How We Become Professional Homeschoolers

Recently, someone I knew asked a group of us homeschooling moms what she needed to do to get started homeschooling her children. Of course, if you hang around homeschooling women for more than 5 minutes, you find out they have lots of strongly held opinions! We were more than happy to oblige with advice. Miraculously, we seem not to have run her off from the proposition.

There is such fear for most people without teaching degrees (and with them) of being inadequate to the task of homeschooling. Of not knowing how to do it. Of handicapping our own kids (and being the only one that everybody can clearly point the finger at). As we locked in our decision to homeschool 8 years ago, I felt that.

Some of that has lessened. Look! Phew! She can read! She’s doing pre-algebra! She knows what happened at Waterloo!

But in another way, as the years have gone by, the fear has tightened.  If I had put her in school in 1st grade and she was behind, it would have been no biggie, but now that she’s in 5th, is there an ever-widening gap that she wouldn’t be able to make a comeback from? Can she write okay for her age? If I put her in a public school science class, could she hack it? WILL THIS DECISION END UP LIMITING HER OPPORTUNITIES???

If you’re new to this and feeling that way, let me just say that that fear just shows with what trepidation you’re coming to this task. I don’t want to sugarcoat homeschooling and say that it’s the picture-perfect lifestyle where children turn into angels and always magically soak up the delight of learning and everything just falls into place. I think there’s sometimes too much of that, in the name of protecting homeschool’s reputation. I don’t want you to be unprepared for those hard days that do exist. What I DO want, what my message is to you, is that if you truly put your hand to the work and seek out the support and resources and are willing to learn and grow and change, you CAN do justice to your child’s education. You CAN homeschool.

Even listening to the way this sweet mom phrased her question, as well as the act of trying to formulate an answer for her in my mind, were a great exercise in putting myself back in those shoes of being a total newbie and feeling bewildered. Frankly, while it’s great that there are more and more resources out there now, I’m kind of glad there weren’t as many when I started or I would have been on total circuit overload trying to figure out which! of all! the amazing! resources! to use! (Oh wait, that’s me now.)

Still, just as with weight loss, I think it’s safe to say it’s axiomatic about homeschooling that you’ll drive yourself bananas trying to measure progress from day to day. The real progress–in your kids and in you–is seen over a matter of years. Drop by drop.

Sometimes, cautiously receptive acquaintances at parties will inquire, “Okay, but how do you know what you have to do with your daughter for school?” I take this to mean that they want to know how I know what subjects need to be covered, what to use to cover them, and how to implement these resources. On one hand, looking from the outside, I can see this as a reasonable question. After all, this party acquaintance hasn’t been immersed in the homeschooling gig for the last 7 years or more. Things that to me are obvious as an elephant are complete enigmas to them.

But they weren’t always obvious to me! And the fact that I have accumulated the know-how that I have–which is by no means much, in the grand scheme, but which is WAY more than the zilch I knew when I started–owes to this drop-by-drop principle. It worked for me, and if you’re starting out, it will work for you, too.

The answer to how I know what to do is that I have voluntarily dedicated lots of time, since my daughter was 2, to researching all the facets that come into homeschooling.  Here is a partial list of things I’ve studied and things I’ve done:

  • what kids need to know at what stages
  • what the different streams of thought are on how to educate children
  • what products and books are out there to accomplish this
  • what games and activities can be done to spark interest
  • I’ve checked out books from the library and bought them from Amazon.
  • I’ve scoured different classic book lists.
  • I got a hold of the grade-by-grade book list from the private classical school I attended as a girl, as well as their scope and sequence.
  • I’ve looked at the grade-by-grade scope and sequence for public schools in my state.
  • I’ve analyzed the suggested college preparatory track on the HSLDA’s website, which is based on their study of what an array of colleges are requiring for admission.
  • I’ve hung around more blogs than I care to admit to.
  • I’ve gone to conferences.
  • I’ve camped out for entire days at the local homeschool supply store, comparing the content of books and curricula.
  • I’ve picked the brains of moms who’ve successfully gotten multiple kids into productive adult lives following being homeschooled.
  • I’ve studied motivation, child development, and learning styles.
  • I’ve gotten to know the ins and outs of learning disabilities and giftedness issues that apply to my family.
  • I’ve brushed up and amplified my knowledge on a wide range of academic subject matter.

