Hey, Parents and Teachers

I see you all, scrambling so hard.

I see your schedules for study and reading and exercise. I see you sharing your digital resources, not hoarding a single scrap of anything that might help someone else help their kids. Heck, every once in awhile I chime in, too, throwing a helpful URL into the ring where you’re all fighting to hang onto something that feels right, if not normal.

Sometime in the past day or two, though, I started wondering if maybe you all need a different kind of lifeline. So I’m offering this one:

In the fall of 2005, my twins were in second grade, and their teachers began what would end up being the second-longest teachers’ strike in Oregon history. Their dad and I were both teachers in another district, so we were still working. We didn’t have a good daycare backup, and we were (of course) on the side of their teachers, and so we prepared to buck up and hunker down for however long a haul it might be. Somehow.

Just a few days in, home with the kids, my husband decided that now was as good a time as any for him to tear up the vinyl in front of our dishwasher and finally find out what was creating a growing bump in the floor. We’d had a dishwasher guy out who said there were no leaks, so we knew it wasn’t the washer.

I didn’t understand the implications of the photo he emailed me that morning–what all that black stuff underneath the vinyl was. By the end of the day, however, through a series of emails and phone calls, I knew I was only going to have a few minutes to pack up anything we might need for the night because the black stuff was mold and we had to get out of the house.

I didn’t try to make my kids do any schoolwork that night. It was all still a bit of an adventure. Each of the few days after that, though, revealed a new level of not-normal and not-adventure. Long story short: Two-thirds of the ground level of our house was full of mold. We’d have to move out while a crew removed the flooring and a good chunk of drywall from our kitchen, dining room, and family room. All of the kitchen cabinets had to come out. Machines would have to run 24/7 for weeks to dry everything out, and then we’d have to rebuild.

This was all going to take awhile. And the teachers were still on strike.

The vacation condo we’d gone to “for just a few nights” was going to be home for…who knows how long? We tried to settle into a “new normal” in which my kids were not living in their house, without most of their things, and not going to school. They were 8 years old.

Some days they went to school with me, sitting at desks next to my high-schoolers, pretending to do “work” I’d given them. Some days they went with their dad. As the days turned into a week, and then another week, I started to get anxious about all the school they were missing. They were in second grade! A crucial year for reading and math! For everything!

After dinner, I’d sit with them at our not-ours kitchen table and write out math problems. Addition and subtraction with multiple digit numbers. I stumbled over trying to conceptually explain tens and hundreds and borrowing, which my bright children rather stubbornly (it seemed to me) refused to understand. For several nights, our already-stressful days ended with more stress.

Finally, one evening, my daughter gave me a talking-to.

“Mommy,” she said, with what I could see was a great deal of patience, “I know you are a teacher, but I don’t want you to be my teacher. You are Mommy, and that’s all I want you to be.”

I looked at her, and it was as if I were really seeing her for the first time since everything had started falling apart.

“OK,” I said. Fair enough.

I decided that we all had enough to contend with as it was, and I pushed the math papers aside with as much relief as both small sets of relaxing shoulders expressed.

The strike was not insignificant. Our kids missed school for a month, and re-entry wasn’t easy. But 15 years out, I can look back and tell you that my kids would not have been better off if I’d insisted on continuing my efforts to teach them what I thought they needed to learn.

I was so in the thick of stress from worrying about money and the house and trying to keep everything as normal as possible that I couldn’t see the stress my kids were under, too–and that nothing I might do would make anything feel normal.

After that evening, we came home (to not-home), ate dinner together, and sometimes played games and sometimes watched movies. We read books before bed, and snuggled, and tried to enjoy living in a place that others went to for vacations. We didn’t know when anything was going to end; days kept being added to projections for when we could move home, and the strike just kept going on and on. So I finally stopped worrying about it, because there was nothing I could do, anyway. I knew we’d be back to normal eventually, no matter what I might do or not do, and that the kids were going to be all right as long as they felt loved and safe.

As it turned out, the old normal never really came back. It was a good six months or more before all of the repair was done on the house, and we made so many changes in the process that it never really felt like our old home again. It was a nice one, but a different one. By the time the house was whole again, all the cracks in the foundation of my marriage had widened to chasms we would not be able to fix. Those weeks in the condo were some of the last in what I now think of as our life before, and I am glad that the memories I have of that time are mostly sweet ones.

The second-grade girl who resisted my math instruction became a high-school student who exhausted her school’s math offerings by the end of her junior year. So, presumably, no harm, no foul from the second-grade delay in learning how to add and subtract. She’s now a college senior who was in Sweden when her school announced that it was going all-digital for the remainder of this year (and–oh, yeah, come move all your stuff out NOW), and was still there two days later when the US announced it was closing the border to travelers from Europe. She’s still there, trying to finish her thesis and work remotely for her jobs that have that as an option and get answers from her financial aid office and attend her online classes virtually from a different time zone with sometimes spotty internet connection, all while trying to wrap her head around the reality that she may never see some of her friends again and that she can’t make any solid plans for her life after graduation. Yesterday she let me know that one of her housemates now has a fever and a cough.

So, to all you parents and teachers: I feel for you. You keep doing what you need to do, however it seems best to do it. A pandemic is not a mold infestation or a teachers’ strike, and what we’re living through is a whole other level of not-normal. But maybe that’s even more reason to stop and take a deep breath, and take a good, hard look at everything around your children/students. Maybe instead of focusing on all the things your kids/students aren’t getting right now that you think you must provide, focus on them and what they’re telling you they really need. There are all kinds of ways to learn, and maybe, right now, there are more important things for them to know than anything they might typically learn while sitting at a desk or in a circle at carpet time.

