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A Q&A with a Homeschool Parent: Teaching at Home

Parents this year are facing either planning to home school for the first time ever or having to partially supervise their children at home in online public school because of either their personal health and safety concerns and/or school and state mandates.

Ten years ago, my sister had to change her plans, too. Her local public school began to make budget cuts just as she was preparing to enter her oldest child in kindergarten. The school planned to assign 50 kindergarteners to one teacher with one aide. My sister was uncomfortable with that ratio. That’s when she found herself teaching homeschool. My sister now homeschools her five children, pre-school through ninth grade. She also has a part-time job as a music teacher and a member of the orchestra (which means practices and concerts). She carts her children to their sports and music lessons. I’ve asked her to share what she has learned over the years as she works to balance her life and give her kids well-balanced experiences.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for homeschooling? "Don’t worry. When I started homeschooling, I had a little bit of support and I actively sought out other homeschooling families, which made it so much easier for us. Right now, just about everyone will be homeschooling! You will have support all around you. You can form little homeschool co-ops - even if it’s just one subject, like science. You can get together once a week or once a month with your group and do field trips or science experiments together. But just don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Your kids will be fine."

Did you have any fears about homeschooling? "At first I worried I would not be able to keep them up to the academic standards for their age. That has turned out to be a needless fear, as most of my children have been consistently ahead of the benchmarks. We still do school testing, so I know they are learning appropriately. I also didn’t want my children to miss out on the fun things that kids do in school, for example, Halloween parties and Valentine’s exchanges. The easy solution was to just host those events at home with small groups of homeschoolers. Any time I saw what my friend’s kids were doing at public school I made sure my kids had that experience with other homeschool kids, too."

What’s the hardest part about homeschooling? "Not losing my temper! I think it’s okay for all parents to know that it can be hard to be a teacher and parent all day long. It’s normal to sometimes lose it. Just because we have done this a long time doesn’t mean the kids always do things exactly the way we want it to go down."

What is the thing you love most about homeschooling? "The flexibility! I love being able to say, 'Today we are going to go to the woods to hike and fish!' Also, there’s more time for extracurriculars. Kids can be bogged down with busywork in public school. I want them to focus on just what we need to do. It takes less time at home than in school. Two hours of homeschool work can equal four hours in public school because you can focus on fewer students and teach them what they need to know instead of trying to accommodate 30 kids learning at different levels. With the extra time, we make music part of our school subjects. They don’t complain about extra practicing because it’s just part of school for them. They then have time to play musical instruments and pick one sport they want to play. They can do this without feeling burnout because they don’t have to come home and do extra homework after a full, busy day."

What are some routines you use in homeschooling? "Get things done first thing in the morning! They really slow down in the afternoon. Many people use schedules. In our house, the kids have lists they get through. The older kids use planners like they would at school. We break it up with some exercise throughout the day."

For parents that have several kids that are different ages, how do I keep my other children preoccupied while I’m teaching the other kid? "That’s the challenge! I try to keep kids in closer ages doing the same thing. So for example, the 6th and 8th grader will be doing the same science lesson but I expect the work of the 8th grader to be more in-depth. Or maybe my 2nd and 4th grader and working on the same history. I expect a summary from the 4th grader, and a one-liner from my 2nd grader about what we read. That way, I’m not having to repeat so many subjects. Also, after about 4th or 5th grade, they should be reading well enough that they can do much of their work independently with me checking in on them. The bulk of my attention goes to K to 3rd grade, but especially 1st and 2nd grade. That’s when they aren’t strong readers so pretty much everything has to be taught by me. But that’s also an age where I don’t expect to spend more than 2 hours to get things finished. My middle and high schooler spend a huge chunk of their day on school work but I don’t do it with them!

So really, the only age I have to keep occupied is Kindergarten and under. If my 1st grader is finished with his work, he is happy to play with Legos and do his own thing. But my preschooler has been a huge challenge. Probably one of the biggest! I actually had her in preschool 3 days a week before the pandemic began because it was so hard to get school done with her wanting attention. I have to find creative ways to keep her occupied. Her 2nd grade brother has had some learning issues which means I have had to give him more attention and focus than anyone else, which quadruples my challenge with those two! I have had to ask my older kids to sometimes take turns playing with the youngest or helping her with her pre-K schoolwork. I think the most challenging scenario for parents will be those with toddlers or pre-K age that need a lot of attention, especially if they have unmotivated 1st-2nd graders. I did not have a problem with babies, as they could sleep or nurse while I taught lessons."

