Heather and I have been homeschooling our children for 12 years (going on our 13th). This year is a little different. We are bringing home our three remaining public school children, growing our homeschool to nine students. Each child has their own school story. Detailing all of those experiences would require a novel. Perhaps that is the greatest thing we’ve learned. Every child needs an individualized plan. Each must follow their own path.
For the 2020-21 school year, we will have students ranging from first grade to high school seniors. We will certainly run the gamut of at-home classroom experiences. We have heard from many parents who are choosing to homeschool for the first time this year. Below are some things we wish we knew before embarking on this journey. Perhaps you can learn from our experience. We hope it will make your school year just a bit easier.
Tip #1: Choose Wisely
Choosing to homeschool is often a difficult decision. It is normal for those new to the idea to run through typical hurdles about what homeschooling is or isn’t. From concerns about socialization to worries about education quality, it can be overwhelming to work through. We have learned that the things we worried about as beginners didn’t matter as much as we thought they might. Here are some things we think every parent should consider before homeschooling:
- Do you love to learn? Before you can help your child grow, you must be a student yourself. There are a ton of new skills to develop within yourself before you can teach your child. Are you ready to dust off your old algebra knowledge, or tackle a difficult history or science subject? You do not need to be an expert, but you do need to stay one step ahead of your student. You will be on this journey together.
- Are you patient? Learning is messy. Students will often make mistakes, get off track, seek distractions, and generally run amok. A stressful environment makes learning difficult. Your student will need constant reassurance and support. Can you let the little things go and gently redirect your student, over and over again, for months on end?
- Will you be committed? Homeschooling will, at some point, get difficult. There will be time pressures, doctor appointments, family emergencies, and more. You might need to sacrifice a room in the house to make space for school. The family budget may need to be adjusted. School will get tiresome and may feel omnipresent. Are you prepared to stay the course, despite the curve-balls life will undoubtedly throw at you?
- Do you know your options? Homeschooling comes in a variety of modern forms, from self-created curricula to programs run by school districts with dedicated teachers. Which option works best for each student will depend on a variety of factors. (If you are brand new, we recommend you look closely at virtual charter schools.)
- Do you have the time? There isn’t really an easy answer here. It is time-consuming to provide a good education at home. There have been days when we’ve come home from work and the last thing we want to do is a homeschool lesson. Remember that you don’t need a big lesson each day, but something needs to be taught each day.
Before picking a program, ask lots of questions. Not all programs are equal. Some may have a social, religious, or political bias that you may or may not appreciate. Some programs work better for younger children than older ones. Explore how the program you are considering address any hot-button issues that matter to you. Ask to see sample lessons or curriculum overviews.
Special Note: High School
High school (grades 9-12) has, by far, been the most difficult for us to manage at home. Before signing up with a given virtual school, we recommend asking detailed questions such as: How many students graduated from this program last year? What is the average SAT/ACT score? How many are Honor Society students? What will the science programs be like? What is the schedule like? What is the average student GPA? Can they choose a hybrid plan? Which organization will issue the diploma? Is it a GED program? How many go on to higher education? How many on scholarship?
Watch out for programs that only graduate few students or only offer GED equivalence. It has been very difficult finding a well-run program.
Tip #2: Don’t Stand Still
In a simple phrase: Don’t procrastinate. Once you’ve decided that homeschooling is your path, go at it with purpose. Something that might take a day to resolve at the public school may take several days to solve at home. There may be legal requirements that must be met, affidavits to sign, technology problems to work through, and more.
It seems like every year we are racing to the last second to get our homeschool organized, despite planning for ample time in advance. If you can do something today to get ready, do it. Assemble those desks. Configure the computers. Organize the books. Contact school administrators. Review the material. Set up the learning wall. Homeschooling has worked best for us when we “ride the wave,” staying in front of the crushing amount of work that always seems to be just behind it.
Keeping up with the homeschool program means keeping ahead — but just ahead. You may need to hit the books yourself to get ready. There are a variety of on-line resources to help you (the teacher) get ready to teach. You don’t need to be a college professor unless you are teaching college. Just be one step ahead of your student.
Tip #3: Organize Learning Space
How far you go with organization will largely be a personal preference. One thing to ask is: “Am I willing to do this all year long?” While the really fancy learning calendars and holiday-themed school decorations make it fun, don’t commit to more than you are willing to do for months on end.
