Thursday, April 12, 2007

How Many Hours?

One of my least favorite questions that I’m asked by non-homeschoolers is, “How many hours a day do you homeschool?”

Let’s face it, answering this question is like tip-toeing through a minefield. Depending on the viewpoint of the questioner, you may not be doing enough, or you may be overdoing it. The former is usually the case, but in either case, your answer may not be what they want to hear.

I’m often asked that question by new or prospective homeschoolers, too. Faced with the proposition of recreating the seven or eight-hour day they remember from their own school years, they wonder how they’re going to be able to fill those hours, and whether they can handle it.

I like to tell them the story of my five-year stint as a Sunday school teacher at my church. I began teaching Sunday school after I had been homeschooling for about ten years. Needless to say, I was accustomed to working one-on-one with my kids, and that’s a pretty efficient way to teach, and to learn. Of course, I knew that I couldn’t expect the same efficiency when teaching 10 or 12 fourth-graders for an hour, but I still didn’t realize the extent to which it would be different.

Every Saturday night, I diligently read the teacher’s guide and the Bible lesson, and made a list of activities as suggested by the lesson plan. Since those were usually rather dry, I’d throw in a few ideas of my own, including a game, or a passage from a book...something to make things more interesting. To me, it was important that we had enough activities to do. I didn’t want to find myself standing in front of the class with 15 minutes to go and nothing left to do with them.

I needn’t have worried. I soon discovered that it was going to be impossible to even start class on time. Kids trickled in for about the first ten minutes, and each one’s arrival interrupted what we were doing. Taking attendance was not as easy as it sounds, because the kids would interrupt each other with stories of what they’d been doing lately, or they’d ask me for a drink of water or permission to visit the restroom.

Once we got started on the lesson, we’d be interrupted by dropped or broken pencils, someone kicking someone else under the table, someone falling out of their chair (this happened fairly often), or someone who had a question because they hadn’t been listening.

I still recall the day I was trying to get through to them the concept of Jesus’ resurrection. They seemed interested, and they were asking good questions, but then one young man raised his hand, and when I called on him he very seriously informed the class and me that his dog liked to eat breath mints. The rest of the class burst into laughter, he looked around confused at their reaction, and I realized any impact my lesson had made was now lost.

I taught Sunday school for five years, and I hope my students learned what they needed to know. What I learned is that teaching in a classroom setting can be very inefficient, especially when compared to homeschooling. I was accustomed to accomplishing a lot in a little time with my kids, but when it came to Sunday school classes, I learned that it was a good day if I accomplished anything.

Sunday school lasts an hour. Multiply that by seven or eight to get an idea of how much inefficiency you’d find over the course of a day of formal school. Getting everyone into their seats, taking attendance, quieting them down…and that may be for each class period. Then there’s the misbehavior, the back-talk...all those things that kids do when they’re determined to keep the teacher off-track.

Let’s compare that to homeschooling. By giving our children our undivided attention for a while, we can answer their questions, share information with them, and make sure they understand what we’ve taught them. It’s pretty simple and straightforward, and it doesn’t take several hours a day. I usually tell new homeschoolers that in the early years, I spent maybe an hour (90 minutes tops) “doing school” with my kids. By high school, it was more like an hour or two working with them, and an additional hour or two of them working independently.

Most non-homeschoolers don’t need that much information, though. They are really asking me if my children are getting what they need to become “educated,” as society sees it. If I give them an actual number of hours, they may not approve because we’ve only ever done a few hours a day of formal study. A quoted number of hours wouldn’t be accurate anyway, because like most homeschooled kids, mine have learned many more things outside of formal study than they have from it.

What I’ve found works best when non-homeschoolers ask how many hours of school we do each day is replying, “As many hours as it takes.” It seems to satisfy them, and I know it’s an honest answer, because my children are learning throughout their waking hours. It also forces them to put a number to it; since they’re accustomed to the inefficient ways of public schools, they’re probably thinking of a larger number of hours than I am. Works for me!

Copyright 2007 Barbara Frank/Cardamom Publishers

Note: this post was first published in this month's issue of "The Imperfect Homeschooler" newsletter. Free subscription here.


melissamarkham said...


I love the response 'as many hours as it takes.' That is definitely going into my answer file!

Anonymous said...

This is a great answer. It's also so true. I'm teaching three boys, ages 9, 6, and ahem, 3. The oldest has high-functioning autism and sensory issues. On a good day, we school for about 2 hours. On a bad day, it takes 7 or 8. We always stop at 5 pm, no matter what. Of course, since we school year round, we can take days off "as needed" and still have plenty of school days.

It's often next to impossible to explain the ins and outs of homeschool to a non-homeschooler. Your answer takes the burden off of the homeschooler, who answers this type of question on an almost daily basis. At the grocery store on Wednesday morning with three kids, two of which are obviously school aged, I generally get the question "Is school out today?" I usually just reply, "Yes" to avoid explaining our presence.


A Dusty Frame said...

Thank you for this answer:)

I love it and it's absolutely correct.

Some days it's a lot some days it's not;)