In my eleven-year career as a homeschooling Mom, I met a lot of other homeschoolers and worked with many homeschool groups, both as a participating member and in collaboration for joint events. I have been asked to elaborate on some of the “pitfalls” that can come up in group situations, including warning signs and advice for how to avoid trouble. This will be a collection of problems I have seen over more than a decade; these are not inevitable trouble spots that every group is doomed to suffer. I read recently that a truly wise leader is able to discern trouble before it develops, and that this type of discernment is a rare quality. I believe that “forewarned is forearmed” — if you know what to watch out for, you will be more likely to avoid it.
Temporary Problems — associated with co-op classes, field trips, special events, etc.
Classes: Using sign-up sheets to anticipate attendance can eliminate many surprises. Start well in advance (3-4 meeting times, including Moms’ meetings, class days, etc.) to publicize upcoming activities and give families notice of what will be held, when it will occur, and what they need to provide (extra fee, special equipment or clothing). If your members know about it, they can plan for it. Asking families to sign up in advance allows the activity’s coordinator to plan for the size of the group: large enough facility, enough equipment and supplies, extra helpers, etc.
Field Trips: Crowd control and safety are probably my biggest concerns on a field trip. Parents need advance warning if there will be safety or space limitations: do they need to make alternate arrangements for their toddlers, should they bring the stroller or leave it at home, do their children need to wear specific clothing? (My children and I usually dressed nicely for public group outings, but if the field trip included touring a cattle barn, we did not want to wear sandals.) Once your group assembles at the field trip location, it is rather late to announce that no one under 5 is allowed on the tour. (It has happened.) Publicize the starting time for field trips and encourage everyone to be on time (although not too early), so that the business is not disrupted while waiting for stragglers. The sign-up sheet can come in handy here as well, giving the activity leader an idea of which families to expect. A warning phone call to the site’s tour guide a day or two ahead of time will also enable them to plan ahead, in case they need to split your group for more than one tour, have enough souvenir gifts for all, or mark out a special parking area.
Special Events: Again, sign-up sheets and advance publicity can solve a host of problems before they happen. With events that lean more towards a party atmosphere than educational endeavors, individual family standards of acceptability may raise concerns from time to time. Not all families will agree on music styles or games played at roller-skating parties: one Dad adamantly voiced his objections to nearly all the bring-your-favorite-Christian-music that was offered, unwilling to consider even straight-from-Scripture lyrics to be acceptable because of the instruments used or the “beat” of the music (even though the CD he brought used the same instruments and kept the same beat). We also found that doing the hokey-pokey and the “chicken dance” could be surprisingly controversial. Our local rink plays an elimination game using a large die and numbers on the rink floor — I had never considered that to be a “dice game of chance,” but others did.
Some people felt that music (other than hymns) should not be played at all for parties held in church buildings, so before the teens’ formal dinner the kids were expected to stand around discussing current events over hors d’oeuvres and punch. It resembled a bad cocktail party scene from a low-budget movie. After dinner, the teens were provided with ping-pong and foosball — one table each for two dozen people. No board games, no music, not even a hint of dancing, just a severe lack of forethought. (Another consideration: a strict dress code for modest attire was issued ahead of time, but nothing was said to those who chose to ignore it.)
One family hosted their own party for all the teens: everyone was invited to a private home, and the family imposed no restrictions on what music could be played (or how loud), or what games could be played, or how much food and soda the kids could consume. We parents relaxed and chatted in the kitchen and dining room, while our teens migrated from basement family room to living room/den to second floor kids’ rooms and back again. The teens had freedom to watch videos, play computer/video games, listen to contemporary music, and just be themselves, giggling all the while. It still ranks as one of the most enjoyable evenings in the group’s history.
