Dealing with Burnout

By Carol Naigon

Question: I’ve been homeschooling for 10 years now. I have five children ages 3-18 years. My question is, how do I effectively homeschool when I no longer have the heart for it? I am burnt out, tired and just plain bored of it. Yet, my conscience won’t allow me to imprison my precious children in the typical school setting.

Burnout is a common concern among homeschoolers who try to do school at home. In fact, the only homeschoolers I’ve heard complain of burnout are those who are using a “school in a box” curriculum along with a strict daily schedule. It’s probably time to climb out of the box.

Some people recommend staving off burnout by doing “school” for six weeks, then taking a week off. Others pray for the discipline to work even harder at what isn’t working. Some see burnout as a gift, a challenge to their character. I don’t see any of these as a solution. In your situation, I think the answer is in the last sentence. If you don’t want to imprison your children in a school, why are you imprisoning all of you in your own home?

Probably you were burnt out from school long before you had children. Maybe that “prison” where you spent 12 years of your childhood left you crispy fried to the depths of your soul, but at the same time ingrained in you the belief that learning takes discipline and rigid adherence to a curriculum or first you, and now your children, will never be happy, successful, productive adults. Maybe you learned quite well, as many of us did, that education=boredom and important learning has to come from someone else – a textbook or a teacher’s greater wisdom. Well, that was a lie and it’s time to set yourself free!

Learning happens when people are excited and interested. If botany makes your child’s heart beat a little faster, she’ll find out all she can about botany, until her interest is satiated. But what happens if your expensive curriculum says kids need to study astronomy at her grade level and botany in two years? What if your science textbook says it’s time to memorize the names and relative positions of all the planets in our solar system, but she really wants to explore that abandoned farm down the road and see if she can find edible weeds there with which to make a salad for dinner? And what if that exploration leads her to planting her own medicinal herb garden? And what if her little brother picks apart a flower in the yard and she runs to get the encyclopedia so they can identify the parts of the flower together…

Stop daydreaming! That’s not the way school works. You paid for the curriculum and they’re the experts, right? Better get cracking on that model of the solar system. If she spends two weeks identifying weeds, she might miss something she’ll need to know when she’s an adult, like how many moons orbit Jupiter. Why wouldn’t you feel tired if you’re trying to force learning in this way day in and day out?

There are so many ways strict obedience to a curriculum can cause burnout. Obviously if you try to go through the same one with five children, you’ll be doing the same thing year after year. Who wouldn’t get bored with that? I’m bored just thinking about it! I can just imagine what must run through a mum’s mind. Oh, dear. Tommy is doing fifth grade next year and we’ll have to do poetry again. Has it really been only three years since we did that grade? He’ll hate it. He hates to write. He’d really rather work on programming the computer, but if we don’t force him to do the work now, he’ll never have discipline. Now what was a cinquain again? Poor Tommy. Poor Mum.

The curriculum sets up expectations in you that your children will be able to perform at grade level if only you push them hard enough. If only you spend enough time preparing lessons and grading and scheduling and making them sit there until it’s done. The curriculum sets up the expectation that other homeschoolers are doing it successfully and so you should be able to do it too. All those expectations lead to a lot of stress on you and your children to perform. And stress is what causes burnout.

My advice is to lose the curriculum. If you feel you need to keep part of it for now, ask your kids what they enjoy most and would be willing to continue doing. Or if you feel you need to use those science texts, look through them at the end of the year and see how much was covered through field trips, day-to-day learning and your children’s natural interest in the world around them.

Once you’re already bored and burnt out, it’s time to take a look at your life overall and see what else is tipping the balance to the bleak side. Are you and your children over scheduled with classes and activities? Are they fun or are they obligations you’d rather not do? Consider dropping some of them and keeping only the ones you and your children really like.

Maybe you’re under-scheduled and need to get out more and do things with other home schoolers – things like field trips, roller-skating, play dates and potlucks. Are you staying home with your curriculum when you could be out in the world having fun learning? Did the homeschool group go to the science museum, but you stayed home because you needed to keep up in your science textbook? Did you all miss the potluck at the park because Tommy didn’t write his haiku?

Burnout is a symptom of unrelieved stress. You need to make sure you take care of yourself, or stress can force decisions you don’t really want to make, like sending your kids to school. Or it can damage your relationships with your children, the very antithesis of our reason for homeschooling.

Here are some of the things you need to remember to do for yourself to avoid burnout:

Exercise regularly. If it’s nothing more than a daily 15-minute walk, get out and do it.

Eat well. Eat whole healthy foods and take a multivitamin every day.

Keep a reasonable schedule. Don’t schedule too much so you’re constantly on the run. At the same time, don’t spend all your time at home cracking the books.

Talk with your friends. Or if your homeschool friends provide more expectations and pressure that contribute to your low feelings, find new friends! Some homeschoolers put a tremendous amount of pressure on others to perform in certain ways. Run from friends who pressure instead of supporting.

Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Don’t try to do it all yourself. If your older teen can drive the younger kids to piano lessons, let him. If you run out of milk, call your husband and ask him to pick some up on his way home from work. Don’t do it all.

Are you trying to keep a spotless house? Stop it! Some families spend less that four hours a day awake in their homes. Let them invite House Beautiful in for a photo shoot. We homeschoolers use our homes and you’ve got to expect your home to look lived in. A few times a week, call everybody for a half-hour cleanup. If you all clean madly for just 30 minutes, it’s amazing what you can accomplish. For a reward, bake cookies together, go to a movie or pile on the bed and read a good novel.

Let go and trust. Don’t try to control every aspect of learning for your children. They were born with the desire to learn and explore their world. Once you get into that cycle of trying to control more at the same time you’re feeling your emotions go out of control, it’s time to stop and look at healthier options. Relaxed homeschooling and unschooling aren’t about raising feral children. They’re about nourishing a love for learning in your children. Do some research into these alternatives to school-at-home.

There can be many reasons why homeschooling might not work in a family, but in most cases a few conscious changes can make a big difference. If your method of homeschooling doesn’t look much different from a bad alternative (prison school), you need to seriously consider throwing away that useless paradigm and looking at alternatives that are working well for other homeschoolers without causing burnout.

Homeschooling should be an enjoyable, fulfilling experience (most days) for your whole family, including and especially Mom. We can’t pass on the love of learning needed to raise independent thinkers if we are bored and unhappy. Obviously you can take or leave my advice, but why not give it a try for a year? That curriculum will always be there if you want to go back to it.

Reprinted with permission from Home Education Magazine, PO Box 1083, Tonkasket, Wa.

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