Sharpening the Saw: In-Service Training for Home Educators

The story is told about a man who watched a neighbor laboring heartily at sawing down a tree in his back yard. After observing him for some time, he suggested that the exhausted man stop to sharpen his saw, whereupon the man replied, “I don’t have time to sharpen my saw—I have to get this job done.” 

We smile at such foolishness, but how often do we continue pushing ahead, doing things the same way we’ve always done them without stopping to ask advice, read the owner’s manual, or sharpen our skills? Teaching our children is very much on-the-job training, isn’t it? Just as classroom teachers need periodic in-service training, we need to pursue every opportunity to grow as parent-teachers. Here are some ways that work.

Study the Manufacturer’s Handbook

God created our children. He didn’t simply start the process at conception and wait to see what would happen—He actually wove together each bone and sinew (Psalm 139). And He didn’t leave parents without instruction in how to raise these little ones on loan from Him. He left behind the Owner’s Manual—we call it the Bible.

Make a habit of searching for principles of parenting and teaching recorded in scripture. What positive and negative examples do you see? How did Jesus teach His disciples enough in three short years to last a lifetime and beyond? What does the practical book of Proverbs tell us about dealing with character issues such as jealousy, greed, controlling the tongue, and hard work? We must not slight the meat of scripture in favor of pre-digested books and articles. The Word should be our main course of study each day, with other teaching as side dishes.

Learn from Others

Most of us start homeschooling because we know someone who has made the same choice. This person often acts as a mentor to us, saving us much time and effort, as well as offering emotional and spiritual support along the way. Don’t hesitate to ask for help—soon you will be the one doing the mentoring!

Likewise, a local support group is invaluable, whether you’ve been homeschooling for one month or ten years. Within the group you have access to literally decades of experience. Many support groups have guided discussions on topics of interest. Others invite speakers to address the group.

We can learn from others through printed resources. I remember hungrily devouring the articles in homeschool magazines as they arrived. It was like receiving an at-home conference in each issue. In addition to print magazines, consider signing up for free homeschooling newsletters at

Ask your homeschooling friends for books that have helped them. A 1989 classic that is still in print is A Survivor’s Guide to Homeschooling by Schackleford and White. Although somewhat dated, the authors’ humorous and inspirational view of the topic is filled with practical ideas. Sacred Parenting by Gary Thomas is one of my newer favorites for thoughtful reflection.

We never outgrow our need for the training and encouragement we can receive at a state homeschooling conference. The sense of celebration and fellowship that comes from walking and worshiping with thousands of other homeschoolers at the conference will carry you through many discouraging days at home.

Fill in the Gaps

 You may feel you don’t have the educational background to teach your children, especially in the higher level subjects. Let me share a few thoughts here. First, research shows that the parent’s own educational level has little, if any, impact on the success of their homeschool teaching.

Success in homeschooling is more directly correlated

with commitment than competence.

Children whose parents have only a high school education routinely score as well as those with college training. A dear friend of mine who has no college background laid down her own interests through the four years her oldest son was in high school to do self-assigned homework in math—a subject she had struggled with in school. Working and re-working every trigonometry and calculus problem until she could do it involved a very real crucifixion of self for her. Her son later successfully completed his degree in wildlife biology and her daughter has completed a rigorous master’s in speech pathology program, thanks to their mother who taught herself the science and math she had never learned in high school.

Homeschooling parents often begin to realize the gaps in their own education when they teach their own children. Expect to learn along with your children. The repetition you’ll get as you teach the material will lock it into your own brain very effectively. As you search for ways to explain new concepts, you’ll be working those slippery facts and concepts into your own memory, as well.

You’re not the only one who may require remediation. Winston Churchill did not learn well in school. He evaluated himself to determine the gaps in his own education. Then he studied to close those gaps, asking his mother to ship books on various topics to him while he served in the British military. This largely self-educated man published over fifty books and gave thousands of speeches.

If you cannot teach certain subjects, be aware that homeschool high school students have many additional options available now that were unknown just a few years ago. Internet or video instruction and co-op classes have eased the way for learning foreign languages, math, chemistry, etc. Be sure to carefully think through what classes your student really needs. Not everyone needs calculus and physics.

A note about teacher’s manuals: if you purchase textbooks for some or all of your subjects, you may also be using the accompanying teacher’s manuals. These can be very helpful when used judiciously. Well-written manuals will show you how to introduce new concepts and offer sample exercises and discussion starters. It is important to remember, however, that most of these manuals were written for use in a classroom, not in the one-on-one mentoring that parent-led home education entails. Some suggestions in the manual will be impossible to replicate; others will be useful for one child and a waste of time for another. Ask God to help you discern which activities will benefit each of your children. Remember: experienced teachers never try to do everything suggested in the manual—they treat it as a buffet, picking and choosing what is necessary to meet the child’s individual needs. You don’t need to teach every single sentence in the book.

Re-Creation for the Homeschool Parent 

Perhaps the most neglected part of a homeschool mom’s in-service training is the concept of recreation. As we pour ourselves out day after day, we eventually begin to dry up, losing our joie de vivre—our joy of life. We can become 24/7 teachers, neglecting our roles as wives, mothers, daughters, and friends.

We could all learn another lesson from Churchill. Despite a grueling schedule as Britain’s Prime Minister during WWII, he knew the necessity of rest. He recognized that leaders—and you are a leader in your family—can be deceived into thinking their work is so important that only they can do it right. Soon they are working harder and longer and becoming less productive.

Trying to simply rest is sometimes not as effective as directing our thoughts to something new. Churchill was fond of saying, “A change is as good as a rest.” Our brains tend to continue to think about our most recent thoughts or concerns when we lie down to rest. We must change our thoughts to something new to get the full re-creating effect of rest. Churchill rested from his many duties by pursuing dozens of hobbies included acting, butterfly collecting, swimming, brick-laying (!), fencing, music, travel, and farming.

When my five little wigglers were young, very little of my work stayed done for very long. A child’s finished paper soon needed to be graded; clean laundry soon need to be washed; and the next meal needed to be planned almost before the dishes from the last one were cleared away. In the midst of the temporary-ness of my daily work, I discovered the joy of cross stitching. I could work at it in bits and pieces of time and eventually have a completed project for my wall--one that, unlike my daily chores, would stay finished. My hobby met a need during those years of ever-repeating tasks for creating something pretty and permanent.

Be curious about the world around you. Be all that God designed you to be. In John 10:10, He says that He came to give us an abundant life. Don’t allow yourself to get locked into a self-made prison of meager living. You are a person, not just a homeschool mom. Try new things—eat an artichoke or pomegranate; take a different route to a destination; try snorkeling or zip-lining. Browse through the biographies in your library and learn about someone new to you.

Your children need to see you researching subjects of interest that are totally unrelated to what you’re teaching them in class. Subscribe to magazines that interest you, or borrow them from a friend.

God didn’t call us to homeschool because we could do it on our own. He knows we will need help from others and from Him. As we listen to Him in prayer, He will often whisper a totally new teaching idea or send us to a Scripture that sheds light on a concern we face. Homeschooling is a lifestyle, not merely an academic choice—a marathon, not a sprint. Eat, rest, and re-create wisely so you can finish your race well (Hebrews 12:1-2).

(C) 2014 by Marcia K. Washburn. Excerpted from Managing Your Homeschool from the Management for Moms Series. For more encouragement and practical tips, purchase Managing Your Homeschool here.

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