How to take the homeschooling leap

Montreal Families associate editor explains why she decided to homeschool her kids this fall and offers parents advice on how to embark on this courageous journey

There’s been a surge in families pulling their children out of school in dissatisfaction with the province’s return-to-school plan. More than 10,000 Quebec families have made the choice to homeschool this year. Mine is among them.

When I notified my children’s schools, I got a pretty frosty reception. It’s no surprise, really. Educators and school administrators have been under an immense amount of pressure, and many parents — me included — waited until the last minute to withdraw children from school in the hopes that the province would revise its back-to-school plan.

But the response from one of the school secretaries I spoke to had my stomach in knots, and left me on the verge of tears. Even after I hung up, her words kept ringing in my ears.

“If you’re homeschooling, you’re on your own. You will get nothing from us,” she said. “Your child will be deleted from the system. It will be like she was never here.”

After so many years feeling connected to my school community, it was painful and scary to think about leaving it behind. But as I dig into this new adventure, I’m realizing that there are actually many benefits to a DIY learning program for your kids.

When you homeschool in Quebec, you aren’t handed a curriculum to follow. Parents take on the entire responsibility for their children’s learning. You must create your own learning plan, and submit it to the Direction de l’enseignement à la Maison (DEM) for approval. You can request textbooks and certain other resources from your school board, but you need to develop or source your own curriculum and lesson plans, and pay for these resources or supplies out of your own pocket.

For new homeschoolers, The Quebec Homeschooling Association (AQED) is your lifeline. Clear step-by-step instructions are provided (in English and French) on its website to walk you through each step of the legal requirements to homeschool. It also provides templates for all the necessary paperwork.

The AQED also manages several Facebook groups where homeschooling parents can find logistical and emotional support, ask questions, and share links to resources. One of the groups is specifically for anglophone families. If you’re new to homeschooling or thinking of taking the plunge, start there.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far in my homeschooling journey:

First lesson: learning doesn’t always look like “school”

It’s hard to take the plunge, especially if — like me — you’re intending to homeschool temporarily. At first I was afraid my children would fall behind. Then I realized: kids “fall behind” all the time. Sometimes it’s because the quality of teaching is lacking. Often, it’s just that they’re not ready to learn on someone else’s schedule.

After some reflection, I realized my kids are learning all the time — it’s as natural as breathing. We learn together on formal field trips and in the forest, through books and movies and family discussions and board games.

My kids also take charge of their own learning. My 13-year-old son knows far more about medieval armies than I ever will, and has honed his storytelling skills by leading weekly Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game sessions. My 10-year-old is solely responsible for maintaining her own fish tank, which she prepared for by learning all about guppies, and is a keen observer of nature. My 7-year-old is exploring melody, rhythm, and self-expression through writing her own songs.

We also do some directed learning, with “assignments” and math practice. But as much as possible, I try to find opportunities to learn through hands-on exploration, imagination, and play. My priority is to keep my kids healthy and happy. If worksheets don’t work for us, we will find another way to learn.

So, how do I teach my kids the stuff I don’t know?

No one remembers everything they were taught in school, even if they aced every test. We remember what is useful, what intrigues us, and what we enjoy. What we don’t know or remember, we can learn or rediscover.

My kids all got good grades in school, and I’ve always been impressed at what I heard on parent-teacher nights. Yet, I’ve discovered two out of three have significant gaps in comprehension of math basics. Their handwriting is sloppy. They all struggle more than I realized in French. Then again, I also got good grades in school, yet my own math skills are suspect. Passing a test doesn’t mean you’ll remember what you learned.

Learning doesn’t begin in kindergarten and end after graduation. The best thing you can do for your child is to give them the confidence and skills to take charge of their own learning. Teach them how to make the most of your local library, how to write Google search queries (and how to tell which sites are reputable), help them find mentors in your community, and to spend as much time as they want to teach themselves new skills.

More often than not, I’m finding myself learning right beside my kids, sharing in their curiosity and the joy of their discovery. That part is more fun than I expected!

Is it possible for working parents to homeschool?

You don’t have to be a wealthy family with a stay-at-home parent to homeschool. In homeschooling groups online, you will find families in every type of life situation. Some are indeed stay-at-home parents, but some work part-time and others full-time. Many working parents do work from home or have flexible jobs, but there are families with two parents working outside the home who have managed to make homeschooling work too. It requires careful planning and a childcare solution, not a degree in rocket science.

