Podcast: Finding Common Ground in Homeschool Community
Today’s question on the Brave Writer podcast comes from an encounter I had at a homeschool conference several years ago.
It echoed a feeling I’ve experienced myself in the homeschool space as both homeschooler and homeschool speaker/business owner. And then, as we ramped up to this new podcast season, and I asked for your current questions, the same wish resurfaced. See if you relate to this fundamental heart cry of so many of us.
How do I find my people in the homeschool space?
Why can’t being a “homeschooler” be common ground enough?
We are built to have close ties with other people. When you embark on this lifestyle that challenges the status quo, the need for friends escalates because, let’s face it, it’s lonely in a world of institutional schooling filled with traditions and school mascots.
Let’s talk about the ways you can find community, the different ways community breaks down, and the merits of wide or narrow tents.
Listen to the Podcast
What does it mean to form a community of homeschoolers?
Community is what we crave. Sports and music teach us that. But what is it that we get out of these communities? Validation and support for our choices. Sure, there are skeptics who resist being fans—these are the self-titled individualists who define themselves against the norms. What’s interesting to observe, however, is that even those who prefer to go their own way gather together. Community seems to be inevitable, even for self-proclaimed independent skeptics.
This is the first challenge of community. We typically gather around shared beliefs or shared enthusiasm. Ruptures come when a member challenges the core ideals and beliefs of the group. Imagine a breastfeeding mama coming to a La Leche League meeting and declaring that she has found true liberation using formula and bottles. The very goals of the meeting would be undermined by that changed perspective. Can she still attend? What happens to the friendships she formed in that space?
We face a similar conundrum with home education. Can you join a structured co-op and behave according to your unschooling philosophy, letting your kids off the hook about homework and attendance? Can you join a religious homeschooling group as a secular person since there are no secular groups in your area? What happens if you are a dad who homeschools and all the local groups are “women only?”
And what happens when you organize a support community, and then members of it turn their expertise into materials or classes and then market to that community? How does that change the dynamics? Let’s discuss some possible solutions. But first, a little background on my experience with this situation.
Joiners are a misunderstood group.
In the world of homeschooling, being a joiner means we huddle together in our smaller circles, providing warmth to each other as we affirm the brave choice to educate at home. People who do not make that choice can’t always understand it. Our culture ridicules gushes of enthusiasm and counter-culture practices as lemming behavior, while unwittingly supporting the most lemming-like behavior of all—self-protecting skepticism that upholds the status quo!
It takes real courage to be a believer in this age of doubt and deconstruction.
Joining anything new requires you to suspend judgment for a time; to enter a state of credulity—believing. Joiners are willing to look stupid in order to get insight, to have an experience, to know something new, to become insiders and experts, to take a risk that might improve their lives.
A skeptic walks a mile in someone else’s moccasins but stops at a mile, and then retraces her steps. Believers go further. They buy the moccasins, break them in, and then walk as far as those puppies hold up.
Home education feels less heavy when we share the adventure with other settlers who moved in next door, right? Not just those who visit the land of homeschool by proxy—having a friend who homeschools, for instance. The question is: what should the criteria be for a homeschool group?
What happens when you realize that you are no longer perfectly aligned with all the stated beliefs?
Do you hide your doubts or disagreement? Do you tell the truth and risk the friendships you’ve formed?
Let’s look at each scenario now.
Religious or Secular Homeschool Groups
The right to give your child a religious education at home is one of the core benefits parents cite that drives many homeschoolers. In fact, religious homeschooling is still the largest percentage of home educators in the United States. As a result, homeschool support groups that include a statement of faith are common. That practice is seen as one of the joys that comes from leaving behind the secular school system.
Not all religions have enough homeschooling families to create an exclusive group in a local area, however. So if you are Mormon, for instance, will you be welcome in a Catholic homeschool support group?
Not only that, many homeschoolers today are secular and want to find a space where they are not required to profess religious beliefs in order to share the joys of home education with others.
So I offer you a couple of ideas to consider to help expand how we support one another, whether religious or secular:
- Does your group need to be defined as religious or secular in order to function well? Is it specifically centered around the study of a particular religion, or does the mention of religion take away from your ability to engage?
- If the group is designed to instruct a worldview or science or religion, then the criteria are germane to the smooth functioning of the group. In that case, exclusivity has a purpose similar to breastfeeding versus bottle feeding in La Leche League.
Homeschools inspired by Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, Classical Education, etc.
These groups can be wonderful and especially supportive. My suggestion here is to frame these carefully. Organizers can explain the groups this way: “We will discuss the tenets of these styles of education but we are not here to blindly adopt them as ideologies. Treat these groups as study groups where you explore the ideas and then discuss what worked or didn’t in your own families.”
