Fifteen Things I’ve Learned in Ten Years of Homeschooling
This May year marked ten years for me as a homeschooling mom. My kids have not only been homeschooled—they’ve attended public school, Christian private school, and even boarding school—all overseas. But for ten years, wherever God has led us to place them for education, we’ve always maintained a partial or total homeschool schedule for them. Ten years in, I thought it might encourage a few readers here to share some nuts and bolts of what I’ve learned. I remember how much I appreciated the insight of others who had gone before me when I was in the early years of home education.
The tips below are superficial—brief bullets on things that work for us. If you’d like to read more of the philosophy behind why we homeschool (hint: it’s because we live a global lifestyle, not because we don’t value public school) I’ve written about that here or you can search “homeschool” on my blog and find a few more articles.
Please read below knowing that these are only ideas that work for us—this is not gospel truth for anyone!
1. Almost anyone can homeschool their kids. You do not need a college degree or experience in education to homeschool. You do need some structure, which includes: a curriculum to help you know what to do everyday, a commitment to a time and a place to do it, and a willingness to follow through for 36 weeks a year. Homeschooling was never a dream of mine. When I realized we needed to do it, I googled “how to homeschool,” ordered a yearlong curriculum for kindergarten, and gave it a go. (I do recognize that homeschooling is a privilege that comes with socioeconomic class and other circumstances, which I describe here under the heading Education is, in fact, a matter of justice.)
2. The most important thing you can impart to your kids is a love of learning (well, the best thing is a love for God and a Biblical worldview, but this is a nuts and bolts post, not a philosophy of education post). One of the great benefits of homeschooling is the flexibility in what to study and how and when and where. With our tiny classes we can investigate tide pools, dig up worms, read under trees, combine ingredients in the kitchen (or with older kids: linger at the library, write a play, build a robot). Because of our context, we can let our kids explore whatever interests them and milk that for all its worth! One of the most valuable attributes they can take into adulthood is a desire and drive to keep learning.
3. Education is more caught than taught. While I am committed to completing a solid academic year of work with each of my kids, I’ve noticed that they actually learn more by simply being Oshman kids than they do in our homeschool classroom. They are indeed learning history and grammar and science and math—but what they’re learning more is the rhythm of our home, the atmosphere of our family, the values that permeate all we do. I think they actually absorb more from our family conversations than they do from formal learning time. Don’t underestimate repeated, routine conversations—they’re shaping your kids.
4. Reading out loud is everything. Read out loud to your kids every day (even the older ones really want you to, which I wrote about here). It fosters your relationship, is automatic quality time, and it will teach them well. When we lived overseas and our girls attended public school in a foreign language we kept reading to them every day in English. Upon our return to the States, they took a nationally standardized test and the proctor said she had never seen a sibling group score so highly on vocabulary. She asked if we read out loud to them. Yep.
5. We do our best homeschooling in the morning. I know that’s not everyone—but anecdotally it seems that most adults and children do their best thinking first thing in the day, when they’re fresh. It’s good to get the hard stuff over with first. When my kids were all in elementary school we were easily done with our whole day before noon. In middle school our days lasted longer. And now with one in high school she works from about 8am to 3pm (but she does most of it on her own!).
6. Just because you homeschool this year doesn’t mean you have to next year. You can change things up as needed. You’re not committed to any choice forever! We always say, “every year, every child, by prayer.” Also, it's not worth it to sabotage your parent/child relationship over homeschooling. If being your kid's teacher is working against your attachment to one another, I would encourage you to stop.
7. Plan for failure. You do not have to check every single box for every student in every subject. It’s okay to skip a book here and there or a science experiment every once in awhile. As long as you’re maintaining a schedule that satisfies your state’s laws, you don’t have to do it all—in fact, you probably shouldn’t do it all. Many curriculums purposefully provide more than necessary so you can pick and choose a bit. Trust me, your kids are fine. You don’t have to do it all.
8. As your kids get older they can do a lot of school on their own. Let them. Now that we’re grades six and up, my girls are doing a ton of work on their own. I supervise and check and grade, but I’m not hands on in everything anymore. I focus about two hours a day on actually educating them, about a half-hour a day on grading, and then I let them do the rest.
