My Hot Math Mess: Tips for Homeschooling Math

April 6, 2021 Updated: April 6, 2021

Large, round eyes blankly flitter around the room then squint as a grin spreads across her face. “I don’t know,” she says to the panel of teachers at the Math Bowl in 1989. The young lady made the math team by the skin of her teeth but proved unable to function at all under real pressure.

This hot math mess was me in high school. After a couple of mental blocks during math competitions, I wrote myself off as unable to work with numbers. I chose a major with one math class and graduated confident that pesky math courses were a thing of the past.

Hot mess: noun (informal) a person or situation that appears significantly unorganized or disordered.

It’s really ironic how life turns out. Now, at the age of 48, I have completed K-8 math four times along with multiple semesters of algebra and geometry. Presently, I spend every morning studying Algebra 1 and 2 as the sun is just bursting through our dining room windows. No more am I intimidated by hard problems but energized by them and find myself thrilled when solving a new problem. What happened to my hot math mess? Homeschooling.

Many home-educating families, as well as parents doing math homework with their kids after school, may find themselves in a hot math mess. I know I certainly didn’t start out like the iconic math teacher of my grade school days with a quiet classroom, chalkboard, and straight lines of students. In many ways, our home math class may still look like a hot math mess, but I have convincing testimonies from my first two graduates who have done well in college math courses: Homeschooling math isn’t only possible but rewarding.

After years of experience with my own children, here are some principles you may be able to use in your math time with the kiddos.

Start at the Beginning

Start at the beginning and stay a step ahead of your firstborn’s lessons. If you are homeschooling a kindergartener, take the course with them starting at the earliest lessons. It may seem easier to stick them in front of the computer or online class but immersing yourself in the material may give you the confidence to teach or facilitate yourself.

While browsing through the math curriculum, look for methods that appeal to you as the teacher. During your summers off, scan the teacher’s manual while nursing the baby or traveling to a vacation spot while your spouse drives. Concepts that you haven’t thought about for a while will start to show up in everyday life. You may find yourself teaching a math lesson in the middle of baking cookies with your student or while driving her to a piano lesson.

This not only decreases designated school time during “official math time” but is also contextual learning. Nothing makes a light bulb moment easier than an apt word about math in a critical problem-solving moment. If you have other kids following in math the next year, your skills will only get better and better because it’s all review from here.

Embrace Your Freedom

Flexibility is your best friend as a homeschooling math teacher. After a couple years of super-easy fall semesters with increasingly difficult spring semesters, I realized that I needed to spend significantly less time on the review lessons of August through November. This gave me time to spread one lesson over two days during the spring months when the hardest concepts usually appear.

We now thoroughly marinate ourselves in whatever is difficult with no stressed-out mom worried about spilling math lessons into the summer break. This principle can be applied no matter how you schedule your school year. If your child isn’t getting a lot at the math level you have chosen, don’t hesitate to go back over what she did the previous year. I will go over this more in the next principle.

The Next Best Thing

Never make math about grades or grade level. This is the hardest concept to sell to parents, especially if they taught in a regular classroom, but it may be the most important principle of all. We all have inconsistencies in our learning rate. I can’t tell you how much stress and distraction it takes off the teacher and the student when both concentrate on the next concept without grade level pressure or fear of a bad grade.

No artificial rewards or stimuli are needed when a child receives the automatic, stimulating “aha” moment of solving a problem. When multiple grade levels are learning side by side, one of your children may unexpectedly get ahead of another. But if grade levels are deemphasized by the parent through supplements or even using another math curriculum, unnecessary pressure is removed, and the child will go farther in math.

Go team!

Stagger math activities while teaching all the kids at once, and emphasize teamwork. This is the principle that makes our math lessons look like a hot math mess to outsiders. At our house, our math curriculum ranges from first grade to Algebra 2 with five students around the breakfast table. Our youngest is usually still finishing breakfast, middle children are on more independent work, while the others are collaborating with me. Grading as I go round and round the table gives instant feedback and keeps habitual errors in check.

This means I am often speeding from student to student with math manipulatives and red ink in my wake, switching laundry, and doing breakfast clean up at the same time.

Previously, this bothered me because I saw no benefit in a student baffled by a problem. Now I see it is exhilarating for students to try hard at a problem and succeed on their own! If my kids had been given help instantaneously, there would have been less opportunity for independence. When several kids are stuck at the same time, simply work with one, and the others can move on to the next problem for a moment. Younger students are also given help by their siblings when all the kids do math together. The review and comradery this provides isn’t something I can generate any other way.

Sometimes there is still frustration, but with multiple siblings there to help, it really feels like we are on the same team pulling for each other.

If you decide to teach math at home, I hope some of these tips work for your homeschool as well. Enjoy those kiddos even during your hot math mess!

Tricia Fowler is a Christian homeschooling momma in the Midwest. She currently spends much of her time teaching math, feeding sourdough, and helping with whatever is in season on the hobby farm she shares with her husband and seven children.