For everyone Teaching while parenting: an impossible art?

  • 14 Sep 2020
Teaching remotely has been a challenge for single parent and teacher Nicola Stephens. (Photo: Penny Stephens)

How are parents of young children also supposed to teach remotely? wonders NICOLA STEPHENS.

When we were undeniably heading for school closures in late March, I started to make a mental checklist of all the learning tools I would need to teach my two children from home. As a teacher, I could see what I thought was a silver lining. I felt like one of the lucky ones. I still had a job and the opportunity to ‘home-school’ my own children. They love their teachers but last year they were in classes of 30. Thirty students is not a big deal in the eyes of University of Melbourne professor John Hattie, but I have a different view.

We started well. But it turns out that working from home and meeting the needs of my two primary-aged children was an impossible task. I reached out to the AEU several times to be heard. I was met with an empathetic voice each time. No-one really had the answer. But it was helpful to hear that the question was valid.

How was it possible to work from home and simultaneously, effectively, facilitate the learning of my children? Navigating a brand-new online learning system while managing my class of 30 was incredibly stressful all by itself. Having to also put my own children’s learning needs aside (“Mum, can you show me where to find/how to download/how to upload”) to cater for the demands of my job felt terrible.

Two parents I deeply respect said they were opting out of the online learning platform, choosing instead a more flexible approach to suit the needs of their families.

The solution came after less than two weeks of online learning in the form of emails from two parents I deeply respect, who were opting out of the online learning platform, choosing instead a more flexible approach to suit the needs of their families. Boom! Gold. There they were; the words I needed as a parent.

After two weeks of trying to do it all, I sent an email to the hard-working teachers of my own children – my colleagues – informing them I was going to take a more flexible approach. They wouldn’t be hearing from my children at 1pm each day to do ‘the quiz’ as evidence of their completed work. They wouldn’t be doing the assessment tasks. After all, there would be no reporting – and, as the AEU pointed out, how can assessment possibly be authentic? There is no level playing field with online learning!

I thought I had solved the problem. But it wasn’t done.

Nicola Stephens in her garden and instructing her children during remote and flexible teaching and learning. (Photos: Penny Stephens)

On ABC’s The Drum, I heard Science & Technology Australia’s new chief executive Misha Schubert, and others, citing data indicating this ‘new normal’ was disproportionately impacting on women. By and large, women were the ones carrying the ‘mental load’ at home. I was certainly feeling it. How exactly should I tackle remote learning now? Should I feed my children the worksheets from the school? Tell them they can opt in and out of learning tasks? Ditch the learning from home curriculum altogether?

I went rogue. We ditched it all.

Through this period, my own children completed what I consider rich learning tasks, even though they were not the mandated ones. My son disappeared up to the shed and reappeared with a wooden ladder he made. He was so inspired by the music from Pirates of the Carribean that he taught himself how to play it on the piano. He enlisted his twin sister to help move a heavy plastic slide up to an outdoor platform, built by my father, to create a whole new, much more fun slide experience.

My daughter, meanwhile, had her first day ever of disappearing into a book. She sat on the couch in the sun and read and read and read. She composed her own song that I helped her transcribe. And thanks mainly to the kitchen-garden program we have at our school, she cooked dinner a couple of times. Her usual ‘go-to’ creative outlet is drawing, but she found a new passion during this phase of the pandemic: photographing mushrooms. She also announced that she wanted to write a book.

Nicola's daughter Abby has developed a new interest in photography during lockdown. Pic: Abby Dunstan

And yet, I was still feeling the pressure. I was feeling torn about how to keep my children connected but simultaneously protected from the demands of the curriculum they simply couldn’t meet.

I knew, by listening to talkback radio, that many families were far worse off than I was. Families experiencing illness, job losses, the death of loved ones, domestic violence. How were the women who were essential workers or the parents of children with special needs coping? Or those with medical conditions?

But, as a teacher and single parent, I was carrying a disproportionate load compared to colleagues who didn’t have children or who had partners sharing the mental and logistical responsibilities. I felt powerless – and was becoming increasingly frustrated and even angry towards those decision-makers who didn’t have primary school-aged children and therefore couldn’t possibly see the impact of how the department’s expectations were being interpreted or understand my lived experience.

I also knew I was part of the problem. As an educator delivering the mandated hours of content per day, I was also stuck in an uncomfortable place, where doing my job potentially made me yet another authority figure imposing more rules on this new and quite anxious landscape.

I began to hear anecdotes about mothers who “never yell” at their children shocked to find themselves yelling. Other mothers who intuitively wanted to opt out, but who stayed the course because they felt that “everyone else must be doing it” and they didn’t want to be seen as failing. Or worse, mothers telling me that they felt like they were failing.

Making connections is what we, as teachers, do. It’s our craft. We get to know our students, we find out what ignites each pilot light within, and then we work to make learning meaningful and relevant.

In a time of intense isolation, I had found connection. Something I had in common with these women. Namely, that I was doing the majority of this alone. My usual supports – my established networks, those friends who stepped in to look after my kids, the parents and sporting and after-school activities that provide connection and a creative outlet – were inaccessible during the COVID lockdown.

Was this the real silver lining? Making connections is what we, as teachers, do. It’s our craft. We get to know our students, we find out what ignites each pilot light within, and then we work to make learning meaningful and relevant. The nuances that guide us can’t be read through worksheets or online platforms.

As educators, reflection is a key part of what we do in the classroom. We have learnt a lot from round one of lockdown – and those lessons continue. But we need to be connecting with and seeking feedback not only from those who offer it constructively but also from those who are ‘opting out’ of the learning programs we deliver.

And to those who have personally found this time immensely challenging I, for one, hear you!

 

Nicola Stephens is a teacher, writer and AEU member.

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