Learning from Home: Lessons from a Substitute Teaching Parent

Pawan Dhingra

While we all know that parenting during the pandemic has entailed significant hardships for families across the country and across the world, I’m going to dwell on what it has offered to me and my family, in particular in regards to being part of their education. Before talking about what has been pleasant during this time, it’s essential to recognize that our privileges have made this easier on us than on many others. My partner and I work from home and have not been laid off. Our two kids are engaged in remote learning over our home Wi-Fi. We leave the house only when we choose to. Our relatives are safe. It is those and other luxuries that have made this moment one of possibility as much as annoyance. The possibilities are not endless but are still meaningful.

With my home now serving as a de facto school house, this has deepened how much I can engage my children about their school work. My son did a drawing of buds growing on a tree in our yard for his science class, and I got to watch him hunched over the paper and then appreciate with him the notes he made alongside it. I can hear my other son asking questions during English class to his teacher over Zoom. I feel more engaged with what they are learning, and they see in live time that this is something we are genuinely interested in.

My kids are engaged in schoolwork for fewer hours a day than when school was in standard session. I hear the same from other parents, that their kids finish the week’s assignments by mid-week or that their Zoom classes are only a couple of hours a day. For me, this is an opportunity. I get to find ways to add to their academics. I say “get to” because I enjoy coming up with activities for them to do. For example, with The New York Times now being free for high school students, one of my kids has unlimited access on his own device, which means I can take advantage of the paper’s Learning Network. It has suggested topics for thought based on the paper. But as the liberal arts college professor I am, I ask my son to not simply choose one of its activities but to also critique something in the newspaper connected to the assignment. My other son has an interest in drawing, so we found videos on cartooning for him, and he is expected to do it a few times a week. This is on top of extra reading time and efforts to limit their screen time.

There are countless other kinds of academic or learning options for children online, often free. I am not committed to making this a time that my kids learn a new language or develop a new skill. I want them to stay engaged and keep up an interest in learning, so the activities I provide are very oriented to what they seem to enjoy.

Despite how great the activities are that I come up with (in my own mind), my kids see them mostly as more work. I imagine myself the substitute teacher all excited for what I can teach the students on the few days of the year I meet them. My kids respond in kind: they are wondering why this substitute teacher thinks he is the “real” teacher? The best way to proceed, then, is to be transparent, that I realize whatever extra assignments or expectations I give them are not popular but they are required. I offer choices in what they can do so that the conversation is not just one-sided. And, I tell them how much I appreciate that they are doing this.

My other tactic is to give very little additional work, as the last thing I want this quarantine period to be is even more annoying for the kids than it already is. We spend more time playing together and watching tv together than we had in a long while, which I’m grateful for. We have been eating practically every meal together as a family, which had not been the case prior. I’m willing to limit how many learning activities I provide if it means that our time together outside of academics is as joyful as can be.

Hyper EducationPawan Dhingra is a professor at Amherst College and author Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, coming later this month from NYU Press. 

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