When people hear the word ‘homeschool,’ the picture that comes to mind is most likely a classroom. Many correspondence schools design their programs to look like what happens in schools, and some parents see the familiar classroom example as the way to homeschool ‘properly.’ The school-at-home method is one way to homeschool, but it may be a stressful way.
The homeschool style of school-at-home attracts parents because, even if we did not enjoy it, most of us were taught in classrooms. With a structured program, parents can easily start lessons at home with children who have attended school because both parents and children know ‘how school looks’ and what to expect. The influence of the classroom model is so strong that some parents, whether or not they homeschool, even talk about “my student” instead of “my daughter” or “my son.” In this way, parents cast their child’s identity in terms of school instead of in terms of family. Because of this strong social framework that shapes our view of the world, it is not a surprise that the school-at-home style is popular among parents.
A problem with the school-at-home style is that the schoolroom model can wear thin in a household. Other than breaks for music lessons or sports practices, usually parents and children do the housework, complete lessons and hurry from one activity to another. While their children play music, kick balls or break boards with their fists, parents wait to move on to the next event. Mom may read a book, knit or work crossword puzzles to fill the time, but the clock tick, tick, ticks. After months of this, a child may grow restive when ‘Teacher’ — who knows all about that book report — wakes him at sunrise and tucks him in as the moon peeks in the window. Parental nerves stretch as Mom tries to maintain ‘classroom discipline’ both for the kids and for her. More than one mom has said words such as, “I want a program so that it keeps me accountable,” as if these mothers did not raise their babies well without an in-home dietician, nurse or crossing guard.
The parent who seizes every teachable moment can burn out , especially if the school program requires classroom-style records. Is it a coincidence that the first page of the search results for “homeschool burnout” features articles aimed at Christian parents who often prefer highly structured ‘classical’ programs? The problem is not with Christianity or with parents who want a classic education for their children. The problem is that en masse we forget that children are born into families, not into schools.
When parents start to homeschool, the school-at-home style program may be a way for everyone to get their bearings through the familiarity of the routine. If this technique appeals to you, just remember that if this method stresses you or the children, you are the one who can decide that another style of home education may fit your family better. You can make that change.
Mental roadblocks to change
Parents who feel stress from a structured program may run into mental roadblocks that keep them from making a change. One roadblock could be disappointment because it seems the stress means they are ‘doing it wrong.’ Another roadblock could be guilt at having spent a large sum of money when the parents could have sent the child to a public school ‘for free.’
If the monsters in your closet are that you think you are ‘doing it wrong’ or Aunt Jane tsk, tsk, tsking about the fool who thought she could out-teach the professionals, keep in mind that the mass-schooling model didn’t evolve in homes. School-at-home programs transplant a school framework onto the family, which is about as useful as putting a saddle on a cow just because it has four legs, a broad back and may wear a halter. People have saddled cows, but there are good reasons why we don’t often see this. Just as a school run like a family would be a poor fit (although it may first sound nice), so too would a family run like a school be less than it could be.
One of organized schooling’s assets is that it can serve a large number of people efficiently. Teachers, children, janitors and cafeteria ladies arrive together to begin the work of the day. Teachers and children read the same materials, and the children keep pace with one another. The form of the activities provides a momentum so that (most) of the participants march smartly along in time to the beat set by the state’s department of education.
Family members do not march smartly along in time to the state department of families. Family members live. Family nominating committees do not hand out awards for “Best Eight-and-a-half Year Old of the Quarter,” or plaques for “Best Dad of 2009,” complete with gift cards (and I so hope this does not give anyone ideas). Even though parents like regular activity because of the mental stimulation, physical exertion or satisfaction in a job well done, Mom and Dad usually are not vying with each other for the children’s approval. For their part, children are busy, and the busy-ness of children is not part of a plan to win an allowance bonus — it usually takes a grownup to invent something like that.
Even in a family with twins, there are no ‘best’ eight-and-a-half year olds.
Schools are about efficiency. Modern families are about relationships and a span of time sprinkled with good memories. To quote singer, Carly Simon, “These are the good old days.”
Money also plays a role in resistance to change after a large purchase. Although no bureaucracy controls a family’s daily life, parents will plug along with an expensive set of school books because of the money spent. Some parents will not abandon that paid-for program, long after any ‘buyer’s remorse’ clause has expired, because of guilt over the purchase of a program that is a bad fit. The parent may continue with the program to try to ‘save’ the money already invested — known as ‘sunk costs’ — although what is gained is misery and no cash is recouped. Sometimes the family members think the fault of the poor fit lies with them instead of seeing the people behind the materials as human beings instead of as learning oracles. Family members may try to shave their own squared corners so that they can fit into someone else’s round holes.
If you find yourself painted into this corner, weigh the stress caused by the schedule, worldview or technique, against how the routine affects the attitudes of you and your children, and changes how you get along with each other. Only you can take into account your family’s culture and set that culture onto an imaginary scale with the program to see if the lack of balance is worth a decrease in household harmony, especially if the material of the program makes little sense to the children the material is supposed to educate.
In a lovely world, learning would be an adventure of the mind, not a punishment for the soul unless what you want to teach is punishment.
The library is one place to find resources to replace the parts of the paid-for program that do not fit well. The resource librarian or the children’s librarian should be able to help you find interesting replacement material in the library’s stacks.
If you need to stop using a program, don’t beat up yourself about it. Consider it as a step in homeschooling yourself about homeschooling, and take the materials to a curriculum swap. Perhaps the materials will find a home that fits better. A clichéd quip about this kind of instance is that ‘in life you get the test first and the lesson last.’
School-at-home is as legitimate a way to learn as any other way, and many people have successfully used it with their children. The classroom model is familiar, it feels like authentic ‘education,’ and employers and higher education admissions staff members recognize it. Still, school-at-home is not the only form of homeschooling, and if that style causes more problems than it solves, parents should keep in mind other styles of homeschooling. It makes little sense to punish the family by spending good time on a method that doesn’t work.
 “Surviving Homeschool Burnout.” Karen M. Gibson, Leaping from the Box
 Google search for “homeschool burnout.”
 “Sunk Costs, Rationality, and Acting For the Sake of the Past.” Thomas Kelly, Associate Professor, Princeton University
Copyright 2006, 2009 Valerie Bonham Moon
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