What emotions do you feel when you think about the school year coming up? Different emotions can muddle together in our minds, depending on where we are in our homeschool journeys, but we want have a discussion today about how we can set ourselves up for a great homeschool year and how we can get our minds in the game to approach this school year with peace, with hope, with joy, and with love. Joining me today is my friend Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Amber, it’s so good to have you back. 

Amber: Thank you. Always a pleasure. 

Sonya: We want to talk about setting ourselves up for a great school year, and it’s kind of a two-edged sword in my mind. We want to enter it with enthusiasm and anticipation, and here are all the great things that are going to happen, but we need to keep a realistic mindset as well. 

We want to enter the school year with enthusiasm and anticipation, with “here are all the great things that are going to happen,” but we need to keep a realistic mindset as well.

Amber: Definitely. One of the first things I think whenever I’m thinking about how to start my school year is making sure that we’re ready to start. In past years I would often feel pressure to start when people around me were starting, and inside I would think, “We’re not ready,” but I would jump on board and then feel like we were scrambling the whole year. I’ve since learned to pause, get set up and prepared with my planning, and I make sure that my entire family is rested and ready to enter in, no matter when that is. Usually, for us, it’s right after Labor Day.

 Sonya: It seems like school years are starting sooner and sooner and sooner these days. I don’t know it feels that way to you, but it feels like it’s creeping up on me.

Amber: Definitely, and it can be hard. Every family is different, but our family reunion is in early August, and we’re still enjoying the pool, all of these things. I want to take advantage of that. It’s much better to be off a little bit than some of our friends and other people. That doesn’t really have an impact for us. Then we go ahead and be thoroughly prepared when we do jump in. 

Sonya: Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t do as many days. 

Amber: Oh no, we still do as many days, and, in fact, we start a month ahead doing math, so we do math and a little silent reading book, and that has been really nice for us, because that gives us a little break on the pace of our math for the rest of the year. It gives me lots of time to give focused attention to each of my kids. So for the first month, we actually are doing things, we’re just not doing all of our lessons. So that’s another idea too, the idea that you can ramp up over time. You don’t have to start everything on day one. 

Sonya: It’s kind of a staggered-start-type idea, and if you need to go later than everyone else in the spring…

Amber: Which we do, every year. It’s just a matter of pacing for us. We still do the same number of days, we’re just steady as we go, and our school year is just slightly shifted. It’s been nothing but good, actually. 

Sonya: Finding what works for your family is the key, and it might be different for different years. 

Amber: Oh definitely, and I’ve experienced that as well. It depends on your family schedule. I know years where we had a baby and things, we shifted to accommodate that and the timing for that. Sometimes it’s more things that the kids are really interested in, family visits, vacations, or other things, so I love the flexibility, essentially. 

Sonya: Yes, and as you said, it’s the flexibility of not being handcuffed to the calendar, which reminds me of another tip: As you look at the school year, yes, lay plans so you’re not scrambling mentally, and every day is not like “Uh, what are we going to do? What are we going to do?” Lay your plans out, but hold them loosely. 

Amber: Oh absolutely. The feeling of guilt, or this disappointment, can sideline moms as they’re getting ready for their year. They’re going through their year and they realize, “Uh-oh, something’s not working well”; so whether it’s a scheduling shift, or trying to put in too many extra things, something’s not working. One thing that’s really helped me is having a page in my journal that I call “Parking Lot.” When I need to take something off my schedule, or off our lesson schedule, or more likely something outside of our lessons, that we’ve committed to doing and it’s too much, I put it in the Parking Lot. And that makes me feel like I’m not saying “never,” I’m just saying, “not right now,” and I’m not losing sight of it. One day we’ll come back to this, but in this season we’re just not able to do it. 

Sonya: Then do you review that list? Like every term? Or every year?

Amber: Well, that’s my planning for next year; for instance, my kids are not doing musical theater this year. They’ve done it the last two years, and we’re waving a white flag on that, but I said, “Well you guys, I’m going to put it in the Parking Lot, and that means that next year and thereafter, we know we really enjoy this activity, and it might pop back up again, but in this season, we just want to be home more. For me, it’s once a year when I’m looking at planning the next year. I look at my Parking Lot and say, “What are some things that I put in there before that I would like to examine?” 

