Homeschooling: Five Things that make Us Successful

In a few weeks we will begin our 7th year of homeschooling! Seven–I can hardly believe it! I remember thinking our first year was doomed. Crew was 5, Ayla, 2, and I was due to deliver Asher—a surprise baby—in the middle of the school year, right after we had spontaneously decided to move cross country. Not exactly a recipe for success!

Be it public, private, or homeschool, people everywhere are dealing with the back-to-school worries, wins, and woes, and even after seven years, I’m afraid I am still no different. This year I’m homeschooling for 6th grade, 3rd grade, and Kindergarten with a toddler in tow. Just re-reading that line that makes me question my sanity.

With all the back to school buzz, I always get a lot of inquires about our homeschool as well. People are curious:

  • Do we school all summer or take a break?
  • Do we plan for days off or just do school when we feel like it?
  • What curriculum do we use?
  • Do we ever do school in our pjs? (No, for the love, we don’t!)
  • What about socialization? (Seriously people, it’s time to stop asking that question!)

Many people assume I have it all together or that I’m some kind of homeschool supermom. How I project this image I will never understand. I feel like I’m running around like a madwoman most days! While I normally reserve this blog for the more philosophical or theological implications of life and motherhood, I wanted to step away from that voice and platform for a moment, and offer an honest, real look at our homeschool.

The truth is that I don’t actually feel like I’m doing it. Like everyone else, I’m figuring it out as we go! But I’ve learned a lot over the years. So when it’s time for us to start back up with school, I remind myself that homeschooling does not start with a fancy curriculum or a box of books delivered to our door. It starts with our intention.

The reason our homeschool and, by extension, our life runs as smoothly as it does is because I set it up to do that. I’ve figured out what my must-do’s are and what kind of support I need to accomplish them. I’ve also created a vision for our homeschool that directs our priorities and gives us a bigger reason for home education. And in all of this I’ve learned to be careful to account for my own personal needs and weaknesses.

A while back I wrote a post similar to this, but I’ve updated this one to include some new insights. So here it is: five things I do that make our homeschool a success.

1) Maintain the Core Vision— Seven year ago, before we even began homeschooling, I outlined in my own mind our reasons for homeschooling. This wasn’t about choosing an educational modality (like Classical, Unschooling, Montessori, etc.). It was more about the over-arching reasons for keeping my kids at home.

One was that we want to raise life-long, independent learners and we felt the home environment was best suited for that. We also wanted to have the flexibility to incorporate a wide variety of educational experiences into our family culture and provide an academically rigorous but also more flexible foundation for our kids than what traditional schooling options allow for.

As my kids have gotten older, keeping this vision in mind has been really helpful. It’s allowed me to direct their education in fruitful ways and given me courage when we have a string of bad days (or weeks!) and I’m wondering “why are we even doing this? This vision drives us forward and helps sort out many of the doubts or struggles that arise.

2) Make a Plan–Around mid-winter, I begin my academic planning for the next school year. Yep–mid-winter! I used to do it over the summer, but with older kids I realized needed more time to pull a plan together. Plus, I got tired of stressing about school during the summer, which should be my time “off” too. Mid-winter works perfectly. It’s a low-key time of year, and by then I also have a good idea of what’s working well, what we need to adjust, and can start looking for ways to do that.

My plan starts by spending a lot of time thinking about what milestones I want each child to reach and how I plan to help guide them.

  • I ask the question: in a year from now, where do I want this child to be?

Personally, it works best for me to keep it to 3-4 broad goals per child, usually that have to do with helping my kids achieve growing levels of independence that propel us into future years.

Take Asher (5) for example. This year I simply want to 1) get him used to doing a short amount of more “formal school time” with me, one on one, each day, 2) introduce him to basic phonics, and 3) get him working with numbers and basic math on a regular basis. Everything else is a bonus, and believe me, we’ll have a LOT of bonuses! Why? Because my plan is manageable and set us up to succeed. At the end of the year what really matters most for Asher? Is it that we did art projects every week, took field trips, learned another language, kept a nature journal, reenacted Washington’s crossing the Delaware in full costume, read 100+ books, AND ALSO finished our math/reading/history/science/handwriting curriculums? No! He’s 5. The three goals I set are what will lay the foundation for the next school year, when I will expect more from him and he will need to pick up the pace.

For Crew (11) and Ayla (8), my plans are a lot different. They’re older, have mastered the foundations, and are ready to be challenged in new ways. But the goals I have for them function the same way; they’re always paving the way to another benchmark that leads to greater independent learning.

3) Define Priorities–Once my “plan” is in place for each kid, then I can start figuring out the ins-and-outs of how we’re actually gonna pull it off. I ask questions like…

  • What are my must-do’s each day? Each week? And how am I going to ensure that those things get done? (We’re talking both school and non-school stuff here.)
  • What curriculum choices will best support my priorities? (A highly rated math that requires 45 minutes of prep just isn’t going to work for me.)
  • What expectations do I need to communicate to my kids ahead of time so they can work towards our goals too? Are there any non-academic goals I need to consider planning for?
  • Are there any special opportunities, interests, or activities I want to bring into our learning environment this year? Maybe it’s a geography fair, an educational trip, a volunteering opportunity, or extra-curricular activity we haven’t tried.

Because I am a busy mom trying to homeschool middle school, elementary, and kindergarten with a very active toddler underfoot all day, priorities are a BIG deal.

  • My mantra is this: I can’t do it all, so I have to choose the right things.