Whether at a group-sanctioned event or a potential instructional class, we had a small disagreement over card games. A few of the boys were playing poker (not for money, just for fun) during free time on a co-op day; another time several teens requested a class on learning to play “Pepper,” a popular non-gambling card game. An assertion was made that some of our member families would be offended by standard playing cards, and that only “Uno” cards were acceptable. I did a little investigating on my own and never did find any families who actually objected to cards, but nevertheless our teens were scolded for even wanting to play.
Hosting sports tournaments, theatrical performances, or other invitational events will require accommodating strangers to your facility: directing traffic from the parking lots to the restrooms, providing food or drinks at a concession stand, or providing secure dressing rooms for participants.
Food presents another concern all by itself: how far should you go to accommodate people with food allergies? What types of food should be made available at certain events? Will beverages be enough or will you need something more substantial? Is the food allowed in all parts of your building or must it be restricted to one area? Do not overlook recruiting a large clean-up crew!
Discipline (More in-depth aspects of this will be addressed in a future post.)
Any significant problems that arise during field trips and classes should be the responsibility of the parents of the children involved. In the rare event that some children are not accompanied by their own parent(s), they should be designated as the responsibility of some parent who is present. The leader of one group I was (briefly) associated with insisted that all discipline was to be handled by the event coordinator of each day’s activity — oddly, the same super-controlling woman was always in charge. I did not agree — nobody supercedes my authority over my own children. However, an activity’s coordinator will receive any negative feedback from businesses that your group tours, and she will be expected to contact individual families to resolve problems.
Some type of group administration will be necessary, if only to facilitate planning meetings, serve as a contact person for the group, or make short-notice decisions on behalf of the group. Some groups have bypassed a formal administrative body by delegating all planning responsibilities for one month to a member family, with all families alternating in turn. New families are allowed to watch and learn for several months before taking their turn at coordinating activities.
Officers: When a more active schedule requires advance planning and coordinating multiple events at once, the family-of-the-month method may not work, and your group may choose to elect officers and/or delegate responsibilities to specific committees. A governing body reduces the risk of burdening one Mom/family for life while the others casually revel under her fabulous gift for organization. However, there are many concerns that are often overlooked in the zeal to establish a more formal administration. How long will the term of service be: one year, two years? Can a member serve multiple terms in succession? Can a member resign from her position for a season and then serve again at a later date? If an officer is obligated to step down (i.e. due to health reasons or moving away), how will her position be filled? Can you recall (force out) a leader who later proves to be unqualified or a Nazi-like control freak? Right now, you are undoubtedly thinking of the wonderful, caring women in your group and cannot imagine an uncooperative person in the bunch, but beware — I have seen difficult problems arise from the meekest individuals.
When taking nominations for officers, select an impartial member (or possibly more than one) to contact each nominee as to whether or not she is willing to serve if elected. I witnessed an eager volunteer who telephoned each fellow nominee individually (yes, she was nominated herself) and worded the conversation so that each other nominee humbly decided to remove her own name from the ballot on the assumption that she did not want to detract from the election of someone more qualified. Mrs. Zealot happily succeeded in running unopposed, although each of the others was much more qualified. After the election was final, the others casually conferred and discovered exactly how they had all been duped, and it was a devastating loss to the group as a whole.
Another sly character to watch out for is the self-appointing power-seeker. She rises to power in a small group that has been coordinated primarily by one person, by repeatedly offering to pick up the mundane tasks. She appears at first to be a godsend, since she does relieve much of the busywork and often shows up early at events to help set up and stays late to clean up. However, her personal agenda will be evident to the watchful eye: she rarely speaks about the desires of the group, preferring to steer all activities toward her own tastes. Waiting patiently for the traditional group leader to suffer an illness or family emergency, Mrs. Usurper will then make her move, volunteering to “help out poor Mrs. Leader” by taking on even more of the administrative duties. The other members, innocently caught by surprise, will not feel justified in objecting, since the normal leader does seem to be overwhelmed by her temporary circumstances. Once the power-seeker has obtained her seat of authority, watch out: things can only go downhill from here.