This open-handed approach keeps these groups from creating invisible ideological tests that undermine friendships.
Homeschoolers, Public Schoolers, and Part-Time Schoolers
If you are working on the legal right to homeschool as a group, then it makes sense to limit participation to the fully committed and perhaps even those not using public funds for home education. If, however, you are simply providing support for the experience of homeschooling (educating children at home), creating a flexible space where people are free to participate at any level can be a deeply helpful experience for families just learning about homeschooling.
What should you do when your beliefs shift and they contradict a tenet or more in the outlined beliefs of the group?
Here are a few options for when your beliefs shift but you’ve formed a community and you don’t want to lose them:
- You don’t owe anyone your deepest beliefs.
- If the tenet is big enough (you are supposed to participate in a practice that you no longer can support—like leading a prayer or never mentioning God or your children must turn in homework or study Latin), this is the time to re-evaluate participation.
- If you can’t stay, you don’t owe people a declaration.
The main concern I hear is that there are loads of homeschoolers who can’t find a group that includes them. It’s why we don’t put any criteria on our members in Brave Writer’s online spaces. It feels important to me to create room for more of us at the table if we hope to sustain the movement on the whole. But that’s just my goal. Not everyone has to do it that way. I just hope some of us will.
What about Women’s Only support groups?
Many groups are exclusively for women and I understand that model. 99% of home educators are women. Still, full-time homeschool dads need support too. Ask yourself: what is the goal of this group? How is it helped by being exclusively for women? Can it meet the needs of any primary homeschool parent?
When you create limits, be sure that the reason is easily understood and related to the tasks or mission of the group—not arbitrary.
What happens when people in your group want to make money off of you?
Sometimes homeschoolers become really skilled at homeschooling or teaching biology or leading field trips or launching a co-op. When they put in a lot of work outside of their homeschool, those hours as a volunteer add up! If someone creates something from scratch that benefits you, don’t be shocked when she starts charging money for it! You can still choose if you want to pay or not.
Some curriculums and communities (like Ambleside Online) are all volunteer-run. Some groups use volunteers and are non-profit (like Wild+Free). Others will be for-profit businesses and they are not permitted (by law!) to use volunteers. Our local co-op was under the umbrella of the church where it met so it had the 5013C protection for how they took money to pay for the co-op but could still have it be volunteer-run. Consult a lawyer if you have questions. Choose what you do wisely to stay inside the law. It is VERY easy to do things illegally and not even know it.
In today’s world, paying people to create what you value and use is a completely justified activity. If you are moving from a volunteer model to a paid model, it helps to be clear about why and to whom the money is going and what the laws require from you.
For entrepreneurs, one of the challenges is that your first customers are people who are literally your friends. That can be awkward for everyone. The way I navigated this challenge was to offer free classes first in our co-op, to charge less at the start, and to offer conversational support to any friend who asked me for help. I also taught in our co-op which meant that my friends could get the benefit of my writing instruction as part of their co-op tuition, which was less expensive than an online class. That was my way of giving back to my community.
I see a lot of memes about women-supporting-women and how we should all support one another in business. I agree with the principle of support. What that looks like practically is another can of worms!
Homeschooling feels like a big community, but it is also a collection of smaller groups. Resources are limited and many have been developed by members of this underground educational society. That means, when you put your products or cottage schools or online classes out to market, it is likely your personal friends will be your customers. It also means that some of your friends may want to work for you or they may inadvertently compete with you! There’s room for all of it!
That said, here’s where it gets tricky. The legal lines, as well as the friendship lines, can get blurred. So I want to straighten them out a bit.
- If you hire a friend, be sure you have clear expectations of the working relationship and let go of the personal friendship side.
- Women can and should support other women, especially business to business, co-op to co-op, support group to support group.
- Giving credit to others is essential to creating a wonderful environment in homeschool so we can all thrive together. Here’s where it can be tricky. Pointing to and cheering for other women does not mean that, if you are on Team USA in soccer, you should also be scoring goals for Team France in the match. We pick our teams, we dedicate ourselves to the goals of that team, and in a spirit of collegiality, we show sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the other teams in our space.
So let’s circle back to the homeschool community piece.
Homeschooling communities are challenging because we have lots of competing agendas—legal rights, religious and political values, varieties of education philosophy, entrepreneurs, bloggers, podcasters, extra-curricular activities, and more. We want the safety of people aligned with us, and the freedom to do things the way we want to — and we want everyone to get along!
As Brene Brown says, “Clear is kind.” Be clear, be kind. When in doubt, have the courage to talk about what is troubling you and seek a solution that includes rather than excludes. That’s what I try to do. I hope you will too.
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