A response to a new homeschooler looking for advice on how best to start homeschooling:
I think the very first thing we need to do when we start homeschooling is to ask ourselves why we are homeschooling. It seems like a silly place to start but I’ve learned that this question is foundational. If we don’t have a rock solid reason, we tend to easily fall prey to uncertainty, naysayers, and worse still, bouncing between school and homeschool. For myself, we originally chose homeschooling because, as teachers, we knew firsthand that the academic standards in schools were poor and that the social situations were abominable. Plus we didn’t want to give our precious children over to strangers for most of their young life. Based on this, we closed the door on school enrolment. To put our children into school now, we would be willfully deciding to send them away, into a place that we knew was academically and socially inferior. Knowing our reasons for homeschooling, really helps us in those moments when we are panicked over whether we were doing the right thing or not. Over the years our reasons for homeschooling have changed – we have learned what wonderful places homes can be for educating children – so now there are even more reasons why our way forward is homeschooling.
The next decision that needs to be made is whether you will enrol your children in a Distance Education school or register with your state government. Where I live, in QLD, there are quite a few Distance Education options and they are very popular amongst new homeschoolers, who feel overwhelmed by taking on the full responsibility of their children’s education. Distance Education schools do provide a lot of support – determining what you teach, when and with what resources – but, as with any school, you will have to forgo a lot of freedom and choice. The other option is to retain full responsibility and register your intention to homeschool with your state authority. Each state has various requirements so you’ll have to make yourself familiar with these. I always recommend that people read them for themselves, rather than rely on others’ summaries, as it’s vital to properly understand your homeschooling rights and responsibilities.
Once you’ve made the decision to register as a homeschooler, imagine what you want your homeschool to look like. Brainstorm your ideal learning situations. Ignore practicalities for the moment and just dream, as often these imaginings get to the heart of what you believe and desire for your children. This also helps you to start breaking loose from school notions. Too often we copy ideas about education from the only example we know – school – the institution we are abandoning because it doesn’t nourish our children. So ask yourself lots of questions and jot down your thoughts. What are your aspirations for your children? What are your children’s aspirations for themselves? What do you want your children to know? What do they want to know? What do they need to learn? How do you think children learn best? (Ignore the ‘experts’, they aren’t doing too well with the millions of children they already have in their care). Do you want to use textbooks in your homeschool? Or would you rather explore other options, like reading ‘real’ books, watching videos, participating in real life activities and hands on projects? Or would you feel more comfortable with a mixture of these? What are your children’s interests and strengths? Where do your children need more support? What do you imagine your role is in your homeschooling? What subjects would you like to teach? What subjects does the government say you must teach? Do you want to teach subject by subject or would you rather a more holistic approach? Start with you own ideals, rather than what you think education ‘must’ be. Yes, you can learn from others, but don’t copy them. Start where you are comfortable and grow from there. Adjust according to your children’s responses. They are the best indicators of whether you are on the right track.
Don’t focus on materials and your schoolroom when you are starting out. Just about everyone makes this mistake. No, it’s not a fatal mistake, thankfully, but it is a distraction. We don’t need a pretty schoolroom, chock full of school-like materials. Your money and time are better spent elsewhere. If you really want to buy something for your homeschool, start by buying bookshelves and then filling them with books that the kids want to read. Then take them to the library to sign up for library cards, and fill up the rest of your shelves with free books. Yes, you might want a few textbooks and curriculums to get started with, but don’t throw too much money at them straight away. Get to know your learners first so you can better match the resources to them. New homeschoolers tend to waste a lot of money in their first year, buying things they’ll hardly use and will later regret.
As homeschoolers, you need a homeschool community of like-minded people, who you can share with, so make sure to work on making these connections for yourself and your children. It’s not an easy process and it won’t happen overnight. Be patient. You won’t necessarily find like-minded homeschoolers in every suburb; you might not even find them on your side of town, so think more broadly and be prepared to travel to meet people. (Also remember that friends for your children don’t need to be the same age and gender as your children). Be courageous and invite people over for a cup of tea or arrange a park play. It’s not a comfortable process – we’ve all had the experience of walking through the park asking strangers if they are the homeschooling group we’ve come to meet – but it’s worth the effort. On this homeschooling journey, you need fellow travelers to support you.
In the same breath, I would advise that you stay home a lot and don’t overfill your weeks with outside-the-home activities. Your first instinct as a new homeschooler, particularly if you’ve just withdrawn your children from school, will be to join co-ops and classes. There is nothing wrong with these activities at all, provided you are enrolling for the right reasons. Too often new homeschoolers enrol in everything on offer because they feel like their children are somehow ‘missing out’ by not attending school. In the early years, I fell into this over-compensating trap, and attended nearly every homeschooling event on offer from one side of the city to the other. All I achieved was an empty pocket and fuel tank, tired children who had little time for their real interests, and a grumpy mum who knew how little real learning had happened during the week. But on the surface, it looked like we were doing a lot, (and we were!) but it added very little of real value to our lives. Nowadays, we only participate in activities that we really want to do, and even then we are very selective and limit the number of outings in our week. Yes, at first, it feels really hard to stay home, day in and out. Our society encourages us to run around like a hamster on their wheel and we start this training as soon as children enter school (and nowadays even earlier with children in child care). So, when we bring our children home, both parent and child have to learn how to be comfortable and fulfilled at home. And the only way to do this is to spend some time at home growing to love it…and you will one day. It just takes time and practise.
The one thing I wished I’d known, at the beginning of our homeschooling journey, is the immense value of reading aloud. I’ve always known it was important, but I didn’t realise how vital it was. Nowadays we read aloud for a lot (my hubby is reading aloud to my boys as I type this) but I know that I’ve wasted many of our earlier read aloud opportunities and my heart breaks over it. If I could encourage you to do only one thing in your homeschooling journey, it would be to read aloud to your children as much as possible and for as many years as possible. Reading aloud isn’t just for our toddlers and preschoolers; it’s for all ages. Sadly, our school aged children (particularly if they’ve been to school) may reject our attempts to read to them, because they’ve been led to believe that reading aloud is just for babies. But if we can get to them early and help them fall in love with being read to, we may be able to turn around this mistaken notion. As you enter this world of homeschooling, I can tell you now that your world is about to be filled by books and it’s a wonderful thing.
And, finally, I would encourage you to become an active learner alongside your children. Don’t just prop the kids up in front of textbooks or worksheets and only return with your red pen to mark their work. That’s ‘playing teacher’ and not homeschooling. If you want your children to wholeheartedly embrace learning, then you have to embrace it first. Rather than standing on the sidelines and giving instructions, jump in with them and model how to learn. That’s the best way to homeschool.
Good luck on your homeschooling journey. It’s worth the effort. 🙂