Parent, military spouse, aspiring educational innovator
BSIE – Georgia Institute of Technology
MEd, Social Foundations – University of Virginia
I am writing this through the lens of a parent with a long history of loving systemic disruption. Yes, disruption often comes with a negative side effect, but as an optimist I prefer to focus on the positive effects.
I have long pondered the ill-effects of the 40 hour work-week and its trickle-down impacts on the early registration of our children in the “rat race.” Only instead of getting a medal for accomplishing a marathon, they become dependent on others’ judgement as their success metric with a side order of stress and anxiety.
When schools got cancelled my gut reaction was sadness. We LOVE school, it is our daily anchor. But as I started deleting the details of the next few weeks off of my calendar – the volleyball, tennis, art, basketball, gymnastics, musical practice, etc. – I started to wonder what we were doing in the first place. How did it become normal to rush my kids around, shuffling from one thing to the next, squeezing in family time and the ever elusive “down-time” in the crevices?
So here we are. A giant pause button has been pressed for us. Those of us that aren’t on the front lines have the time to ponder a bit, go for walks, curl up with a good book. What is the new normal to which we return? My observations of the impacts of the social distancing mandates from coronavirus are anchored in three things: personal motivation, support to the insecure, and the power of parents in the education world.
Individuals require confidence to pursue their dreams. They must be brave and bold to be problem-solvers. Motivation is what underpins success. Our current system by and large cultivates people that look to others for their self-worth. This valuation comes in many forms but in the school world it is through peers as popularity, grades from teachers, awards from administrators… the list goes on. These impact students’ motivation. Gone are the days that catching a rabbit or collecting wood for your family came with the pat on the back of providing something necessary. Without being able to self-evaluate their accomplishments, people lose intrinsic motivation.
I have three children, grades 8, 5 and 1. As any parent can tell you, they are ALL different. These past few weeks of at-home learning have shown me that their motivations are all different and, therefore, they respond differently to the learning approaches. One of my children finishes her schoolwork so she has more time to explore art. She explains that she is grateful to be able to learn. Another is completely unmotivated now that grades are off the table. He is only motivated to finish to get on Fortnight. And for my other, she wasn’t challenged by the basic assignments given and complained that it was useless so why bother. She was right, so we completely reworked her school.
My hope is that by having a more in-depth front row seat, I have been given an opportunity to shape their views on motivation a bit more. While it is hard for my more extroverted children to be without their peers, it is ultimately a nice break from the pressure of it all and I am hopeful that there are some lifelong lessons being had. Perhaps self-reflection during this pause will allow us to see what our potential is and what is most important to bring back to our lives as we return to normal.
We are also a military family. I am married to a recently retired veteran and having been together through the entirety of his career I have experienced a fair amount of life disruption due to the military. The hallmark of the military family is that they are used to stress, upheaval, and uncertainty. While we have endured long, stressful deployments, moves across oceans, and scary close calls with the lives of friends, we did so knowing that our financial future was stable and we had resources at our disposal. The fact is, financial security creates a solid base that helps provide resources when there are external stressors.
The stay-at-home orders are bound to negatively impact our economy and has made me realize the power of a stable foundation on a person’s stress level. Those families that are negatively impacted economically are at an attention deficit when it comes to prioritizing the education of their children. This creates a gap for the community to fill. In these situations, to the extent digitally possible, live calls with teachers, counselors, etc could prove valuable in helping to provide executive functioning scaffolding to the children. Even something as simple as walking a child through creating a checklist and having accountability to follow up – we all know the power of accountability partners!
Having another adult pitch in and interact with your children during times of stress is an amazing resource. I have absolutely let my husband “help” my kids get ready for bed via FaceTime when he is deployed so that I could go walk around the yard in peace and have a mental break. I hope that people rise to the challenge, and that educators encourage families and children to ask for help. As parents, we are ultimately responsible for our children. But those of us that have children in school and sports are used to having an external team responsible for different pieces of their development. This shift to virtual learning has created some uncertainty about the boundaries and I find myself wondering what to enforce and where to give grace. I am watching for ways to build community in isolation to be a support to others and I know the teachers are doing the same.
My passion for educational transformation originated in a very personal way – observing my three children experience education across several pedagogies and cultures. Parents are their children’s primary educators and I take this role very seriously. I became so perplexed by the contradictions in our education system and what I saw as natural human development that I pursued and completed a Master’s Degree in Education. I wanted to have a better understanding of the big picture of the education system. I fully expected to leave the program with a huge “aha” that, yes, standardized testing really is the answer and, “sorry Laura,” you were completely idealistic to think otherwise. However, my formalized education of the history and philosophy of education taught me that neuroscience supports the concepts of interest-led learning, metacognition, and real-world application. These are the best practices. However, in our modern classrooms it is contrived at best. And here we are, at a disruption!
Asking teachers, parents, and children to band together to provide “continuity of learning” (which is what Virginia Beach is calling it) – Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing anyway? Then states began waiving standards and the amazing thing is, people are still learning! Isn’t learning truly the end goal here? I am optimistic that this experience will come full circle, re-gifting parents’ confidence to advocate for their children and further disrupt the system from a bottom’s up view. And maybe parents will model for children that intrinsic motivation is powerful.
The reality is, it’s hard! As a parent, I question how much I need to hold my children accountable to their teacher’s plans as a way to keep structure, versus just talking to my kids about what they learned today. I am busting at the seams with ideas for deep engagement and interaction but we check off the list of required activities first. Am I teaching them that they have to “fake” learn before they “real” learn?
But as a parent across three grades and two schools, how am I supposed to bring us all together? Do I fight with my kid’s obsession over Fortnight? Or is that a judgement on learning? He is deeply immersed teaching himself all of the ins and outs and strategies of the game, while interacting with his friends. Isn’t this the goal of education? Or does it have to be a subject that is economically viable?
While I sit here with my thinking cap on, I am grateful for the people that are “doing.” I am thankful to the educators that developed a plan on short notice and have the transparency to show that they, too, are learners. This is, after all, the most powerful lesson our kids can learn through all of this. We try. We might fail, we might succeed, but we are learning and growing and supporting along the way.