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Mantras For Those Bad Days
By Babette Davis Reeves
We all have them: Days that are so unlike what we planned that we wish we could start all over again; days that go so awry that we wonder where did we get off the ride?; days that are so unproductive that we wonder why we ever thought we could do this thing called homeschooling; days when no one recalls anything s/he learned the previous day, much less the previous week or month or year. Our children's lives are on the line, we feel, and we can't even get past the breakfast dishes (and it is already five o'clock in the afternoon).

We all have them. But what do we do with them? Sometimes we call for reinforcements (please bring your kids over; we'll call it "socialization" and "PE"). Sometimes we put the kids to work (you sweep up the fifty pounds of dog food your brother toppled while I capture your lost gerbil; we'll call it "home economics"). Sometimes we go back to bed, literally, with all the kids and all the storybooks and novels we can find and spend the day. At one time or another over the past nine years, I have done all of the above on "one of those days." Yet what works best for me is when I simply pull out one of my "Bad Day Mantras." A mantra is nothing more than a repeated word or phrase, but when I am under the bed trying to entice the Marco Polo of gerbil-dom to come to Mama and I hear something go crash in the kitchen and tiny feet scurrying, I am game for anything that might help. So here are my picks for preserving sanity on those Bad Days on the Homeschooling Front.

One-and-a-half-hours or ten minutes.

This is my shorthand for the amount of time I have read that children spend in constructive, productive time at school. Institutionalized schoolkids get one and a half hours of time "on task" during a school day. They get ten minutes of time one-on-one with a teacher. For this they spend six to seven hours a day confined to one room in one building with the same kids and same adult for 180 days out of a year. One-and-a-half hours or ten minutes -- even on the very worst of days, I never doubt that I can do at least that well. I know that I can usually do better.

If they can count "Festival of Trees" as a school day . . .

Many of my homeschool years were spent in Georgia. At one time we lived in the metro Atlanta area where one of the children's hospitals had a large fundraiser during the Christmas holidays. Different groups would decorate Christmas trees. There were enough trees to fill a huge convention hall. Ticket sales to see the "Festival of Trees" provided much-needed funds for the hospital in the coming year. One year a friend took me through it and I was appalled: As we entered the hall at about two o'clock in the afternoon, swarms of schoolchildren streamed past us on the way to their busses. I spent the afternoon gazing at the trees and wondering what the educational value of that field trip had been for them. Never did I figure that puzzle out, but ever since, I had another mantra: "If they can count 'Festival of Trees' as a school day, I can count (and I fill in the blank)."

Not every school day is an optimal learning experience.

I must give credit to an occupational therapist friend of mine for this one. She worked in the public schools. I have no doubt she saw it all. She reassured me at the end of one of my Bad Days with these words, "Not every school day is an optimal learning experience." I was utterly convinced she knew whereof she spoke.

This is a "teacher work day."

I do not remember how many years I had homeschooled before I discovered this fact of school life. Institutional teachers do not teach every school day. School districts schedule "teacher work days." These days give a teacher a chance to catch up, prepare, clean up, grade papers, rearrange, and get ready for whatever is coming up next. These days fall on Monday through Friday. All this work is not done after the school day, in the evening, or on the weekend. Some days are days for the teachers, not for the kids. They stay home and play!

This is a child's "sick day."

Just as teachers do not teach every school day, children do not go to institutional school every day. Some days they are sick. They stay home. They do not do school that day; maybe not even that week. This is not an unusual circumstance. Bugs, germs, and viruses spread like wildfire in a school setting, and the kids drop like flies . . . all the time. Someone is always out sick, and any one child is likely out up to 15 days in a school year. My children, and likely yours, are not exposed to or locked up all day with those germs and thus, they can go an entire year without being sick. That can be up to fifteen extra days for them for great educational pursuits. Or on Bad Days, it can be a reality check. I do not send the kids off to bed to play sick, but if the day has gone from bad to worse, off they go to redeem it in the best way they can. And off I go to do the same. "Sick days" are days to put away the books and take advantage of a break in our normal routine.

There is a corollary to this as well: Teacher's sick day."

You remember what those were like in school; you had a substitute. How much did you get accomplished on those days? Give yourself a break and take yourself to bed with a hot cup of tea on days when the bug bites you. Leave the guilt outside the door.

This is fire drill/school picture/pep rally day (you pick one).

Remember how much one of these could wreck a school day? If the actual event itself did not eat up a major chunk of time, then the excitement would. How can one adult teacher possibly be expected to calm down and focus the attention of 30 kids after such an activity? Throw one of these clinkers into a day and any "optimal learning experience" that might have existed earlier is a goner. I think a toppled 50-pound bag of dog food, a surprise visit from Grandma, a gorgeous sunny day with an impromptu game of Frisbee golf, or a "Let's celebrate Sally reading her first book." all qualify for fire drill/school picture/pep rally day. You can list your own as well.