Sonya: I love that idea. Talk a little bit about balancing as you look at that Parking Lot and that whole list of ideas. You were saying something about, “We want to stay home more,” so simplifying and scheduling with rest in mind, getting that in the schedule as well; talk a little bit about that.

Amber: Absolutely. Protecting the margin. If I was to give someone one top tip for starting out with homeschooling, or continuing in for a new year, it’s protecting that margin. It has been the single most important qualifier for our success in the past—or our extreme stress. I notice a lot of times when I feel like lessons are overwhelming, when I really think deeply about it, it’s not the lesson that’s overwhelming us, it’s that we don’t have time for the lesson that’s overwhelming. It feels like it’s in the way, that school is in the way of the other things, because we signed up for too many things. And they’re all good things; they’re so good. There are so many good options, but I’ve found that there’s nothing that feels better than having a steady pace, and a comfortable pace, for my family. So when we’re gone, out of the house a lot, our lessons falter and the stress levels really rise; the kids argue and fight more as well, and I’m short-tempered with them. 

I notice a lot of times when I feel like lessons are overwhelming, it’s not the lesson that’s overwhelming us, it’s that we don’t have time for the lesson.

Sonya: Yes, it seems like so much of what we’ve talked about is time-oriented. 

Amber: Yeah, that’s interesting. It is very interesting. That’s very important. 

Sonya: It adds an element of pressure, and maybe in our society today, it’s adding too much pressure. 

Amber: I think so; when there are too many good things, it can feel like, “Well my kids have to do this,” and the kids want to do these things too. They really want to do this, and then try that, and, “Well everyone should play an instrument,” and there’s theater, and there are sports, and there’s youth group. Taken individually, any one of those things could be awesome, but sometimes there’s just not a season for it, and other times I have to remember that what we’ve planned at home will lay a foundation for my kids to pursue some of their interests even more on their own as they get older. 

Sonya: And they need time to process. If we want them to learn, learn, learn, they’ve got to have time to think through what they’re learning, to make it their own. Otherwise, it’s just going to go in one ear and out the other. They’re not going to have time to really form a relation, which is what Charlotte Mason is all about. 

Amber: I noticed that once with my oldest; I said, “I notice you don’t read for pleasure anymore, you’re reading your lesson books, but I used to see you read in other times, and you haven’t been doing that.” And she was like, “When? When would I do that? I don’t have time.” And I was like, “Ohh.” So that really showed me. And she had wanted to do all the things she was doing. But as the mother, I need to help my children protect their own time, even if it’s something that they want to do, because they do need that time of doing nothing or doing their own pursuits. 

Sonya: Yeah, it’s setting a sustainable pace. I also think it’s important for us, as we look at the year ahead, yes, we’re planning for the days, but we need to keep a long-term perspective. Sometimes we think growth is just a steady upward climb, but it’s not. There are good days, bad days, good days, hills and valleys. Hopefully you’re continuing to make progress, the growth over time, but there are good days and bad days. Talk a little bit about long-term perspective, maybe how you were able to keep that over this past year. I know you’ve been through some valley times this past year. 

Amber: Nothing can challenge you like health challenges, either for yourself or your kids, and that becomes very important, because fear, guilt, and frustration, things not going well, disappointment, those things can cripple you, to the point where it feels like everything’s ruined. You start to catastrophize, like, “This is so bad, I messed up the year, we’re never going to catch up.” In those moments, sit and be still and realize that though this term may not be going the way that you imagined, or even this school year, you have time ahead of you. And if you’re toward the end, you’ve had many years before this. This one single moment doesn’t define your home education journey. That’s really been helpful for me. Also, we’re teaching our children to live, not just to learn about this science topic. Life’s challenges and trials are part of living. So for your children to witness that, or to experience it while they’re in the protection of your home, is also part of their education. 

Sonya: We are educating the whole person. 

Amber: That’s right. 

Sonya: Do you feel comfortable sharing what your past year was like? 

