Christian living- dealing with one 'oops' at a time…

photo by Matija Barrett

photo by Matija Barrett

We have moved around a bit in the last few years and have had an opportunity to try out more than a few co-ops. Some were awesome, others not so much. Here are a few ideas about what to avoid.

Run your co-op exactly like school.

Make the children sit at desks, be quiet and do their work. Hire professional teachers.
While this may seem great to those of us who enjoyed school, to place home school children next to their friends, who they do not see every day, and then to tell them they may not interact is cruel. They do enough work on their own. Co-op is a time for interaction and interactive activities can be incorporated into learning.

Also, these co-ops tend to develop the teacher vs parent dynamic we see too often in the schools. Paying the teacher encourages some parents to have unreasonable expectations, and teachers (for some reason unknown to me) tend to put parents down based on other unrealistic expectations. And their comments do eventually get back to the parent. While it would be very mature for both to come up along side each other, it rarely happens.

Two of the typical complaints are:

“Johnny is very bright, but do they ever take him anywhere to socialize?”
– Interesting fact: Geeks and nerds, even in school, tend not to have perfect social skills. Why would home school kids be different? But in fact they are. Keeping the children who are typically bullied out of the school system results in greater self-esteem and social ability. Now remember I said ‘greater.’ They are still geeks, but now they see this as a good thing.

“Do you know that Johnny can’t read yet?”
– News flash: Even in school there are children who have trouble learning to read. The advantage to home school is that Johnny now receives one-on-one attention and has all the time he needs to work on these skills.

Be disorganized.

One co-op was so disorganized that they began the year with about three times the children they planned for, and did not have teachers for all of the grades. Some kids made projects that day, while others went home with nothing as the teachers went along with their plans as if nothing was out of whack.

Okay, this was excessively bad, and clearly an exception, but the truth is that if new people cannot easily understand how you do things and what the expectations of your group are there will be dissatisfaction, frayed nerves and chaos. Further, having any system where chaos rules means that the pushy get, while the nice people make up for what was lacking. Then the nice people leave. This is not what you want.

Organization and advanced planning are key to a good co-op. This means that board members must be organized and excited to serve, and that you must hold all of your members accountable.

Be really, really nice.

‘Nice’ co-ops understand when your child is sick, or you just had a bad day. They don’t hold you accountable for feeling like you just needed a day to yourself, and they allow you to drop your child off and leave, even though there is a strict ‘no drop-off’ policy.

Now I am not saying that everyone has to be super-mom, but there is a line, and some people take advantage of the ‘niceness.’ When they do you have a choice. You can either keep making the responsible mothers do more to make up for the woman who needs so much times for herself, or you can hold her accountable.

Here’s a little secret: If you can actually get the mother who needs an unreasonable amount of breaks to do her job, she typically realizes over time that she can too do it and feels better about herself! It’s a win-win.

Now of course there are situations where we must go the extra mile for someone, and that is okay. But there are also mothers who would have everyone else take care of, and school, their children for them if possible. This is not home schooling, and it sets a bad example for the children as well, teaching them to be takers, not givers themselves.

Be overly judgmental.

If your co-op uses the phrase ‘I have to question your walk, commitment to home schooling etc’ you are most likely an elitist group. And that is fine if that is who you want to be, just don’t wonder why some people choose to leave your group. Home schooling by nature is unique and every family should do it differently since no two families are alike. Overly judgmental groups like families who do everything just the way they do. These groups will not therefore be very large, and will have many disappointed families cycle through them feeling crushed when they do not fit.

My advice: If you want a more homogenous group then be up front about it so people can make an informed choice. Being blind-sided after your children have made friends by the unwritten rules is hard on a family that does not believe as you do.

Examples of this include: “Our families do not put our children into school sport.” “We do not read books with magic or vampires.” “We court, not date in our groups etc.” …And, if your children are going to do these things then they will not be encouraged to be friends with ours.

Allow the complainers to run the group.