Can I really provide the level of education they need at home, i.e., Are they learning as much as they would in a classroom? "Yes, of course they are. They are probably learning more than they would in a classroom. I was so worried about it that my oldest learned a ridiculous amount more than she needed to. By the time I got to child number 3, I was burned out from teaching SO many subjects. I realized I was overdoing things. Of course, math foundations and reading foundations build on each other, as many subjects do but there’s a lot of learning in elementary school that children will forget. I mean, just teaching them things I say “oh yeah, I forgot learning that.” So much of their learning at that age is just learning HOW to learn.

The trick for their success, I think, is teaching them how to self motivate and learn on their own. By the time they reach middle school, they just have to read books and learn it. My hope for each is to instill a desire to learn the material, not a desire to simply get things done. Gratefully, it has so far worked for the older kids. I can’t say it was all me, and I might get a kid with a personality where they are totally unmotivated but for now, it’s worked out. I have older kids taking summer school courses that they don’t get a grade or any high school credits for but they were excited to take it because they were interested in the topics being offered. Isn’t that what an education should be? Rather than dread the drudgery of school, be excited about learning and knowing things?! Of course some of it will always feel like drudgery but as long as there are things that excite the kids, I have hope that they will yearn for the knowledge that comes from learning."

How do you teach a topic that you don’t personally know well? "Books! I don’t have to know any of the topics. I can read. Many books are made so the homeschool teacher can even read a script. The questions often have the answers in them, so there’s no fear of not knowing the topic. The older kids, they enroll in online courses where they are taught by teachers. They can ask them for help. We have never gotten stuck in any subject. Occasionally I might ask my sister-in-law to read an English paper for my high school student!"

(Note from the author: My sister graduated from University with a scholarship and Summa Cum Laude but stressed to me that anyone can be a good home school teacher. Parents don’t need fancy accolades to teach successfully. That was one of the things she learned as she read about home schooling. )

How do you balance work and your other parenting responsibilities with teaching at home? "I have an informal schedule where I know I am going to teach my kids in the morning, then teach piano lessons [to paying students]. I try to reserve my afternoon to practice viola for the orchestra [as a paid member of the orchestra] while my older kids are still working on school assignments or practicing instruments. By then, my younger kids are playing but they are mostly keeping themselves busy. Before the pandemic began, I also spent some of my afternoon driving kids to sports practices so I did have to be flexible about when I practiced viola. Sometimes when I got way too busy, I would bring my viola with me to their sports center. Instead of working out while they did sports, I would practice in the locker room.

As far as chores and housework - it will be messier. It just will. Sorry! The kids being home more means they can help out more, but it also means they mess it up more, especially if you have little ones. "

How do you make sure your kids get social interaction? "Pre-pandemic, they were involved in church activities. They also were part of a charter homeschool that is actually a public school for homeschool kids. They would each spend one day on campus taking classes, and be involved in some of their clubs, such as math counts and archery. They got interaction through the YMCA’s homeschool PE program, as well as sports teams and music groups to which they belong. They also play with their friends when we get together with families. My kids also play with each other, though of course, like all kids, they sometimes fight, too.

This is one of the hottest topics for homeschoolers. I think when homeschooling was not a very common thing 20, 30 years ago, you did see unsocialized kids - but they also had unsocialized parents. Turns out, socialization is something children learn in families. Without public school pressure, kids don’t get so fixated on what grade they’re in or how old they are. I have had friends tell me it was so refreshing for their kids to play with mine because my kids didn’t care if their kid was a year or two years younger. Also, if you think about real life - adults don’t only socialize with people their age. I have friends 15 years older and younger than myself. "

Questions? Comments?

I hope you found this Q&A helpful. Please comment if you have tips to share on teaching at home or questions you would like answered.

Photo credits in order of appearance:

Young Girl Doing Schoolwork at Home Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Girls and Book Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Riverside Park Photo by Benjamin Manley Photo on Unsplash

Tiffany Taliaferro (reading) Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

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