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Fishing 101: Families Encouraging Families

by Vicki Bentley

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.”

I’d been a homeschool support group leader for almost fifteen years; our group had more than 300 families. Sometimes, in my busy-ness, it was tempting to just throw them a fish.

You know what I mean—give them the easy answer, the quickie curriculum recommendation, the checklist of basic steps, when what they really need in the long run is someone to come alongside them to coach them in determining their own philosophy of education, their children’s learning styles and love languages, planning and recordkeeping, recognizing God’s vision for their families, and igniting a love of “learning about God’s character and world” in their precious little ones. They need more than an earful of information at a meeting; they need models, coaches—mentors.

We had tried several times to implement some sort of family-helping-family program, so the new families would have someone to walk through it with them, but it never got off the ground. So each year, I tried valiantly to cover the basics for the newbies while still offering enough “meat” to keep the veterans motivated. I realized that it’s awfully challenging to meet the needs of the novices while not losing the vets at our meetings. How could we make a mentoring program work?

What is a mentor?
The term denotes a wise, loyal teacher or coach, with the connotation of not simply sage advice, but a relationship. I Thessalonians 5:11 admonishes us to “…encourage each other, and build each other up—just as you are doing.” Ideally, these relationships develop naturally and gradually, as in a friendship. Unfortunately, our “newbie” families don’t always have the luxury of time to allow the natural progression, and if they don’t have someone to come alongside them and encourage them fairly quickly, they may despair that they didn’t “have what it takes” and give up.

To re-visit the fishing example: Let’s say you determine that the most compassionate step would be to teach him to fish. But you may think, “Me? I don’t know how to teach someone to fish. I don’t even remember how I learned to fish. I’m not sure what I’m doing is the right way. I’m just not qualified to be the one doing this. I’ll leave the fishing lessons to the guy at the tackle shop.”

We had plenty of committed veterans willing to help; lack of enthusiasm or dedication wasn’t the problem. The roadblock we hit was a lack of confidence in their own experience and knowledge.

Why a mentoring program?
A mentoring program for homeschooling families is simply a plan to equip veteran homeschoolers to confidently coach the newer, educationally-hungry families of our communities. This might be as formal as a structured program with small groups and volunteer leaders, or it could be as casual as pairing new families with individuals willing to answer occasional questions via phone or e-mail.

Some mentoring will happen automatically; you may have some families who naturally reach out to the new families and take them under their wings. You know the ones—the moms who seek out the gals with the questions at the meetings, and afterwards quietly share their experiences to encourage and equip the newbies. Or the parent who is willing to share his or her experience via email when those queries come down our newfangled e-loops. Or the veteran who invites the new gal over to let her sit in on a sort-of-typical day.

If you have enough veteran families with this gifting, and few enough new families with needs, this could be as simple as providing good how-to resources—books, videos, state manuals—for your current families and then matching them up with new families in their areas in one-on-one mentoring. One veteran couple or mom may be responsible for only one new family, or several at a time, depending on the confidence and schedule of the mentoring family. They can be matched up by geographic location or by interests.

More likely, you have a few families in your group with this “calling,” but many more who would step forward if they felt more confident in their knowledge or abilities. Our group’s experience was that, regardless of how diligently we attempted to promote mentoring relationships, and how badly they wanted to serve one another in this way, they did not feel qualified if they had to “make it up as they went along.” An organized outline was the tool we needed to equip these counselors to meet the needs of the eager newcomers. The specific outline or plan you choose will vary according to the specific needs of your group. Although you are certainly able to put together your own outline for your group, there are several “ready made” options for you. Here are some I have found to be helpful:

For families considering their options
For example, if the group is all young families wanting to learn about homeschooling for upcoming kindergartners, you might become (or incorporate into your current structure) a chapter of Considering Homeschooling, a group to inform parents of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers of the options available in home education. Considering Homeschooling groups are encouraged by the stories of veteran homeschool parents, and they support one another by regular visits, trips, park days, and more (sort of like a MOPS group with a homeschool focus).

In this sort of group, they are buoyed by hearing the successes (and the challenges) of the veterans, and they are gradually brought into relationship with like-minded families with whom they can share this journey. Figuratively speaking, they largely learn together to fish by watching someone else fish, often before they themselves have become very hungry (i.e., desperate), because they are still considering the options at this point.

Because we were already providing these services and activities for our families and have had quite a few parents of toddlers-only in our group, we saw no need for someone nearby to have to re-invent the wheel, so we chose to start a chapter of Considering Homeschooling as a part of our larger group.

