I will leave it to my children to list the innumerable downsides of being the child of a teacher. And, I can also can list for you the challenges of being a teacher with school-aged children, not limited to feeling like you are always doing school work. Always.
But, there are many benefits, particularly when your children have been fortunate to have excellent teachers whose philosophies on learning generally mesh with ones you support. In the spirit of taking on Distance Learning with an intentionally positive attitude, I thought the key things I want my teacher-self to remind my parent-self of during this challenging time. Hopefully others can benefit, too!
Learning is Messy
During the year I pursued my Masters in Education, I was observed frequently. Whether by the teacher I was working with or my program supervisor, I got accustomed to being observed by educators. But, once I started teaching full time, I found myself most frequently being observed by people looking to make donations to our school program, generally people not trained in education. Suddenly, I started to see my sometimes chaotic classroom through a whole different lens.
At that moment, I wanted to have “Learning is Messy!” emblazoned across the front of the room. I don’t mean it as literally messy with papers everywhere (which is also the case in my classroom… I digress…), but often, learning does not look like what we remember about being students or what we see continually shown to us as effective classrooms in media and elsewhere. Not to get too up into learning theory, but, in a general summary, we have to experience intellectual disruption in order to learn. Things have to get moved around and reconnected at a neurological level, and that takes form differently in each brain in the room in ways that are generally similar but wildly different individually.
As often as we write a comfortable story of what an ideal learning space looks like, the reality is that sometimes it’s the messiest situations that result in the best outcomes. For example: a student may be talking to another student while the teacher is talking. To an outsider, this may appear as defiance, but the teacher may know that person talking is a terribly shy verbal processor who is saying the material aloud to their table partner who also happens to need review constantly, and thus now has the ideal table partner. And, all this is happening while fifteen other students are quietly writing diligently in what “looks” like school (and maybe 12 are doing the task with intention), three are trying to find a way to secretly look at their phones, and two more are intensely staring in the wall because they need to eliminate all visual distractions to concentrate as a person is talking. Messy.
Distance Learning has been and will be wildly messy. As a parent, I have to remind myself to look for the learning and ignore the rest. Can my children tell me something they learned that day? Can they connect it to previous learning? I also have to remind myself that my children’s learning styles look different – I have one child that works in intense bursts, one who works slowly and steadily and one who is entirely unpredictable beyond being able to only sit for 15 minutes at a time. There is a lot of mess when these worlds collide, so I have to think about how to acknowledge and embrace their different needs while also doing my teaching job. It is a demanding task, and I will fail many times. This brings me to my second point.
“Progress not Perfection”
My daughter and I both wear bracelets with this message emblazoned inside. I need it because my “‘type A’ is for Amy” approach to everything often ends in me being a grouchy, stressball mess. My daughter needs it because being neuro-atypical (ADHD, dyscalculia, dyslexic elements… you name it, we might have been grappling with it) means that school is a lot of work . Each day we just have to remind ourselves that it is important to make progress.
In Distance Learning, it will be hard to know what progress looks like because as parents, we are trained from our own educational experiences to look at the products of our learning, not the process. Grades, test scores, college admissions… they all are external rewards for a job well done. As educators, we are trained to look at and plan for progress toward growth. And, we realize that finishing our class is just to prepare the student for another space. A teacher once told me “Not every light bulb will go on in your class – some will come before and others after – but your classroom needs to be a space where it CAN go on.”
Focusing on progress helps kids realize that they have control over their learning and that they have room to grow. As a parent, familiarize yourself with the learning goals for the grade level or subject matter. Set reasonable goals with your child about your expectations and what is of importance to you. If a child is working on sitting still through the lesson, then give them a chart to mark it. Even a middle or high school student likes to be rewarded for not picking up their phone during a lesson or contributing something to class discussion if they are normally silent. As parents, we can be clear about what progress is in a time where grades are more ephemeral than ever.
There’s Always Tomorrow
A teacher knows how many days they have with students (in most cases, 180) and that if something goes awry one day, there is always the next. As parents, we sometimes lose sight of that as we are helping our children learn because our big picture parenting focus (hopefully) is getting them to adulthood and beyond. This is one of the many reasons I get so incensed about the weight some people put on standardized testing. The SAT is one day of your academic life and measures your aptitude for taking tests and your educational context. How often in life are we truly subjected to that sort of do or die pressure? I’d say not that often, and when we are, the answers are not multiple choice.
So, when things don’t go well in Distance Learning, as in life, I take is as a moment to step back and reflect. For my elementary school aged child, that means taking stock to decide if I need to communicate with her teacher and support team that it was a tough day or do I let her work through it tomorrow? With my older students, I have to help them reflect when something took them longer than they expected or they didn’t do as well as they anticipated. Anyone who knows me or my children knows that I am a disaster at managing screen time with any consistency, but what I am able to do is talk to my children when they seem stressed by school work and suggest reducing screen time as one of a list of options they could use to have more success. Then, after our device-free dinner (one thing I am generally able to maintain), I ask them if they have something to work on after dinner, give a reminder about the screen and see what happens.
Acting as if high school, in particular, is about always producing the best work does nothing to help kids learn. That being said, expecting them to bring their attention and resources to each task they undertake and to assess where they are and what tools they are bringing to their learning is the best recipe for success. Having these conversations when they are in the learning process rather than them beating themselves up after they don’t get an outcome that they want is critical to their growth. So sometimes, that means tackling disappointment by planning for a new approach tomorrow.
And most of all, Be Kind to Yourself
With all things, this mantra is key: All with Grace. Choose whichever metaphor that you want for this moment – uncharted waters, uncertain times, the unknown – the past that prepares us for what is ahead is not in concrete instructions. Rather, it is based on our values, our connections to one another, and our fortitude in being kind to ourselves and one another.