I’m a dad as well as a principal, with the perspective of both during this time of pandemic and comprehensive distance learning. When other parents share their concerns about their kids’ social isolation, depression, and loneliness I get it, and I share that parental anxiety about how all this is impacting the young people I love.
Last spring was hard, a complete shift to online learning without much time to process or prepare. We all did our best to learn how to support our students, but without grades, or attendance, or a fully developed system in place, very often it felt more like crisis management than online learning.
Summer was tough too. So many of the usual activities we enjoy were off limits, smiles were hidden behind masks, and so much of the joy of summer, like spending time with friends, was limited by the reality in which we live. The kids felt it at least as much as the adults, maybe more, and while I saw more than a few packs of middle schoolers on bikes in July and August, the truth is that the most socializing I saw this summer happened in the world of Minecraft.
And now fall. This week we’re diving into classes, albeit 100% remotely, and once again parents and kids are gathered around kitchen tables, on couches, and corners of bedrooms where they are least likely to be interrupted by whatever else is happening at home, attempting to “do school” in some way or another. That’s stressful.
But as separate as we all are, parents and educators share the goal of helping our students succeed. There are lots of ways we do that, and one idea I shared from a teacher a couple of weeks ago that seemed to resonate with a few parents, was to take the pressure of teaching off the parents and encourage them to see themselves in a role of facilitation and support.
That teacher used the language of parent as assistant principal, certainly an eye-catching image, and boiled the task down to “five jobs.”
- Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
- Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
- Make the most of free time
- Verify completion of assignments
- Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher
These are worth unpacking, and to start that conversation I offer a few modest thoughts.
Many of us have seen our work/home balance blur during these months at home. Too often since last March I’ve looked up from my work computer, often sitting at a TV tray out of the way of my family, and been surprised that it’s already dark outside. Unlike before, there is less delineation between being at home and being at work, and I know (from experience with my own kids) that isn’t different for our students. While comprehensive distance learning will have asynchronous elements, helping our kids step away from the computer will be vital to their mental health and success. Whether it’s making sure they unplug from 11-12 every day, the time our district has set aside for a lunch and stretch break, or monitoring to be sure that they don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole of never being done with schoolwork, it is a challenge worth meeting to help our kids see that some time has to be down time.
Complicating that balance will be the fact that for most of us, teachers and students and families, this is our first foray into full online learning, grades and attendance included. We didn’t sign up for this; if we had, we’d know it was for us and we’d already have an understanding of how to navigate these waters.
Teachers will be learning as we go, answering questions like: how much work is appropriate? How do students best get answers to questions? How can I support the kids, assess the kids learning, and reach them when I only see them through a computer screen? Students, who so often are so earnest in their desire to do well, will be learning too. It’s already tough to know how much time an assignment should take to complete, but now… Open communication, clear expectations, patience, and grace will all need to be on display now more than ever.
For parents “establishing an appropriate balance between work and free time” could involve some argument, anxiety, and tears. Any parent who has tried to get her son to unplug from Fortnite knows what that’s like. But knowing our kids and helping them understand when a walk is more important than another half hour typing an essay about poetry is going to make a big difference this school year.
A schedule might help this. It’s always easier to point to something agreed on and in writing when stress is filling the air. When I was an assistant principal one of the best things my school did was install signs around campus stating obvious things like “No Dogs” or “No Smoking on School Property.” It was always easier to confront a community member who was breaking one of these rules if we could literally point at a sign. This could also help reinforce that “free time” is as valuable in the greater scheme of things as “work.”
Even when we get that balance right, when we’re on, we’re on, and the students who succeed most have the ability to focus on the matter at hand, particularly when they’re Zooming with it. Learning from home brings different challenges than learning in a classroom. Whether it’s trying to type with a dog on your lap or interruptions to online meetings from siblings, cats, or Amazon deliveries, finding a way to overcome the distractions is a job that parents can certainly help their kids with.
There is lots of good advice about how to create a learning space for kids, but the truth of it is that not everyone has a table, desk, or quiet space for kids. It’s not fair, but it is. As a school we’re trying to help; we offered a greenscreen (well a big green sheet of paper) to each of our kids, so they could have a bit more privacy when they did video conferencing, and as parents we can support our kids if we help them in whatever way we’re able to have the privacy they need for school.
That privacy, however, is complemented by an extra pair of eyes checking to see that things get done. My experience has been that this is best accomplished when a parent or guardian sits down with a student and asks her to show them what they did for school. There is a big difference between a parent checking a student’s grades or that they did the assignment that the teacher gave them and a student showing that same adult what she did and learned. The second can empower a student; the first can sow seeds of distrust.
So I would offer that a conversation between a parent (or grandparent or aunt or caring adult person) and student can be one of the best ways we can support learning. In that conversation you can learn what’s happening, how the student is feeling, and talk about what kinds of questions it might be smart to ask in class or in an email to the teacher. These follow up questions not only show that a student is invested, but can help build a strong foundation of skills on which to build future learning.
It’s that learning that is the primary job of all of us, students, teachers, and families. We can do this, to the best of our ability, if we do this together. Will it be perfect? No, but it can be positive. And when we return, which we will, the habits of supporting one another may help us even as we readjust to life after the pandemic.
Stay positive, stay strong, stay connected. We’re partners in this.