Ask a Homeschooler

Ask a Homeschooler

A veteran at-home teacher shares the most common questions and comments she gets over her chosen educational lifestyle.

My journey toward homeschooling began with a classic preconception: an image of parents and children sitting at the kitchen table all day, recreating school at home—minus friends. Little did I know back in 2010, while hunting for a kindergarten for my son, that interviews I did with homeschooling parents for an article on homeschooling would set me on a path that would change my prejudged notions and my understanding of “education.” Shortly after my article was published, my husband and I nixed our search for a school and went the homeschooling route ourselves. We have never looked back.

Now, with five homeschooling years under our belts, I am often the one fielding curiosities about this unconventional lifestyle and learning option from inquisitive parents. Given all of the woes about Common Core, testing, and homework, many parents are looking for a way out of the traditional school model without scraping every dime together to afford private school. My role has changed from asker to answerer, but the questions and comments remain the same.

Here are most frequent comments and questions I hear most frequently:

I could never do that.

The first thing I often hear from parents is not that they don’t want to homeschool, but that they can’t homeschool. Usually, the “can’t list” is based on assumptions about socialization, grades, teaching ability, cost, and other reasons that homeschoolers will attest are not the insurmountable obstacles they are cracked up to be.

“Don’t put up a roadblock by assuming what it should look like,” said Heather Hickock, a homeschooling mom and teacher with a homeschool charter school. “When people have expectations that it will go one particular way, often they give up instead of tailoring it to whatever it needs to be for their family.”

If both parents need to work, if the kids hate workbooks, or if you have the patience level of Yosemite Sam, you’re still in good company around homeschoolers. Don’t want to homeschool? Don’t. Can’t homeschool? It’s probably more possible than you think.

And what about socialization?

Yes, being in school means that your child will spend a large part of the day in a room with a bunch of kids all born within a year of each other. But how this scene ever became synonymous with socialization is something that has most homeschoolers scratching their heads. After all, only a small fraction of the school day is dedicated to giving children the time, space, and freedom to actually be social.

While other kids are in school, homeschoolers are gathering in homes, parks, museums, beaches, hiking trails, and everywhere else people gather. Additionally, when the kids are together, they are actually being social. And because they are not separated by age or grade level, they have the opportunity to forge relationships with children of all ages.

The trick to socialization is reaching out to the homeschool community. The Bay Area is fortunate to have lots of groups homeschoolers can choose from, thanks to social media like Meetup, Yahoo, and Facebook. “It’s easy to feel isolated if you don’t connect with a homeschool group,” Jeremy Stuart, homeschooling father and director of the recently released documentary, Class Dismissed, said. The documentary tracks a family’s transition from school to homeschooling. “You have to make a conscious effort to meet with people you gel with.”

Both of us have to work.

It’s always a huge surprise for people to find out that there are many homeschooling families in which both parents work. There are two key ingredients to making this arrangement work: flexibility and support. Hickok and her husband, a K9 police officer, both work full time. “We arrange our schedule so that one of us is home with the kids,” Hickok said. When their schedule conflicts, they rely on Heather’s mom or another homeschooling family to help out. “It’s nice to know that someone has your back.”

“Look at the structure of your work,” advised Stuart, whose wife runs a series of creative play classes for parents and babies called Tum e Time. “Does it have to be the traditional nine to five, or is there a way to operate under a more flexible schedule? Any scenario is going to present its own challenges, but it’s important to remember that homeschooling is not just an educational choice; it’s a lifestyle choice.”

The juggle between work and family comes with rewards too. Homeschooling mom Heather Horgan, a registered nurse and a hospital nursing supervisor, said her children are proud of her and her husband, a coordinator in a hospital emergency department. “If you asked the kids, they are very proud that we both work in a hospital ‘helping people.’ ” The couple arranges their schedule so that one parent is with their three children while the other works a shift. “I see my work as just another way we expose them to the real world and the fulfillment that can be obtained when you are doing your life’s work,” Horgan said. While other parents may have to carve out “me time,” she finds that work is the only break she needs. “Work is so rewarding for me,” she said. “I miss my children when I’m away, and it is exciting to see them when I return.”

Isn’t it expensive to homeschool?

It’s tough to put a price on homeschooling because every family goes about it so differently. According to a survey conducted by Stuart and his team on Class Dismissed, most people spent somewhere between $500 and $3,000 per year. The huge spread is likely a testament to the fact that each family homeschools in its own ways. Outsourcing most of your child’s education to classes, private lessons, tutors, and brand-spanking new curriculum materials is a sure way to watch money fly out the door. But a resourceful parent can do a lot with a library card, free admission days to museums, and recycled resources from fellow homeschoolers. When one considers the cost of private school, which can be upward of $20,000, homeschooling is not as big a financial burden as you might think.

How do you have the patience?

Back-to-school commercials would have us believe that parents should be elated over getting the kids out of their hair after summer break. Target depicts parents partying in the aisles once the kids are back in the classroom while K-Mart refers to back-to-school materials as supplies for parents’ vacation. The perpetuation of these images can only mean one thing: Homeschooling parents must have the patience of Buddhist monks to be with their kids year round.

While it’s nice to be thought of as having a mythical superhuman level of calm, it’s simply not true. The real difference isn’t Zen. It is having autonomy. If something isn’t working, there is no reason for homeschooling parents to push themselves, or their kids, to the brink of insanity. I personally call it the “why today?” rule.

Curriculum isn’t working? Sell it. Kid doesn’t like a particular class? Cancel it. Multiplication tables not sinking in? Go to the park and try again next week. Homework, tests, and reports assigned by school must be done on the school’s timeline, regardless of who needs a mental break or whether the child is even learning from it. That is the scenario that can try even the Dalai Lama’s patience. Homeschooling allows kids and parents to call a timeout long before anyone reaches their wits’ end.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of homeschooling, the fact is that school is a choice. If you’ve reached the point, regardless of your child’s age or grade level, when you have started to wonder if school is really all there is, just remember, it’s not. And good luck homeschooling when it comes to that.

Karen T. Hartline is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley where she has been homeschooling her son, Jackson, for five years.

Faces of the East Bay