For my part, a burst of initial enthusiasm gave way to dispiriting revelations. The revelation that no matter what kind of student your child is at school, learning from home (and from parents rather than teachers) is a different kettle of fish. The revelation that learning in the midst of a pandemic throws up a range of problems that aren’t present in the ordinary school day.
I developed a siege mentality – I was under attack from my daughter (“I REFUSE to be taught by anyone who doesn’t have a teaching degree!”) and from the daily barrage of work emails and phone calls.
It soon became clear that the kids (8 and 6) really needed a routine. And they wanted it to look like their normal school day. We hand drew a large Monday-Friday ‘home school’ timetable, making sure to include their break times and all the different activities they would do. It went up on the wall and the kids studied it. The visual presentation of their week and the associated structure comforted them. I was proud of the timetable and on a whim sent a photo of it to close family. I included a throw-away line: “guest lecturers for any subject via Zoom or Skype or Microsoft Teams also welcome!!”
The guest lecturer invitation wasn’t included in a particularly serious way. But within a short space of time I received enthusiastic responses. One grandma, Claire, offered to do math classes via Skype. Another grandma, Dorothy, offered to teach a weekly virtual art class. An uncle suggested he might teach a science class.
Do any of these people have formal teaching qualifications? No. But neither do the parents, and yet here we are running a school from home.
It also occurred to me that there was a side-benefit to be had. These guest lectures would provide me with precious windows of time to work. (Side note to politicians who seem to think it is possible for parents to work full-time while simultaneously home schooling their primary school-aged children – IT ISN’T!)
I jumped at the chance. I booked Claire in for math classes, twice a week. Dorothy for a weekly art class. I took Uncle David up on his offer to do guest lecturing in the sciences.
For maths, Claire spent some time working out each child’s skill set. It also became clear it would be better to teach the kids separately. Claire now teaches one class a week for my 8 year old and a separate class for my 6 year old. She sometimes uses online worksheets (which are printed and sent to us) as well as other activities. She often sends instructions before the class – can 11 pieces of Lego be found for the class, please? Dorothy does the same – can the kids collect two different kinds of flowers, four of each kind if possible? Can they have colored paper and glue too?
The classes have proved a godsend.
For the kids, it gives them different faces and voices in their day (quite an important thing at the moment, when there are fewer faces and voices in everyone’s days). It provides them with variety in the way they are being taught and a new perspective on these important people in their family network.
For Claire and Dorothy, it has given them a regular and positive way to connect with their grandchildren during the lockdown. I dare say it has also enabled them to understand the kids in a more nuanced way. To gain a better understanding of how they approach a challenging task, what things they like to do and what things they would rather avoid.
For me, the additional opportunity to work in a (mostly) uninterrupted way has been incredibly valuable.
You might wonder how this all works if the guest lecturers don’t have special skills in (say) math or art or science. For kids under 10, I would argue you don’t need specialized knowledge to be helpful in our present circumstances. There is a lot of educational material available online, and what is more important is having the time and interest to meet the challenge.
Would I usually choose a family member to replace a teacher? No. But we’re not living in our usual circumstances and the teachers aren’t being replaced. No matter how good the online program being provided by the real school is, there is a lot to be gained by having some additional help. And the beauty of it is, the benefits flow in different directions.