Homeschooling: Is it for you?
On any given Monday morning across America, thousands of children grab backpacks and lunches, a quick kiss good-bye, and are off to school. But in an increasing number of homes, the trek to school is as close as the kitchen table. For those who have chosen homeschooling, home and school are one and the same.
Why do some people choose homeschooling?
Susan is an at-home mother with a baby and four other children under the age of ten. Married to a public high school teacher, she herself was an education major in college, though she married and began her family rather than seek a teaching position. “I’ve always planned to teach, but I am happy with the decision to concentrate on my family now,” she says. Although she and her husband are supporters of the public school system, he answers inquiries about their decision with simplicity: “If you had the chance to put your child into a class of four students, wouldn’t you do it?”
The obvious advantage of a small class is one reason parents give for homeschooling. Whether one child, several siblings, or a small group from the neighborhood comprise the homeschool classroom, it is a given that the grouping will be smaller than in a public classroom. Personal attention can help the teacher/parent to monitor progress closely and tailor the learning experience to the child’s needs. While this same goal exists in a public setting, the mere number of students often makes the goal unreachable.
Another homeschool mom says it was her child’s special needs that led to her decision to homeschool initially, but that she has continued to do so for the last ten years. “My oldest had taught herself to read before she started school,” Amy says, “and our local school system’s kindergarten program didn’t look like a good fit for her needs.” Rather than negotiate for advanced services, Amy began teaching her child at home, found that they both enjoyed it, and has taught her other three children at home as well.
Religious beliefs are another common reason for the move to homeschooling. A brief look at the many computer Web pages dedicated to homeschooling reveals that many, perhaps the majority, of homeschooling organizations are run by religious groups. “I know what religious and moral teachings I want my child to have, and I’m the best person to instill that value system,” is the message that many homeschool parents share. Public schools gather students who are as diverse in their family backgrounds and value systems as they are in their academic needs and abilities. Insulating a child from what are seen as negative values is a pressing issue for many of these homeschool families.
How do you know if it’s your best alternative?
You may have decided for any of the above reasons (or others of your own) that the neighborhood public school is not your best bet. That means that it’s time to look at your alternatives. Check to see if the public school has a system for working with children who have special needs. Since a neighbor’s experience may not be the norm, it’s important to inquire directly to the school or school district. Schools run by various religious denominations fill the needs of some families, and magnet schools, such as science academies, fill the needs of others. There is even a trend in many states to open Charter Schools. Charter Schools are often designed by parents who are looking for a particular type of education. They function within the public school system, but outside of daily school district supervision.
If none of these alternatives is what you had in mind, homeschool may indeed be the answer. If so, it’s time to ask some important questions about the homeschool alternative.
Are you the right teacher for your child?
“I remember looking forward to my daughter’s fall parent-teacher conferences, and not just so that I could hear how my child was adjusting to the new grade,” says Barbara, a recent homeschool convert. “I wanted to let the teacher know things about my child that it might have taken her all year to discover.” “Now,” she adds, “I can skip the ‘middle man’.” “As Erica’s teacher, I can honestly say that no teacher has ever known her better.” In successful homeschool arrangements, the parent’s knowledge of the child, and the mutual respect of the child and parent translate into a working relationship that is good for all concerned. The parent uses information about the child’s academic needs, learning style, even his personality traits, to tailor an appropriate educational program; the student should find a good educational fit.
Even in the best of situations, though, the parent/teacher dichotomy and the constant interaction of a parent and child can sometimes prove tricky. Homeschool parents and their kids spend a great deal of time together, and much of that time is spent taking on roles other than the usual parent-child relationship. On bad days, Emma, a recent homeschool mom, reminds herself that, “even the year James had a wonderful teacher when he was in public school, he’d occasionally come home with a complaint. Now that I’m his teacher, who does he have to complain to?”
As a highly committed parent considering homeschool, you must also ask whether you possess the talents to teach. We have all known teachers who were better or worse than others, and quite often the difference is not in levels of dedication or education. The biggest difference is talent. Some people know immediately how to explain things in just the right ways. They ask the questions that make us think. They respond to our confusion with clarifying examples. They adjust their methods to our needs. Many such talented people work in the public school system. Some are at home, working one on one with lucky children.
Those who are considering homeschooling might first try to regularly oversee homework. In addition, attempt to teach or reteach new concepts to your child. Monitor your stress level as well as that of your child. No one will find a magic formula on the first try, but in general the child should be receptive to assistance and the parent should be comfortable in the role as teacher.
Don’t worry if you feel that you are a natural teacher, but you’re not sure what to teach. Packaged curriculums or school district materials should prove easily available, and can be adapted to your child’s needs as you both become comfortable in the homeschool role. Like other children who have involved and interested parents, homeschooled children tend to do well academically.
Is your child suited to homeschool?
