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How to get going when the going isn't good

by Jean Hall

It’s the first week of February. The holidays are well behind us, and we still haven’t settled into some kind of academic routine. It’s not just me; every time I try to get the girls to buckle down, to sit down and work, not only do I meet direct resistance (easier to deal with), but subtle sabotage as well.

I’m distractible, and they know it. I just get them settled down, working at something; the phone rings, and instead of continuing to work – they’re old enough that they can work independently – they scatter. It takes time, energy, and effort to round them up again.

I’m tired. I don’t want to do this. They don’t want to do this. At least if they were in a classroom, they’d have to listen to the teacher. Wouldn’t they?

Things come to a head when they refuse to do the homework for a group homeschool science class. They enjoy the class, they’re excited about the science camp that takes place at the end of the year, they love the teacher – but they have no desire to do the homework for the Tuesday evening class, and it’s 4pm and growing ever later. I cannot face yet another Tuesday evening of our girls showing up with blank papers, an obvious show of disrespect.

And yet… I just cannot get them to work. They won’t listen to me!

Have you felt as if just about anyone could do a better job than you of teaching your children?

I have. More than once, in fact. The time I was just describing involved the worst bout of homeschool burnout we went through, over the past nineteen years of homeschooling. I even went so far as to ask a friend, whose children were in a Classical Christian private school, how much the tuition was, and if it would be hard to get our girls in? ...only to have her answer that she was pulling her children out of the school to homeschool them!

Most of the time, I've found that homeschool burnout has been my own doing, although it can come from outside pressures as well. However, I'm going to focus on the things that I did to bring on the problem, as well as the solution, in part because we're wise to recognize and tackle what is in our power to change, and leave the rest to prayer.

My husband is so wise. When I went to him to tell him of my frustration and feeling of failure, he didn't just agree to put the girls in school, nor did he chide me for my lack of organization, or the way I had let discipline slip, or give me a pep talk, stand me back up and put me back into the fray.

Instead, he paused for a long and thoughtful moment, and said, “Here's what I want you to do. Take the rest of the month off.” (Already I was thinking, “It's February! It's February! We're already behind! How can I take the rest of the month off?”) Not to mention, we'd taken all of December off, and hadn't done much to speak of for all of January, and here it was, February, with the school year galloping to its end.

...but we're home educators. Who says we have to follow the school schedule? Who says that we have to finish a specific book, curriculum, or course by May or early June? Who says we have to stop for the summer, or start in the autumn?

That wasn't all. This “time off” was not to be a time for the girls to run wild (they'd been doing enough of that already, which was partly how we'd gotten into the mess we were in). It would be a time for reassessing, for planning, putting together a schedule and some checklists, putting the girls to work on chores and getting the household in order, picking up and putting away and dejunking where necessary, putting routines in place so everything didn't revolve around me and my direction.

I'd been micromanaging. Instead of letting a checklist speak for me, I was directing three students' education. If I wasn't right there, nothing got done. Added to that, I wasn't delegating the housework effectively, or following up, which meant I ended up doing most of the work or it didn't get done.

In addition, my husband told me he'd back me up. If the girls wouldn't listen to me, I could call him at work and put the offending daughter on the phone with him. I had to do my part by being consistent, by setting limits and enforcing them, by stating expectations and following up.

While we were getting a routine in place, and reinstating the basic principles of respect and obedience, I was also researching homeschool schedules and how other parents kept their students accountable. We were following a Charlotte Mason approach – a lot of subjects, spread over the week. Previously much of our work had been done through reading aloud together, followed by narration, but the girls were now old enough to work independently. They just hadn't learned how to apply themselves. It was much easier (for them) to let Mom direct the flow.

sample checklistSample Filled OutSelect either image to download the checklist or sample.

I referred to my list of work that I thought should (and could) be completed in a week. I put together a checklist for each girl, personalized with the titles of the books they were reading. We had a family meeting and I explained the checklist. We had a four-day school week, and the list of books and requirements for the week (often just one or two chapters per book per week, from a diverse reading list) was in the first column. Four blank columns followed, one for each academic day. The girls were to write their actual work in the space on the day they did the work, page numbers or chapter titles or chapter numbers. Narrations could be written out or given orally, while folding laundry or washing dishes together or sitting quietly, having tea, or driving somewhere in the car.

Someone asked, what would happen if they did all their work for the week on the first day? The answer was—they'd be done with their work for the week! (I didn't think there was too much danger of that, but they certainly liked the idea.) What would happen if they didn't finish by the fourth day? Then Friday, instead of being a fun day, a time for pursuing their interests, would be a catch-up day. They thought about it, nodded, and agreed to try.

Personalities came out, the first week. One student worked steadily, breaking her tasks into a little every day, spread over Monday through Thursday. One student worked in a rush on Monday, doing four math lessons and a chunk of reading, aiming for the elusive goal of a two- or three-day workweek. One student put almost everything off until Thursday – and had a full day Thursday, and no free time on Friday, and even some academic catching up to do on Saturday, no fun at all! The next week, she was wiser.

I was on to something. The checklist made them accountable, and it gave them the freedom to choose what work they wanted to do, and when to schedule it. They were no longer waiting on Mom, and having to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. This freedom fostered independence, but there was also the accountability that Dad was going to look over their checklists when he got home.

The household was happier. There was less fighting. More got done, including those science class homework sheets. We weren't showing up at class with blank papers anymore.

When I think about the problem rationally, I know that putting our girls into an institutional school would not have solved our problems, it would have simply shifted them, put them out of sight for a few hours a day. Things might very well have been worse, when you think about social pressures and peer dependence, not to mention all the things taught in school that we aren't interested in teaching our children. However, in the midst of my failure and despair, I was too close to the problem. I couldn't see a solution... but my husband could.

Sometimes it takes that outside perspective, whether it's a spouse or a friend, someone who is a step back from the problem, but who can pray with you. It may be that you need to take a step back, a good look at what's not working, and a levelheaded evaluation with the emotion set aside.

Does the problem have to do with disorganization? Take some time to set some routines in place. Organize your space. Box up or (better yet) get rid of clutter. Is the problem that your children don't respect you, won't listen to you? It's time to work on obedience and respect. You can't get academics done when no one listens, so set the academics aside while you get the character issues ironed out. If you don't know where to start, ask a friend (a good choice is one with older children you admire) for advice.

Read the Bible together. Talk about character with your children. Talk about your hopes for them. Apologize, if you've been a wimp, or been self-absorbed, and be honest about how much of the problem is your fault. I've found our girls respect that kind of honesty, and are willing to try harder if they see me also trying harder.

Most important of all: Pray. Get your own spiritual life in order. Spend time in the Word, take time to pray. Remember the drill that flight attendants go through at the beginning of a flight: When the oxygen masks drop, adults are supposed to put the mask on their own faces first, and then help their children. If you're spiritually dry and empty, what are you going to offer your children?

Burnout happens, but you can get past it. I know, because I've been there.

Our girls are nearly grown; our remaining school years are dwindling. The time has gone so fast! Now I'm glad I didn't quit, and I'm thankful for these precious years of growing and learning together.

The best advice I ever read on this subject comes (not surprisingly) from the Bible. Galatians 6:9 says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

I think that pretty well sums it up.

 
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