What I Wish Someone Had Told Me At The Beginning
by Kim Kimble
When I first began home educating ten years ago I was very nervous. In part this fear was because everyone was always so positive about home education that I sometimes felt like I was buying snake oil. I searched for the negatives and couldn't find anyone to talk about them (well, other than the NEA, whom I didn't trust anyway). This is, in as honest a form as I can say it, what I wish someone had told me. My advice to new homeschoolers is as follows, take from it what makes sense for your family, leave the rest.
1. Relax, have fun, enjoy each other. This is my one mandatory suggestion.
2. Be a facilitator.
I make an effort not to be a teacher. Instead, I try to facilitate learning by providing resources, opportunities, information, materials, and sometimes suggestions. I also try to mentor, but I have been most successful when I have arranged for others to mentor my children on specific topics.
3. Be a student or co-learner.
A child who learns to teach is forever altered as a learner. Even a young child has something s/he can teach. As children step into this role they have increased respect for the imparting of information as well as a heightened awareness of the value of information. Our current educational system is set up with a division between learners and teachers.
A homeschooling community or family of learners, where adults are on par with the children, has synergy not found elsewhere. Some of my favorite homeschooling memories are of being taught the crawl stroke by a twelve-year-old in green goggles and being the most challenged student at a 10-year-old's Irish step-dancing workshop.
4. Role model what you want to see in your children.
If we want to raise lifetime learners we must be lifetime learners. Children need to see us reading, writing, taking new classes, accepting challenges, questioning, researching, and creating. Over time, as we challenge ourselves to be what we want our children to become, home education becomes a lifestyle instead of an educational philosophy.
5. Talk to other homeschoolers about their educational style.
There are as many ways to homeschool as there are people home educating. Some unschool, some have small schools in their homes, most are somewhere in between. Take from conversations with those, what makes sense for you and your child.
6. Define your goals in writing.
There have been many times over the years, when my husband and I have worried and had “lively discussions" about the education of our children. In our case it was often about where we were on the school-in-the-home/unschooling continuum. Having a predetermined set of goals for your child's education gives a bench mark which can greatly simplify the times when you are so caught up in the day’s progress (or lack of it) that you lose sight of the big picture. Take the time to put it in writing, refer back when needed.
7. No matter what type of homeschooling you choose, make sure you afford yourself of its advantages.
A women once asked me if I knew of any books which covered our area's local history. I told her, no, but there was a store ten minutes away, run by a local Native American whose mission in life was to share his knowledge of the local tribes. Additionally, she could walk to the original homes of our area's first European settlers and take a tour any day of the week. She told me she didn't have time to do field trips, she had to finish their prepackaged curriculum and just wanted a book which she could make her kids read.
Most often, the homeschoolers I have seen who fail, are the kind that try to replicate little schools in their home. Most homeschoolers I know do some "seat work," but in my opinion, to have workbooks and end-of-chapter questions be the main focus of the day ruins the real-world, authentic possibilities of a home-based education.
8. Find other homeschoolers for support.
During the long, wonderful, inspiring, and exhausting days ahead, the support of other home educators can help you work through the challenges and share the joys of your triumphs. Giving and receiving support from fellow home educators can be a great pleasure as well as a benefit. Places to look: Conferences, books, websites, homeschooling periodicals, local support groups, and e-mail lists.
9. If you live in a state that requires reporting, know the laws better than the people to which you report.
Equally important, provide only the minimum information required by law. When I first began, I spent hours writing pages of information with each quarterly submission. If I am honest with myself, I think my need to do this was because I thought that by illustrating the wonderful job I was doing I would single-handedly convince the powers-that-be that homeschooling was a great alternative. I was probably also still trying to convince myself. Anything other than the basics required by law is a waste of time and can cause trouble for other homeschoolers as well.
Many homeschoolers don't understand the regulations and rely on the school or state officials for answers. Without exaggeration, I have been given misinformation from school officials more often than accurate information.