Before you leave home...

My oldest could not spell. Once he learned to read, we worked on spelling a little at a time on a regular basis. I followed the "slow and steady wins the race" method. It was a bit of a tightrope to walk as he despised anything that offered even a whiff of drill to it. But we always worked a little at a time on spelling. It was never neglected. We used several different methods. Yet my child could not spell. In third grade, his spelling was on a kindergarten level. We kept at the spelling a little at a time. He kept at the reading a lot of the time. Some days, some months, some years I was not sure he would ever learn to spell. My mantra at those times was "Before you leave home, you will be able to spell." "Before you leave home..." This is a homeschool advantage. We have them until they are eighteen. We do not have to pass them up to another teacher or another grade or another school. We do not have to move on because the curriculum, the principal, the school district, or the test scores say so. So repeat after me, "She/he will know how to (fill in the blank) by the time they leave home." (By the way, by sixth grade his spelling was on grade level and has climbed steadily ever since. He now considers himself "a good speller.")

Every child an Einstein?

Every child that enters institutional school does not exit well-educated and prepared for adult life. This is a fact of life. Maybe one day it will no longer be true. But for today, we all know that institutional schools do not manage to educate every child, and they do not manage to prepare every child for adult life. Why are we expected to crank out every homeschooled child as the next Einstein? Why do we hold ourselves up to a higher standard? Why do others hold us up to a higher standard?

We, as homeschoolers, know the answer and it is the right answer. Why must every child be educated and prepared for life? Because it is the right thing. Every child deserves a good education. Every child deserves to go out into the adult world as prepared as a young adult can be.

Yes, it is the right answer, but no, some days it just does not seem it is an attainable goal. On Bad Days, it seems our children are doomed to remain Neanderthals, trapped in their caves. Yet if we can relax and let those days go, if we can realize that we are doing our best and that even the "best" schools do not have one hundred percent success rate, we can let go of the guilt, quit beating up on ourselves, and be more present and available for the next school day. We know we can do better or we would not be homeschooling. But a reality check against other school situations will remind us that even on the Bad Days, we are miles ahead.

Learning about living ought to be a part of every child's education.

As with all my mantras, I may use them only on Bad Days, but each mantra contains a kernel or more of truth. There is a lot to learn about living, especially about living with others. Cleaning a room, answering the phone and taking a message (politely and accurately), working through a problem with a sibling (without screaming or calling names), making lunch when mom is sick, making the plans for a field trip by themselves, learning to wait patiently -- all these and more should be a part of every child's education. But while the opportunities might arise in a classroom of thirty children, the chances are manufactured; they are not "real." In addition, the teacher does not have time to capture those real "teachable moments" that do occur. There are too many children, and it probably does not fit into the curriculum or lesson plan for the day anyway.

Households with working parents do not have the time, patience, or energy either to take a child through these situations step by step. Quite honestly, some days I do not either.

But I am home with them each day, every day, all day. Many, many moments added together become the moments when they learn something valuable about life because we are together and because we have the time. Because my children spend every day with each other, they have learned that families "take turns." Today we do what Johnny needs, whether that is giving him extra "Mama" time or waiting for him at soccer practice. Later in the week it may be "Susie's" time, when she needs the family to bend and flex and make adjustments for what is happening with her and what she needs. Families must spend a great deal of time together for this sense of how to live with others develops. I do not believe that this life lesson can be replicated in a classroom of thirty children or in a home where a family is together for only an hour or so a day. Living together and all that that entails ought to be a part of every child's education.

If I have to do all that, I might as well keep them home.

If I sent them off to school, there would be homework hassles, early busses, teacher conferences, forgotten lunches and books and supplies, fundraisers, last-minute projects, and the continual round of vigilance and ensuing fights to get my child what he needs, when he needs it. If I have to do all that, why not just keep them at home? Cut out every one of those school responsibilities, and how much time do you have? Plenty of time to "do it yourself." And then, of course, the remainder of the day is ours to enjoy! All in all, even with a few Bad Days thrown in, life homeschooling is less stressful than life institutionally schooling. If I have to do all that, I might as well keep them home. So take comfort on your Bad Days on the Homeschooling Front. Remember that we all have days like those. Remember that this too shall pass. And remember to keep muttering a mantra. What else can you do while eye to eye with Marco Polo under the bed? B.D.R.


Babette Reeves is a nine-year veteran homeschooling mom, now living in Texas with her husband and two children.
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