Crash Course: How to Be a Teacher

Insight from education researchers will help guardians during COVID-19.

Posted Mar 30, 2020

Post by Dr. Helenrose Fives (Professor of Educational Psychology at Montclair State University) and Erin Riley-Lepo (Doctoral Candidate, Montclair State University)

For those of you parents/grandparents/guardians who are now also teachers, here are five things you might take from the “first-year teacher handbook.” Whether kindergarten or a Ph.D. course, the first week of school is all about establishing expectations, establishing routines, and establishing a schedule. When the world has turned in a new direction, it is important that we ensure our basic psychological needs of autonomy, belongingness, and competence are met (Ryan & Deci, 2000):

  • Autonomy is the sense that people have control in their lives—the ability to make and enact decisions for themselves.
  • Belongingness is our need to have relationships with others, to feel connected and part of a community.
  • Competence is the need to feel like we are capable of successful action; we need to know and show that we can accomplish targeted tasks. 

During the current pandemic, many find themselves out of work or working from home, resulting in a direct attack on these three needs. We can no longer choose to go out to dinner or to work; our autonomy is taken from us. We cannot gather with friends, colleagues, or in other communities, and—if we do see other humans—we need to maintain that six feet of safe space. There is no casually bumping into a friend and grabbing coffee. Our sense of belonging is compromised. Finally, many of us are either out of work or are expected to work under a new set of circumstances for which we are underprepared, creating new challenges for feeling competent. Additionally, many adults are now expected to fulfill a completely new role, one they have neither trained for nor desire holding: teacher. Even certified teachers are finding it challenging to teach their own children at home. Thus, that sense of competence is weakened for all of us. 

As adults, we feel the consequences of having these needs left unmet. Consequences like confusion, frustration, lethargy, and a lack of motivation. Importantly, so do children. Research in student motivation suggests that when three innate basic needs are met (autonomy, competence, belonging), learners can become engaged in actual learning (Reeve, 2012; Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Right now, we all need to establish a “new normal.” We cannot stay in a reactionary mode. We need to start thinking long term and hope for the best. If the first two weeks of the COVID-19 experiences in the US have been the shock of “what do I do with my kid at home all day” and just adjusting to the newness, then now is the time to start addressing that issue. The tips below are meant to help you figure out what the new normal will be. But, be aware that it will take some time to even learn these routines and establish a new normal for your family. Further, this new normal must be flexible because circumstances are changing rapidly (and that’s OK).

Tip # 1: Teach Routines and Expectations 

Establishing, teaching, and maintaining routines provides a structure that supports our need for competence, the feeling that we can actually do things (Reeve, 2012). Awareness of the rules and routines lets learners (as well as all of us) know what we need to do to be competent. Children need to know that they can do things, and the structure of routines supports that need. Parents need to know that they can do things, and the structure of routines gives you a clear checklist to self-evaluate. 

Regardless of the age of the students, any seasoned teacher will tell you that the first week is all about establishing routines and expectations for the class. Time spent doing this early in the school year pays off months later. Many new teachers fail to invest in routine-setting and end up with behavior management problems (among others) later in the year. Take time to focus on routines while doing “low stakes” tasks. If a target routine is for your child/children to read for 30 minutes after lunch (perhaps you can check email), then establish this with readings that they enjoy and can do independently with ease. That way the routine is established without an association to negative experience. 

Tip #2: Decide Where and How Learning Will Happen 

Children are going to miss their classrooms. Parents can help children make the transition to at-home learning easier by establishing a designated classroom space. Assemble classroom materials with your child. If the child’s classroom teacher has sent home directions, make sure your child has access to all necessary materials. If there is technology involved, be sure to practice with the technology. Support your child’s sense of autonomy by letting the child prepare his/her/their own “desk.” If space is limited and school will occur at a shared space (e.g., the kitchen table), make packing the school supplies up at the end of the day (and unpacking them in the morning) part of the daily routine.

Children take comfort in the routines of school, and creating routines of your own will help them adjust. If you have more than one child, consider designating specific times for each child to receive your undivided attention, use technology, or work with materials that you have in limited amounts. Think about spacing breaks out over the course of the day so that you are able to help one child at a time. 

Tip #3: Provide Your Learners with Choices About How Learning Will Happen

Inviting your child to share in the co-construction of a learning schedule supports the need for autonomy by providing opportunities for choice and control (Reeve, 2012). The more that learners feel they have a role in deciding how their learning will unfold, the more likely they will be to follow the plan. Once the work of school begins, if the schedule is not working, help the child modify it to suit his/her/their needs. 

When you receive materials from the school, read them with (or to) your child and make choices about his/her/their day. Consider questions like: When will the day begin? How often does the child need “brain breaks”? What will these breaks look like? What time is lunch? In what order will he/she/they complete subject-specific work? How involved does your child want you to be in his/her/their work? Help your child write down a schedule and post it. 

Tip #4: Start a Fun Long-Term Project

You may not have a lot of control over the schoolwork provided for your child. Hopefully, it will be engaging and motivating, but perhaps not. Your child will probably miss the fun of school and friends; it is difficult to maintain a sense of belonging when you are confined to the house and when social distancing is necessary. Make an effort to accept and recognize your child’s negative emotions. Accepting that your child feels frustrated supports belongingness. Help your child to regulate this emotion, and engage in the work that needs to be done. Although it will not replace the fun of school, a family project that everyone can contribute to may help to fill this gap.

For example, putting together a puzzle, reading a series of novels to completion, trying new recipes, starting an exercise routine, or planting seeds and tracking their growth are a few ideas that might appeal to your child (and you). Map out the project with your child. Set aside time every day to work on this long-term project. Keep motivation high by charting progress and celebrating small goals along the way. These celebrations do not have to be associated with tangible rewards; children love to share their successes. Take this time to call a relative to share the child’s success or, if you feel it is appropriate, post the success on social media. Reaching and celebrating these goals will improve children’s well-being and sense of accomplishment. In fact, family projects like this support all three basic needs! (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Tip #5: Reach Out

This is a stressful time for both children and parents. Before you reach the end of your rope, do not hesitate to reach out to your child’s classroom teacher. Many teachers are working from home as well and are available to assist you in your time of need. If you have access to technology, many districts are sharing online platforms for students to practice their reading or math skills. Another way to address children’s need for belonging is to set up and make time to have virtual playdates. Just like adults meet via Zoom or Google Hangout, there is no reason why a child cannot have a meet up with his/her/their friends. Arrange a lunch meeting, where children can eat lunch virtually with their friends. The goal is to make sure that your child still interacts with his/her/their peers and continues to develop important social skills that are also a part of what is learned at school. 

Helenrose Fives: Professor of Educational Psychology at Montclair State University, President of Division 15 (Educational Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. A former middle school teacher Professor Fives currently teaches preservice and practicing teachers.

Erin Riley-Lepo: Student Achievement Team Leader and Teacher of English, Doctoral Candidate in the Teacher Education and Teacher Development Program at Montclair State University. A current Team Leader and high school English teacher, Ms. Riley-Lepo currently serves as a teacher coach and teaches AP Language and Composition to high school juniors.


Reeve, J. (2012). A self-determination theory perspective on student engagement. In S.L. Christenson et al. (eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, 149-171:  Springer Science Business Media, LLC 2012

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.