when I was in the mood to teach. They didn't always prefer my particular style of teaching. What interested me wasn't always of interest to them. Also, what worked for one child didn't necessarily work for another. So the whole experience so far has really taught me to let go of some control, to be open to the learning process and to really follow the child's lead and interests.
In terms of early development, I would say try to avoid too much rigid or formal education in the early years, but rather leave the children to do what they do best, and that's to play! This is supported by a lot of current research, but to me more significantly can be found in our own Islamic tradition where Ali ibn Abu Talib (RA) said: “Play with them for the first seven years; then teach them for the next seven years; then advise them for the next seven years (and after that).” We have to understand that play for children is work, it is where the learning takes place. And this is not just about academic learning such as learning to count, alphabets, colours etc. But this is also where social skills are learnt, manners, problem solving, creativity, and many other important skills that will help to navigate themselves in the world. Again due to my personality I sometimes struggled with this, I was so excited to teach them to read and write, but they really taught me to put my own preferences aside and wait for when they were ready.
Homeschooling is not very popular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, unlike other countries in the world where more and more mothers opt for homeschooling. Can you tell us something about homeschooling and how you practice it with your children?
M: Homeschooling is a very wide topic so I will to try to keep it brief, although that might be difficult 🙂 There are many different types of homeschooling philosophies such as Classical, Montessori, Waldorf/Steiner, Charlotte Mason, Unschooling and countless others. There are also as many different reasons that people choose to homeschool as there are different philosophies. Some people homeschool to keep their children close, especially during the formative years so that they can take full responsibility for the religious and character education of their children. Some families choose to homeschool so that they may provide tailored education to their children based on their unique needs and personalities. Others may wish to avoid common problems that are becoming more and more prevalent in schools such as bullying and violence.
First of all, putting ideas of homeschooling aside, I believe that it is our duty as parents to educate our children, and ultimately that responsibility falls on us and not school systems or other institutions. Whatever we feel is important for them to learn, we as parents are responsible to teach them. This may mean that we pass on some responsibility to schools, mekteb systems and others, but that doesn't remove our role in teaching our children. In terms of homeschooling, our family doesn't strictly “homeschool” as my eldest two have recently starting going to school. When I think of myself as a “homeschooler”, I think of three main ideas: providing a learning-rich environment, supplementing their school education, and modelling learning in the home.
In terms of providing a learning-rich environment, i see my role as a mother and educator is to support my children with their natural love of learning, to encourage their curiosity and to be present and available for them to ask questions and learn together. I try to use their interests as a way to teach different things. So for example my children have loved animals ever since they were young. When they were younger, that would just mean learning the names of different animals, what sounds they made, where they lived etc. As they grew up we started to learn about animal classification, habitats and environment, geography as we learnt which continents or countries different animals lived on. Language, maths, science, geography, history.. so many of these things can be integrated into a particular theme or topic and it makes learning so cohesive and also fun! This is one of the features of the Finnish education system that is being talked about a lot, in that they have replaced the teaching of subjects with teaching of “phenomenon” or topics where many different subjects can be integrated under a particular topic of study. I've also tried to give my children access to materials that will help them with their learning, so this means lots of books to read and research different topics, puzzles and educational games, lots of time for colouring and drawing, reading aloud to my children a lot and having meaningful conversations with them.
The second point was to supplement their school education. So for my two children that have now begun going to school, firstly I'm really thankful that the education system here in Bosnia doesn't require children to go to school all day so there is still quite a lot of time in the day for me to spend with them and do any additional learning that I think may be necessary. I see my role as supplementary in that I would like to teach them things that are not necessarily being offered through the schools. So for my eldest who is currently in Grade 2, I am basically teaching some English (phonics, spelling, grammar), as well as a little bit of History and Geography through a curriculum that I really love called Story of the World. In the future, I would want my children to learn Logic as well as Rhetoric, languages as well as any other subjects that they may be interested in. I also try to spend as much time as I can reading to my children as I believe so much learning as well as connection takes place when parents and children read together.
The other way I think about supplementing the education at school is that different children learn in different ways. It's unreasonable to expect a teacher of 20-30 students to cater to each student individually, and so usually the most commonly accepted methods are used to teach certain subjects or concepts. But because there are so many different types of learners (visual, auditory, reading, kinaesthetic and others), some children may struggle with how a particular subject is being presented at school. So if this were to happen with one of my children, I would see it as my role to assist them in approaching the subject of difficulty in a way that is better suited to his/her individual learning style, as well as having the type of relationship with the teacher where I can communicate these learning differences and how they might be able to understand and help him/her better.
