In “normal” times, in my work as an independent education consultant, I support families who are at the intersection of schooling and homeschooling. I have lived both in my own life - I am a former school teacher, long-time homeschooling parent whose kids now go to school. And, of course, I am currently, like all of you, an “unexpected-” or “crisis-” homeschooling parent.
A big part of my professional role is to help parents and kids see what a life without school looks like...what an education without school looks like.
Recently, of course, all families have been exploring just that!
So, what does life without school look like?
The first part of the answer is: life without school (often called homeschooling) does not usually look like our current, socially-isolated reality at all. In fact, for most homeschooling families it is quite the opposite: the weeks are filled with classes, activities, co-ops, tutoring, playdates, clubs, etc.
The second, key part of the answer is: life without school is about you and your child directing their education. It is about you, together with your child, creating an education and life journey that makes sense for both the child, and the rest of their family.
That journey might look a lot like school - but at home - or, it might be completely open, with each child’s intrinsic motivation guiding their way. No matter how it looks in a given family, years of anecdotal evidence and research show that no one need worry: kids who don’t go to school are able to read, write, do math, go to university, support themselves as adults, and lead happy, contributing lives - just like their schooled counterparts.
Education during school closures
We are in an interesting situation with regard to education during the current school closures. Families who choose to have their kids participate in the school system are used to governments taking the lead in their child’s education. This is done via curriculum, schools, teachers, evaluations, report cards, and so on. The children’s role in this scenario is to follow the prescribed path, to do their best, and to reap the benefits of a diploma and a highschool education when they are done. The parents’ role is to support, to encourage (or sometimes to cajole!) and to advocate for their kids along the way.
But suddenly, we have all found ourselves dropped into a brand new ‘no-man’s land’, a land that lies between school and homeschool.
So, who takes the lead in our kids’ education now?
Parents do - as we have been doing since all this began. When schools suddenly closed, we sprang into action, and created a home-based life for our families. We did our best, as parents always do.
Every parent knows that the most important thing is always the well-being - emotional, mental and physical - of our children. We also know that their well-being is often a function of our own well-being, and of our ability to provide a safe and nourishing life for them.
It goes something like this:
If our employment is what feeds, clothes and shelters our children, then this work is high in our family priorities
If our stress washes over them, then we look for ways to reduce it
If our joy brings them to joy as well, then we wallow in that joy
With the closure of schools and just about every other activity or social time that children are used to, parents have had to step into a leadership role in every area of their children’s life. Education included.
Over the last weeks, I have often been asked for my advice. The question goes something like this:
How can parents balance parenting, (often) tele-working, keeping everyone’s sanity intact and, on top of all of that, homeschooling?
My answer is simple: the well-being of the family is the most important thing, and each family knows best how to create this for themselves. Develop a routine - a family way of being - that allows everyone in the family to be as well as possible in these circumstances.
Then... if the children doing schoolwork supports the family’s well-being, great. If it doesn’t, then your family’s best choice at this time is most likely: don’t do it. And that is ok.
In fact, it is better than ok: it is an opportunity.
We are moving beyond the one month mark, with no definite end in sight. Some provinces, schools or teachers are starting to send work that will be evaluated and will potentially contribute to the marks or comments on the final report card.
Can (and should) parents still take the lead?
Parents that I am speaking with are starting to feel that they are no longer as able to take the lead. For many, it feels like we are moving out of the education ‘no-man’s land’ back into the territory of the government taking the lead. Yet, students’ lives remain entirely home-based, with their parents as their main or only academic support.
The feeling that assignments, perhaps tests, marks and report cards are once again on the horizon, without the context of school and teachers, is creating a whole new stress in already-stressed families.
Many parents are panicking about this, and so are their kids. And, of course, as a result, their well-being is negatively impacted.
So how do we manage this phase of schools being closed, but school work and its accompanying expectations being reinstated?
I think that it is really important for parents to return to the notion that their family’s well-being is the most important thing.
Now is a good time to remember that there is lots of evidence and research showing that children can become educated, go to university, get good jobs, or otherwise engage in healthy, happy, contributing lives without attending school and without reproducing school at home.
SO - parents should know that it is completely reasonable for children to engage with academics in a way that makes sense for them right now, in a way that supports their family’s well-being. This could mean anything from doing no school work at all, right up to completing all the academic work assigned or offered by their school. Perhaps your child will do some or all of the work, but not look at evaluations and report cards. Perhaps you will simply let your child’s school know that your family is not able to engage in schoolwork right now.
To the many parents who are wondering how they can possibly cope with caring for their family, working, managing their own pandemic stress...and on top of that teaching their children:
You don’t have to (and you probably shouldn’t try to) do it all
Let’s actively release both parents and children from the feeling that schoolwork, grades, and report cards are of prime importance right now. Let’s instead help everyone to see and to value the learning that is happening just through living life. Let’s create routines in our families that help everyone to thrive.
And, know that this release from full-on schoolwork will not break your kids - or leave them behind. Many kids will slip back into the usual academic routine with no difficulty, and the system as a whole will be ready to support where support is needed, regardless of whether that student was able to complete schoolwork during this time.
Here’s something to consider: some parents and kids that I have spoken with have expressed a desire to stand in solidarity with kids who are unable to complete schoolwork at the moment. Kids whose families have neither Internet access nor a car to contain them so that they can safely access the school’s wifi hotspot. Kids who need to look after younger siblings while their parents go to work at the essential jobs that keep us all going. Kids who are suffering this situation keenly and not able to focus on academic learning at this time. Kids who need skilled adult support with their academic learning.
Standing in solidarity, as they see it, means not learning new concepts while at home. It means not moving ahead with the curriculum. It means students re-entering school as a group, a group that has all been away from school, living a different life for the time that this isolation unfolds.
For all kids this time is an opportunity for different learning, for ‘sideways enrichment’
In fact, the opportunity to live free of their usual academic work, extra-curricular activities and busy schedules may actually open up a path to wonderful new learning and growth for our kids. As parents, we can ensure that the family’s needs are met and help our kids to find their own healthy routine within these parameters. From there, we can focus on connection, patience, trust and moments of joy as we and our children find our way through this time.
One parent recently said to me, “we are starting to find our groove and glow”. “We are just starting to come alive in this new context”.
Opportunities for different learning and different perspectives, both child-led and parent-led, abound. Let’s allow time and space for the boredom and ‘new grooves’ that are needed to give these opportunities life!