The pandemic has brought school and home closer together than ever before. Families are learning that teaching children is not the easiest task in the world. Most are amazed that educators do this five days a week, ten months a year - with a class of twenty to thirty students! And teachers have come to recognize the challenges their families face in supporting online learning at home - while worrying about finances, technology, and employment. And yet instead of cultivating a new sense of shared appreciation, virtual learning has been rife with conflict and blame.
According the a recent Toronto Star article, several school boards have written to parents with harsh directives for virtual learning, while families openly complain on social media about what they’ve witnessed during their children’s classes. How did we get here?
I think the answer is simple - before the pandemic, engaging families in their children’s learning was not a priority for most Boards. If it was, they would have ensured that staff received training in authentic engagement. Grounded in the pedagogy of collaboration with families, the relationships between school and home would have been established, trust would exist and two-way communication would be the norm.
The onset of the pandemic afforded school boards a significant chance to reach out to families with respectful advice on how to support virtual learning at home, offering tips and ideas for co-operation. Instead, the issuance of frankly rude missives, condemning parental behaviour without considering how much things have changed for everyone, became the formula for COVID outreach.
We know this is a new world for education. Why do we expect the old ways to be relevant? One Board letter sent to families asserted that, “The remote and hybrid environment is a classroom.” No. It’s not. The remote and hybrid environment is a home - a living room; a kitchen; a bedroom; a hallway. It is a place the family gathers, works, plays, argues and, now, learns. It may be filled with family members who are in different remote and hybrid environments, each trying to focus on the job at hand. Supervision may be from a multi-tasking parent, caregiver, older sibling or…no-one.
Surveys have shown that parents believe their children are working at grade level - even when they are far below that point. (“Why?” could be the subject of another blog.) If the teacher has never opened their actual classroom to families, it’s the first time those parents have seen lessons. They might not like what they see from their child. Sometimes, when parents are worried about their child’s chances for success, their fear presents itself as anger. In the world of virtual learning, that can result in interjections, forceful messages and Facebook rants. None of these actions are acceptable, but neither is the belief that a teacher may enter the family’s world and assume it is now theirs.
Studies indicate that families want to know three things: What their child is learning; how they are doing; and, what the family can do to support the learning. It’s never too late to send home a letter telling parents what they can expect to see in an online class; the expectations for others in the vicinity; how the learning may be supported asynchronously; and, how and when the teacher may be contacted. Weekly updates are always welcome, including information on upcoming lessons, expected outcomes, and possible activities with the family. Family observations and concerns should be seen as valuable input for ongoing learning.
Family engagement begins with relationships that build trust and respect for each other. The silver lining of pandemic education must be a recognition of the value that both teachers and families have in the education of our children. We can no longer work in silos, independent of each other’s knowledge, capabilities and concerns. Families must be respectful of the synchronous learning time and the teacher’s position and role in that space. Teachers must acknowledge that they are guests in their families’ homes, honour the hosts, and teach - through actions - the value of collaboration. If not now, then when?