With love and respect,
Rita

Some Dots

Homeschooling while working from home during a global pandemic bingo (because laughing right now is really important, and humor has a way of making a wicked-serious point)

Working from home with kids? Survive the quarantine with these proven tips… (from a former teaching colleague who’s funny and smart and wise as hell)

The case for shutting schools down instead of moving them online (because while No Child Left Behind resulted in really bad policy and practices, our solutions need to consider every child’s needs and resources)

An open letter to high school seniors (from Louisiana’s Teacher of the Year)

GBSD home learning resources, grades K-5 (I really like the game board format of these resources, and I like the mix of digital and non-digital activities. This might have worked a whole lot better than anything I tried back in 2005.)

Facts about the unschooling philosophy of education (what better time than now to reconsider everything you might think about teaching and learning?)

6 thoughts on “Hey, Parents and Teachers

  1. Marian says:

    Gosh, I love that picture of your kids getting on the school bus, Rita. I’m sorry you had to go through all that—the mould, the temporary relocation, the living in a home that wasn’t a home. There’s so much helpful and healthy perspective in this piece, though, and that’s something that is so hard to come by when you’re in the thick of things. (Your daughter’s words made me smile; that’s such an insightful thing for a young child to say.)

    Here in Ontario, we’ve had two weeks added on to March Break. My youngest son is lucky—of the core courses, he had science, math, and French last semester, and is only missing out on geography and English, both of which could easily be taught online, or, well, not be taught at all if it comes to that. (To be completely honest, he’s also lucky he has two much older siblings; I would have had a difficult time being zen if it were my oldest child who was missing school.)

    I’ll be keeping Grace in my thoughts—that’s so worrisome that a housemate is now sick. My older son is in a house in the greater Toronto area with several other students, and he doesn’t want to come home until his classes (all now online) are over. That’s not until April 6th, and by then who knows what the infection rate in Toronto will look like 🙁 .

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I hope you are still well, and your children, too. I just received a notice today from Grace’s school; they are asking all students still in the DC area to go to their permanent homes, even if they live off campus. Apparently they have been having gatherings of more than 10 people. They also announced pretty severe sanctions for any students found participating in gatherings of more than 10 (suspension, no credit for this semester, no graduation if a senior), whether on campus or off. I hope the college students in Toronto are taking this more seriously than the ones in DC seem to be.

      I was able to FaceTime with Grace this morning. She is well, and the housemate is on the mend. Probably just a regular old cold. But he’s been isolating himself from the others in the house all the same. It was good to see and hear her. Modern technology is making this all much more bearable than it would otherwise be.

      Take care, and please keep keeping in touch.

  2. Kate says:

    Rita, I’m sending prayers for you and your daughter. I can imagine it’s a hard and scary time for you both and I wish there was something more concrete that I could do to help you both, but as there isn’t, I’ll send prayers.

    And thank you. The schools are sending all this work and Abram’s school especially is saying that he should be spending five hours on work each day (which so crazy to me because I don’t know ANY one on one environment where that much school time is necessary) and honestly, it just feels like EVERYONE is uncomfortable with just slowing the F DOWN!!

    I also smiled at Grace’s comment about how she just
    wanted you to be her mommy, because my almost thirteen year old seventh grader told me the same thing today. (The patience and message were the same, anyway.) I’m going to have to trust her to do her work (and not just spend hours reading fan fic on watt pad) because I can’t spend the next however long nagging the crap out of her and driving us BOTH crazy.

    I had a real crap day today, but I had a roof over our head and food on the table and I’m curled up watching a movie with my family. In the midst of certain uncertainty, I just hope my kids know they are loved. (And that my type A perfectionist organizer self takes a backseat to c’est la vie zen type me for A LONG TIME.)

    • Rita says:

      Ah, Kate. I’m sorry you had a crap day! I hope today was better. I lost much of Thursday and Friday to headache and…all of this, I suspect. I am finding the permission to slow the F DOWN a silver lining to all of this. I am hoping we might emerge from this in a state that is permanently slowed. I hope we realize that life can be good and full and purposeful lived at a slower pace, with less stuff (both tangible and intangible).

      And as for that 5 hour recommendation? Well, I don’t want to contradict your school and I don’t know anything about your situation, but that sounds fairly ridiculous to me, especially in the current context. Homeschooling parents I’ve seen information from say they only do about 2-3 hours a day of sit-down work. A lot of other learning happens in a more active way, embedded into the other things that need to happen in a day.

      I have certainly had moments of being deeply grateful that I am not caring for children in these days. (It’s been challenging enough to just take care of myself some of the time.) But I’m also a little envious of those who are living through this with their kids. This is a big deal, and a big opportunity to experience something profound together. They will always remember this time, and I’m guessing you’ll create at least some memories that they will later cherish. I hope that for you.

  3. Kari says:

    Oh friend., praying for your girl. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be so far away. But if she’s anything like you, she’s strong and independent and she will get through this time. But it’s sucks and I’m sorry you’re going through this.

    This post is perfect. Throughout our year and a half homeschool experience thus far, Ellie has echoed what your daughter said over and over. It’s such a hard balance being a mom and a homeschool teacher.

    Love you. ❤️

    • Rita says:

      I don’t know how you homeschooling parents do it, tbh. Much props to you. I’ve been wondering if all of this has changed how you are doing school?

      And thank you for the prayers. She’s doing fine–got to FaceTime with her this morning. So thankful for FaceTime!

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