In the past month, I’ve suddenly become an expert in a topic I never thought anyone else would care about: With many states' schools closed through the end of the academic year and most parents working from home, my life as a homeschooling parent who also works from home is now the new normal for most American families.
And if social media frustrations are anything to go by, they’re struggling — as I once did.
I hadn’t planned on homeschooling my child: In fact, for 10 years, I was a public school teacher, teaching elementary general music and, eventually — after earning my master’s degree — reading education. But after the birth of my second child and a serious health scare with my first, my maternity leave just sort of never ended and, in 2014, I started homeschooling.
These past six years have required me to make some serious adjustments from being a classroom teacher with a routine to a homeschool mom with a completely different one.
What nobody told me when I started was that the cardinal rule of homeschooling is: Don't even try to replicate school at home. Even if you’re using the work that the school system is giving you, the advantage of distance learning is that you can find out how your child learns and what helps them learn best, and then use that information.
As a parent, you might be getting different feedback from your kids’ teachers right now, and that’s understandable: When you are responsible for classrooms of 20 or more students, organization is a requirement of the job. I had color-coded schedules, color-coded seating charts and color-coded classroom folders to help everyone stick to a rigorously planned schedule.
When I decided to homeschool, I planned a similar day for my kids: We would start with some warm-up activities promptly at 9 a.m., then spend an allotted amount of time on each subject — moving through the day as if I was the teacher of a class of two — and finish around 3 p.m. But when you’re teaching two kids instead of 20, that doesn’t make sense; a full course load taught one-on-one doesn’t necessarily take six hours (and with one-to-one math instruction, an hour can feel like a very, very long time).
Like everyone else, I’ve seen the multicolored schedules floating around online, and I understand why parents lunged at them like lifeboats: If we can just follow this, we’ll be OK. And, sure, some kids may love the schedule at first, since it’s what they’re accustomed to — but I’ve already seen parents who are meeting some pushback.
The best part of homeschooling, really, is the flexibility. I had to let go of what a school day is “supposed” to look like, and I went with what worked best for us. In our case, I make a daily agenda with the assignments for the day. Rather than saying “30 minutes of math,” I give them their assignments and I let them choose in what order they want to work through the list — and when they want to start it.
If your assignments are coming from the school system, work with them to see if your kids have any flexibility in how their days are spent; their teachers were thrown into this, too, and they’re going have just as much of a learning curve as you. While there may be certain projects for which they’ll have to be online at a certain time, there may be other assignments that they can work through with flexibility. Look at how your day might flow and adjust from there until you find a fit that works in your house.
As we’re all adjusting to the reality that homeschooling won’t be quite as temporary as we might have all hoped, reviewing what has worked and what hasn’t with your kids and their teachers will be an important part of making the next few weeks more functional for everybody.
Every homeschooling parent — whether they made a deliberate choice to homeschool or had the choice thrust upon them — will have days when if feels like nothing works. Sometimes, that’s on Day One. Sometimes, you’ll get a brief honeymoon period with your kids — just long enough to think that you can handle homeschooling — and then things will completely unravel.
You will think that you can’t do this, that your kids are doomed, and that homeschooling is a disaster. You’ll look at a child with tears in their eyes and a worksheet in front of them that you can’t seem to explain, and think, “This has all gone horribly wrong.”
I’ll let you in on a secret: Classroom teachers have days like that, too. When I was teaching, there were days when the final bell would ring, and I’d sink down and wonder how I could be so exhausted and still not have managed to teach anyone anything. I’d stare at my plans, wondering how all my preparation could have gone so wrong. Was it me? Was it the kids? Was anyone going to make it through the year?
When I started homeschooling and my kids and I would have days where everything fell apart, I’d remind myself that classroom teachers have those same doubts. It’s not the homeschooling; it’s just life.
These days are going to happen even when you’re not facing stressful times, which we certainly are right now. They’re going to happen when your family is going through a big change, and they’re going to happen when the shine of homeschooling wears off. Don’t beat yourself up. There’s a learning curve to finding your rhythm at home, and everyone has days they struggle.
When things aren’t working for you and your child, just adjust. Switch to another task. Take a break, even if it isn’t in the schedule. Go outside. Have everyone grab a book and retreat somewhere to decompress. Reach out for help. Email the teacher and say that you’re struggling. Call a friend. Message a mom you know who homeschools — since literally everybody does right now — and ask for advice.
Finally, remember that we are all in a unique situation. The vast majority of families who homeschool during normal times are very social, so the isolation you’re feeling right now is felt by them, too. We are all — veteran homeschooling parents, teachers and parents who are new to this — trying to make this work for the kids. And we’re all apparently in it for the long haul.