9. If your child isn’t interested in something or isn’t getting it, drop it and come back. We’ve had months and even years where one child or another wan’t interested in reading or math, or those subjects were really hard for them. We didn’t drop the subjects all together, but we learned that if we lightened up a bit, took some pressure off, they’d come back to it. When they did circle back around they were ready and did much better than the prior attempt. With most things, they’ll probably get it eventually. One friend ahead of me told me she didn’t teach her boys to read until third grade. Third grade! She said they weren’t ready to sit still and focus on that skill. I can tell you now that they’re both college graduates and supporting themselves.
10. Don’t stay in a homeschool bubble. As Christians and good citizens our kids need to be out in the world, meeting all kinds of people and seeing a variety of life experiences. Homeschool co-ops and enrichments and programs can easily fill our calendar such that we’re surrounded by only homeschoolers and only Christians. We must free up space in our schedules for our kids to get out there around people who are not like us.
11. Conferences, fairs, and endless buffets of options may not be helpful to you. I’ve never been to a homeschool conference and I’ve only ever used one curriculum (I ordered Sonlight when we first started K with my oldest because it all came in one box with a binder telling me exactly what to do. I’ve never looked back and never bought anything different.). If you’re like me, the more choices you have, the more paralyzed you feel. And the more homeschool moms you get around, the more tempted you are to compare yourself and your kids to her and them. For me, less has been more. Ten years in, I know we’re doing okay with the very minimal choices we’ve made.
12. Avoid activity overload. You may be tempted to compensate for homeschooling with loading up your days with sports and theater and music and more. I think one of the best things we’ve done for our kids is limiting them to one activity at a time. They’ve got free time at home, time to read, time to sleep, time to play with the neighbors. We under-schedule on purpose and it’s keeping us sane. They do sometimes feel like they’re missing out as all their friends run hither and yon, but I think we’re making the right choice (and our limited finances and full ministry lifestyle really require it, anyway).
13. Think outside the box for electives and special classes. You don’t have to teach your kids everything. Look around and see what kinds of jobs and skills your extended family, friends, and neighbors have. Perhaps someone can come to your house and help teach painting or piano. Think creatively and see if you can pay a young adult to come over and help with a specific subject that you’d like to free up. When my girls were younger, I paid young wives in our community to come over and teach them painting, piano, ballet, and gymnastics. It was a blessing to have another adult invest in my kids, for me to have that free hour, and to have the learning take place at home rather than me running around town.
14. When you read out loud, let your kids doodle or play on the floor. I’ve learned over the years that kids actually listen better when they’re doing a secondary, but sort of mindless, activity. Coloring or building with legos is a great way for them to absorb what you’re reading. My girls still color or crochet or doodle (or play with these blocks, which were expensive, but are still in use in our home). When they were younger I went online and printed them a coloring sheet that corresponded to what I was reading (for example, a picture of George Washington if we were studying that period or a flower/fish/human body for science, etc).
15. Food tends to make everything better. I’ve learned the hard way (and keep learning the hard way) that getting some protein in my girls first thing in the morning makes all the difference. If they only eat cereal for breakfast, they’re “hangry” and unproductive about an hour later. A constant supply of healthy snacks keeps them focused. Things go much better if I have sliced veggies and fruit, cheese, yogurt, nuts, hard boiled eggs, or whatever on the counter for them to grab between subjects.
16. I know I said 15, but here’s one more! Put a map on your dining room table and cover it with hard or soft plastic, if possible. We’ve lingered for hours at the table discussing the names of cities and countries. One of our maps had all the flags on it too, and the kids really enjoyed that. And speaking of dining room tables—you can homeschool there. While homeschool rooms are dreamy, if you don’t have one, don’t fret. We’ve done the vast majority of ten years of education in the kitchen. That’s 17!
18. I can’t leave this one out: ask your husband to consider teaching one subject. My husband is the math teacher and always has been. It’s glorious for me for so many reasons. And it’s good for the kids. I know that’s not possible for everyone, but maybe your spouse can take over one unit for one weekend or summer break or something.
Enjoy your last days of summer break, friends! School here in Colorado starts in just a couple weeks. Ready or not here it comes. And who's ever ready? Not us. We start every year in a chaotic flurry. But we start. And we persist. And we finish. By God's grace! (That's 19! Just start, don't wait until you're ready, because you probably never will be.)