Learning in lockdown: Suffer in silence or yell at the school? A former teacher advises parents

 (Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)
(Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)

Just a few thoughts for you all in case you need a bit of a friendly resource at this time.     

In the end it is the state that will need to ensure that all children are given their best shot at learning in 2020.

You will do your best. The times are traumatic for all parties. You are not required to become a teacher. Be calm. It will all work out. 

Go well and be brave, focused and loving. I saw one of those little “shares” that is wise.

It said “Your child is not giving you a hard time. It is having a hard time.”

Let’s set the scene.   

There’s you. 

You are not your child(ren)’s “school” teacher. You are a loving and engaged parent. Both you and your child(ren) are under massive, albeit different, strain.

You are anxious. You might be trying to actually “work from home” and need uninterrupted time.

You could have staff needing you either for work stuff or for money or their own meltdowns; financial trauma to contend with; your elderly parents.

Despite your best efforts you could get sick. Your kid could get sick, your parent, your partner, your staff. 

Unless you have been a teacher you will not know much about the dynamics of the “slog” side of school:

the mystery of how the authority figure i.e. the teacher causes all wriggling and distractible and potentially bored or confused kids to focus on the work in hand and emerge after a period of 30 – 40 minutes with a set of notes and a grasp of the task in hand. 

There’s your kid(s)

They are maybe less anxious than you or maybe, in fact, MORE anxious.

Maybe they are panicking even and misreading the situation in terms of the risks to them and to you, and to their friends and everyone’s grannies and grandpas.

They are likely missing their friends and the “normalcy” and rhythms of their life as they knew it.

Depending on their ages, your space, their habits etc they could be badly equipped to be independently entertaining themselves or doing self-study. 

Let’s take a little consoling moment to think of all the things your kids would have gained from this surreal time.

They’ve had massive quantities of family time, invented unusual games/distractions, had time to study little things around the place like things about plant life, birds, street noises.

They’ve realised how much they love people they can’t get to see right now. Maybe done a bit of baking.

Surely done some cleaning work. Maybe got relief from other worries like bullying, peer pressure etc. They’ve had “time out”.

There’s the teacher

Depending on what the school has done, your kids might have a whole pile of their school books at home and messages and work schedules and tasks from the school.

Or you might have no clue about what you should be doing because your kids’ schools are being vague or hiding. 

The plans are likely to depend on connectivity because schools would likely not have had time to pop things out before schools closed earlier than expected.

So, while your kids were holidaying at home, their teachers were likely working away to develop a home learning programme. 

Most teachers won’t have developed cool, interactive or smart online programmes because that is not how they have been doing it up to now.

They rely more on explaining in person.They might be setting tasks even though they know in their hearts that many or most kids will not be able to figure certain things out without help.

Or they might know the work they are giving is mostly revision. And might be boring. 

Their pace might be too fast or too slow. Their experience in this weird thing of remote learning is just as beginner as your experience in being a “home tutor”

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Other parents

They might be scaring you right now because they could have flung themselves, seemingly, into full scale home schooling.

Their kids might be painted as diligent super kids and their lives “just perfect”. Instagram perfect!

Reality check 

Lots of kids and parents quite simply won’t be able to self-teach things like new Mathematical operations and so on.

A kid could theoretically sit in front of a book for hours but still be unable to self-teach. 

If your kid is at high school and doing advanced science and you lack knowledge about their foundational knowledge etc then even if you are a science boff you might be exhausting them by trying to over-teach etc.

If you are not a science boff then it’s no disgrace. You aren’t one. You are not expected to be one.

It’s OKAY.None of you i.e kids or parents will have the staying power to sit through strings of consecutive hours, doing “fake school”. 

It might sound corny, but kids often shut their parents out of their school work so this will give you quite a nice chance to get to grips with what is going on.

Life after Covid-19

In the end, schools will reopen in full and home, as a sanctuary and chill out place, will resume its old form. 

By and large teachers are actually still going to have to “teach” the chunks of curriculum that they have sent for home coverage.

They might have to think about some kind of testing/exercises to see if the kids have actually done effective home-study so they can move forward.

I hope they do. There will be catch-up classes etc. Parts of the actual curriculum will be left out or spread out over two grades for example. 

You don’t need to take on board “worrying about what will happen to your child’s learning programme”. It’s not your specialty. 

For matric students there is nothing to stop the DBE from setting new exam dates and refining the extent or depth of the work to be covered.  Other countries have already made such commitments.

So, let’s try think it all through and just be sensible. 

Times and structure

In real life kids don’t sit in silence, listening and writing for all the hours of the school day.

They talk; they are led into learning creatively; they have breaks; they are bored; they zone out etc.

a)Calendars will be adjusted.We await new announcements eg longer school days etc plus abbreviated holidays. We know the national (and global) situation is, and will remain, very fluid.

Remember that April/May has many holidays already ie Easter, Freedom Day and Workers Day.