It works best to have a few tricks in the bag, ready to go. School at home will get repetitive. Staying flexible helps change up the atmosphere and keeps the learning environment fresh. This should be reflected in the way you organize.
What will work for you and your student will be totally unique to your situation. However, we have learned a few things that universally help:
- Do not place students in view of the television. The television and its programming are designed to be distractions. Put up visual screens or isolation tents if necessary. Use headphones to block distracting noise.
- Keep phones and tablets away from the learning environment. Self-explanatory. These things are distraction machines.
- Make a common area the homeschool room. We have found only our most dedicated and disciplined students can be by themselves. Most of our children simply get too distracted.
- Avoid bedrooms. The bed becomes more interesting than the schoolwork. A 10 minute rest on the bed can cause a student to drift off to sleep leaving them a full day behind.
- Keep the focus on the learning. Make the most interesting thing within a student’s field of vision or reach the learning material.
A learning wall is very helpful (a wall in your home where you can attach posters, maps, etc.). We use dry-erase whiteboards, reusable calendars, construction paper cut-outs, and more. Involve your students in the creation of the wall. Change it up from time-to-time to ensure the content is relevant to what is being taught.
Tip #4: Tech Matters
If your student will be learning in a virtual environment, the computer they use is very critical. Each school will have their own unique software or hardware requirements. We have found that our Windows based PCs give us the least hassle with respect to software compatibility. A desktop simply works best. Tablets, phones, and laptops introduce a number of issues that have to be dealt with. Consider internet requirements as well. Upgrade wifi routers if needed. Build for stability and performance. Budgeting for tech has required some creative financing for us over the years. This year, we will have nine PCs running. We basically run our own personal IT shop!
Don’t know very much about computers? If you join a virtual homeschool program, you are going to learn (probably more than you wanted to). Below are some things to consider.
Choose a system based on its reliability, not its whiz-bang features. Systems designed for business have given us the most stable platform to build on. We like using computers with RAID 1 hard drive configurations. A failed hard-drive could really disrupt school. Battery backed uninterruptible power supplies can power a system for a few minutes during a power outage. That could be a big deal if a student has worked hours on a paper.
You will need a very good printer, especially for younger children. Inkjet printers have been problematic for us. Laser printers are more expensive, but seem to work much better. We have had good luck with the Brother brand of laser printers. Even though most of our school is digitally based, we go through a surprising amount of paper. We use a local printing shop for color print-outs as needed. You may also need speakers, headsets, webcams, and more. Be sure to budget for these items.
Ergonomics are important. Be sure your student can sit comfortably for hours. Invest in a high-quality computer chair if possible. Be sure the keyboard and mouse are sized correctly for your student.
Generally, all the software you need will be provided by whichever program you are following. Most of it is free. One exception not often mentioned is a general assumption that the student will have access to Microsoft Office products. These can be obtained for a low monthly subscription, but it can add up if you have multiple students. If you are in a virtual charter school, they can help you get student discounts on software from a variety of sources.
We have successfully used Google’s on-line office suite for school, and found it totally compatible with the Microsoft files sent out by virtual teachers. Best part, it is totally free. Google’s collaboration features are a fantastic resource. As a parent, I can watch my student type a paper in real-time. The platform allows you to comment on the paper, making collaboration for busy parents surprisingly easy. If you are not already familiar, we strongly recommend you learn how to use Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides.
Do not install gaming software on the learning systems unless your student is very disciplined. There are a wide variety of on-line games that are super distracting as well. Be on the lookout for their use.
Finally, we strongly recommend you invest in a good anti-virus & anti-malware program. Our younger students seem to infect our systems in new and interesting ways about once a term. I’m mystified as to how they do it. My guess is they are randomly clicking on links. Save and backup all important school files. Be prepared to do mid-semester re-installs if needed.
Tip #5: Maintain Schedules
One of the joys we love about homeschooling is the flexible schedules. We can often get through an entire day’s worth of material with a fraction of the effort a public school teacher would face. This makes sense. An average student in a crowded public school may get less than 15 minutes of one-on-one assistance each day. In the homeschool, you will be able to offer your students much more dedicated support. We have found that one full hour a day dedicated parent-student time works best (they may do more than that in an on-line classroom). As the student gets older, they will be more autonomous and virtual class is sufficient. Our at-home high-schoolers only need 2-3 hours a week of direct parent-to-student support.
All this flexibility is great if you plan to also work a job or perform other tasks while your student is in school. We recommend you carve out time during the day to check-in regularly. It works for us to stagger start times for groups of students. This frees up older children to help tutor younger students as well.
