“Megan’s really struggling to work this week,” the message read.
“She’s feeling very anxious and just can’t concentrate on anything. Is there anything you can suggest?”
“Leave it,” was my immediate response. “Her mental wellbeing is the most important thing right now. Tell her not to worry about schoolwork today. Here is a list of some creative and outdoors activities for her if she would like something to do.”
I think this is a fairly common exchange at the moment. These are troubling times and, on some days, the primary need for many children (and their hassled parents) is not education.
One rule for one…
Yet, when my own child told me she didn’t want to do any work because she was feeling “tired and a bit sad”, I had a slightly different response.
“You’ll be fine,” I told her. “It’s a school day and you just need to get on with it.”
I know how she feels, though. As the weeks roll on, it’s getting increasingly difficult for parents and children to sustain enthusiasm for home learning, just as it’s getting more difficult for teachers to keep delivering work that is both engaging and pitched at the right level for everyone. Families are struggling. Teachers are struggling.
“Do the best you can,” say the schools. “Everyone’s circumstances are different. Ask us for help.”
I’m totally on board with these messages. I just wish they applied to me. I’m an experienced primary teacher homeschooling two primary-aged children. Quite frankly, the “best” I can do here should be pretty damn good.
So why wasn't I nailing it?
Finally embracing the new normal
It’s taken me a few months of fairly hectic multitasking to realise this, but the fact is, I’ve been doing homeschooling all wrong. I’d been trying to carry on as normal: English, maths, spelling tests on Friday. I’ve even had them writing learning objectives (I know – but old habits die hard).
I’m so used to teaching to a tight structure – to cramming the curriculum Tetris-like into a day before emerging with the written evidence that I’ve completely forgotten how to go off piste.
It was only the other week, halfway through watching a particularly dry and uninspiring English video lesson with my son, that it dawned on me I didn’t have to do this. I could do the live show.
We started by ditching the screens. I am so over online education. I don’t want to go on a virtual tour of the Uffizi; I can’t stomach another online singing lesson or fractions game.
We’re rediscovering their toys instead. The Playmobil soldiers have re-enacted the siege of Troy and invaded Lindisfarne as Vikings on a pirate ship.
Several soft toys and a doctor’s outfit have been pressed into use to recreate Florence Nightingale in Scutari Hospital, and the cat has been doubling as Queen Victoria.
Obviously this is all interspersed with large quantities of Disney+ and sugary snacks, but the kids are definitely more engaged.
My daughter has written a 28-page playscript entitled Kitten Holiday for which she is currently designing the costumes.
My son, who is obsessed with large numbers, has taught himself to write a million, a billion and a trillion and has discovered the names of the 10 tallest buildings in the world.
The rough with the smooth
But it hasn’t all gone to plan.
They flatly refused to take an interest in identifying garden birds, and my division lesson involving grouping Duplo bricks was derailed when the six-year-old turned them into football teams and sent one off for an illegal tackle.
But by and large, it’s a big improvement on the grammar worksheets and, with social distancing in place, it looks like my kids will get more hands-on learning than those year groups who are headed back to school on Monday.
It's taken 10 weeks, but I think I've finally cracked it.
Jo Brighouse is a primary teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse