Homeschooling has become increasingly popular in the past few years. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 3.4% of Americans aged 5-17 were homeschooled in 2012. While that’s not a huge proportion, it’s a more than 50% increase from 2003.
Plenty of families would like to try it. However, many are held back by the assumption that one parent (likely Mom) would have to stop working. But talk to homeschooling parents and you find that a number are attempting the ultimate "second shift": building a career while running a small school operation at the same time.
It sounds crazy, but it’s doable for people committed to the approach. Catherine Gillespie, a marketing consultant, says that combining the two means she earns a good living while "getting to give my kids individualized educations that really meet their needs."
Parents who make it work embrace a few ideas.
First, they realize that all working parents need some sort of child care, even parents who work from home. Traditional schools serve this function for some families, but "education" and "custodial care" can be unbundled.
Second, core learning comprises fewer hours of the traditional school day than you might think. A school day that runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. includes lunch, transition times, and classroom management. One-on-one instruction is a lot more efficient. Twenty hours a week would match what most schools offer, and most schools only run for nine months a year. Gillespie says homeschooling runs from 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. to noon or 1:00 p.m. in her house, with some extra reading time. "School does go faster when you are teaching a smaller class," she says.
Third, homeschooling parents can share the load. Two parents can divvy up subjects and instructional time. Many hire tutors for individual subjects. Carrie Beam, an engineer who works in an office Monday through Thursday, told me that her daughter goes to tutoring for a few hours per day. On Fridays, Beam teaches math to her daughter and several other homeschooling students. Many homeschooling families belong to such co-ops or programs that provide group learning or specialized instruction at least one day a week.
These co-ops and programs mean students don’t just stay home. They also go to college classes, or do intense athletic endeavors, or swap time at friends’ houses, all of which gives parents time to work.
This is important for the final concept: there are 168 hours in a week. "Their school day and your work day do not have to mirror each other exactly," says Pamela Price, author of How to Work and Homeschool. Work doesn’t always happen from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday to Friday in an office (even a home office), and schooling need not happen during these hours either. Once you wrap your head around that, the math makes sense. You can work 40 hours and homeschool for 20 hours, sleep eight hours a night (56 per week), and still have 52 hours for other things. The key is moving the pieces around.
So that’s what many families do. A nurse might work Monday, Thursday, and Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. She homeschools on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. If the kids go to a homeschool co-op on Thursday, that leaves just one weekday for coverage. Maybe her partner can take that day, or she hires a sitter.
Tera Gall, who works in teacher professional development, homeschools her 7-year-old son. He does an online learning program while she works from home. She travels twice a month for several days, and during those times a sitter comes from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to supervise while her husband is at work. "The people who are coming in are mostly graduate students or college students, and they have no issue with it," she says. She leaves detailed instructions, but they understand the concept: "They’ve all taken some sort of class online."
Shelly Lynn Nellis, a serial entrepreneur and editor-in-chief of Fresh Vancouver magazine, had always been interested in homeschooling. "Just because the majority of society does something does not mean it’s the optimal way for you," she says. "That’s being an entrepreneur—always thinking there’s another way to do it." That turned out to be a useful mind-set when her now 9-year-old daughter was diagnosed with severe allergies that made school attendance dicey. These days Nellis gets up early to work from home and do phone calls with people on the East Coast before starting homeschooling. She has a nanny come one day per week, and her daughter is in an all-day homeschool program one other day. These allow her to attend meetings. Coupled with some evening time—her daughter dances five days per week—plus her husband’s flexible schedule, she has time to run her businesses.
Many parents swap shifts. Ali Davies and her husband share the homeschooling of their 12-year-old son. Her husband works fluctuating hours. She runs a training company, and schedules client meetings during the hours he’ll be available. "I get what I can done in 20-25 hours," she says. "I always have another bonus five to 10 hours, I just never quite know when it’s going to be." She maintains a list of tasks she can do when these bonus hours appear. Working opposite shifts as a spouse can be tough on a marriage. "We made the mistake of letting those things go the first few months," Davies says. But now they’re mindful of scheduling couple time when their son will be gone, such as during an upcoming scouting trip.
Gillespie homeschools in the morning, then works when a nanny comes three afternoons per week. The kids are in a homeschool program one afternoon a week, and she works on Saturdays when her husband covers. Since email—which one study found consumes 28% of the average workweek—can be snuck in here and there while the kids are occupied, there winds up being space for everything: a job and school too, she says. Consequently, a lot of parents she knows are giving it a whirl. "They are passionate about giving their kids a great education, but they also have their own interests and passions outside of school," she says.