Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dear Frustrated and Reluctant Homeschooler

It's the season when schools are starting, and thus many homeschoolers are starting their more formal learning as well. Recently I've noticed something. Maybe it's because I'm in quite a few groups where it seems that homeschooling has not been a first choice for a family, but they end up homeschooling because it feels like a last resort. These are not parents who are homeschooling because of the benefits homeschooling offers, but are homeschooling because their first options proved to be harmful to their children.

There is a big difference between choosing something proactively and feeling cornered by a lot of bad options and picking the one that seems least harmful. It's all homeschooling, but it is so interesting to me how many people can view the same thing, but with such different lenses. I see a lot of pain and frustration and feelings of failure among the 'homeschooling thrust upon them' group. Very often this group gives up on homeschooling, thinking they are not capable of doing it successfully. Maybe it's because the start of a new school year, but I've been seeing a lot more of the "Help me! I can't do this. How on earth do I do this?" sort of posts in various groups.

Whenever I find myself giving the same responses more than a few times, I think it's time for a broader audience, which just happens to be you, my dear readers of this blog.

So....

To the Frustrated and Reluctant Homeschooler,

I've been homeschooling a long time. Twenty-one years to be exact, if you include that year we did a homeschool preschool co-op with a couple of friends. During those years I've done a lot of reading. I've made a lot of mistakes. I've learned a lot about teaching my children. And I've had a few successes. My children have been all over the board in terms of ability and interest and cooperativeness. Some days go well. Some are a bust. And most are pretty average. My children learn things, become independent and capable, and my two adults are graduated from college and out on their own. I've homeschooled one young child and I've homeschooled up to nine at one time. I've seen homeschooling go from extreme fringe, where finding resources could be a challenge, to very mainstream and a market that everyone and their dog wants to sell things to. In fact, I started homeschooling only about four years after the last state in the union made it officially legal to homeschool. I've seen a lot.

Other than to make me feel old, I tell you these things because I have a long perspective on the whole process. I have felt as though I was failing my children, and have watched those same children grow up to be competent adults. As a result of this experience, I have a few things I want to share with you.

1. Stop thinking of homeschooling as a second best option. There is so much you can do with your child to facilitate learning when you have the luxury of time and freedom. You can take your child's interests and dig deep into them. You can take those interests and branch out into other things. You do not have to be tied to a text book or curriculum or time of day. If you want to spent the next 18 months learning about dinosaurs, you can. There are many, many positives to such deep learning. You are not constrained by school schedules, by grade levels, or by scope and sequences. The only limit to what you do in school is the limits of your own imagination.

2. You cannot replicate what happens in a brick and mortar school. I know that this is one of the most difficult ideas for people coming out of the school system to wrap their heads around. When you homeschool, learning just looks different. There is this tacit belief that unless the learning happened with a teacher in the front, a text book on the desk, and dozens of worksheets for homework in the backpack, that it somehow doesn't count. But it does! Learning happens all the time. Just try to stop a child with an active interest in things from learning. Children are born needing to learn and to soak up the world around them. All we have to do is direct and harness that learning. You can use textbooks if you like... I certainly make use of some...  but you actually don't need text books to learn. A child can learn without any of the 'school-y' things we mistakenly think of as learning. Education (the how) is very different from learning (the what), yet we can so easily get sidetracked into thinking the education is more important than the learning. I know people who have tried to replicate a regular classroom at home, and I cannot think of a single one who didn't become burnt out and disillusioned. Homes work differently than classrooms, even if you are homeschooling. So, if replicating a classroom is what you've been doing and it hasn't been working, the fault is not yours, but the method's.

3. Video is no substitute for a real live adult. I know I'm going to catch some flack for this, because video schooling is just so gosh darn popular at the moment. I think it's a combination of some really slick marketing, a huge dose of parental fear, and a little bit of parental laziness. Sure it's easier to plunk your child down in front of screen and call it school. Sure you don't have to do any planning or worrying, it's all laid out for you. You also don't get a lot of leeway if a child is struggling with a subject. You don't get to choose what you learn or when you learn it. You don't get to have those lovely long discussions that are the end result of following a rabbit trail you didn't plan on. No, you have to keep to the schedule. Education waits for no family. Keep moving. Check the boxes. OR you may be responsible for ruining your child, because the video people are the experts, you know. (Think I have an opinion about this?) Really, teaching anyone takes time and effort. It takes actually being there and discussing things and figuring out where the child got stuck and listening to their ideas. It takes conversation. Lots and lots of conversation.

