Homeschooling: A Parent’s Nightmare

Is homeschooling making parents crazy? Try tech breaks.

Posted May 11, 2020

Sam LeVan/Free Images
Source: Sam LeVan/Free Images

Starting somewhere in mid-April Californians and residents of other states were ordered to “shelter” at home. No school. No shopping. Just stay at home. Hooray! said my grandsons (7 and 8) who took it as an opportunity to play Minecraft and Fortnite all day long. After a week or two (depending on where you live) the teachers had worked diligently to transfer their lessons from in-class work to video-guided home work. On the surface, this seemed like a good idea, one that would allow the kids to do their schoolwork and have their parents there to guide them.

Well, first and foremost, most parents are not trained to be teachers and do not want to be teachers. They most certainly have the intelligence to do—in the case of my grandsons—1st and 2nd grade work. However, they were not prepared for the myriad lessons to be monitored each day and the volume of work that would have been done in class during normal times, to be completed at home. They were used to the few homework assignments that the teacher sent home and required to be returned to school for the teacher to grade. Second, with all the distractions at home, parents had to become taskmasters to keep their children focused on their work. Assignments that could be done in the classroom environment (with few distractions) in a matter of minutes, might take three to four times than at home. Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom. Mommy, I’m tired of doing this work. Mommy, I want to play Minecraft with my friends. All of this quickly turns into a battle between parents and their children. And, sadly, the parents usually lose in the end. If they ride herd on their children to get all the work done, the kids are angry with them. If they don’t, the teachers constantly remind them that Chapter 7, worksheets 2 and 3 were due three days ago.

I spent two school days with those grandsons and became their “at home teacher.” I have been teaching college students for 45 years and helped my four now adult children do their nightly homework for years and years. When we sat at the kitchen table to being our lessons I was a bit in shock. First, the kids knew perfectly well how to navigate the interface between them and their teacher, how to open a zoom meeting, how to play a video and more. I just had to say, “will you bring up today’s lessons for me?” and they did it in record time.

When I looked at the daily work, which was spread across many subjects, I thought, “there’s no way that we can do all of this today even if we work all day long.” For example, the 7-year-old first grader had five links to click on, some with teacher video instruction and others with things to read and work to be done at home. Each of these would normally take just a few minutes in the classroom but were a constant struggle at home. The 2nd grader also had videos to watch and lots of worksheets to be completed that his mother had preprinted. Wandering children became the norm. Children staring at the screen became the norm. Children crying and throwing tantrums became the norm.

The solution was right in front of me: The power of the gaming world. Very quickly we instituted “tech breaks” for each kid to play a game or watch a video. We asked them how many minutes they wanted to have to play a game and depending on their level of angst, negotiated about a 10-15 minute tech break. I set a timer on my phone and when it beeped, they knew that they had to get back to work. We even negotiated that. How long do you want to work, we asked? Again, a bit of negotiation and we usually ended up, with a bit of cajoling, to get them to agree to 30-45 minutes. After a couple of hours of work, tech break, work, tech break we were humming.

Granted, it took us much longer to complete all the work than the normal school day. We had to fit in lunch and snacks and by the time we were done for the day it was about 5 PM. Mind you, even with that much time some of the assignments slipped by us and we built up a list of things to do to catch up.

On the one hand, I am very proud of the kids for learning how to navigate complicated technological environments. Actually, I mostly envied their seeming lack of anxiety about locating and dealing with their online work. I am pretty tech-savvy and all of this zoom meeting, sharing screens, etc. make my head spin. I am also proud of the teachers who, mid-school year, had to switch gears and adapt their normal lessons to the online world. Many of my university colleagues struggled mightily with this task as the university shut down mid-semester. Finally, I am exceedingly proud of the parents who sucked it up and took the challenge of becoming a “teacher” when that was not how they were trained.

For a final assignment I asked my college students (in a psychology senior seminar course) to tell me the best part of their current online classes and the worst part. The best parts were pretty consistently some version of “flexibility” in scheduling. The worst parts appeared to be split between procrastination problems, contact with their teachers and, most telling, having to homeschool their kids while they tried to keep up with their coursework and their job.

Across the semester I had to deal with students tearing out their hair while they asked me for more time to complete their work as there just weren’t enough hours in the day for their own schoolwork and their children’s work, let alone tasks required for their job. A lot of them confessed that they really did not know how to split their time and felt sorry for their children having to do most of their work on their own. Several told me that often they had to choose between their own work, their kids’ work, and their job requirements.

Oh yes, don’t forget that they also had to prepare meals and clean house just to keep up. Exhaustion became the norm as I noted that papers submitted to me seemed to have later and later timestamps. Some papers were completed well after midnight.

What is the solution? Obviously, with the pandemic, we had no choice but to do it this way this semester. Are there other ways to complete this task of teaching our children? Certainly. The literature is full of them. But, personally, I think that this is not going to be the only time this happens and we need to prepare our teachers and students and parents with how to deal with it when we are not in the midst of a crisis. Teachers always have in-service days throughout the school year and perhaps they could have several where they learn the various tools, learn the optimal way (and time) to assign them and practice them with their students multiple times during the year. I think that if parents had an opportunity to homeschool their children for, say, a day or two, and then report back to the teacher what worked and what didn’t work, a new collaboration could emerge where a win-win form of online education, respectful of the educational goals and understanding of the parents’ abilities and their own work.

How about national “stay-at-home” days where we get to practice and learn what works for everyone? Parents would stay home from work (as best as possible, of course, since certain jobs wouldn’t allow this), teachers would put assignments and work online and kids would traverse the minefield of work and play in the home environment. My hats off to parents who are surviving homeschooling