As the COVID-19 threat wreaks havoc on our lives, all of us are coping with the utterly unpredictable and traumatic circumstances as best as we can. For parents, in particular, who have been thrust into the role of a full-time stay-at-home mom and/or dad and full-time teacher, this new world is especially terrifying.
John Dewey, the famous educational philosopher and founder of experiential learning, said that “All genuine learning comes through experience.” And, thanks to COVID-19, just about every household in our country has just become an experiential learning classroom.
As a parent with a seven-year-old and four-year-old now at home full-time, I know what it feels like. I’m also a teacher with a background in experiential learning, a teaching philosophy that puts students face-to-face with real life and then guides them through the process of learning from those experiences.
A decade ago, I started teaching a class called Books Behind Bars at the University of Virginia, where my students meet regularly with youth at a juvenile correctional center to have deep conversations about Russian literature.
It was an experiment. Such a course had never been attempted before. There were no roadmaps and no guarantees of success. What success would even look like was unclear. It was if I were attempting to build the Mayflower while sailing on it toward a destination I wasn’t even sure existed.
Many of the principles of experiential learning apply to the situation faced by parents across the country right now, so here are a few of my recommendations to help you navigate this new reality.
If you’re a parent, you’re already a teacher.
There’s a mystique surrounding the word “teacher,” but don’t let yourself become intimidated by the term. Some of the greatest teachers I’ve had never worked in any kind of formal classroom in their lives. They were the people I encountered growing up who were patient, cared for my well-being, motivated me to be better, encouraged me to take risks, taught me not by words but by example, and truly listened to me. Take heart in the fact that you’ve already been using these effective teaching methods for years. It’s called being a parent.
Don’t teach by lecture, listen.
Active listening is probably a teacher’s greatest tool. Listening deeply to what another person tells us allows them to listen to themselves, to access their own creativity, and to find their own solutions—which will teach them more in the long run than anything you could possibly tell them. In order words, don’t feel like you have to lecture at your kids to teach them.
Do the exact opposite by staying present and being curious. Ask them questions you truly want to know the answers to, not the ones you already have the answer to. Listen to them as you’ve never listened before, and they will learn more from this experience than ten hours of lecturing could ever give them.
Co-create the curriculum with your son or daughter.
From day one of my Books Behind Bars class I told my university students that we would be co-creating this class together. I needed them just as much as they needed me in order to make it work. Those weren’t just inspirational words—they were the truth, and it took a lot of pressure off of me as a teacher. Approaching your new job as a homeschooling parent in a similar spirit will remove the pressure from you, as well.
Sit down with your child. Ask them what they are interested in, what they would like to learn more about, what inspires them, what would they like to do? Listen to the answer without judgment. If they tell you that they want to run around outside all day in your yard and play Gaga ball with their younger brother, work with that. Go on the internet with them and learn about Gaga ball. If your child can read, then have them do the research themselves. Reading lesson accomplished.
As for math, ask them to find out the recommended size of a Gaga ball field. Do you have enough space in your yard to accommodate that? It’s a multiplication problem. If your child wants to play Gaga ball badly enough, he’ll do the math. And you do it with him.
Have your child teach you.
It’s okay that you’re figuring this out together. You don’t need to be a know-it-all. In fact, you shouldn’t be a know-it-all. Consider yourself lucky that your child is interested in a subject you know nothing about. Have her teach you about the subject. Not only will you learn something, but she will learn even more.
As every teacher knows, you learn a subject the best when you’re trying to teach it to someone else, so turn your child into the teacher. Have her teach you one new thing about her favorite subject each day. Not only will this take the pressure off you, it will fill her with a sense of pride. And she’ll learn her favorite subject like she’s never learned it before.
Perfectionism in teaching, as in everything else, is the enemy of the good. To give you a personal example: Like thousands of other college faculty across the country, I was recently told by my administration that I had to take my courses online within a week.
The very core of Books Behind Bars—relationships between my university students and the correctional center students—will likely cease suddenly and completely. I don’t mean just the face-to-face relationships. I mean the relationships, period. The correctional center students are not allowed to have access to technology, so virtual teleconferencing isn’t a possibility. And after the semester is over, the so-called “no-contact rule” prevents further contact between the two groups of students for five years.
Imagine how traumatic this is all for the students on both sides.
If I set myself the goal of creating an awesome class through all this, I’m doomed and so are my students. Some college administrations are putting pressure on faculty to maintain the same high standards in the online version of our courses that they expect us to have in the traditional classroom format. Such pressure is not only unethical but ludicrous, when people have mountains of pressure on them already.
Now is not the time to be a perfect parent or a perfect teacher. Now is the time to radically adjust our expectations, and give one another—and ourselves—permission to be human and imperfect.
Your most important teaching goal right now should be the well-being of your child.
There’s a saying in teaching circles that you start with the student, not the subject. This is more true now than ever.
The most important thing that should be on your mind in this traumatic moment is the well-being of your child.
I am continually reminding my university students right now that my number one concern is their well-being first, their learning second. Imagine what college students must be going through at this moment. Some of them are be living at home, taking care of ailing parents, looking for work, and still trying to keep up with their studies. It’s insane. My students aren’t thinking about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky right now. They’re thinking about real things, big things, life things.
If my students take nothing more from my class in five years than the knowledge of how to care and be cared for in a time of trauma, then this semester will have been a success. It will have taught them something invaluable.
The same is true for your child. If throughout this traumatic period they don’t learn one thing about math or reading, but learn instead that their parents love them deeply and are always there for them, then consider yourself a success as a teacher.
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