Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When Mom isn't the Teacher - DOs and DON'Ts

I remember the first time my high school son took a class outside of our homeschool. Prior to high school, I wasn't as concerned, but when courses started counting for credit, I struggled with giving another person control of his education, even for an hour or two a week. Ironic, huh, considering how many people give me that authority every year? Nevertheless, it honestly challenged me.
In the long run, that experience benefited me as much as it did my son. Lessons in communication never came more readily! Looking at this situation from two perspectives, as a teacher and a mother, maybe I can share some of what I learned.

Definitely Do
1. Choose wisely - check out my previous blog, Determining the Value of Classes Outside Your Home, for information about how to make class choices that benefit your family.
2. Attend Open Houses - don't ever miss the chance to attend an open house and meet the teacher(s) first hand. This offers an excellent first step toward open communication. Teachers remember the parents who attend open houses!
3. Be honest about your child's weaknesses - as moms, we can be blinded by our love for our children. If you know your child struggles in a particular way or has certain skill challenges, be upfront with the teacher ahead of time. A little extra knowledge can greatly increase the overall success of your child!
5. Establish the best communication style - some teachers prefer to communicate via email, while others appreciate phone calls. Discuss this early on if the teacher doesn't clarify her preference and let her know the easiest method for reaching you in a timely manner. One of my student's parents shared with me that she is challenged by lengthy emails, so I know when I want to share important information with her, I either call her or make the email very succinct. If your child's teacher shares information primarily by email and you don't check your box often, you might have to change that habit for a time.
6. Be positive from the beginning - make it clear that you expect this to be a wonderful experience for your child. I am greatly encouraged by parents who express that they are confident in my ability to help their children grow academically and spiritually.
7. Determine the appropriate communication level based on your child - many factors affect how often you should communicate with the teacher. If your child is younger, has a learning disability or has struggled in previous classes, you'll want to check on progress more often than with an older, mature high school student. With high school students, I now require that they have their own email addresses (although I am always willing to cc parents if they prefer) so that I can directly communicate with the students. I discovered quickly that emails going through multiple people don't always reach their destination!
8. Thoroughly read the teacher's emails and other written communication before asking questions - when a teacher spends time mapping out details in writing, it's frustrating to have a parent ask questions that can be answered by reading the email. It's amazing how often that happens, most often because parents feel busy and rushed. You shouldn't ever hesitate to ask questions, but make sure you don't already have the answers at your fingertips! :)
7. Save written communication from the teacher - questions often come up after the fact and keeping emails from the teacher may help provide answers. It's not uncommon for parents to ask me to resend emails multiple times throughout the year and that's fine, but it will save you time if you already have the information handy. I use Outlook for my email server and it allows me to set up file folders for email. For example, I have a folder labeled "Con Law" that contains all of the emails from my son's teacher, Bob Menges. I even set up a rule so that those emails go directly to that folder to help me stay organized. If you use Outlook but don't know how to use the folders tool, feel free to email me for assistance.
8. Advise the teacher of any issues - the sooner you let the teacher know, the easier it will be for you and your child. If your child has to miss a class or turn in work later due to a family crisis, such as an illness or death in the family, notify the teacher as soon as you can. If you notice your child developing a negative attitude or not wanting to do the work, let the teacher know.
9. Observe the teacher in action - My classroom stands wide open for any prospective or current parent to visit and watch. If you feel concerned or nervous about enrolling your child, arrange to spend some time in the classroom as an observer. 

