I recently attended a homeschool conference, and I had a blast.
I know. Cricket is only 15 months old. Why on earth would I need to go to a homeschool conference?
Well, first of all, it was free for parents of preschoolers, so it was a fun way to get information and start thinking about what we are going to do for school and how we are going to do it.
Secondly, I got CEU's for keeping up my teaching certification, which is awesome because as I may have mentioned, it was free.
Third, I am a total nerd and I'm really excited about homeschooling! And it was just really fun.
I learned a lot and had a great time listening to the workshops and browsing the vendor fair. There are so many options available now for homeschoolers that we just didn't have when I was being homeschooled! It's really awesome.
However, as a certified teacher with classroom experience, I felt a little like an outsider at times. (And not just when people were bashing public and private schooling to support their decision to homeschool.) I walked into the gymnasium full of curriculum vendors and book sellers and booths about different educational philosophies, and I got excited. This was my world! There are lots of things I don't know, but I do know this. This is me.
But lots of others around me had a different reaction. They were overwhelmed, terrified, and completely unsure what to do. They were scared to make a "wrong" decision that would scar their child for life or educationally deform them in some way. They were intimidated.
Basically, they were first-year teachers.
I so wished I could have just taken them all in my arms and told them that it would be ok. Over and over again as I heard comments in conversations or workshops, I thought of different things I wished they knew so that they wouldn't worry so much about trying to be the perfect teacher or have the perfect home classroom or pick the perfect curriculum.
So I will tell you what I wanted to tell them, and maybe some of them will end up reading it and feel better.
1) Teachers don't just use one curriculum.
In college, we are taught that curriculum is a tool. It is something that we use to achieve an end goal. It is not, in and of itself, the end goal. As a matter of fact, what they teach us in college is how to teach without a curriculum, because they figure we should learn the hardest way possible, and then if we have one, great! That just makes our lives easier.
Use your textbooks as tools to teach what you want them to know. If they need extra practice, use the practice problems. If they master it quickly, you don't have to do all twenty-five long division problems that day. The objective is mastery of a skill, not numbers of problems or pages in a workbook.
Sometimes I had to add to the text book, like when we noticed that our particular curriculum was really weak in writing and composition. We found some other workbooks that covered what we wanted to cover, made a booklet out of them, and added a writing workshop class. Sometimes I took away from the textbook, like when we took out a few chapters in the science book so we would have time to do a health unit.
Other times, the textbooks are just too repetitive. I don't think we ever finished a penmanship book in my class, and we didn't need to. We had gone over all the letters individually at least twice, and the rest is just practice. We practiced a lot, but I didn't get hung up on finishing the book just for finishing's sake.
Also, don't get too tied up in any one curriculum. The manufacturers will all tell you that you won't need anything else besides their product line, but that's never true. No curriculum is perfect and you will find their weaknesses. Remind yourself that it's just a tool. The goal is education, not pages covered.
2) Teachers don't love being stuck in a classroom.
It's funny to me that a lot of homeschoolers try to create a replica of a classroom in their home, while most teachers try to create a replica of home in their classroom. Homeschoolers get little desks for their "school room." Classroom teachers get couches, beanbag chairs, and pillows to make students more comfortable. Homeschoolers get posters, chalkboards, and bulletin boards. Most classroom teachers hate bulletin boards and love to take their kids outside. Not that I'm against any of those structured things, but you don't need to feel like it's not really school unless it looks like a classroom.
As long as they are able to learn and are not too distracted by the novelty of a change of scenery, (I've had those kids, too) reading their history on the couch or doing math in the backyard is awesome! By all means, have the desk and chalkboard, (I probably will) but you don't have to force all learning to happen in one room.
3) Teachers have off days, too.
I heard a lot of people talking about how they get discouraged when things get in the way and they don't finish their lesson plans. That is the story of a teacher's life! There are days when we stayed on the playground a little bit longer than usual because it was just so pretty outside, or I just needed some peace. There were days when we have extra free reading because a colleague needed her kids to join mine for a while so she could attend a meeting. There were days when we had pep rallies, fund raiser rallies, fire drills, tornado drills, intruder drills, power outages, water outages, program practices, or any number of other interruptions that threw off our lesson plans.
When interruptions happen, you just decide what still needs to be done, rearrange your plans, and fix it. Don't over-stress about it. You don't have to be perfect. Teachers are humans, too, and schools are full of things that interrupt. I'm not saying get lackadaisical about your lessons, but if it's the first nice day of spring, and your kids can't take their eyes off the sliding glass door, let them go outside instead of finishing that math lesson. Or, let them take their math outside and do it on blankets in the yard! It'll be fine.