An extension of lockdown to May (at the time of writing) has actually cost only a modest number of days even though it must seem you have all been cooped up at home forever.

b)IF you are going to set up a home learning system then think about setting a total number of hours a day, depending on the age of the child, the part that will be obviously “formal” learning.

You and your kid agree that together. Make the sessions about 35 mins long each with good breaks and jumping around etc in between.

Space the slots sensibly across the day. If it’s well done a nice “Shut up and work” session can be quite therapeutic and give a nice sense of completion after.

Rewards and incentives can/should be scheduled in! Make the time far less than the time for a school day.

This is the RIGHT thing to do. Suit your kid and his/her age, ability to concentrate etc.

Remember that “science” has shown that teenagers are not too lively in the early morning. Let your teen sleep.

c)A nice learning plan is hooking up with friends – “study buddies”.

Depending on age and complexity of work your kid and a friend in another home can tackle the same task and share with one another somehow if you have phones with data: pictures of the work, little videos of the kid reading it etc.

If older, self-sufficient kids can skype and schedule a shared time to work through a challenging topic together then that’s great. 

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Don’t over-imagine how masses of online tools will “do it” for your kids

Unless you have a fair idea of pace, depth, importance etc and what the kids have done already this year or last year there is such a thing as TOO MUCH.

There is a wealth of options coming onstream from radio to free material via Vodacom etc etc and any number of entities opening up all their material.

The real trick is how to navigate these. How do you sequence these? How long do you spend on what. What is it actually that is the MAJOR stuff that needs to be tackled? I don’t want to over-dramatise here.

We have more than enough drama and imponderables to contend with. My main thought is “KEEP IT INCREDIBLY SIMPLE”. 

If the school has given you a programme then follow that.

If you have nothing at all then find a programme that looks well sequenced and is attractive/learner friendly ie intriguing or gripping or making someone want to go further, then take that on and go along with it steadily.

I have a horror of having someone waste time on badly-designed trivia.

You and other parents could test sites and share your sense of how they work or don’t work.

Later under High School Kids my note about the value of text books.This is the perfect time for letting kids follow up on things that actually interest them. Listen to them.

You don’t need to suffer in silence NOR yell at the school either

You will need to have good communication going with the school (first prize) and via the SGB for tackling things like unrealistic schedules etc or asking for more clarity and helping hands. 

Please be courteous and understanding to the teachers etc. They might have close to 250 learners on their books and to suddenly convert from being class teacher to kids in batches to being tutor to 250 individual kids and their parents is a huge ask.

You AND the school want what’s best. I know that a lot of time parents are super over-involved in things like fancy projects etc and, because of this, the teachers might have a distorted idea of what’s a reasonable expectation.

Admit it? So, maybe now’s a valuable chance to just share with the teacher what the issues are if there is a challenge set that just impossible under the circumstances eg you have several children at home plus work commitments and space challenges and its just not workable to get through all that’s been set.

Primary school kids

My basic thinking is keep it very calm and cheering/stimulating. Reading and reading and reading is a truly perfect way to go.

Simple entertaining writing tasks are also excellent. It could be a family “newspaper” where you each contribute little articles/drawings etc.

Or a story plus illustrations – which you could in the end do an Audio recording of eg to share with Grandparents etc. Comic strips are fun to do.

Old-fashioned “puppet” shows in squeaky voices are lovely. For the “content subjects” all the online trips to museums and any number of other amazing ventures are there for the finding.

Just keep a light touch. Socialising: Netflix has set up something where you can host a Netflix party where friends watch the same movie together would seem to be a lovely way of getting kids together with friends in a virtual world. 

Exercise: walking planks, jumping up and down stairs, dancing, bending, skipping – again the ideas for simple movement are boundless. Sweeping and dishes etc (?) haha.

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High School kids

In the end, the basic text book is the most solid route map. It helps you see the “whole picture” so you can get a feel for pacing and direction.

It will have little tests and extension activities in it. It is reliable. If your child’s school has not put out tasks or specifications then set up a study structure  ie time slots.

Maximum likely 2 hours a day. Maybe 3 for Grade 12. Tops. Try a plan for your child to try to explain to YOU what the work for the day was ie the kid teaches and you learn.

Study buddies and other study moms/dads/guardians can set a sensible pace and help calm everyone’s nerves about time lost etc.

The closer to Grade 12 your child is the more they would be likely to be pretty self-sufficient academically.

There are past papers and other motivated kids around. 

A bit of motivation 

Years ago when I was teaching Grade 12 English there was a class that was without a teacher for several weeks while the school was not sure if that teacher was going to come back or not.

In the end she didn’t and they were added to my class and crammed in two in a desk. 

That group of “neglected” kids did incredibly well and, although people wanted to congratulate me, I was quick to point out that really I believed they had actually pulled it off pretty much on their own.

When they believed they had been left on their own they just took control of their own study programme.

Probably did things faster and better. They were self-motivated and high achieving because of their situation. 

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