When our governor mandated school closures a couple of weeks ago, every fiber of my teacher being launched into prep mode. Sure, I was concerned about food and supplies, but I was simultaneously making plans for education on two fronts: other people’s children and my own. The prospect of keeping my three kids safe was a substantial worry, but making sure they continued their learning while I worked to serve my school district was an even more daunting challenge. After the first week of home-based school ended, I realized that it was hard to love converting my dining room into a classroom. My background as a teacher didn't help prepare me for this moment. Nobody feels like they’ve got this situation under control but, as teachers, we can make the most of it through capitalizing on what we know, and by tapping into the power of virtual resources.
Unleash the Power of Structure
When my oldest was a baby, I scheduled his feedings and naps. Initially, my mother was dubious. “You can’t schedule a baby,” she said. Turns out I could, and my kids still go to bed without protest each night on time. Don’t worry — I fail at many aspects of parenting, so I remain humble. In terms of routines and structures, kids need them, and not just for optimal functioning: they need them to be happy. If we imagine that children who are set free all day without expectations are enjoying themselves, just try it for a few days, and watch kids become increasingly bored and restless. The key is to set clear expectations for each day and to follow through with those expectations consistently. So, what does that look like?
Ideally, each day should contain a set schedule that has a degree of flexibility but that stays consistent at its core. For instance, if home-based classes start at nine o’clock, that is when kids should be sitting at a table with their work, ready to go. To get some tangible ideas for handling a homeschool-type model, Education Week created a helpful post. It helps if a dedicated space in the house is set aside for learning; nobody learns effectively in a bedroom or (heaven forbid) bathroom, but a table set aside in a relatively quiet public space is ideal. That way, those of us who are teaching both at home and at a distance can be on hand to make sure things don’t fall apart. Is it going to be pretty? Nope. Ideal? Heck, nope. But our students are understanding, and if we share that we have kids at home to teach as well as our classes, they will be understanding when we get distracted.
Share What You Know...and Love
When we are in our classrooms, it’s not easy to provide students with experiential learning. After all, that requires all the increasingly difficult logistics of field trip planning and execution. In our new socially-distanced world, opportunities have been opening up across the digital spectrum. Among the many options out there, operas stream live from the Metropolitan each night, the National Zoo has a live webcam, Peloton is providing a free 90-day trial (with a reminder to cancel) on its array of fitness classes, and Milk Bar founder (and world-famous chef) Christina Tosi is offering live baking classes on her Instagram page. In other words, we can round out a more typically constrained curriculum with a wider array of distance options, both for our own children and the ones we teach from afar. If curricular constraints do not allow time for more creative options, there are also endless online learning resources available, and more opening up each day. This comprehensive list from We Are Teachers is a good place to start.
The silver lining of this frightening situation is time — time to pay more attention to our students and our children, time to think about what we love, and time to share moments that have been slowed down for us. Think about what you love, and take time to honor that and build stronger connections with others in the process.
Maximize Human Resources
While I work on distance learning initiatives for my district, my own children have needed a fair amount of support in areas that I have little comfort. As a high school English teacher by training, teaching any math is a sign for me that the apocalypse may have come. Luckily, I can use the human resources in my house to make things a little smoother. My oldest son, for instance, is closer as a sixth grader to elementary math than I am, and he can remember all the little tricks and mnemonic devices to help teach my daughter that I have long forgotten. My husband, who has far more confidence with numbers, actually remembers how to add fractions by cross-multiplying (I had completely forgotten the term “cross-multiply” until last week), so he can also pitch in as my newly-appointed “math specialist”. Make use of those that are around you.
Log On, and Log Off
Just because we are expected to stream our classes does not mean that all the work has to exist online. Read that sentence again, because it’s a fine distinction. Once we have provided our students with instruction and resources, give them the option to work on paper so that they retain the skill of learning away from a screen.
With my kids at home, I maximize offline learning the most with fun writing prompts that my children can do first thing in the morning. It centers them for learning, and once we have written quietly for a designated time (about 10 minutes), we share with one another. Last week, my second-grader wrote a story about what our dog does when we are not home, while my fourth-grader tackled a list of coping strategies for cabin fever. Since I taught creative writing I have a fairly large arsenal of ideas, but there are additional writing resources for a variety of ages.
Positivity Wins the Day
There is so much to worry about right now, and I both go to bed and wake up with a heavy heart. However, for those I work with and for my own children, I maintain the outward appearance of positivity. When my kids ask me how long this social isolation will last, I tell them I don’t know, but always follow it up by pointing out something fun we plan to do, like baking brownies after home-based school ends or having a family Trivial Pursuit game. When students are worried, we can express uncertainty but show them strength. Distance learning is hard, and we are all learning to be better at it. Acknowledge that difficulty, ask for grace from both students and parents, and be satisfied with doing whatever you can to serve kids every day.
If those negative feelings become overwhelming, reach out. Several services offer online therapy. Be sure to maintain connections with other adults via virtual platforms since teachers are often isolated from adult company and a time like this exacerbates that problem. Attempt to get outside each day if possible; I try to sandwich my day with two walks, one before work begins and one after dinner. It helps to remember that there is a world outside the house walls. And though this trick is an old one, force yourself to smile consciously on a regular basis. Smiling, even when it has no basis, is a proven way to lift spirits.
Teaching has become an even more complex profession than ever with new and ever-evolving needs, and having kids at home increases demands on attention to an extent that is beyond challenging. Making the most of the situation, while understanding that we have limits, is important as we stretch ourselves further and increase the flexibility of our practice. With time and patience, we will figure out how to approach each oncoming obstacle. However, remembering to strive for progress rather than perfection will be the key to making it through.