Thursday, September 6, 2007

Tips for a Happy Homeschool

Last week, I wrote this post, to share some of the reasons why I love homeschooling.

But I know that there are many moms who experience difficulties with homeschooling in some way or another. Perhaps they haven't yet decided whether or not to homeschool, and are wavering back and forth between the options as dizzily as a child on a swing. Perhaps they've only been homeschooling for a short time, and find things a bit overwhelming. Perhaps they've been homeschooling for several years, but are becoming discouraged due to a change in family circumstances: a new baby, a student who is suddenly reluctant or struggling, or just a bad weather pattern that's keeping everyone cooped up indoors for far too long at a stretch. Or perhaps they're being plagued by some of those creatures I've talked about before, making them doubt their abilities, measure themselves against other moms, or think wistfully of the peace and quiet that might result if the kids just climbed aboard that shiny yellow bus...

I've been deeply blessed in my life to have experienced homeschooling from so many different angles, so that to me it's more like a faceted gem than a heavy rock. I was homeschooled myself in high school, several family members homeschool their children, I worked for a homeschool program for about a year after college, and I've known some terrific homeschooling families all over America. The past seven years have had their ups and downs as would be true with or without homeschooling, but even now I'm occasionally surprised to find out that someone thinks of me as a "veteran" homeschooler--a veteran, from my perspective, is someone who has already taught most of her kids at home, through high school, is still teaching the youngest, and is available to give advice and encouragement to her adult daughters as they homeschool her grandchildren. Someone, that is, like my mom, compared to whom I'm a novice!

Still, I've had the benefit of so many other people's experiences, that without even thinking about it I've put certain "rules" into practice in my own homeschooling endeavors. To be honest, it helps to have homeschooling relatives who will remind you of these principles when you begin to experience any of the difficulties I've mentioned above; but just knowing some of these things can make homeschooling a more pleasant experience. In case anyone out there could benefit from my sharing these, then, here they are, in no particular order:

Tips for a Happy Homeschool:

1. Once you've decided to homeschool, commit to it. This doesn't mean that as you cradle your two-year-old while sighing over homeschool catalogs you must make up your mind then and there to teach from K to 12; but it does mean that you have to give homeschooling a fair trial. At the very minimum, commit to homeschooling for one full school year. Then do it. Don't worry, don't stress, don't panic--just do it.

2. Do not commit to a method, plan, program or curriculum. You may think that the classical curriculum is the best way to go, but if your children's response to being read Greek mythology is to start pouring their kool-aid out in libation before every meal, it's time to reassess things. On the other hand, if a prepackaged curriculum sounded great until you started using it, but now you're going nuts trying to keep up with the quizzes, papers, and assignments the school wants you to return for grading for each child, you may decide to find a less stressful way to teach at home. The important thing to remember here is that each child is different, and so is each mom. What works for your sister or cousin or best friend may not work at all for you; the math book your oldest son loved may cause your oldest daughter serious conniptions. Putting the method ahead of the child/children--or, let's face it, ahead of mom!--is a common, but frustrating, pitfall.

3. Make good plans. Whether you create all your own lesson plans from scratch or use the ones provided by a curriculum, you still have to plan things. For example, in what order will you do each subject? Should all of them be done daily, or not? Can you focus on math or early reading while the baby's napping? Can some of your children do some lessons together? Is Dad doing any of the teaching? If so, what, and when? You don't have to be super-organized to homeschool, but you do have to sit down and think over the daily routine from time to time, altering, adjusting, tweaking it to suit reality. I've altered the order in which we do our lessons about three times in the past five years, as some subjects which used to take up more of our time became "old hat" (like reading or phonics) and other subjects proved more time-intensive (like grammar or history).

4. Be flexible. The best laid plans...etc. If you have to move subjects around, or play catch-up from time to time, don't sweat it. We all do it. So do the teachers in the schools, though--do you remember being in school and having a teacher suddenly decide to hand out a crossword puzzle or something, instead of doing a "regular" lesson? Teachers, whether they homeschool or not, are human too; we all have days that don't go according to schedule. But just as none of us were educationally harmed by the occasional substitute teacher or the random appearance of crossword puzzles, so too are our kids unharmed by the occasional disintegration of our careful plans. That's life, and they're learning about that from us, too.

