When I was asked to do a short session on support groups for the "Diversity in Education" conference, I had to laugh. After nearly 11 years as a homeschooling parent I have found that getting the support I need, and giving meaningful support to others, has been my greatest challenge; even more daunting than confronting the local school superintendents. Here are some of the thoughts I've had over the years. Take what is useful to you and leave the rest.
Know What You Want from a Support Group
This may sound silly, but expectations, and often the lack of awareness of expectations, are a major stumbling block. Are you looking for activism; curriculum information and planning advice; social contacts for yourself or your children; or like-minded individuals to share group activities? All of these are legitimate reasons to join a support group. Will every group meet all of these needs? Not likely. All homeschooling parents probably agree that homeschooling is best for their families and that they, the parents, are the best ones to determine the needs of their families. However, they do not all agree on just how one goes about this, nor do they all agree on what role the government or the local school authorities should have. They also vary greatly in their lifestyles, religious and philosophical beliefs, and economic backgrounds. In some cases, parents are able to "agree to disagree" in certain areas in order to establish and maintain a supportive network for those elements that are most important to them as a group. Naturally, the more diverse the group, the more of a challenge this presents.
Before you go looking for a support group, assess your needs for support, and take some time to determine whether you can give support in any of these areas, especially to someone who has a different perspective than you do. Ask yourself, do I need support/can I give support in the following areas:
- homeschooling in general
- teaching methods
- religious, philosophical, political, lifestyle choices
- social needs (you and your kids)
- curriculum needs
Finding a Group
Now that you know what your needs are, how do you go about finding a group to support you? Good question. For many reasons, homeschoolers are reluctant to send up flares to let the world know where they are. It might help if individual groups, no matter what size or how much or how little they are structured, could send the name of a contact person to a central clearinghouse, such as OFTP, so that people who contacted the Federation could be put in touch with homeschoolers in their area. [Website manager's note: OFTP does have a page listing support groups by area. There are, however, still many groups that have not yet provided or permitted a listing. The following tips can help you find them.] For now you are going to have to work to find them. Local libraries are often a good source. Occasionally, some churches or community centres have homeschooling groups that meet in their facilities. Some folks have gone so far as to put blind box ads in community newspapers. Whatever works, works, so use your imagination. (For those old-time homeschoolers who are reading this, think about how you could make it easy for newcomers to find you.) Some school boards are aware of homeschoolers but are unwilling or unable to give information about them to interested persons. Once in awhile, a supportive individual will pass on a name or a phone number. It can't hurt to ask, especially if you know a teacher or administrator who is supportive, or at least not threatened by homeschoolers.
Once I Find Them, What Then?
Expecting all of your needs to be met from one source is, in my opinion, unrealistic. If you have a homeschooling group that does that, great (you should be writing this article). Most of us find that getting together with other homeschoolers once a month or once a week is not enough, unless we are getting regular support from other sources. This is also true if you are involved with a homeschooling group that does not share your views on all issues.
We are not just parents, we are people, too. If we don't make sure that our batteries are getting charged on a regular basis, we are headed for trouble. Parenting is a stressful job at the best of times, and homeschooling increases some of those stresses exponentially. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves so that we can give to our families the best that we are able to give. So do what you need to do to give yourself positive strokes, and take them wherever you find them.
Don't be afraid to say something supportive to someone who shares a radically different perspective than you. Also, be appreciative of support even when it comes from unexpected sources. If you find yourself being asked to validate actions that you cannot support (i.e., discipline methods, moral or ethical choices), be honest, but be fair. Remember that it is the action you cannot support, not the person, and see if there is a way that you can remain a part of the support network, especially if this group or individual has been a very good source of support in the past for you.
Getting Milk from the Hardware Store
Sometimes we find ourselves involved in a group of people with whom we seem to have little in common, except for the fact that we homeschool. It is difficult to establish positive contacts if you feel that you have to defend yourself against perceived criticism from your support group.
If you are looking for validation from your group for discipline methods, teaching tactics, lifestyle decisions, etc., and this is not forthcoming, you need to look for other sources to accomplish this. If you have these other sources and still find that you are not getting the support you need from your homeschooling group on the issues you do have in common, it is best to discuss it openly. Sometimes, controversial issues, and the perspectives that different people have on them, get in the way of the main purpose for getting together.
You may have to reassess your own expectations. If you must part company with a group, be thankful for what you have been able to receive from it, but recognize that it is not meeting your needs. You wouldn't expect to go to the hardware store to buy milk, so don't look for support from people who can't possibly give it to you.
Forming Your Own Group
Let's say that your homeschooling group meets to provide contacts for the children, but you need information about planning a curriculum, and you aren't getting this help during the times when you get together. Some homeschoolers have called for special meetings of their groups to request additional activities. It often happens that others are looking for more, too, and just hadn't gotten around to asking.
Whether you are an existing group looking to broaden your perspective, or a new group getting established, there are many avenues to pursue. Here are some of the things homeschooling groups do:
- share activities such as craft projects, field trips, science or history fairs, athletic activities and play groups
- use group buying power for discount prices on performances, events, or educational materials
- share curriculum ideas or teaching methods
- get active politically
- disperse information, perhaps through a telephone tree
- HAVE ADULT CONVERSATION --not to be minimized-- as the teaching parent spends a great deal of time, energy, and effort focused on children.
None of this is an easy process, nor is it ever really finished. Many groups find that the needs change with the membership, and that things that used to work no longer do. Sometimes groups split up. This is not necessarily bad, as long as people maintain respect for each other. Growth and change are immutable facts of life, and ability to adjust is a sign of health. So get together! It's worth the trouble.
Copyright © 1996 Mary Shaw