Kristen’s homeschool group after a trip to the White House. Brandi Odell, Kristen’s assistant, is on the left holding Maryellen McGuire. Joseph and Patrick McGuire are in front of her, and Peter is fifth from the left in front. Margaret McGuire is fourth from the left in the back with Kristen next to her.
"Put a fork in me," I thought as I surveyed my schoolroom one lonely June afternoon. We were done for the year, and I was done for life. Convinced that I could not cover the educational needs of my family, I began to explore other options for the fall.
I homeschooled for six years prior to that fateful day. Frazzled the previous June, I limited extra-curricular activities to the bare minimum - doctor and dentist appointments. Even so, I was scrambling to barely cover four different grades and several learning disabilities. (My husband even pitched in with both housework and certain subjects.) With six children ages 11 and below, I was overwhelmed. I could not summon the courage to take on another year of homeschooling.
One after the other, my school options fell through. The school I liked best was too far away, and the local Catholic school could only take two of my five school age children for the fall. The public school was not an option for reasons related to special needs services. Disheartened, I prayed for discernment. Then I reviewed my goals for the coming year.
- My special needed children need adequate one-on-one time for special remedial work.
- My student with attention deficit disorder (ADD) needed direct supervision and discipline.
- My gifted child needed more intellectual challenges.
- My littlest children needed stories, arts and crafts and positive attention.
At a party in late July, a paraprofessional (schoolroom aide) from my local school district mentioned her dismal $500/month salary for a twenty-hour work week. I was floored. It would be a stretch, but I was sure I could afford that amount to hire help. After all, private school tuition cost more than that! Excited, I placed an ad in my local newspaper for a "tutor/childcare" position.
After an amazing array of qualified applicants, I hired a delightful young woman to teach my toddler, kindergarten and first grade students. We shared a strong faith in Jesus Christ and similar child discipline beliefs. All of my children loved the extra time and attention to their studies they received that year. Best of all, I found a new friend to support my vocation as a mother.
Based on our happy experience, here is some advice about hiring an assistant for your homeschool.
Confer with your husband. Perhaps your husband can help you think of less expensive ways to get everything done. If necessary, educate your spouse about the true extent of your family's needs, and the financial impact of hiring help. Most families do not have extra income to throw away, so consider this idea as a priority decision that may displace other discretionary spending.
Be clear about your needs. Identify exactly what you need your employee to do. My husband and I managed to cover the errands, house cleaning, and food preparation tasks. It was in the thick of the day that I simply could not keep up with the demands of teaching my school kids and supervising the younger ones. For some, a house cleaning service would be easier and more cost effective. Others might need a babysitter for the younger children and meal preparation. Analyze your needs, and write them down.
Be flexible, but selective, about the way your needs might be met. I kept an open mind as I interviewed applicants, seeking the best fit for my family, teaching style, and the requirements listed above. When God sent the specific help, I didn't want to be caught looking for someone else! At the same time, I was firm that we needed a Christian woman. A male might cause scandal, and I did not want to get into ideological fights with my assistant over curricula. The lady I hired had both day care and pre-kindergarten teaching experience, in addition to experience with a younger sibling with ADD. I also interviewed a special education teacher for my older three, and a stay-at-home mom who needed to bring her baby with her. My assistant won the job by asking intelligent questions about discipline issues in her interview.
Evaluate the total cost of hiring an employee, in both dollars and minutes. In addition to the salary, there are employer related taxes, Christmas bonuses, and sick/vacation leave to consider. For more information, consult IRS tax document number 972. There is a website, www.nannytax.com, that will compute your taxes free of charge. There are also companies who will supply payroll and related services to you for your household employees. There will be some time involved for you to familiarize yourself with these laws, in addition to the extra time inherent in supervising your employee. We had to make priority judgments about the cost of some extra-curricular activities, and discretionary spending such as dining out and clothing. However, we were able to incorporate baseball for four sons in one season, because I was not too tired to get them to practice after school.
Be creative about salary and compensation. I chose to hire my employee on a fixed monthly salary, with regular working hours, but flexibility for field trips. This can be a major bonus to childcare workers who are used to being paid hourly. In other situations, it is best to stick to an hourly wage so as to pay only for the hours you need. In addition, experience in tutoring particular subjects and special needs programs might make you a good choice for a local college student. Some remedial programs actually have a certification program that your tutor may wish to undertake. (For example, see www.audiblox2000.com. You might consider other benefits you could offer based on your talents, such as piano or language lessons for your employee. (My assistant was delighted to learn to play the piano!) Exciting field trips to cultural or historic places are another big benefit to this job.
Put it in writing. It is always best to write up a contract, and make sure that both employer and employee understand exactly what to expect from one another. In this way, misunderstandings can be dealt with easily. This includes both salary information, as well as your policy on sick and vacation time. I also recommend outlining a procedure for firing the employee, just in case. Quicken's Family Lawyer software has templates for employee contracts.
Train your employee in both general household procedures and specific tasks, and be patient in the beginning. Your employee is new to your household, and must learn your style of discipline, pedagogy, and orderliness. You should expect to spend lots of extra time in the first few weeks teaching her to do her job, and helping your children learn to work with her. We started over the summer, scheduling math review and one-on-one instruction with each child on a rolling basis. This training time pays off richly during the school year, when she is able to take on her fair share and possibly more, because she knows your curricula and the needs of your students.
Be prepared to give concrete instructions and monitor performance. As an employer, your employee needs you to delegate particular tasks, and to hold her accountable for the tasks you assign. Practically speaking, this entails more lesson planning and preparation than I was doing prior to becoming an employer. The cost benefit is that the school day goes very smoothly with fewer interruptions because everyone is working at the same time. My tutor and I ate lunch together everyday, giving us an opportunity to confer over problems that arise. It was easier to solve the problems while they are little matters.
My employee and her military husband were transferred to California in March of the school year, but her extra help in the early months enabled us to complete the school year with ease.
Hiring an additional teacher was one of the best decisions we ever made as a homeschooling family. Other families with unusual burdens may also find that God can answer the prayers of a frazzled homeschooling mom with a wonderful assistant to help cover the three R's.