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Some advice for first-time homeschooling parents

If you are a parent of school-age children, I don’t have to tell you that COVID-19 has shaken no institution more than education. July saw a mad scramble as school districts across the nation anxiously eyed the data and monitored each other on best practices for reopening their facilities—or not.

Smaller districts in our area are opening with a regular schedule and fingers crossed. Larger ones offer parents a choice of (a) two days on-site schooling or (b) 100 percent virtual. Some local teachers unions demand budget-breaking safety measures that leave opening dates in limbo.

Meanwhile, frustrated parents are reaching out to other frustrated parents to form “learning pods”—four or five families banding together to hire a tutor or share teaching duties. Within their Facebook groups, teachers who aren’t pleading with parents to support the school system are advertising their services as tutors.

A Florida-based homeschool curriculum publisher told me that sales are up 20 percent over previous highs. “Many [parents] say that they have found how much they enjoy having their children home. Then there are those who have been shocked at how weak their students’ skills are and want to keep them home or at least find good supplements to do at home.”

The education establishment could use some shaking up, having been unaccountable far too long for sliding standards. If COVID-19 serves to jolt both parents and administrators out of complacency, it could lead to significant long-term improvement, even though low-income families and harried teachers will suffer in the short term. Educating a population is complicated, even in the best of times.

The education establishment has been unaccountable far too long for sliding standards.

But educating one child is simple. If you (or someone you love) are eyeing the scary prospect of full or partial homeschooling for the first time, allow me to share three life lessons for anxious beginners. 

I was home-educated in eighth grade, due to a serious bout with myocarditis that kept me confined for a year. Thanks to my big-city school district, a tutor came to my house three mornings a week. That, along with some homework, kept me at grade level. First lesson: If nine hours or less per week is sufficient, education (of the book-learning kind) doesn’t take much time.

Years later, when my daughter started kindergarten, I informed her teacher that we would be keeping her home for a week in October while her grandparents were visiting. The teacher begged me to reconsider, as our little girl would be missing out on some important work: “We’re going to be learning days of the week.”

Her concern was catching, but when I shared my second thoughts with my husband, he just stared at me. Then he asked, “Can’t you teach her the days of the week?” Second lesson: Education doesn’t take an advanced degree. 

We began homeschooling when the kids were in the middle of first and third grades. I felt prepared, having purchased textbooks for every subject at those levels. It felt good for about two days into our actual school experience. After that it became a continual struggle to work everything in during the allotted time. Gradually I changed tactics, discarded most of the textbooks and began relying on the public library. Third lesson: Education doesn’t require a test-and-textbook model.

What began as an experiment expanded to 12 years and two high-school graduations. The same may be true for many pandemic-induced homeschools. If I could distill my experience into guidelines, they would be these:

Enjoy your kids. Include them in your daily routine as much as possible. Read to them. Talk to them about what you read, and about current events, scientific discoveries, family conflicts and dilemmas. Enjoy learning—it’s contagious. Start noticing what they’re good at. Encourage and facilitate what they’re good at. Memorize poems and Bible verses. Limit screen time and prefer books over the internet for finding information. 

Most of all, be grateful you can do this. And pray for those who can’t.