Single parents and those with shared custody homeschool too. And yes, I’ve heard from single working parents who have also found a way to create a lifestyle that supports learning at home.  Search Facebook’s group for “working homeschool” and you’ll find lots of groups with experienced working homeschoolers who can answer your questions and offer moral support.

How much does homeschooling cost?

Homeschooling is like grocery shopping: how much you spend depends on how thrifty you are, how much prep work you are willing to do, and how fancy you want to get.

If you want someone else to do the lion’s share of lesson-planning and delivery, you can invest in private tutors. This could cost you thousands of dollars over the course of the school year. It’s like hiring a private chef to cook for you: it removes all the guesswork and labour, but doesn’t come cheap.

You can also buy textbooks and answer keys similar to what are used in schools, or a complete curriculum with lesson plans, and use these tools to teach your children. This is like subscribing to a meal kit service. You get a clear recipe to follow, and all the ingredients you need, but you’ll find unfamiliar recipes often take longer to prepare than expected — and sometimes you’ll discover the result isn’t really to your taste.

You can also try to Google your way to homeschool Nirvana. Seriously, there are so, so many free and cheap resources available these days online. Yet you’ll soon discover the paradox of choice: with so many awesome books, games, websites and apps to sift through, where do you start? It’s really (really!) easy to waste time Pinteresting lesson plans instead of delivering them.

It’s like deciding whether it’s worth it to cook something from scratch: you can make your own butter, bread, and pop tarts, but do you really want to? Sometimes homemade is actually better than an off-the-shelf solution. And sometimes convenience is worth paying for.

What about socialization?

There is a misconception that those who are homeschooling because of the pandemic plan to lock their children away until we find a cure. Not everyone who is homeschooling is doing so because they’re afraid of getting sick. Some feel the new regime in schools could be damaging to children’s mental health. Some parents want to regain a sense of control: rather than scramble for childcare every time someone gets sick or a class is quarantined at home, they’d rather plan a predictable schedule that is less easily disrupted by a case of the sniffles.

So, all that to say: homeschool field trips and playdates are a thing. There has been a proliferation of local Facebook groups for homeschoolers so they can arrange to get together safely, usually in outdoor spaces where families can maintain physical distance while still having fun together.

In my area, there are lots of social opportunities. Homeschoolers have organized weekly forest school meetups, daytime classes for activities like drama, meditation, karate or horseback riding, group field trips to local historical sites, and simple park playdates. In the winter, many families are planning to get season’s passes to the local ski hills to take advantage of shorter lines during the day at the ski lift. Kids can also meet up with their usual group of friends in online games, and for outdoor activities on evenings or weekends.

Is it too late to register as a homeschooler?

Many parents have heard through the grapevine that the “deadline” to register as a homeschooler was July 1. This deadline only applies to families who were already homeschooling. If your children are registered in school, you have the right to withdraw them at any time. You do not need to ask permission. You do have the obligation, however, to notify your school board and the DEM of your intention to homeschool within 10 days of pulling your child out of classes. The steps to follow after that are clearly outlined on the AQED website.

Tips from veteran homeschoolers 

I asked some of the Homeschoolers in AQED’s Quebec Anglophone Homelearners/Homeschoolers group on Facebook for their best tips for newbies. Here’s what they had to say:

It’s really important for people to include the children in the plans. I’ve noticed so many people setting up schedules and “learning spots” in their homes and buying a ton of workbooks and textbooks and making all these plans that they then are going to impose on their children. The best homeschooling is a relationship between parents and children. – Wendi Hadd

Homeschooling isn’t school at home, it’s learning, which comes naturally and should be a lifelong journey. – Erika Rosenbaum

Homeschooling, to me, is about creating a better and more effective learner, not a programmed robot. – Pam Sidhu-Mahal

It is so much better if you can learn together instead of simply teaching. It helps you both learn and grow. Plus it teaches your child how to obtain reliable information and pursue learning on their own. – Meme Dedeux

Competencies are created for a teacher to teach 30 kids and make sure they all can absorb enough to meet the passing mark. At home, you are essentially tutoring your child for a year. You can achieve the requirements in half the time, leaving you endless time to really dive into learning and exploring what interests your child. – Jennifer DeWolfe

Start out slow! You don’t have to do everything at once. – Debbie Jean McMullen

* Note that some of these quotes have been lightly edited for length.