Parents and teachers weigh in on having each others’ backs

Here’s some advice on working together during this challenging school year.

Let’s face it: Remote learning wasn’t exactly a success the first time around. Spring’s abrupt school closures sent teachers scrambling to connect with students and left parents struggling to support children at home.

Katie Foss, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, says tech was such an issue in her children’s district that their school made all work optional and didn’t allow online classes. Her 8- and 11-year-old quickly felt disconnected and lost their motivation.

“We knew the teachers very much wanted to be in contact with the students,” she says. “They just couldn’t.”

Teachers like Jenn Osen-Foss, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, faced challenges too.­ “Once I was doing both homeschooling and holding office hours and meetings, it became very difficult,” says Osen-Foss, who had a kindergartner and third grader in remote learning as well. “Things started falling apart.”

This school year, no one is hoping for a repeat of all that. And thankfully, parents and teachers have learned a lot. They’re in this together now, with plenty of ideas, empathy, and understanding of how to support each other when students go back to school in a remote environment. We asked for their recommendations on how they can work together to become stronger allies for students.

Advice from teachers for parents

Help kids get prepared. Before the pandemic, most children weren’t rolling out of bed five minutes before classes started and showing up wearing PJs and eating cereal under the desk. Teachers still appreciate the gesture, which ensures that children are alert and focused before class starts.

Make space for schoolwork. Teachers note that kids concentrate better if they have a dedicated space at home for class time. Consider any spot that’s quiet, neat, and free from distractions—which may require rearranging furniture or clearing toys from a corner of your child’s bedroom.

Teach online etiquette. It’s hard enough keeping kids’ attention in the physical classroom—but when all students are online, with lots of fun distractions, educators can find it challenging to maintain control. Parents can help by instructing their kids not to make faces, type messages to friends, or otherwise interrupt lessons. Children also don’t always realize that class time is interactive, says Autumn Kelley, an elementary special education teacher in Washington, D.C., and a part of the National Geographic educator community. So parents should remind kids that when lessons take place online, they’re allowed—and expected—to speak up when they’re called on.

“Students were used to being online for entertainment and gaming,” Kelley says. “They struggled with the idea of verbally communicating with me on-screen.”

Let your kid take breaks. “In a regular classroom, kids take breaks all day long,” says Jill Reynolds, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Coyote Creek Elementary School, in San Ramon, California, and a part of the National Geographic educator community. “Kids move around the room. They often leave lessons for a drink of water.”

Allowing kids to take quick breaks when they’re working independently on assignments helps refresh their brains so they can stay more focused and engaged. In fact, studies show that mental downtime can increase productivity, decrease stress, and spike brain function in children, things teachers always need from their students, but especially when instructing online. (Here are some ideas for quick brain breaks.)

Set the right tone. By staying positive on social media as well as in conversations with kids at home, caregivers signal that they know teachers are doing the best they can—and that attitude trickles down to students. “We set the tone as parents for how this year is going to go,” Foss says.

Talk to us. Parents and teachers alike recognize communication is critical this year. Teachers are ready to listen. “Let us know right away if there are academic challenges your student is facing,” Kelley says. “Let us know about any tech issues too.”

Ideas from parents for teachers

Make screen time manageable. Screen time is a major concern for parents. Too much time online can be overwhelming (especially for young learners), which leads to cranky, exhausted kids for at-home parents to deal with. So they appreciate when it’s limited—or at least flexible so children can turn off the camera and just listen if they choose.

“I loved that my daughter's first-grade teacher only had one Zoom call per week and attendance was optional,” says Heidi Gollub, who has five remote students at home in Austin.

Give students time to complete assignments. Parents also agree that a flexible assignment schedule helps a lot—especially for those who need to assist their children to complete schoolwork. Gollub was relieved that her first grader had a week to complete assignments. Her daughter also had the freedom to work ahead, which quickly motivated her.

“She started to front-load her week and have four-day weekends,” Gollub says.

Clarify expectations. The big picture is no small issue for parents. Understanding teachers’ overall expectations helps them plan out and oversee their child’s progress in an organized way. This year, for instance, parents of older students might need extra communication on where their child should be so they can manage their normally independent student a bit more. Parents with young children might need milestones spelled out as the months progress.

Megh Knappenberger of Overland Park, Kansas, whose son will start kindergarten remotely, is looking for such milestones. “That way we can follow along throughout the year and make sure he isn’t falling behind.”

There may be bumps along the way, but this year can still go reasonably well while families wait for life to return to normal. Until then, understanding and empathy can go a long way.

As a teacher and a parent, Osen-Foss understands the situation from both sides. Her wish for those navigating remote learning this year: “Honestly, I think kids, teachers, and families need patience and grace.”

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