4. Fear is the real problem. If you are homeschooling, and are feeling like a failure, I'm pretty sure that the problem isn't homeschooling, but the fear you have regarding your child. Nothing instills fear in a parent faster than thinking about that child's future. And when you are the one responsible for educating that child, the fear is doubly present. What if they don't learn? What if they don't learn enough? What if they could do better elsewhere? What if I don't know enough? What if I use the wrong schedule or curriculum or co-op? What if I ruin my child? A parent trying to help their child learn while having all of this fear running around in their head is going to be an impatient and irritated parent. Anyone who has had the experience of trying to learn something and the teacher becomes impatient and irritated knows that it is not really great for learning. And the cycle begins. A child is uncooperative or doesn't understand something. The parent feels a degree of fear over the child's future. Usually fear does not come out as fear, but sideways, and then you have the impatient parent. The child senses the parent's irritation and responds back, by becoming fearful themselves. The child's fear can come out as perceived laziness ("He won't try to do anything!") or as oppositional ("I'm not going to do that, and you can't make me!") Some children shut down. Others stop actually thinking and just resort to guessing ("I want my mom to be happy with me and I don't know how to do it.") The parent feels more fear, and the situation escalates until the parent decides that homeschooling doesn't work for their family. It's fear, not homeschooling, that is driving the behaviors.

5. No homeschooling family is perfect. Despite what you may believe based on various Pinterest boards, blogs, and books, no family homeschools perfectly. Some have good days and bad days. Some planned activities are a bust. Some days children are grouchy and uncooperative. And some days, those golden days you hold on to which don't come along all that often, things fall into place, and you think, "Ah! This is how it is supposed to be." I cannot tell you the number of times that I have planned something that I think is pretty cool, only to be met with blank stares and less than enthusiastic responses. I almost expect it now. The first few years it was pretty disheartening. I would plug away with the activity, and sometimes everyone would find themselves enjoying it, and other times it would be a slog and we would all be happy to be done with it. A few times, I even threw in the towel altogether and bagged it. Here is where perspective comes in. You can never be sure what seeds you are planting in those less-than-wonderful, slog-it-out moments. Years later, children will be reminiscing about some of the things that we did as a family, and inevitably, some of those activities that I thought were a flop were mentioned as some of their favorites. You just can't know. So you persevere, check your expectations, and hope for the best. This is a long-term endeavor you are engaged in. It will be years before you see the final results.

6. Remember you are on the same team. It is so easy to fall into the trap of making your children the opposition. Homeschooling is more of a lifestyle issue than people realize. I find there is not a lot of differentiation between what we do. Is it a family outing or a field trip? Is this a don't-understand-thing or an I'm-mad-at-mom-thing? If a child snuggles with you at the end of the day and wants to sound out the words in a Boxcar Children book, is that school? Then there are the conversations and debates at the dinner table, the child who reads classic literature for fun, or the self-described scientist who plays with test tubes. Where does that all fit in? The lines are fuzzy. When you homeschool everything is school... or nothing is school... it kind of depends on how you look at it. All that to say, if you have a child that is being uncooperative in the homeschool environment, it isn't a school issue, it is a family/parenting issue. Sending the child to school may get some math worksheets completed (maybe), but it won't solve the problem in the long run. Far more important in the life of the child is to figure out the why to the uncooperativeness and address that first. Yes, even at the expense of the math worksheets. Because in the long run, academic skills can be learned at any point, emotional health not gained in childhood is extremely difficult to gain in adulthood. As a parent, you want your child to succeed and be healthy. Figure out how to make that happen first, and cooperativeness with schoolwork will follow.

7. (And the last, I promise.) You can be on your own timeline. Just because popular culture and the public school system has declared that school begins at kindergarten when a child is five, and ends with 12th grade, when a child is 18, followed by college, with at most a gap year in between, does not mean that this is what has to happen. Is it the end of the world if a child takes longer to learn the basics? Whom does it hurt if a child goes to college later? Will five years for high school kill anyone? Really, nothing horribly dire is going to happen if a child takes longer than usual to move on with college and adult life. It's not as though a ship is boarding to take your child to adulthood, and if they miss it, that's it. If your child came to you at an older age, all this does is give you a few more years together to make up for the ones you missed. There is no rush! Can I say that again? There is no rush in raising our children. Sure, society is all for creating children who learn better, faster, smarter. It's cool to brag that your 14 year old has already finished with trig and is working on calculus. If that's where that 14 year old is, that's great. But no one is running a race, and in the long run, there is little difference between learning calculus at 14 versus learning it at 18. (And since I never took calculus at all, I can say without hesitation that people can lead full and productive lives without it completely.) There are no medals to those who finish the school race first. There is no parenting award for most on target children. There is really very little to support the idea that children can be standardized at all. We are all unique and run on our own timelines. We are all jagged in our abilities. If a child is moving at their own trajectory, there cannot be any behind or ahead at all. They are just where they need to be right then.

So much of the time, it is not really homeschooling that is the issue, but expectations and assumptions that a person holds and are not aware of. It can be difficult to struggle with the questions of, What, really, is education? How does our family actually function? Why do I think these certain expectations need to be met? What am I afraid of? It may be that in wrestling with these questions, the answers will lead a family to public school. Or it may lead to something completely unexpected. Either way, when tacit expectations have been exposed and addressed, decisions are easier to make. Homeschooling can be a fantastic choice for a family, but I often find that the families who have been extremely purposeful about their choice are the ones who are most content doing it.

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