Larry was having a troubling year in his public school classroom. As sometimes happens with bright children, he needed constant stimulation and attention or he became disruptive. Conferences with the teacher led to some agreement about Larry’s problem, but did not result in a solution. Larry’s mother finally decided to try homeschool for the latter part of the school year. “It was the right decision at the time. Larry had not learned to balance his learning needs and his demanding nature. In a one-on-one situation, I helped Larry to monitor his own learning needs. We talked about ways to seek attention and approval politely. By the following school year, he was ready to re-enter the system.” Larry’s mom adds, “Homeschool wasn’t a punitive situation. It was just a temporary one.” “And,” she laughs, “I can appreciate how hard it is to have my son and a few dozen other kids in a classroom. Teaching can be hard work.”
Larry’s story may not be typical, but he has one thing in common with most other homeschooled kids. For some reason and at some point in time, the decision was made that the public system was not the best choice. But whether the decision to change the educational setting is temporary, as it was for Larry, or permanent, the child’s needs should be a primary consideration.
Here are some additional questions to think about regarding your child:
Do his strengths, weaknesses or interests demand a particular educational setting?
The potential Olympic athlete who is homeschooled because she needs six hours a day to ice skate does not have the same needs as the talented trombonist whose greatest glory may be realized while marching on the high school playing field during halftime. Does your public school do a good job of teaching children with hearing deficits (or learning disabilities or visual impairments), or are you the best-trained individual to teach your child? A combination of homeschool and traditional school, which is allowed in some states, will work best for some kids. Other students may need mentors, who can help to support particular interests. Still others may need tutors or therapists to supplement their education.
Can you arrange for your child’s social needs to be met outside of a traditional educational setting?
Homeschool critics say that the constant adult attention and the minimal contacts with age peers put these students at risk socially. How can they learn to live with others in the “real world,” without peer interaction? Homeschool advocates agree that kids need social interaction. In fact, homeschooling, including group activities with peers may "save" these children from the negative effects of peers involved in less desirable activities, while giving them additional exposure to adults, grandparents and others who are excellent role models. Academic field trips, trips to cultural events, and just-for-fun get-togethers, many of which can be organized through homeschool cooperatives, expand the social sphere beyond the kitchen walls. Homeschoolers may also join community soccer teams or 4-H Clubs, church choirs or even the skateboarding group at the end of the street. In most states, homeschoolers are welcome to participate in the extra-curricular programs of the local public school. Though ignoring a child’s need for socialization would be doing him a disservice, most homeschool families find ways to be sure that it never becomes a problem.
Is your child a strong independent learner?
Most children enjoy a variety of learning methods, though one or two might work best for them. One child can listen and attend to lectures, while another must read on her own. Many children need to experience learning “hands-on.” Like traditional schoolteachers, homeschool teachers will need to vary their delivery methods so that boredom does not become the mode. But, even more so than in public school, the homeschool child will need to learn self-discipline and self-motivation. Like the one-room schoolhouse of the past, the homeschool will likely house more than one age of student and more than one educational program. The fourth grader must be willing to read silently while his first grade sister is working on her primer. The sixth grader must do a math worksheet while her brother receives direct instruction in geometry. Independent work habits, self-direction and a willingness to take turns are essential for the homeschooled child.
The good news is that the homeschooling experience may help to enhance these qualities in your child. As is true in traditional classrooms, students who are working on projects or investigations which interest them are more likely to be thoroughly engaged. In a homeschool situation, the opportunities for personalizing the educational program present themselves daily.
How will your child respond to being “different.”?
While homeschool works well for some kids, others may never get used to the idea that they don’t just hop on the bus in the morning like “all the other kids.” No matter how popular homeschooling becomes, the traditional school will still represent the norm.
Some parents have handled this situation by allowing their children to spend a few days in a traditional school setting to reduce the curiosity factor. Parents of older children may redouble efforts to increase involvement in activities where their children can socialize. Once again, local homeschool cooperatives can be helpful. Still others may find that the decision to homeschool be made on an annual basis. Many homeschooled children spend happy, productive years at home and other, equally good years within the traditional system. The homeschool situation should be designed to meet the needs of a particular child and family at a particular time, and naturally, it may change as the needs of that family or child change.
If you think homeschool is for you, where do you start? In any state, the first step for those interested in homeschool is to contact the local school district for information and regulations. Curricular and possible testing requirements will vary with the locale. If, for some reason, the local school district is uncooperative, contact your state Office of Education. Typically, it will be located in the state capital. While regulations differ from state to state, homeschooling is legal in all fifty states.
Once you decide to homeschool, there is no reason to be alone. “I never realized what a large sub-culture existed in homeschooling until I decided to homeschool my own children,” says Amy, a long-time homeschooling veteran. Certainly, the choice is more common in some areas than in others, but even if there are few homeschoolers in your area, emotional and educational support is as close as your computer. Many Web pages are dedicated to homeschool conversation, humor, and educational resources. (Internet access will also prove to be an invaluable research tool for the children as they study at home.) You may decide to join with others in a satellite school option or just to meet on Friday afternoons with those who homeschool in your city. The type and amount of support you want are decisions only you can make.
Homeschool, like public school, is not for everyone. It is, however, a great opportunity for some families to work and grow together. And as Rebecca Sealfon, the homeschooled eighth grader from Brooklyn, NY, and 1997 winner of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee would demonstrate, it can also be a great way to learn.