Finally, I think that by modelling learning our children will automatically want to follow our lead. “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach” as the quote goes. If we want our children to read, they should see us reading. If we are enthusiastic and curious about topics that interest us, they will also mimic our enthusiasm. If we want our children to memorise Qur'an, why not try to memorise some ourselves? When learning is just part of every day life, and there is a family culture of learning, children will almost certainly continue with their own love of learning.
Do you have a particular educational philosophy that you follow with your children?
In terms of philosophy, I probably follow a Classical model of education the most. So a Classical model focuses a lot in the early years on developing a strong language foundation, so there's a lot of emphasis on reading and writing. It also follows three different stages in learning which I really like which correspond with the trivium are those are the grammar, logic and rhetoric stages. In the grammar stage students are exposed to a lot of information and are expected to memorise a lot and become familiar with the material. In the logic stage, they then begin to look deeper into things that they have already learned and understand the why and how, and in the rhetoric stage they develop their skills in being able to communicate what they have learnt through writing as well as through speech. Having said that there are a lot of other learning philosophies that I really love. I love Montessori education for their focus on the developmental stages of children. I love the Charlotte Mason approach for her focus on habits, the concept of living books as well as being in nature. And I even love some aspects of Unschooling, which although is kind of the opposite of Classical education, but as I said earlier I really believe in letting children follow their interests and allowing the learning to happen at the child's own pace as well.
I guess one of my biggest ideas in terms of homeschooling and education, is that it's not so much about what the children learn per se, but it's more about keeping their love of learning in tact, and ensuring that they know how to learn. The world is changing very rapidly and it's hard to know in the next twenty years, what exactly will be important when it comes to education, jobs etc. But I think that if an individual has been brought up with a love of learning, and they know how to learn, they will have everything that they need to learn a new idea or field that may become necessary for them.
Finally, I've spent a lot of time talking about education in the typical way that we understand it and that's in terms of academics. But I think learning is so much more than that, and I think it's important as parents when thinking about our parenting and our children's education, what is it ultimately that we want to achieve? Do we want children who get good grades? Do we want our children to go on to have successful careers? Is this the measure of our success as parents? There is nothing wrong per se with wanting these things, but I think beyond that we should think about raising our children and educating them with strong morals and character, good work ethic and habits, and other qualities and skills that are essential for living life. I love that Classical education focuses on the cultivation of wisdom and virtue as the ultimate purpose of education, so that when we think about our children's education, we don't just think about if they can read, do maths equations, or know where Africa is, but also that they know the difference between a good and a diseased heart, that they know how to use their individual talents and gifts to serve others in the community, to be people of character, and that we help them to realise their own unique purpose and path that Allah SWT has created them for. As parents we are in the perfect position to assist our children in discovering their own unique paths by observing their likes and interests, personality, inclinations etc. If we are willing to step back and not impose our own expectations or preferences, inshaAllah they will be able to easily identify what they should go on to pursue in their life, something that will be a culmination of the best uses of their unique skills and talents, as well as the best way for them to be of service to others. Obviously as Muslims our goal should be them to have success in this world and the next world, and I think that is the biggest vision that we should have for our children.
You have four children, and play a very active role in educating them. Still, you also work a lot on your own personal development such as healthy nutrition, exercise, strengthening of iman, reading, researching… How do you organize your time in order to balance all those tasks?
M: To be completely honest, this is something that I really struggle with, and it is a constant work in progress for me. Because my children are quite close in age and are still pretty young, if I'm not organised and don't manage my time well, it results in chaos pretty quickly. There is simply not enough time to get behind in tasks. When I'm overwhelmed, I lose my patience and I am not the best wife or mother that I would like to be. And so for the sake of my family and also myself, I really try to at least stay on top of things. When my children were younger it was more about surviving the day to day, so if I made nice homemade meal, the house was reasonably tidy, the children looked after, I considered that a successful day. And even with those basic things, there were many days where I struggled.
Now that my children are a little bit older, I am finding more and more small pockets in the day to devote to different pursuits that are important to me. I think it's really important to make du'a to have barakah in your day and to do things that bring about barakah so that Allah SWT will expand the time that you have so that you can accomplish all that you want to do. It's been very helpful for me to clarify the different areas in my life such as spiritual, relationships, homemaking, intellectual, health etc and then make sure that I am making an effort in all those areas, but being very clear about what my priorities are at any given stage of life. So when my children were younger, I didn't really have a lot of time to devote to reading or exercise, because my focus was really just on taking care of and nurturing my children.
