18 Nov 2015

When I starting homeschooling in the dark ages (really only sixteen years ago, but it now seems like a lifetime ago!) I launched into something I really knew little about. I knew that the public school system was failing us and that we needed another solution. Financially, private school wasn’t a viable option for us. I tried my best to work with the school teachers and staff to make things better, but there came a point where we could go no further, and we were quickly losing ground with our son. I had executive experience and was a successful person with a degree, and I could perhaps school at home. I could do this. Could I? Maybe. A few days later, I was at the library and mentioned to the person at the checkout counter (Beth) that we were considering homeschooling. It turned out she was a homeschooling parent, and she gave me the name of a local group and a person to contact about homeschooling. Long story short, she was an answer to prayer and gave me the confidence that homeschooling was the direction we were going to choose. I tucked her contact and support group info away for future reference. We withdrew our son at the end of the next year-around trimester and entered what I will call the deer in the headlights phase!

How to begin? I wasn’t a teacher. I had no training. I didn’t know how to know what to teach at each grade level. What if I was totally inept as a teacher? I decided to start by pondering what I wanted my school to look like—where would we study, what would we study, when would we study. Of course, my only association with schooling was through the public system. It was how I was raised, and it was where my son was enrolled. So, naturally, my goal was to re-create that environment in our home. I planned to start the morning every day at 8:00 a.m. with a prayer and a pledge to our little flag on the wall. We would sit down and work together, take a break for outside romping and resume our schooling, trying to be done by around noon. We would have an hour for lunch and then spend an hour of quiet time for napping or reading. In the evening, I would prep for my next day. We would have the afternoon for field trips, playtime, shopping, etc. My plan seemed perfect! I had moved from deer in the headlights to feeling optimistic and slightly confident. Of course we hadn’t started anything, but directions were forming, and I felt less confused because I had a plan.

Then we went to our first NCHE conference in Winston-Salem in May before schooling was to begin. We walked into a lively environment of thousands of people and what seemed like thousands of options for books. It was exciting—maybe even thrilling. We were in the midst of so many people doing what we were planning to do. We listened to speakers and were filled with enthusiasm for our choice. I zoomed down to the book fair between every speaker session to work my way through the crowd to browse another curriculum. About mid-way through Friday afternoon, my brain started to shut down. The choices had become like plowing through thick mud. I was tired and confused. Return of the deer in the headlights existence! What had I been thinking? We were committed but now I was somewhere between out and out scared and feeling totally inadequate and unprepared. HELP! I essentially closed my eyes, bought curriculum that seemed like it might work and went home to detox from what was a completely and utterly overwhelming, yet incredibly important experience.

When I got home I remembered my conversation with Beth at the library and went to find the information she gave me that I had squirreled away. I called the person she had recommended to me with the sincere hope of a lifeline. It turned out there was an open house in a few weeks where I could talk with people locally who were doing what I was doing, and this group even had a co-op day to consider. The day came, and off to the meeting we went. Although a smaller version of overwhelming from the May conference, we walked into a room at a recreation center that was so packed you could hardly move, and you could hardly hear. Clearly what we were doing was not one of a kind! I browsed the tables and signed up for a few things that I thought would be interesting, turned in my form and money for a membership and hoped like crazy that this would all sort out.

About two weeks later, we went to our first co-op day. We started whole-hog with a one-hour class that met every other week for one semester. Whew! In retrospect, it was a good way to begin as it got us tied in, but in a time where everything was new, it didn’t overload us. What it did do was put me in a position to hear conversations in the halls and on the playground.

I learned about testing philosophy, favored curriculums, events in the community, places to go for fun outings, ways to save money. I heard their struggles and their successes. I learned that I didn’t need to re-create the exact environment that had failed my child in the public schools and that we could relax into what worked for us. I hung on every word, every conversation that could give me insight about doing this most important job of all jobs better—and I got better at doing that job. We became less regimented. We studied in our PJs and took our books to Barnes & Noble or the park for a study day. We took days off to go to the beach and found ourselves learning there, too.

Through our connection with other homeschoolers, we morphed into a lifestyle of learning rather than having a school at home. My goal changed from doing everything the way I had been raised, to that of creating a love of learning. I stopped worrying about what we were learning and celebrated everything we were excited about learning. I was part of a cloud of witnesses who shared. We laughed and cried together at our successes and failures and made each other better homeschoolers. While my kids gained friendships, I gained a world of support, knowledge and friendships that would sustain me through the rest of our years of schooling and beyond. I became more involved with the co-op and began teaching classes that were of interest to me and my kids. I served on the board and became a mentor many times over to those beginning to homeschool who were in my former state of blank stares. Now, I serve the state level as a liaison for region 8—I am the glue between support groups in my region and the NCHE board; NCHE serves the state body of homeschoolers from being legislative watchdogs, to putting on our fabulous Thrive! conference, to providing a network of sports opportunities across the state. You all have a liaison, and you can find yours on the NCHE.com website. You can also find a support group near you on the same website.

Results? Our kids are thriving. One is a PhD student of Economics at Indiana University. The other is in the honors college at George Mason University in Virginia earning a degree in conflict analysis and resolution with a goal of working in the massive world issue of human trafficking. I am thriving. I love learning and continue to do so. What I know now is that in the absence of the initial life-line that Beth gave me, connecting me to a wonderful group of families, our journey would have been less rich.

I encourage you to be part of a support group. Be a giver as well as a taker. Teach classes, organize field trips, serve on a board! You and your children’s education will be better for it. I used to ask how I could ever find the time to be involved. I now know that the best part of our journey was exactly that investment of time.

Diane Helfrich is a veteran homeschooler of fourteen years. She now serves as the NCHE development director. She is active in her church music program and loves teaching confirmation to middle schoolers at her church. Outside of church, she has taken up playing the ukulele. She is married to newly-retired David. They have two children. Ian is working on a Ph.D. in economics at Georgia Tech, and Anna is a case manager for trafficked and abused children in Yakima, Washington.