Meetings: When Moms’ Meetings are held in the evening, snacks and desserts can usually be skipped or replaced by ice water. Any one truly needing extra calories will probably bring her own snack. Fellowship inevitably occurs during every lull in a meeting, but softly ringing a small bell is a gentler reminder than a gavel that more business remains.
A printed agenda is a handy tool to let everyone know what topics will be addressed and how quickly each needs to be handled, but be sure to allow some time for any new concerns that arise. (If there is no other new business, you get more time to fellowship.) Encourage the group to make firm decisions, and then quickly move on to the next item of business.
Allow all concerns to be heard and addressed fairly. Understand that one person voicing a concern represents at least 10% of your group, perhaps more. (If the group leader has an intimidating personality, 90% of the people may disagree with her but be afraid to speak up.) Many women will extend their “submissive wife” role to the point where they are unwilling to voice any dissenting opinion, even for the good of the group, feeling it is their “duty” to accept what life deals them and carry on.
Growth: Expect change in your group. Anticipate it and be ready for it. Welcome new families who will join for your advantages and your fellowship. If your group offers an environment that others find desirable, your numbers will increase. If your group refuses to adapt, you will lose members. Either way, you will experience change. Look at your group as you look at your children: you want your children to grow and mature and learn; desire that for your group’s membership as well. I included new people into my conversations with old friends and encouraged shy members to be my helpers, and they all eventually became active contributors to the group. [Note: I have led student classes and delivered topical addresses to Moms’ meetings, but I have served only on planning committees. While some of my suggestions may sound as though I was an “important” member of a group, I never held an office — these are roles I expect any average member to be able to fulfill. The “members” of today are the “leaders” of tomorrow.]
I found it surprising how many people were afraid (or too conceited?) to speak to newcomers, feeling the newbies should introduce themselves and automatically know who was responsible for what. “Primary group” is the syndrome of allowing new people to come, but never really allowing them to become part of the group — always reminding them that they are newcomers, no matter how long they have been attending. Some of the original members may protest (or even depart) at any changes or styles that they do not like. Be sensitive to the needs and desires of all, but do not become a doormat for the few who insist everything meets with their approval. Newcomers need to be welcomed, introduced around, and encouraged to help out. If you plan your activities very far in advance, they will have a good feel for the spirit of the group by the time they are ready to lead something themselves.
Religious or Political Differences: “Christian” groups may want to publicize their faith base (including it in the group name is often enough) so that newcomers will know what to expect. The same applies to any group that is trying to maintain a specific emphasis, such as a Jewish group, Latter Day Saints, or even a strictly secular group (desiring no religious emphasis). In my experience, it is not necessary to require members to sign a statement of faith or contract for membership. Welcome any who want to join your group, knowing that if they are not comfortable with your emphasis, they may choose to leave again.
Politics, while important to all of us, are best left out of the group environment. One group I attended was led by a family of extremely zealous political affiliation. They had no qualms about calling each family, requesting support for the candidates of their choice. While I may have agreed with their choice on some candidates, I did not agree as vehemently on all, and it made for uncomfortable group relations. I also feel that all contact information gathered from group members (addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, etc) should be kept private (within the group) and used for group business only. I do not need any more unsolicited requests to support another member’s church, missions outreach, political campaign, or business venture.
Most problems that arise in homeschool groups can be avoided through careful advance planning, trusting your fellow members to handle their own families, and being cooperative and considerate of others. If a member of your group is concerned about a potential trouble spot, discuss it with her, and work together to prevent its becoming a real problem. Some problems happen only once and serve as learning experiences for us all (such as how to transport a Mom with a badly broken arm from the center of the roller rink floor to the nearest Emergency Room). Other trouble spots can be the tip of the proverbial iceberg, concealing a huge problem that lurks just out of sight. Anything that causes concern is worthy of attention, and often difficulties can be simply resolved with a kind word at the appropriate time and place. Ignored problems rarely solve themselves, but the person who is brave enough to confront trouble head-on before it gets out of control is nearly always victorious.
[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]