Of vital importance is to maintain your scheduled plan. Getting off-track, even a little, can create a snowball effect with the rest of the program. Learning is done best when it is performed each day, over time. Cramming is a bad idea. Be sure to schedule finals carefully. It can be highly distracting to older students working through a physics final when a nearby sibling is playing a boisterous game with their virtual classmates. Keeping everyone aware helps.
Know when to take breaks, and be sure to take them. If your program allows you to take a day off, be sure to plan a relaxing activity away from the house.
Tip #6: Socalization
We hear concerns about socialization from so many non-homeschoolers that it requires addressing directly. You should absolutely be worried about socialization. It is critical that you get your kids get involved into some activity that brings them in to regular contact with others (global pandemics excepting). Good ways to handle socialization include:
- Volunteer work.
- Homeschooler group meet-ups and play-dates.
- Organized team sports leagues.
- Church groups.
- Clubs and other activities (4-H, FFA, etc.)
If you are still concerned, check with your local school. Many of them will permit your homeschool student to participate in school theater, sports, debate teams, and more. There is simply no reason for your child to remain isolated just because they are in homeschool. It is one of the myths that I wish would go away. Every parent should worry about socialization, homeschool or not. Homeschool doesn’t make it any harder, and seems to actually make it easier (socialization tends to be high-quality time in homeschool).
Tip #7: Go Hybrid
We struggled with some aspects of homeschool until we figured out how to use public school programs as a multiplier for our at home learning. This is truly a powerful option. Many school districts permit students to learn at home, but also take a class or two physically at the school. When you combine your homeschool efforts with other educational options, the ability to tailor a plan for each student becomes much more flexible. We have had our homeschool students engage in a variety of in-person and virtual programs from foreign language classes, to dual-enrollment college courses.
Going this route does make for a more complicated scenario. You may need to enroll your student in multiple schools. Scheduled classes may conflict. It can be difficult getting school administrators from multiple institutions to work together. Some of our children have faced certain issues that really flummoxed the professional educators. We had to work with school boards and senior administrators to get the required approvals and exceptions to customize our program. It is hard, but totally worth it.
Tip #8: Go Off Script
This is one of the coolest things about homeschooling. Are you learning about the Grand Canyon? Drive there! How about an important region in state history? Go there! WWII? Visit the local memorial! Dinosaurs? Visit the museum!
You get the idea. The power of homeschool is that you can incorporate direct learning experiences that public school administrators would shudder in horror at trying to accomplish with 300 4th graders. There are an infinite number of examples. These experiences teach real-world skills that you can’t learn in the classroom. We have traveled all over Utah showing our children up-close how things work, allowing them the opportunity to jump in and experience it first hand.
Don’t forget to add to the curriculum as you see fit. We often supplement our school’s science program with additional science education and hands-on experiments that the homeschool program does not cover. We can also gloss over material we think is irrelevant or not well described in favor of better material. Most of the time, we go deeper.
One important thing: Don’t underestimate your student. You might be surprised at what they can accomplish. The broader community of homeschoolers are some of the most active and engaged young-people we know. They own businesses, fly planes, build homes, and more. As the parent/teacher, you get to be right there learning and experiencing with them. It builds bonds between parent and student that few public-schoolers have.
Tip #9: Join Others
Find a group of local homeschoolers and regularly sync-up with them. Many of the programs we’ve taken advantage of turned out to be obscure or rarely used. By joining a group of like-minded parents, you can share experiences and ideas with each other that benefit everyone. A great deal of what we’ve learned has come from other parents. It seems like each year we discover a new program or option we previously had no idea existed.
Apart from learning about great programs, you’ll want to find a group that can give you moral support. Being a teacher and a parent is hard. Having others you can lean on is helpful.
If your student gets in to a subject that is over your head, build a support community and tutoring program for that student. We have at least one child that is too advanced for us. We have to rely on additional expertise to help her grow.
We are excited there is a surge of new parents trying out homeschool. We have seen so many positives by being directly involved in our children’s education. We wonder how many students and parents will discover that they actually prefer homeschool to full-time public school. Having had children in both, there is simply no doubt about it. Our homeschooled students do better academically, socially, and emotionally being at home. Yes, there are still struggles. Parenting is never easy. Homeschool is a tool that we feel gives us and our children an edge. We hope you’ll find and appreciate that edge too.