Every complaint is not the same. There are good complaints that must be dealt with, and then there are the others. Some people just like to complain. Typically they are the people who contribute the least; it seems to go hand-in-hand. If you make the parents who teach and contribute jump through hoops every time there is a complaint, no matter how small, your teachers will become nervous wrecks. No one will want to teach, and those who know they are good teachers and have any self-respect will leave. They are not going to work their bottoms off in exchange for abuse.

Set up a system where people who are rarely, or never, at the co-op make all the real decisions.

There are a few ways to do this:

1. Set up a system where the women need a ‘covering.’ So, even though the dads are never there, they sit on the board and decide how co-op is going to be run. The problem: If you ask people to make a decision, they will. But these are people who know close to nothing about the organization… You see how this would be bad. If the fathers are to be part of running the co-op, then they must be part of the co-op, or it will not go well.

2. Allow the elders in church where you meet to be the ‘board.’ Again, these are not people who are intimately aware of how your group works, and the personalities in it. Home school is so unique that it cannot be run from afar, and home school moms are generally compliant, so they will try to follow the ‘rules’ where many other groups feel free to ignore them.

3. Have a ‘front’ board to protect the ‘secret’ board. I only include this because it happened. We thought we picked the board. What we didn’t know is that the church had already appointed a board to do all of the ‘real’ work, and that the board we thought we picked was so the people in the co-op had someone to complain to. Any guess why our board’s presidents quit co-op every year after serving?

Co-ops are relational, so it is important that the people running them are intimately involved. There are so many judgment calls when you are working with volunteers who have obligations to their families that outweigh them coming to your co-op that the group cannot be run from afar, no matter how godly the people who try are.

Exclude the men.

Fathers have a lot to offer and make great co-op teachers and presenters. Since many of them also work, they may need a little more flexibility- say ‘guest speaker’ instead of regular attendee. They may also allow teens to shadow them at work, or set up opportunities for them to shadow their friends.

Social outings and field trips also get more attendance when the men are welcome.

Fathers are great assets and it helps mom when dad knows what is going on. Excluding the men limits your resources, and makes home schooling more of a mom-only thing. If you want husbands on board with your decisions regarding your home school, then it helps if they are welcomed wherever your family is.

We once had a widower who was able to take a year off and continue home schooling his children during that time. He found support in a group of his wife’s friends who were also grieving, and continuity for his children who had already lost enough. (He eventually hired a friend of his wife’s who never married to take over the home school as he returned to work, and three years later they married!) Allowing dads made his transition into the group easy since we already had fathers who could flex their schedules teaching everything from science lab to car repair and gym.

Assume all women are emotional and that women always fight.

Unfortunately this attitude is common in some churches, and because they believe that problems within women’s groups are the norm they do little to fix them. Eoudia and Syntyche’s issues were not ignored by Paul and the church was to help them restore their friendship. (Phil. 4: 1-3) In the same way issues within the home schooling community need to be addressed. People live up to your expectations of them. If it is expected that women fight and do not behave then it is likely they will fight and not behave. This means that the mature women will leave, and you will be left with all of the immature drama queens. Not the best way to raise your children.

So how do you know whether, or not your co-op crosses the line? Look at the fruit!

Does it seem like every time you get a good teacher they leave?
Do the children form friendships that make them want to stay in co-op through high school?
Do the dads feel welcomed and glad the co-op is there for their families?
Does co-op day stress you out, or cause you to look forward to the next one? (Now, let me qualify this. Co-ops are a lot of work, so you should feel tired, but not emotionally drained.)
Does everyone in your co-op help each other, or is there a small group of women who do everything while the others watch?
Do you see people who were good workers begin to be lazy? (This is a sign that they are becoming tired of being taken advantage of.)
Do the children automatically help out when there is clean up, moving chairs or other things to do? (Children ‘catch’ what is being modeled and are a good barometer to measure what you are actually teaching by your example.)
Do the children form ‘cliques?’ (If the parents form cliques and are frequently judgmental you can bet their children will be too.)

Stay strong. Tomorrow I will post about the good things many co-ops do to succeed!

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