Definitely Don't
1. Send your child to a class just because it worked for your friend's child - I think that as homeschool moms we connect so much to one another that we assume our children will do the same. As you look at teachers and classes, be sure to think of your individual child's needs. Don't make assumptions based on other students' experiences. 
2. Assume that your child is doing well because you haven't heard from the teacher - hopefully, any teacher that you utilize will let you know the moment your child begins to struggle. However, it's wisest to periodically check in with the teacher on your child's progress. Sometimes there aren't significant problems, but smaller ones that can add up. If you make an effort to check in occasionally, it allows the teacher the opportunity to focus on your child and give you a quick evaluation. 
3. Micromanage your high school student - if you have a question about your high school student's class, start by asking your child. If your student has a question or concern, have him ask the teacher without going through you. High school students need room to develop adult communication skills and connecting with teachers offers a positive way to grow this skill. I have actually referred parents back to their students when they asked me questions that I know their children can answer. As moms, we don't purposefully demean our children by micromanaging, but it's a habit developed from their younger years. A little awareness easily prevents this problem. Obviously, the exception to this is a student who seriously struggles with communication or has a learning disability. More parent/teacher communication may be required in such situations.
4. Over-enroll your children - As parents, it's easy to panic and sign our children up for every opportunity that's seems positive. I've had moms tell me that they're signing their children up for every possible class (I've had students who take 3 of my classes at the same time!) that I offer because I might not be teaching the next year. This area requires faith in God's plan for our children and He has one for each of them, so we don't have to worry about making every perfect decision. As homeschoolers, we need to remember that our children should actually spend some time at home! Stressing out over too many courses removes the joy that should accompany the flexibility and freedom of homeschooling. 
5. Don't compare children - When my son began taking Constitutional Law, he had some anxiety over being compared with his older sister, who was a very successful student in the same course. Funny enough, he has discovered his own strengths and because his teacher and his parents don't expect him to be his older sister, he enjoys the class. Children often put undue pressure on themselves by comparisons to siblings and other homeschool students; they definitely don't need their parents doing the same. I teach many siblings and I really strive to see them as individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and I encourage their parents to do the same.

How blessed we are to have so many options in homeschooling! As you evaluate the best options for your family, I hope the information in this blog helps you make wise decisions. As always, feel free to email me or comment on this blog if I can be of any assistance!

In Him,

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Determining the Value of Classes Outside of Your Home

As homeschool parents, allowing another person to teach our children is a big decision! As with most situations, the answer isn't always straightforward. Various factors, including teaching styles, learning styles, course content and more should affect how you evaluate an outside classroom situation. Communication, with both your child and the teacher, is key when determining the healthiest situation. Consider the following as you choose classes for your children.