Amber: Yes. We took an incredible trip overseas. As some of you know, we like to world school, and it was wonderful, the trip of a lifetime. We were in Ghana in West Africa and—worst nightmare—I got sick. I was hospitalized for a week there, and I came back to the United States for all the answers, and there were none. No one knew what was wrong, and, eventually, the doctors found that I had contracted typhoid fever, and it had moved into my spine. It was an emergency ambulance ride, an eight-hour surgery, and recuperating, so I’m filled with cadaver bones and plates and rods and pins, and it was just everyone’s worst nightmare. So our year took a hard detour, and all my perfectly laid plans—I had so much support and help from friends and family—my kids just weren’t able to do the things that I had laid out, because Mama wasn’t available. And that made our school year go longer, and I just kept thinking to myself, “I can wallow in this, or just be like ‘praise God I’m here.’” I’m so glad that I’m here, and my children were with me. They saw that Mama suffered through something, but yet we’re still standing, and it’s okay that we didn’t finish that book. It’s still here in our home, we can get to it, and we’ll continue to read it. Keeping the long-term perspective helped in that situation, because otherwise our school year was obliterated. I mean it was just nothing like I had planned at all. 

Sonya: Yeah, it’s not like at the beginning of the year you were like, “I’m going to contract typhoid fever and be out of commission!” 

Amber: Exactly. When you say “hold plans loosely,” I’ve never experienced it like I did this year, and it’s something that, as heads of households, our attitude about school and our lessons, it washes over our children. So if we’re frantic and full of consternation about what’s happening, they feel that, they’re trying to do it, “I’m not doing enough.” We don’t have this as much in our home, but I have friends whose children are prone to being very anxious, so it’s really stressing them about all the things that are on our list that we didn’t do. 

Sonya: And you cannot learn when you are stressed. 

Amber: No, it just doesn’t work well. A Charlotte Mason education actually speaks to this, because there is so much focus on the whole child and the idea that it’s not just formal academic subjects, but this idea of the atmosphere and the education being life-giving. We’re looking at breadth and not just a straight trajectory, but breadth and depth and ideas. When you think of it that way, and you think about how we’re educating for a life, you don’t feel so stressed that chapter 13 didn’t get finished today. 

Sonya: Whats hit me very deeply lately is how much of a contrast there is between an education that is based on information, and an education that is based on relationships. And that’s what Charlotte Mason is, and that’s what I’m hearing as you speak about this. It’s about helping this child form a relationship, well, many relationships. It’s relationships with God, with the things God has created, with others past and present, and with himself. All of those relationships trump just an information dump, and I didn’t mean that to rhyme, but you’re with me. You can give a child information and say, “Remember this about this person,” but that really just limits how he’s going to think about that person. But if you introduce them together, let them spend time together, through the living books, through the art, and through the music that these people have created, you’re letting that child form an ongoing relation. And relations take time; they don’t do well when they are stressed. They don’t do well when they are tied to a clock. Like, “Amber, I want to get to know you. We’ve got 15 minutes—Go!” 

Amber: Right. That’s so true. That’s not the message we want to send to our children either, and that’s what I remind them: Just because this term is wrapping up, that doesn’t mean that you have to stop learning about this thing or exploring this person. And yes, though we read one biography about this person this year in our lessons, if that person inspires you, and you want to learn everything you can, there are four or five more biographies. You can continue on with this idea—be lifelong learners. I do have a schedule, I do have things that I want us to explore in our formal morning lessons. 

Sonya: There are relationships you want to introduce, if you will. 

Amber: Sure, there are certain things, and I want to keep doing that. I want to introduce new things, but whatever you find that you are attached to, or you feel passionate about, you should still keep that going. That helps a lot with avoiding the idea that we have these set terms, and this one’s over, so we’re done with all of that, and now we’re doing this and that type of rigidity. 

Sonya: And the child will only learn what I tell him to learn. 

Amber: I think all of us have experienced this; you can’t stop a child when he’s decided he wants to learn about something. He’s going to go far and deep, and tell you all about it. So those are those moments that remind me not to worry. When you think about preparing for the school year, in my mind the word consistency comes forward. It’s not about doing all the things, going hard and fast and furious with all the smarts you’re going to give your kid, but it’s about the pace of consistency. You get up and do the things that you know ought to be done, and you do them again and again and again. Over time, that’s what leads to what we ultimately are looking for: children who care about the world around them, who want to learn and live well. It’s not something to push through. Just remain steady. 

Sonya: Those are good words. Anything else you want to say to encourage mamas as they’re looking at the school year ahead, looming in front of them? 

Amber: Have fun. Sometimes planning for the year can be hard. Some people love it, but ultimately, you’re putting beautiful things before your children, and you get to partake in those things as well. It’s actually something to look forward to. 

Sonya: Great, thanks so much.