I like to think of motherhood and staying at home as my “career”, even though it is really so much more than a career because it is 24-7, without any holidays or breaks, with no material gain etc. But I like to approach it with a similar sort of professionalism that I would a career, or at least I try to do so. Some days are better than others 🙂 I try to plan and organise my days, clarify my priorities and ensure that my to do list reflects those priorities. I try to constantly learn about different homemaking systems and ways to look after my home in a better and more effective way. I try to be organised, which is really hard sometimes because I'm naturally quite messy although I love the process of organisation, and am constantly trying to simplify my life to allow things to run smoother in our family. I read a lot about time management and productivity and try to implement the things that I learn in my life. I also think self-care is very important so that you have the energy and passion that is required to be a great mother, so that's why I think good nutrition, exercise, stimulating the mind and doing something that brings you joy is really important, even if it's only for a few minutes here and there during the day.
It's really difficult to find balance sometimes, especially when children are young. Life is getting a little easier Alhamdulillah as my children are growing up and coming out of those early years, but for many years I struggled with lack of sleep, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and limited time to myself. As much as motherhood is a huge blessing and is beautiful, it is also a huge test one's patience and character and that's why I think motherhood is one of the best grounds for spiritual growth. We learn so much through our children, and they teach us as much if not more than what we try to teach them.
One of the great things about people here in Bosnia is that when they see you have many children, they say things like “You are so rich”, and “How lucky you are.” This is in contrast to typical comments that you might hear in the West such as “Are they all yours?” and “Wow, you must get no time to yourself.” In Bosnia, children are still viewed as gifts and a form of wealth, which I think is such a beautiful indication of the hearts of people here. So although it is often difficult, I feel blessed that Allah SWT has allowed me to stay home with my children and focus on my primary responsibility of nurturing them, and I pray that I will be able to benefit them and my society through my work as a mother.
Lastly, community and support has also been so helpful to me. I am so blessed to have met many ladies here in Sarajevo who continue to inspire and motivate me in many different areas of my life. We discuss and exchange ideas on how to improve as wives, and mothers, how to manage our time, share tips and tricks, and the support and feeling of community has really helped me to grow so much in the time that I have spent here.
Who is Maisarah Skaka? Can you tell us something about yourself?
M: This is a tough one, I'm still very much learning about who I truly am. In terms of roles I consider myself to be a wife, a mother, and a homemaker. I am an example of someone who has a university education but has chosen to stay at home to focus on my family and my children. I am someone who is a constant work of progress, but I'm always trying to learn and look for ways to improve. Because I love learning, depending on the stage of life that I'm in, I have a lot of interests. So when I first got married, I spent a lot of time learning and reading about marriage and how to be a good wife, and I definitely think that that's something that takes a lifetime of learning and practice to achieve 🙂 I also spent a lot of time learning about homemaking which I feel is something that is not given enough priority these days. When I became pregnant I started learning a lot about pregnancy and childbirth and became a very strong advocate for natural birthing. Obviously with the children came a lot of learning about parenting and education, as well as health. I am someone who is very passionate and is always overwhelmed with ideas. I love interacting with people and exchanging thoughts and ideas, but I also really enjoy the quiet and having time to myself to process thoughts and to reflect. Those that know me know that I am obsessed with books, writing, and all things stationery.. so there you have it, a little about me! 🙂
Can you tell us something about your journey towards hijab? When did you decide to put your hijab on and how did that decision influence your life?
I started wearing hijab when I was about 14 years old. I grew up in a small town Kota Bharu in Malaysia, where all secondary school students were required to wear hijab when going to school. I still remember my first day of high school and not really knowing how to put it on properly and my friends would help me during recess time to adjust my cap and hijab 🙂 So I guess initially I got used to wearing it for school, but around the age of 13 I became more and more interested in learning about Islam. I specifically remember reading a particular book that I had found on my father's bookshelf, and I decided that I wanted to start practicing more, and that hijab would my step. Even though my level of practice would go up and down, the hijab served as a physical reminder to myself of my commitment to Allah SWT.
At the end, do you have a message for all the women who are reading this and who are looking for ways to be as good as they can be in every aspect of their lives?
I would just say never stop learning. Always try to look for ways to improve yourself, to become a better person. Take time to reflect on what your experiences and people around you have taught you. To understand that life is a struggle, and this world was not meant to be easy, so not to ever lose hope or give up but to have gratitude to Allah SWT for everything that He has given us, to seek out the good in every situation and person, and to surround yourself with family and friends that inspire, motivate and support you to be the very best person you can be.