I stood on tiptoes, peering over the shoulders of those crowded into the stands, hoping, as the others around me, to catch a glimpse of my beloved athlete. The white line stretching across the lanes was an invisible dam, holding back the flood of runners waiting to burst through at the sound of the gun. At the cry of “runners, take your mark,” a holy hush fell over the crowd as we waited with a collective holding of breath. In an instant, the shot opened the floodgates, releasing the runners fueled by a rush of adrenaline. Within ten seconds the blob of runners started to thin out, forming a single file line as the most powerful athletes surged to the front. Another ten seconds later and a group of three or four broke from the pack. Then, we watched in awe as one runner pulled away with long, strong strides. With calf muscles burning and leg muscles bulging, he kept the pace for three laps. Rounding the corner for his final lap to victory, however, he began losing steam. Within one hundred meters of the finish line, he was overcome by a small chase group and finished fifth instead of first. The finish line was within sight, but it started looking fuzzy, and he lost his focus. Although he started strong, he failed to finish well.
I relate that story to you, because I fear the same thing happens to us as homeschool parents. Much like the athlete who shows up on race day having trained and prepared, we line up at the start of the year with lesson planners in hand. We’ve attended conferences and workshops, gathered books, pencils and markers, and we are pumped! The adrenaline of new curriculum and a new school year courses through our veins, and we start off running full steam ahead. As we round the corner of the calendar and head into January and February, things start looking bleak. We lose our enthusiasm in October, our focus in November, our determination in December. The start line is too far behind us to remember the zeal and the finish line is too far ahead—too fuzzy to keep us focused. We started strong but now wonder if we’ll even finish at all!
The good news is that we can finish and even finish well! With a little bit of planning and one last deep breath, you can push through and cross the finish line with hands and head held high in victory. Here’s how:
Choose an end date. Few things will frustrate and discourage you and your students more than a vague, undetermined finish line. Can you imagine an athlete entering a race where he is told there is no finish line, that he is to run until he cannot run any longer? That is absolute lunacy, but how often are we tempted to take the same approach to our school year? We have good intentions: work a little more, do one more lesson, finish that book, but I’ve seen it backfire on me every time. Why? It will sap every bit of motivation your students can muster. Decide on a date that will be the last day of school and stick to it! Circle it on the calendar and post it in a place where everyone can see. Once there is a visible finish line, you can work together to push through.
Roll to a stop. In our homeschool, we need a week or two to ramp up at the beginning of the year, and at least that much time to wind down at the end of the year. Just as an athlete warms up before the race and then must cool down afterward, we need those same times of transition as well. One strategy that works very well for our family revolves around our end of year testing. Every year I plan to have my children tested three to four weeks before our last day of school. Up until that time, it’s full steam ahead across all subjects, and we run a regular school day. After testing, however, we start to back off little by little. Usually, we have completed history by then and science by the next week. That leaves a week or two of math and reading for my younger students and time to tie up loose ends for my high school students. I also try to incorporate field trips in the last couple months, and it’s not uncommon to find us doing our school work outdoors, either in the backyard or at Duke Gardens.
Celebrate! If you ever watch the Iron Man Triathlon, there’s one thing you’ll notice about every athlete who crosses the finish line; they raise their hands in victory! Whether they finish first or last, running or limping, smiling, or crying, they celebrate the fact that they finished. We need to give ourselves permission to do the same. Maybe you’ve watched another friend have an awesome year as her children scored multiple grade levels ahead on year-end testing, took fabulous field trips, and played five sports. All the while, you struggled with your students over the basics of reading or math, and a good day was when everyone had clean, matching clothes to wear! If that’s you, I’ll let you in on a little secret; I have seen more adoration for—and celebration by—those who limp across the line last. Why? Everyone expects the pros to win and we clap and congratulate them for a race well run. Those stragglers—those who barely made it past the cutoff points, those who pressed on with excruciating pain, those who pushed themselves when they had nothing left—those are the ones we admired, because they didn’t give up. When they cross the line, there’s every bit of cheering and celebrating by them and the crowd as there was for the one who finished first. Celebrate your victory! Go out to dinner, have an ice cream party, go skating or to a movie. Be creative and celebrate with your students that you have reached the finish line!