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If only homeschooling were like a Harry Potter novel. Having made the choice to school at home, we would put on the sorting hat and immediately discover our educational style: classical, Charlotte Mason, unit-based, online, unschooling . . . the list could go on. After charting our path, we would shop for the perfect curriculum. There would be no nagging doubts about whether we chose well or constant worries about ruining our children for life. We would be able to rest in the certainty that we were on the right track.
Alas, it’s not that easy. Far from being provided a detailed homeschooling map with the destination clearly marked, most of the homeschoolers I know have embarked on their homeschooling journey only to discover the way is overgrown with brambles, laid with multiple traps, and teeming with hidden threats. Just when we think we’ve figured it out and the end goal is in sight, we suddenly realize we took a wrong turn somewhere and we better double back or we’re going to get even more lost.
Those of us who love to plan face a special set of pitfalls. One of my favorite things about being a homeschool mom has always been the groundwork: researching curricula, picking out books, coming up with a schedule, and plugging it all in. Of course, then comes the execution. It is usually only a matter of days before my pie-in-the-sky plans end up as pie on my face.
Then there are the labels, which can be alternately helpful and confounding because not everyone uses them the same way. The word “classical,” for example, means different things to different people. It can be a broad term for an overarching global approach that takes into consideration the grammar/logic/rhetoric distinction, or it can be a highly defined term for a specific set of subjects and prescriptions on how to teach them. “Unschooling” is another word that can lead to misunderstanding, as those who call themselves unschoolers may have somewhat contrasting ideas about what that entails.
When I am asked by new homeschoolers for advice on getting started, it is pretty simple, and usually goes something like this. Start small. Don’t try to figure it all out at once. Read to your child. Do things together. Take walks. Go to the library. Investigate your community. Don’t spend too much money at first, but use the resources you already have in your house. Make family devotions a regular part of your life together. Sing, listen to good music, go outside, and play.
After you’ve done the above for a while, take the plunge and go to a homeschool conference. Attend some sessions, browse the vendor hall, and talk to other homeschoolers. But continue taking it slow, trusting your own instincts and your knowledge of your child. Listen to your child and to your inner parental voice. Accept that there are going to be some false starts, some curriculum purchases that quickly end up on the resale pile (or trash heap), and yes, more than a few moments when you wonder amid tears what on earth you are even doing. And when someone asks you what your educational philosophy is, don’t be ashamed to say, “I don’t know; we’re still figuring it out.” (Almost 20 years in, I am still figuring it out.)
Most of all, once you’ve settled into something of a routine, allow yourself to be flexible when necessary, adjusting to the demands of family and daily life. One of the best things about homeschooling is the freedom to integrate “school” with “life” and to decide when “life” needs to take priority. When there is an illness, a job change, a move, a new baby or death in the family, it’s okay to set “school” aside for a time to focus on things more needful. Be assured that your children will learn as much or more through life as they will from a $500 curriculum, and the lessons will probably stay with them longer. I have a friend who says her children have all graduated from the school of “By Gosh and By Golly.” From where I sit, it was a top-notch education that has resulted in some fine Christian men and women.
I can still vividly remember my very first day homeschooling my oldest child. The two of us sat at the kitchen table and I pulled out the first book, an elementary survey of American history. We opened to the first chapter and I started reading. Not 10 minutes later my son’s forehead was resting in the palm of his hand and his eyes were glazing over. I stopped reading.
“Honey, did you hear me?”
Nothing. I read the sentence again.
“Son, are you listening?”
Silence. Then, “I’m trying to, Mom, but it’s just so much.”
Fifteen minutes in, and I had already lost him. I was a homeschooling failure.
I put down the history book, told my son to follow me to the living room, and opened up a storybook. We sat reading on the sofa, just being mom and son again, rather than teacher and student. Whether we did any more “school” that day I don’t recall. What I do recall is feeling like maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. But while it may have been the first time I felt like giving up as a homeschool parent, it wasn’t going to be the last. In almost 20 years of homeschooling my children, very few days have gone by that I have not wondered whether they would be getting a better education under someone else’s direction. Countless are the times I have lamented my shortcomings as a teacher, feeling ill-equipped to teach a math concept, pull off a successful science experiment or authoritatively answer a geography question. Wouldn’t it be better for them to be in classrooms with experts who really know their stuff?
There are probably some things my children would have learned better if they had attended an institutional school. There are other things they would have not learned as well. Every educational path has both benefits and challenges. Clearly, we chose homeschooling because we ultimately thought it best for our family. But had we gone a different route, I know God would have blessed it as well.
That same knowledge is what has sustained me through many a day of worrying about whether we are homeschooling the “right” way. Just as there is no perfect educational choice, there is no perfect homeschooling style. Like everything else this side of heaven, homeschooling sits under the judgment. It is not a panacea. It is most definitely not a cakewalk. But it is also not an insurmountable peak. It is simply one path, with many possible modes of travel and a variety of tour guides, equipment, and side trips from which to choose. Whether you are beginning, continuing, or wrapping up your homeschooling journey, always trust that in the small and messy corners of your homeschooling days, God is there, fulfilling His will and having His way in your midst. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6).
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