It was September 1987, and my daughter, my wife, and I opened up a box of kindergarten materials from the Calvert School and so began our homeschooling adventure.
For the next 26 years, we were a homeschooling family. After the first couple of years, we abandoned a full-curriculum approach and selected our own materials for math, language arts, history, science, and foreign language. We operated a bed-and-breakfast, where we also lived, and turned one of the second-floor rooms at the back of the house into our classroom, complete with tables and desks for each child.
Because Kris taught clinical nursing part-time in nearby Asheville to supplement our income, I did most of the teaching. Though our early days of home education were pre-Internet, we managed to come up with various excellent resources, in part because we also owned a bookstore on Waynesville’s Main Street and had access to various publishers. Soon we founded a mail-order homeschool company called Saints and Scholars, and traveled during the summers to book fairs, where we sold our wares but also had the opportunity to look over books and programs carried by other vendors and publishers.
As each of our four children grew older, they became involved in community activities like sports, Scouts, and 4-H. We also helped establish a homeschool co-op, and later, after my wife’s death, my youngest son and I moved to Asheville, where there was a thriving homeschool community offering basketball and soccer teams, a chorale, a debating club, an actors’ guild, and much more. As our children reached the appropriate age, all of them entered the dual-enrollment programs at local community colleges, allowing them to head off to college with some credits under their belt.
This journey was not without its pitfalls. In addition to teaching my children, I operated the bed-and-breakfast and bookstore, both of which placed many demands on my time and energy. Like so many young people I know today, my wife and I worked hard, struggled with finances, and fell exhausted into bed at night.
Our two older children had a rougher time than their younger siblings. Most of their friends attended public schools, and Waynesville then lacked the homeschooling community that existed in Asheville. Though Kaylie and Jake pleaded to attend the local high school, Kris and I convinced them to continue their education at home. It was a tough sell, but today all my kids would tell you how grateful they are for that education.
A New Occupation
When Kris died in 2004, Kaylie and Jake were enrolled at Christendom College, a small school in Front Royal, Virginia. With the two younger boys still at home, our experiment in schooling might have ended except for the new career I had already started.
In the late 1990s, I began teaching homeschool seminars in Asheville. Eventually, this enterprise grew into Asheville Latin, and after selling our Waynesville businesses and moving to Ashville, for the next 10 years I taught history, literature, writing, and Latin to over 100 students a year. They would come to one or more of these seminars once a week for two hours, and return home with another four to eight hours of work, depending on the class in which they were enrolled.
These seminars brought much good both to my students and to me. They deepened the sense of community among homeschoolers, and the students often excelled and went off to universities like Carolina, Vanderbilt, Brown, and the U.S. Naval Academy. Others entered military service or the workforce, and in some cases, started their own businesses.
As for me, I called these classes “teacher heaven.” I had taught for two years part-time in a public school in Waynesville and in a local prison, and instructing the homeschoolers brought none of the stress of either of those places. I can count on one hand the number of disciplinary problems I encountered in my Asheville Latin classes.
The Second Generation
Today my children are grown, married, and with children of their own. Though some of my grandkids participate in groups like Montessori Schools and co-ops, all but one of them in one way or the other are homeschooling.
Every homeschooling family faces different challenges, and my own children are no exception. Balancing the demands of work with the demands of school, dealing with the learning styles, talents and needs of each student, and finding what methods and materials work best in their domestic classrooms often requires making tough decisions.
But my children’s families also have advantages our own school lacked. For one, more parents nowadays are teaching their children at home, which means greater companionship for the students and a pooling of resources for the parents. For another, today’s homeschooling families have available to them a richer trove of resources than we did, particularly via the Internet. One of my grandsons, for example, has learned to read at age 4 by using an online program, Reading Eggs, while my twin granddaughters, age 12, are benefiting from the online Institute for Excellence in Writing.
Three Practical Tips
When we attended book fairs, parents new to homeschooling often approached our table and asked me for advice on homeschooling. The first thing I told them was, “Start every school day at the same time. Kids love routine. The day may fall apart for any number of reasons—accidents or sickness that require a trip to the doctor or some other family emergency—but try to start at the same time.”
Organization, I went on to say, was also a key to success. I’d describe our first few years of schooling, when we often spent precious minutes every morning tracking down a reader or looking for a math notebook. Finally I bought large plastic bins at WalMart, assigned one to each child, and required them to put all of their workbooks and texts into the bin at the end of the day.
“Practice patience” was my third piece of advice. An example: Jake had difficulty learning to read. I vividly remember sitting beside him on a sofa one morning and becoming angry with this 6-year-old when he couldn’t make out the words we’d studied all week from Sam Blumenfeld’s “Alpha-Phonics.” Jake broke down in tears, and I mentally rebuked myself, “Cool your jets, buddy. You’ve got all the time in the world to teach this boy reading.”
He learned to read. I learned to be patient.
All parents are home educators. Johnny and Sally may head off to school each morning, but they’ll learn most major life lessons in the home.
But when we teach academics in that home as well, one great boon of that endeavor is the extra time we get to spend with our children. We experience the pleasure of personally helping them develop as learners, but even better we spend many extra hours with them every day of their young lives.
The past year’s pandemic had the unforeseen consequence of more than doubling the number of families across the nation registered as homeschoolers. If you have the time, the opportunity, and the inclination, consider joining them.
And to those who are already a part of this growing army of home educators, take heart and keep up the good work.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.