Priorities look different for every family, but what I have noticed over the years is that priorities are very hard to meet when you are not available to meet them. In other words, if I’m disorganized, trying to do too much, or just not disciplined enough to stay home and see that things get done, then they won’t get done.

I’ve found it helpful to build the rhythm of our day around what’s most important. Most weeks follow a pretty strict pattern, and that usually involves me staying home to ensure that the top priorities get accomplished. It’s also super helpful when my husband is traveling. We flex a little, but the rhythm keeps the kids focused and calm, knowing what to expect even on a stretch when Dad’s gone.

For us, mornings are school time. We are early risers, and the big kids are often working away at math by 7:45am. This means by lunchtime, they’ve clocked nearly 4 hours of solid learning time. Our afternoons are marked by quiet time for the younger kids (and mom!) and continued independent work for Crew, and then we are free for play, work, extra-curriculars, or whatever else is left in a very flexible and often unstructured afternoon. Learning happens all day, every day, and for the most part, my must-do’s get done because the rhythm of our day supports my priorities. It’s been a helpful lesson to learn and eased my stress levels when I don’t feel like I have to do “all the things.”

4) Find Support–I am not ashamed to admit that I am incapable of accomplishing the vision for our homeschool without support. No one can successfully homeschool, effectively parent multiple children, and also maintain a house, a life, a spouse, a healthy diet, and their sanity without support. I’m sorry, but they just can’t. Support is paramount for moms in general, and an absolute necessity for homeschooling moms. Moms can’t to it all!

Over the years, I’ve figured out what support looks like and also done the emotional work necessary to be ok with advocating for myself. This is a tough thing for many moms to admit, and especially difficult for people-pleasing personalities like me. But behind every woman who looks like she’s got it all together is a killer support system that she has cultivated and, more than likely, had a hard time accepting.

For me in this season of life, support looks like help with my younger two boys. Two mornings a week Huck (3) will leave the house for a few hours. This year my parents are helping out on those days, but in the past childcare has been part of our homeschool budget. Without a little one interrupting us constantly, I can plow through the critical things with the older kids and if I’m lucky, sneak in a few chores as well. On weeks when my husband isn’t traveling or too slammed with work, he also pitches in and will sometimes take the two younger boys out to run errands for a bit. It’s good Dad time for them, and gives me yet another block of focused time. I won’t need this kind of help forever, but I am unbelievably grateful for it right now.

It can be a sacrifice to make support a reality in your life but it’s super important for the longevity of your mental health and overall quality of your home. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m getting more comfortable accepting the help I need and planning for it to happen.

5) Play Up Strengths. Know the Weaknesses.–There’s a lot of wonderful ways to homeschool and many inspiring families out there who are accomplishing those things. I am not them. I’ve got to do what works for us, no matter how awesome another family makes it look. A few examples…

  • An Anne of Green Gables day? I love that idea–I would be a stressed out wreck trying to make it happen.
  • Reading aloud as a family? Sign me up! Except that I have a 3 year old who would rather launch himself off the sofa or climb the refrigerator than listen to me read.
  • Lapbooking and printables? Seriously, I could spend 40 hours a week scouring the web and cutting stuff out (ugh!) for my kindergartner to glue into a folder that he will forget about in 5 minutes.

Other things that are my weaknesses: I’m not the best teacher for math, I’m quick to shrug off science in favor of discussing a great book, and I know that if I don’t get a little down time each day, I will lose it and turn into Momzilla.

To combat this, I am a big fan of “farming it out.” Homeschooling means that we have educational flexibility; it does not mean I have to teach all the things. If there is something I am not good at, don’t enjoy, or simply don’t have the time to teach well, I look for an alternative.

Our math curriculum is a good example. It’s taken some trial and error, but I have finally found something the kids can be somewhat independent with. I still do math with Ayla and Asher, but Ayla especially can handle it with minimal time on my end. Crew does math completely online–I provide oversight and check in occasionally, but he gets to learn math in a live class with other kids, from a teacher who loves teaching math online to 6th graders. Win/win!

I also “farm out” certain things I just can’t fit into our day. Writing is my wheelhouse and while I love teaching it, my hands are full and I knew I couldn’t do it justice for Crew this year. So he’ll be taking a writing class from a fantastic teacher who also happens to be an old colleague of mine. This way, I know he’ll be well prepared for the rigors of 7th grade English come next fall (see how I’m going back to point #2 “Make a Plan” here).

By knowing my weak areas, I can better plan for them and free up my energy for the things that get me excited about homeschooling. I’ve loved teaching my kids how to read, and am so excited for middle school writing and literature analysis. I also enjoy history and social studies, and I find it easy to incorporate these things into our everyday life. My Dad also enjoys this, so we’ve brought him into the equation to guide the kids here as well. It’s taken a load off me while giving the kids a multi-generational learning experience they wouldn’t otherwise have in a traditional school environment. Bottom line: I’ve learned to play up my strengths and find creative alternatives to teach the things that I’m not good at or that simply don’t excite me.

To sum it all up, homeschooling is a wonderful privilege, but it’s also an alternative lifestyle. Most people think of homeschool moms squarely as teachers, but in reality, I spend more time curating the educational experience we’re after. I didn’t start out knowing all this and we’ve made some big sacrifices and significant life changes to make it work. But when the long day finally comes to an end and another day of school is in the books, it’s these things continually guide us onward. Seven years and we’re still going strong!

Next month I plan to post a follow up to this post that gets more practical. It’s a Day-in-the-Life style post for a behind the scenes look at how an average day actually plays out. Stay tuned!

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