  • Is your child ready for a classroom setting?  Depending on how you operate your homeschool, a child may or may not be ready to participate in a classroom environment. Children who are unschooled or who have a loosely structured homeschool situation may find even an hour or so in a classroom to be stifling. Other children who follow a very specific routine may struggle when a teacher does things differently than mom. Some children need a period of adjustment when they begin taking classes outside of the home. 
  • Are you ready to let someone else teach your child? Some of us have difficulty with this idea. The most common concern I get from parents is that they're worried they haven't been good teachers and if they put their kids in my class, I'll know it. The only situation I have ever encountered concerning this issue is one family, in over a decade of teaching homeschoolers, who wasn't doing any school at home. Typically, parents are doing a much better job than they think. If your concern is that you lack confidence in the teacher, then most definitely don't let your child take the class. You will find yourself being extra critical if you start out with a lack of confidence in the instructor.
  • Will your child respond to the instructor's teaching style? One of the best ways to learn about an instructor's teaching style is to talk to parents and students who have taken his/her courses. For example, I can tend to rabbit trail when I get really excited about a literary work or writer. Most of my students find this mildly entertaining and I think they appreciate my enthusiasm. However, a student who has difficulty refocusing after a break may find my style distracting. I haven't had issues in this area, but it's definitely possible. Another example might be a teacher who uses pop quizzes. I am not a fan of pop quizzes in most cases. I am a fan of mastery and I view such methods as trickery to some extent. Many teachers would disagree with me and both of my children have had teachers who quiz with that method. It hasn't been enough to warrant them not taking the course, but if a child is already feeling at a disadvantage, such a method could be very negative.  My child had a teacher who spent an entire class period without speaking to him directly (I actually observed this in a classroom myself). It didn't bother my child, but it greatly bothered me as a parent and a teacher. I never used that teacher again. My children have had teachers who loved them dearly, but taught them little. You are the parent...it's your job to observe and determine what works best for your child. Every teacher can't adapt their teaching style for every student, but being aware of teaching styles that may have detrimental effects on your child is important and understanding personalities and styles that encourage and move your child forward is essential. There's nothing wrong with asking a teacher about his/her style.
  • Does the teacher demonstrate beliefs that support your moral goals for your children?  Even among Christians, there are variances concerning doctrinal beliefs and moral standing. I try to live Christ out in my life, and that includes in my classroom. I have taught children who come from unbelieving families, but I make it clear from the beginning that I will be a witness for Christ through my teaching. I am not perfect, nor profess to be, but backing down in my faith in my classroom just isn't an option. I work hard to avoid doctrinal issues, unrelated to actual salvation, because I don't want to contradict any parent's teachings. If a student did express something that was clearly not Biblical and claimed it was, I would go to the parent first. We have to love one another in Christ and be sensitive in these areas. I am not unique among teachers. It is impossible to teach young people and not reveal what you believe, whether you're a follower of Christ or not. It is much easier on a child if the moral compass of the teacher is similar to that being taught at home. A high school student might be able to differentiate and will definitely have to do so in college, but younger children will find it more challenging to do so.
  • Can you afford the money and time required to commit to the course? I think for me, money is less of a concern than time. Every year, I have at least one student who needs scholarship due to a lost job or other serious family issue. It's a part of life and I avoid losing students due to financial hardship as much as possible. However, it is important to make sure your budget can support a class for the time period required. Time is an even greater issue for many homeschool families. Some don't think about the travel time or what's required in homework. I've had moms complain that they spend so much time on their kids' outside courses (because they don't want to send their children to class unprepared) that they don't have time to teach them at home. It's better to examine these issues honestly ahead of time to avoid frustration later.
  • Are you being realistic about your child's ability to be successful in the course?  I often hear from parents of 6th-8th graders who want their children in my high school courses. Both of my children started high school courses, under my teaching, in 8th grade. It's not uncommon in homeschooling circles. However, that doesn't mean it's best for every child. I usually ask students who don't meet the typical criteria to give me a work sample before I let them register. As parents, we may want to move our child forward, even when they're not ready. Talk to your child and the teacher if you have a situation that is questionable concerning your child's ability to succeed in a class.
  • Does the teacher work with children who have disabilities? I've had a wide variety of students with learning disabilities and emotional issues. In most cases. we do very well together as long as I know ahead of time that the problem exists. It's so important that you communicate any possible challenges beforehand. I have experience working students suffering from ADD/ADHD, processing and comprehension problems, traumatizing life situations and abuse. All of these children struggle more in my classes than the average child, but that doesn't stop them or me from working through it. I've had moms in tears call me to pull their children and before we're through, those kids are successfully completing the course! It's not easy on the parent, child or teacher, but it's a reality of our world that children do not come in easy to teach packages. Most teachers know their limits, so if you have a child with a disability or concern, it's much better, for everyone's sake, to discuss ahead of time. 
  • Is the class valuable to your child's education? This probably seems like a rather obvious question, but as homeschoolers we have to weigh the value of a class that takes time from our actual "home." There are any number of reasons that parents put their children in outside classes. One the main reasons is that the parent doesn't feel capable of or enjoy teaching the skill or course. Another reason might be that you want your child to spend some time in a more structured classroom environment being accountable to someone other than you. Both of these are valid. Nevertheless, you don't want to sacrifice too much for your child to take a class. Overall, there needs to be balance in the value and the time, energy and money expended.
  • Does the teacher communicate in a way that works for you? If you are considering an online course with the teacher only communicating by email or online, that might be a challenge when there's one computer for a family of five! Remember that unmet expectations lead to frustration, so it's best not to make assumptions that because a person is a teacher, he or she is a great communicator. Some teachers aren't willing to spend a lot of time on the phone working through questions and concerns, while others are very accommodating. Some teachers prefer to communicate in writing while others are only reachable by phone and at certain hours. What are the teacher's standard procedures for a child who is struggling...when will you, as the parent, hear about it? What if your child has to miss several classes...will the teacher be willing to help your child catch up or are you solely responsible? Will the teacher invoice you monthly or do you have to pay upfront? All of these questions, and more, relate to how the instructor communicates with parents. Is the teacher relatively organized, sending out regular communications or does he/she struggle with getting back to parents in a timely manner? Some teachers send communications through students while others are more direct with parents. Asking questions about communication style is wise before choosing the person your child will be learning from over the next school year.
Many factors influence how valuable outside classes can be for your family. From time spent on the road to the number of children you are homeschooling to educational concerns, selecting a teacher and/or courses should not be done so lightly. Your child's success and growth need to be the greatest concern and if the teacher can offer assistance in that area, then you're on your way!

If you are uncertain about any of the above issues or something not mentioned, please do not hesitate to comment on this blog or email me directly. 

God bless!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Answering your Calling

I am finally taking the plunge of teaching full time! I know it's my calling and when I don't teach, I truly miss it. Feeling certain that God has called me to teach, I set up this blog to assist parents with making class decisions. Hopefully, it will be a blessing to you and your family. As well, I will include blogs that I hope you will find useful. Please leave comments as you read as they assist me in evaluating my direction and also encourage me. If you read and don't comment, I may never know you were here!
God's blessings as you endeavor to provide your children with the best education possible.
In Him,