In short, I’ve taken a self-cobbled degree in education. Homeschool education.

As in many professions, there is ongoing professional development. As in most professions, if you don’t know how to do your job, your client (in this case, my daughter) will make sure you know it.  You will get feedback, and it will drive you to do better.

People’s concerns (and that’s really what I look at them as, well-meaning concern) seem only partly allayed by this explanation (which I always give more briefly than here, to spare their eyes from glazing over). I think they see that in my case, I probably have gained the expertise, but they are unnerved by there not being someone from outside/above/on high who just makes sure. What if it were someone operating with less good faith? What if I didn’t feel like learning all this expertise? What if there were gaps in my expertise? What if I learned and taught my kids stuff most people disagree with, stuff people consider ignorant? A parent could conceivably do that.

The latter two things definitely happen in varying degrees, but I think it’s the first that really throws people for a loop.  How can we be sure that someone really attains all this–let’s call it what it is–professional knowledge, without someone standing over their shoulder and driving them towards it despite their human nature to want to slack? How can we be sure without some degree program or certification?

And I think that speaks to something that’s deeply ingrained in our society, which is a belief that without an outside impetus, a person couldn’t possibly want to do the work or the learning just for the sake of it or for the sake of the fruits of it? (In this case, the fruits are well-educated, inquisitive kids who want to learn and who are equipped, yes, to provide for themselves in the world.) The assumption that, if given the chance, someone will try to cut corners and pass themselves off as something more than what they really are. The assumption of a lack of integrity and therefore, the need for objectivity that can’t be fudged.

I’m not sure I have an answer for that because, in general, I’d say that tendency is pretty prevalent. Yet I know that’s not what goes on in my own family, and while I have seen a few instances where I felt justice wasn’t being done to the kids in question, for the most part, I see parents who are earnest and well educated enough to teach kids at least as well as the public schools or to connect their kids with the teachers or resources they need in lieu of themselves. After all, is it any great advertisement for our public schools to say we’re dubious that most people who are the product of them are fit to impart essential knowledge to the next generation?

As an aside, I think another reason for the “how do you know what to do” question is that, as a society, we seem to look at anyone under 18 as alien spawn with three heads who only communicate in Klingon or High Elvish and that, therefore, it requires an advanced degree, not in the subject matter (math, science, literature) but merely in how to even approach, manage, schedule, wrangle, and impart anything to these curious beings.

Well, after the week I had recently, I’m not so sure my daughter isn’t from another planet than I am! But it seems to me we’ve made Education into such a highly specialized field and enshrouded it in such mystery (compounded by the fact that it really does take quite a bit of skill to handle a room full of restless natives who are only friendly in varying degrees and who outnumber you significantly, rather than your own kids) that we can’t fathom that anything shy of government training (teacher certification) and a structured 4-year degree could possibly equip us for the task.

I have the utmost respect for teachers and do not intend to belittle their training or the function they serve in our communities. My intent is to show that a homeschool parent who diligently applies herself to the task of preparing herself (as most, motivated by their children’s well-being, are wont to do)–yes, even a regular, ordinary mom like you–can certainly craft training for herself that is equally valid and equally or better suited to the task of educating the several people on whom she is the expert, in a home environment.

If you are just starting out your homeschool experience or still contemplating it, take heart! To borrow a line from the U.S. Army, homeschooling is the toughest job you’ll ever love. My advice to you is to simply start soaking up what’s out there, little by little. Just start with what you need right now. When you have extra blocks of time, you can learn about issues, subjects, or grades that will come down the road. Rely on friends in person or even online, on your library, on great homeschooling blogs. Find out what works for your family and what doesn’t. There will be trial, and that means there will be error. Ditch stuff that doesn’t work!

All the while, keep in mind that joy in exploration and relationship are the most important things even to academic success, and let those rule the day.

If you’re new to homeschooling, what do you worry about? Or what questions do you have? Veterans, what are your best tips and resources?