We are paid to help teachers help children learn, but even we were overwhelmed in the spring when we were thrust into our roles as part-time teachers and full-time caretakers when schools shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overseeing the educations of our kids has been a difficult and humbling experience for both of us and our families — and we have advanced degrees in the subject.
Like so many, we spent much of the summer hoping COVID-19 would recede and that schools would reopen in the fall. Since that is not to be, we thought panicked parents might benefit from a little perspective and strategies we developed while helping our children distance learn in the spring.
Learning opportunities are everywhere. Your children might not be learning what you thought they were going to learn or the way you expected them to learn it, but they’re still learning. Rich learning opportunities abound in daily life, and every family holds valuable knowledge.
• You are already a teacher. As a parent or guardian, try to remember that. Your children learn lessons from you daily. You already know how to communicate with them. Build on that. When you’re doing your best to help your child answer a math problem, or complete an experiment for their science class, and your way of solving the problem does not exactly follow the recommended approach, it’s OK. You’re teaching your child that there are multiple ways to approach and solve a problem, increasing their capacity to think creatively and flexibly.
• There are many roads to literacy. When you talk with your children — and listen to them — you are exchanging ideas, answering questions and helping them make sense of their world. It’s a way to achieve something teachers often struggle to accomplish — providing a student with sustained one-on-one attention. Just conversing with your kids about anything and everything is an incredibly powerful way to foster literacy. Encourage your kids to read and read to them. One of the potential benefits of the pandemic is the luxury of time to read a book. Reading builds vocabulary, fuels the imagination and fosters independent learning. Whenever you can, let your children choose the reading material — they’ll be more invested in it.
• Literacy isn’t just about reading. Explore artifacts or keepsakes, photographs. Take things apart, put them back together. All of these activities have “teachable moments” embedded in them. For example, ask your child to choose a photograph they are curious about, then ask them to describe what they see, and why they think the picture was taken. Tell them the story about the people in those photos. Ask them what they learned. Try cooking together. Recipes include lessons in mathematics (measurement), reading and even history and culture. Have your child choose a recipe, read and follow the instructions, measure the ingredients, talk with them about where the recipe and ingredients come from, and what the recipe means to you. Ask them what it means to them.
• Educational resources are readily available. During the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, teachers published their lessons in local newspapers and hoped that students and their parents would teach them at home. Communication between teachers, parents and students was severely limited. Today, of course, the internet and technology provide a rich array of content and access to learning, and just using these tools can help children to learn new skills.
• You are not in this alone. It is important to remember that you do not have to be your child’s homeschool teacher. Public school teachers and administrators have had their own huge learning curve regarding remote education, and they’ve been focused on developing lessons that translate to better learning opportunities for every age group.
• And, finally, cut yourself a break. This is a historic interruption of education. Don’t expect things to go perfectly. The distance-learning era may even have some benefits. It is a time for meaningful learning. The pandemic will likely have a lasting impact on this generation and will influence the lives of our children and their relationship to the world. If we can come out of this with children who are more thoughtful, more connected to their families and more concerned for others, what a gift that would be.
Erin Powers is director of the UCLA National Board for Professional Teaching Standards at UCLA Center X. Daniel Diaz is director of the UCLA History-Geography Project at UCLA Center X.