5. Identify and eliminate distractions. Clearly, the baby or toddler may provide the one distraction you may have to work around; but there are lots of outside distractions that can be confined. Don't check your emails during science class. Don't answer the phone at all, if you can help it, during normal school hours--and if you have to answer, try to keep the conversation brief. Don't go get the mail until after school, or if you do get it, don't sort it or go through catalogs while your first grader is reading to you. Keep household chores at a minimum; it's fine to throw in a load of laundry or do some prep work in the kitchen, but save the cabinet remodel project for after school. As your children get older you may find that you are able to get a few things done as they work around you, but certainly at first, and as long as you are teaching younger students, the fewer distractions there are during the school hours, the better.

6. Do not mistake discipline issues for homeschooling problems. If your child throws a tantrum when asked to write a paragraph, this is not the fault of homeschooling. All of us have moments when our children act up; if they were in school all day long, they might behave for their teachers, but it wouldn't really stop them from misbehaving around us once they got home, as long as they thought they could get away with it. Children test their parents, not (generally) their teachers/coaches etc. Just because you are teaching them doesn't mean that they won't try to test you in this new "role" just as much as they would have before. Developing good, consistent discipline strategies and enforcing them with patience and good humor is key, I think, to having a good relationship with your children, whether you ever homeschool or not!

7. Finally, remember that the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side. Would you really be happier putting a sleepy infant or cranky toddler in the car at 6:30 a.m. so you could drive the other children to school? Would you really be happier with all the demands on your time that school would make, everything from helping your children daily with all of their homework to bringing snacks to planning and participating in field trips to organizing and taking part in dozens of fund raisers? If we're talking about a public school, would you be happier with all of the worry, and all of the deprogramming necessary at the end of the day? If we're talking about a Catholic school, would you really be happier with all of that worry, the need to straighten out loose or even heretical ideas from the religion teacher, or, even if those aren't a problem, with the staggering costs and the strain that would put on your family's finances, and maybe on other aspects of your family? If you really, truly, would be happier with all of these things after a full year of successful homeschooling, then maybe you really aren't being called to homeschool; but you've got to be honest with yourself, as do we all.

This isn't an all-inclusive list; I'm sure others could add different tips. And no one can guarantee that your homeschool will be a happy one, even if you do all of these things. But these are some of the things that work for me, that keep me balanced, focused, and, yes, happy!


Opal said...

You mean we have to be happy?
Just kidding. Today was not a very good day so I am glad that I read your blog. Nothing went as it was supposed to and we have added two extra courses that although they are great, they are time consuming. Will need to do some real thinking about these and putting priorities in order.

One thing that did surprise me this year tho; we switched math books for ds. He has never shown any interest whatsoever. But I switched from MCP to Saxon (with a lot of WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING looks and comments). We also had some extra money to purchase the DIVE cd. Now, I know this is the 3rd day but this kid WANTS to do math first; by himself along with all of the problems. Why? I have NO idea but I am grateful for that!

Oh happy day...

freddy said...

Great tips! I've been homeschooling for 12 years and need a reminder like this every year! A couple of my own:
--quiet time--
Unless you're a busy-bee family that loves to go-go-go, a little quiet time, for mom and everyone, every day is helpful. It can be quiet reading, quiet play or naptime, just as long as it's quiet.
--older kids can teach themselves--
No, I don't hand the highschoolers their books and say, "See ya in the Spring!" But one of my goals for homeschooling is to teach my kids how to learn and that does mean letting go, pulling back and teaching them to teach themselves. The second-grader needs one-on-one guidance with every subject. The fifth and eighth graders need direction, reminders and occasionally the go-ahead to "check it themselves." The sophemore and senior get the questions, "How are you doing with that? Any questions?" and "Let's discuss that topic."

Thanks again for the great tips!

Robin @ Heart of Wisdom said...

Great advise. Especially being felexable and the grass not being greener!

Thank you for encouraging homeschoolers.

You may want to visit the conversation about classical homeschooling at the Heart of Wisdom blog.