Monday, January 21, 2008

Why support support groups?

It seems like I keep reading posts, and comments on posts, that are down on homeschool support groups, especially Christian-oriented homeschool support groups.

I'd like to throw in a few cents' worth from the other direction.

I've been a member of a city-wide Christian homeschoolers' group since 1995 (we pull in a few people from outlying areas as well). We have somewhere around 150 families registered; we get maybe half that at a typical parents' meeting. (Some people take their kids to daytime activities but never come to parents' meetings.) It's not the only group in town; there's a secular/unschooling-oriented homeschool network, a couple of other medium-sized groups that I know of, and I think some smaller group-of-friends or specific-church-type small groups. There's also some crossover between the groups; some people are members of more than one group at a time, or move back and forth. Occasionally we share an activity (a couple of years ago the unschoolers' group started a choir and invited our group's kids to be part of it).

It's not required that one sign a statement of faith to become a member, although it is required if you are going to serve on the Steering Committee. It is required that you understand that the group is run on Christian principles ("Christian" as defined by the Apostles' Creed), which means that you can't get upset if we open the meeting with prayer or if the speaker-for-the-night decides to talk about how God healed somebody from something. When you register, you can write in what church you attend if you want, but it's not required.

Our monthly meetings are for parents (and little babies) only. That used to be just because of space and so we could focus on parent topics (they're usually structured around a speaker either from within the group or invited from somewhere else); now it's also because of liability (it would cost us extra in insurance if we allowed children to come to the evening meetings). We have a monthly newsletter with announcements of activities that are organized by members; the Steering Committee doesn't usually set up children's activities and field trips, but it supports what activities the members themselves organize. If you want your kids to go on a Pizza Hut field trip, you organize it, collect the people and the fees, and we'll put it on the calendar (and try to make sure nobody else schedules something for that day). If you want to start a soccer club, you find the place and the people and we'll post it in the newsletter. Nobody's required to come to any meetings or go on any activity. In fact, although I should probably get some kind of attendance award myself (I've missed very few meetings in thirteen years), my kids don't get to a lot of the daytime activities, for very good but too-diverse-to-explain-here reasons. Some members of the group run a kind of weekly learning co-op, but again, that isn't an official run-by-the-group activity [that is, the steering committee is not involved in its administration at all]; what happens there is their own affair although those who join do have to be registered (i.e. paid) members of the group (due again to liability issues).

Stop there a minute and go back to those last two words. Liability issues. If anything other than the Internet has really changed support groups in the last decade, liability is it. It's more than just worrying about whether we might damage the meeting place or whether one of our own group might get hurt during an activity. These days liability goes far beyond that; and that's why, in the last couple of years, we have added that requirement that each member sign a form stating that they do understand how our group operates; and that's why we can't allow non-members to come along on trips now. (You don't have to be a member to come to a parents' meeting.) It's not because we're nasty or exclusive. It's because we, the large group and especially the Steering Committee, don't particularly want to get sued.

Why do I support my support group? I'm a big girl now in the world of homeschooling; I don't particularly need to hear speakers talk about getting started or how they get their kids "off the refrigerator"--well, sometimes I do. I have lots of online support, and we're even getting a bit more local interest these days in CM.

To be honest, I couldn't imagine homeschooling without this group of parents. Some of them have come and gone over the years, but a number of the core people have been there about as long as I have, and we've swapped books, kid funnies, you name it since our now-teenagers were preschoolers.

And more than that--I'm proud of our group. I'm proud of what we do in the local homeschooling community. We organize an annual conference (including seminars and curriculum vendors) that usually gets 600 to 800 people attending. We have a library of books and other resources. We are a forum that's encouraged homeschoolers to teach each other (sometimes getting over some very big butterflies to do so) so that we can do a lot better job teaching our children. Sometimes we're just a place to find a sympathetic ear or shoulder.

I'm proud of the fact that we're an unabashedly Christian group, but also not exclusive. The fact that we function with only the most-needed policies means that, as a group, we can (and must) stay neutral on issues that would distract from our purpose of supporting and encouraging each other. One example: some Ontario homeschoolers keep in close touch with a local school board; others, on principle, do not and prefer to stay "under the radar." Our group decided years ago not to officially support either position; it was simply too hot a potato to handle at meetings. Out of courtesy for each other, we've usually managed to quickly move on to other more important issues.

In some ways, that makes us more vulnerable these days. On the other hand, it's increased our understanding of what really holds our group together.

One of these years I will no longer be homeschooling; my season will be over. I will miss the monthly gatherings, and the fun (yes, it's mostly fun) of keeping the library going. I will miss the sense that whoever's sitting beside me is just as concerned about education and their children's needs as I am; it's a sense that eliminates a lot of the usual shyness I tend to feel in large groups. What I will take from these years is a knowledge of how a surprisingly diverse (yes, we are!) bunch of parents who share those concerns have been able to work together and produce something that's helped hundreds of families.

So I think this group has done a good job.


SmallWorld said...

Fabulous post. I've been meaning to write one quite similar lately; now I'll just link to yours!

The Apprentice said...

*sob* What a nice post!

Birdie said...

Well said!

Alasandra said...

Great post.

My inclusive group is having to worry about liability issues (what a drag). But having a support group makes homeschooling so much easier and 'fun'.

educational science website said...

Very nicely written! I cannot imagine anyone trying to homeschool their child without the support of some type of group. It is too large a task to go it alone.

Christinethecurious said...

I liked what you had to say enough to link to it from my blog.

Sebastian said...

When we were stationed in Germany, the kids and I spent a month on leave in the US. I was able to attend one of the meetings of a large homeschool group in Cincinnati. I can't describe how great this was. After two years of being the only open homeschooler in the city that I ever met, I was in a room with 70 other homeschool moms and dads. It was like balm to my spirit to not be the odd one, just for an evening.
On the other hand, I'm involved with a group now that frustrates me to no end, because it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. I'm torn on a regular basis between wanting to just be a quiet consumer of what it offers, wanting to take over the group and run it better and wanting to leave altogether.