4) Take each fad lightly.
One thing I learned in my History of Education class in college is that the educational community loves a good fad, and you can't find a much better example of a pendulum swing than in the back and forth of educational philosophies. Every ten or so years, a new thing comes out, backed by the latest research and supported by giants in the field. This will be presented as the answer to every problem that teachers/principals/parents/janitors have ever had in a school. They will assure you in no uncertain terms that this new thing will equally benefit students with learning disabilities and gifted students. It will make teachers' lives easier. It will enhance test scores. It will level the playing fields. People in the community will love this thing so much that they will literally throw briefcases of money at the doors of the school as they drive past.
It's not true. It is probably really good for some students. It will confuse the heck out of other students. Some teachers will love it. Some teachers will probably hate it. Some parents will probably protest it. Some administrators will fight for it. And in a few years, almost everyone will forget about it because a NEW awesome thing has come along that will do all of that for real this time!
Don't take all of this too seriously. It is much more important to focus on the learning styles of your children, your own teaching styles, and making sure that you cover all the basic information that you need to cover each year. That will keep you busy enough. Trust me, no one has the time, the energy, or the money to keep up with all the education fads.
Remember, no single approach works for every student or every teacher. Period. Good teachers are always trying new things from new angles with new wording to try and reach that one student who didn't quite get it the last time they presented it.
Do keep up with education research and listen for sound ideas that are best practice and not just a hot new gimmick. Talk to education professionals you trust and get their feedback. They've probably seen a lot of it before and can tell you which ideas are good and which are just the next craze.
5) Don't be afraid to ask for help.
As a teacher, I ask for help all the time. I refer students to specialists and therapists when they have learning disorders, speech problems, emotional difficulties, or other sensitive issues. I send my students to art teachers, music teachers, and PE teachers. I send students to the principal for discipline issues that have exceeded my capacity to address. I have conferences with parents to discuss academic, social, behavioral, spiritual, and physical needs. I read tons of books, blogs, and magazines to keep up with new ideas and new research (and to know what fads to watch out for). I am always talking with other teachers about ideas, projects, victories, and frustrations.
It makes me so sad to see so many homeschool moms trying to do it all themselves. They think that if they ask for help, it will be admitting that they are inadequate or that they can't do it.
You have to ask for help. You will burn out if you don't. Ask another homeschool mom to be your "teaching partner" that you can talk to when you are stuck on an idea, or when you just need to vent some frustrations. Hire a tutor if you are hitting a brick wall in math and your child doesn't seem to understand the way you are saying something. Join a co-op so that your kids can do chemistry experiments that you couldn't afford the supplies for on your own or so they can learn a language that you don't know. Ask your spouse to help with discipline issues if necessary. Subscribe to Mailbox Magazine, the most amazing teacher's magazine for elementary grades, and try some of the organizational tips they suggest.
Just, whatever you do, ask for help! No one will look down on you, and you will be helping your child as well as yourself.
6) Keep your options open.
If homeschooling is working for you and your family, that's awesome. I would high five you if I could see you. If not, here's something to remember:
Not every school is a good fit for every child or every family. Like I said earlier, different approaches work for different children. Don't be afraid to reevaluate from time to time and make sure that homeschooling is the best fit for each of your children, and for you as a teacher and a parent. I have known people who homeschooled and said it was the worst mistake they've made for their family. I've known people who homeschooled and absolutely loved it. I can't say it enough: Every child, every parent, every family is different. Don't feel pressured to do something that isn't working. Don't feel like you "failed" because you change your mind. It is merely an option that you tried for a while, and now you would like to try another option.
Speaking as someone who, as a child, was in public school, private school, and homeschool, I can say that I enjoyed all three of my school experiences overall. There were things I liked about each one and things that I didn't like. I wouldn't change any of it, though, because all of it together made me who I am. You will not ruin your child if you decide to try a different option.
I hope that all this is an encouragement to someone. Homeschool parents are amazing. Your sacrifices and hard work are a precious gift for your children. I hope to join your ranks one day, when Cricket is, you know, walking and talking and stuff. I loved being homeschooled, and it holds a special place in my heart. I hope that you enjoy it, too, and that your kids have as many wonderful memories of these days as I have of my homeschool days.
You can do this. You are awesome.