A stand-alone support group
Maybe you know some families in your area who are just beginning to homeschool various ages and there is not really a support network nearby to give them the start-up information and walk them through the basics. Or maybe there are some families in your group who are just too far away from the rest of the group—geographically or philosophically—and they’d like to start a new small group, but don’t know where to begin. Check out Smoothing the Way or First Class Homeschool Ministries.

Smoothing the Way is designed to be an autonomous support group to help new and prospective homeschoolers.

Regularly-scheduled meetings provide fellowship, leadership, guest speakers on various topics of interest to homeschoolers at various stages, activities, etc. The outlined program of Smoothing the Way is very helpful to provide leadership and training to families who do not have the benefit of the guidance of a local group, or are part of a group that provides activities only, without an emphasis on equipping.

First Class Homeschool Ministries (FCHM) works with parents and pastors to develop homeschool cooperatives in local churches, with weekly co-op classes and homeschool training. The emphasis is on encouraging the homeschooling community. FCHM provides you with tools, online support, downloadable forms, a start-up kit, and a completely functioning website specifically for your local group.

Supplement to an existing support group
For groups like ours, which already provide regular meetings and topical training, Home Education 101 is a “basic course” that does not replace the regular support group, but is designed to offer committed new homeschoolers a smaller-group opportunity to meet regularly with other moms (or couples) “in the same boat,” to learn from a veteran homeschool mom (or couple) about basic topics of interest specifically to first-or-second year homeschoolers. Because the larger-group experience can be overwhelming to the new homeschooler, Home Education 101 encourages parents to develop relationships with other parents in a more intimate, less intimidating setting, or even a one-on-one tutorial setting.

Although meetings may be held monthly so the course is spread out over the entire year, we found that our parents needed the information more quickly than that. The second year, we offered the program as a two-month concentrated course, with weekly sessions offered in various neighborhoods across our support group “territory.” For the homeschoolers beginning mid year, we decided to also offer the sessions on three consecutive “long” Saturdays at the start of the second school semester. The final session, Lessons Learned, was reserved for breakout groups at the June large-group meeting of all our families.

The participating families developed fast bonds with one another and grew quickly in confidence; several of them have already expressed an interest in being involved in future mentoring. All of the families involved in the “quick-start” program jumped into our group with both feet. Another bonus was that I could observe how our mentors handled the group dynamics—potential future support group leaders in action!

Topics have been selected especially to meet the needs of the beginner, with topics of broader interest to all “ages” of homeschoolers addressed at the regular support group meetings. Home Education 101 is especially helpful for established groups who are trying to meet the basic-info needs of the new homeschoolers while not losing their veteran homeschoolers. Chapters in the mentor and student manuals include:

  • Beginning the Incredible Journey
  • Organize Your Time: Lesson Planning, Scheduling, and Basic Time Management for the Homeschooling Household
  • Choosing Curriculum: Charting Your Homeschool Course
  • Getting Dinner on the Table the Same Day You Homeschool
  • Testing and Evaluations
  • Teaching Tips
  • Home Education with Style - Learning and Teaching Styles
  • Organize Your Home to Create an Environment for a Learning Lifestyle
  • Lessons Learned

Not experts—just willing vessels They don’t have to be experts—just willing vessels. In each of the programs listed above, the mentor’s initial role is that of a facilitator who is not required to know all there is to know about every scheduled topic, but is provided with outlines or notes to present the material, while supplementing with suggestions and ideas from her own personal experiences. The emphasis is on providing guidance while nurturing relationships. The basic lesson plan serves as a confidence booster for the mentor and provides a consistent framework for all facilitators in your group.

Whether you use a pre-designed program “as is,” tailor it to meet your group’s needs, or develop your own using these ideas as a springboard, the goal is to provide the resources to encourage your willing mentors to confidently and prayerfully inspire and equip a new generation of homeschoolers.

Home Education 101

As former support group liaison for Home Educators Association of Virginia (HEAV), home education consultant, and long-time support group leader of almost 300 families, Vicki Bentley was challenged to meet the needs of the beginner families without losing the veteran homeschoolers. Her program, Home Education 101, is a mentoring program designed to supplement the typical support group topics, to encourage the veteran families to inspire and equip a new generation of homeschoolers, and may be used family to family or within a support group. For more information, go to Vicki currently serves homeschoolers as HSLDA’s Early Years coordinator at and Group Services Director at, and is the leader of a new, small support group in Winchester, Virginia.

© 2005, 2010 Vicki Bentley