Note to readers: The post and email series below were created in March, 2020. This was a few weeks into the sudden school shutdowns created by the Coronavirus pandemic. A little over two years later, I took another look to see I could revise the series, and make it relevant to parents under less extreme circumstances. My conclusion?
There are certainly nuggets in here that would be helpful to parents. Maybe parents hoping to better understand the minds of teachers, or be better teachers to their own children, or suddenly managing their children’s education for other reasons.
But reading this series again mostly just brought back memories of how crazy those first months of the pandemic were, how much of a shock to parents’ systems, how unlike anything most of us had ever experienced. I hope these emails were helpful to people who subscribed at the time—reading them over, it feels like this was the contribution that I was most qualified to make. They were also some of the last pieces of writing I was able to pump out before the demands of pandemic parenting forced me to take a break.
As of this moment, the email series is still live and pretty much untouched since 2022. I hope it won’t become relevant again in the way it was when I created it. I also hope to write some material that is geared toward parents in “normal” times. But, in the meantime, if you have any reason to subscribe to an email series like this, please feel free.
I’m often disappointed at how little my teaching experience prepared me for parenting. Eleven years in front of the classroom has done nothing for my skills at managing supermarket tantrums, getting a toddler to finish a yogurt in less than two hours, or reliably getting dirty clothes placed into the hamper. So now, as school districts around the country announce coronavirus-related shutdowns, I’m no more excited than any other parent about becoming my kids’ full-time teacher until . . . whenever. In this one one small corner of our new parenting normal, however, instructional experience offers an edge. At the very least, I’ve been able answer some of the questions raised by non-teacher parent friends who are now, unexpectedly, rookie teachers in their own homes. Here are a few questions that teachers are used to addressing in their classrooms, and that non-teacher parents are now asking for the first time:
How do I structure the day?
There’s a reason schools have bells: Getting through a 7-hour school day is hard enough with a built-in schedule. Without set transition times, it’s easy spend the whole day covering one small topic—or rush through everything too quickly and find yourself with a rowdy class and endless free time. (For teachers, 30 minutes of unstructured class time can feel like a week and a half.) As a stand-in for the school bell, try setting alarms on your phone to break the day into parts, making changes to the schedule as you find your own rhythm. (Or, if that feels like too many ringtones in your life, pencil in an hourly weekday schedule and try to stick to it.) Allot time for every subject you want to cover, plus lunch and recess. Include transition periods of five to ten minutes in which kids can stretch, socialize, and get ready for the next subject. Another pro tip: make sure work in a set “planning period”—that’s an undisturbed period of time to catch up on the things you have to get done so you can be a better teacher when you’re with the kids.
How do I plan a lesson?
There are many ways to structure a lesson plan, but the simplest one is captured by the maxim I do, we do, you do. The teacher starts by introducing and actively explaining a concept. Then students practice with the teacher’s help. Then students practice on their own, after which the teacher checks their work to make sure they’ve actually mastered the material. Mistakes can be pointed out in the moment or addressed in the next day’s lesson them the following day. The time when students are working independently is crucial for their own understanding; it also functions as a small break for you. Remember that in a class of 20-30 kids, a teacher would not have time to hover over one individual child during every math problem. A parent who’s working remotely or running a corona-panicked household while teaching is not expected to, either.
What if I don’t know how to teach the subject my child is studying?
If your school district isn’t providing you with online resources, you can still get some sense of what your child should be learning this year by visiting the Common Core State Standards website. You may not know the exact material and how to teach it—everything from calculus to phonics involves some specialized instruction skills. But if you have a basic outline of what your child should be learning, you can dig up ways of keeping them on track. Grade-specific activity workbooks are available anywhere you buy books. You can find documentaries that cover social studies or science topics. Many generous teachers explain their subjects on YouTube. There’s also a website called TeachersPayTeachers where educators share lesson materials they’ve created for their own classrooms. You can search for lessons by subject, grade level, and Common Core standard. (And despite the name of the site, many of the materials are free.)
What if my kids won’t listen to me?
Every teacher knows that the first day of school is a time when students test what’s up for negotiation. Does this teacher mean business? Can we get away with texting under the desk? Are we actually going to have to do work? You may not have a class of thirty students to manage, but you face a different challenge: students who already have you pretty well figured out. With that in mind, try your best to stay in character as a teacher. Sure, you’ll make rookie mistakes and have to correct course. And yes, your teaching wardrobe may largely consist of unwashed pajamas. But at whatever level of professional effort you can manage, strive for consistency. Pick an official first day, and then maintain your insistence on treating part of each weekday as school. Brace yourself to stick with it despite initial pushback or whining. You don’t know how long you’re going to be responsible for your kids’ education—and, as any teacher will tell you, if you give in too much too early, it can be a long year.
What if I’m not good at teaching?
Forget everything you’ve seen in movies. In real life, teachers don’t spend most of their time beaming at classes full of enthusiastically raised hands. (And they almost never stand on their desks and give impassioned speeches about the kids’ potential.) Just as you may have noticed with parenting, your personal strengths and weaknesses have a way of creeping into your teaching persona whether you want them to or not. You appreciate the importance of the job in front of you. But your level of energy, creativity, or tolerance for a kid relentlessly tapping a pen while you are trying to give instructions will only change so much. Which means you’ll have to learn to forgive yourself for those moments when you’re not your best self, or you don’t sound enough like a real teacher—or you sound too much like the teachers you hated when you were in school. Welcome to the club.
Best of luck as you bravely embark on your teaching career. May your pencils stay sharp and your coffee mug stay full. And one day, when the kids are back in school and Teacher Appreciation Week rolls around, may you remember this experience.
Note: A version of this post also appeared in the Washington Post. You can read it here.