10. Don’t spend a lot of money on curriculum.
This advice is difficult for new homeschoolers. It is like having only eaten at one of those national-chain buffet restaurants for every meal of our lives. As a result, we have trouble visualizing the taste of Thai food or fresh-squeezed orange juice. Our instinct is to go out and buy an expensive prepackaged curriculum which sometimes includes a grading service, because that structure is all we have ever known and it feels safer. If using a prepackaged curriculum helps you sleep at night, by all means buy it, but only with the intention of using it as a flexible guide.
After ten years of homeschooling, I’ve learned the number one item in our homeschooling tool kit is the library card. (OK, really it is the car, but that is another story.) Sit down with the kids and ask them what they want to learn about and then use library skills to find that information. Follow their lead. When that topic loses its appeal jump to another. One example of a homeschooling day: We do about 15 formal math problems approximately three times a week using mostly Saxon Math. We also do a little phonics from a workbook, because reading and spelling are still a challenge for my nine-year-old daughter, but we wouldn’t if these topics came easily. Everything else is just living our lives and following our interests. Social studies, history, the arts, physical education, and science all come to us in various unexpected ways, but they do come, we are always busy. We don’t watch much T.V. or have a video game. This is what works for us this year, with this child. The only thing I can say about next year is that it will probably be different.
11. Keep track if you get nervous.
Many homeschooling activities don’t lend themselves to the traditional methods in which we were educated. If the "Are they getting enough?" question begins ringing in your ears, observe and record: Make a grid listing all the subjects you think your student should be covering down the left side of a paper and the days of the week across the top (don’t forget the weekends). Next, fill in each activity you do in one of the squares.
If you talk about the Russian prime minister because of a cartoon in the newspaper, mark it down in the Social Studies square for that day. Pumpkin carving, Easter eggs: art. Bike riding, snowball fight: physical education. Chinese food for dinner: home economics, social studies, history, nutrition/health, geography. If the kids ask, "Why does the snow around the trees melt first?" This is science. If you have to look up the answer: library skills. Of course more traditional work is also included. At the end of the week you will sleep better when you realize how much they have actually covered. This system also helps with paperwork if you live in a state that requires reporting.
12. Be ready to change/evolve.
The beauty of homeschooling is that it can be altered easily. Be ready to admit something is not working and try a new approach. Society has little knowledge of the realities of homeschooling and few obvious examples of its results. As homeschooling parents, our views of homeschooling change as we educate ourselves by reading, talking, and experiencing homeschooling. In addition, our children mature and their view of their own learning also evolves.
13. The decision to home educate is not irreversible.
Often when talking with potential homeschooling parents or homeschooling parents who are considering sending their kids to school, I remind them that few decisions can’t be modified if needed. I don’t advocate switching in and out of environments frequently, but a year at home or in school, if that is what is needed due to family situations or to just try something new, rarely causes lifelong permanent damage. It is not uncommon to talk with parents who are so caught up in the agony of decision making, they lose sight of the fact that this single decision need not decide the fate of their child’s entire life. If it doesn’t work out, change it.
14. Avoid sleepless nights.
If you still feel nervous, talk frankly with other home educators about your challenges, i.e. a hormonal preadolescent student who treats the parent whom s/he just asked for help with math, very differently than s/he would a teacher in a school. Contrary to many of the glowing articles that you read about home education, all days are not perfect teaching bliss, neither are those of a public school teacher. But the fact that you are concerned means you care and will make sure your child gets what they need. If there isn’t a smidgen of uneasiness somewhere inside a new homeschooling parent, that is when I begin to worry.
15. Don’t be intimidated by homeschooling success stories.
It is inspiring to read about homeschooling kids doing amazing things. However, after a few years, I was still homeschooling average kids, doing average things. I was putting a lot of energy into my kids and kept waiting for the “amazing” to kick in. I was sure I was doing something wrong.
One day I wrote a column about my son’s paper route -- pretty average stuff. As I wrote I began to make connections to all the things he had accomplished and done over the years as a result of his paper route. Eventually, I realized I was writing one of those amazing homeschooling success stories. He looked great on paper. Somehow, caught up in the day-to-day of getting him to pick up his socks, I had missed the “amazing.”
16. This is only one view of a home-based education. Keep searching.■