Becoming the teacher – hopes and fears taking on the job at home

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By Colin Diamond CBE, Professor of Education Leadership
School of Education, University of Birmingham

As the schools close for all but the most vulnerable children or those with parents and carers in key jobs suddenly you are the teacher. And your new job could last for many months. My guess would be that in England, we won’t see schools re-opening before September.

So, this situation raises lots of anxieties for adults who are staying at home and teaching. What’s the best approach? How can I be mum or dad and switch to being teacher? How can I become the best teacher I can be? Will I be good enough for my kids at perhaps a crucial stage of their education with tests and exams in the year ahead?

At the same time, our children are confused, frightened, disappointed and angry by what’s happening and you are likely the people they will look to both vent their frustrations and be supported and loved at the same time. Teaching in one-to-one or small group situations is intense. When pupils and students are in a normal class there is space for them to self-regulate their learning just as we do as adults. So they will have lots of mini downtimes, go for a walk in-class, talk with friends etc. And the class teacher is constantly scanning to make sure that everyone is on task for most of the time – that’s key, ‘for most of the time’.

Classes aren’t (or shouldn’t be) production lines. The best learning comes when the children are relaxed and they don’t learn in a linear, mechanical fashion.

For those with teenagers, there are a whole extra set of issues as they ‘individuate’ from parents and become young people in their own right whilst still needing enormous dollops of unconditional love. Their mood swings are likely to be intensified by feelings of confinement at a stage in their lives when they want to stretch their wings and leave the nest.

And those teenagers will probably know a lot more about the subjects they are studying than you do. There will be specialist areas that you won’t be able to help them with – don’t try! They have subject teachers whose professional lives are all about that distillation of knowledge.

Plus, things may have changed since you were at school. It’s not just about Google being the default to answering any question. Teaching and learning have become more sophisticated with the kind of performance metrics that you might associate with athletes and football players. It is all much more scientific.

Your children’s school will most likely be offering on-line learning activities and be guided by them in the first instance. They know your children best and will offer a balanced range of things to do based on the syllabus they are accustomed to in class. There’s lots of ‘celebrity’ content out there with some real quality but best use it as a back-up or reward after the school’s work is done.

Be wary of commercial on-line activities that may claim to turbocharge learning. In most cases, they won’t. There are snake oil peddlers in education just like every other walk of life. The commercial companies are seeing this as a huge business opportunity and social media is already awash with the ‘best ever’ products.

Finally, teaching is bloody hard work and it’s most stressful when you are learning your craft as a newly qualified teacher. Expect to feel tired, with highs and lows every day. Give yourself ‘me time’ and reward yourself if possible as you have taken on a professional job with 3 days notice.

Good luck – we might be signing you up for training at the end of this if you get an appetite for teaching. And you will certainly appreciate what your children’s teachers do day-in-and-day-out in school.

Twelve Top Tips
Here are some tips that should help your job induction: congratulations – you are now the teacher!

1. Routines are really important and your children will need them as the structure of their lives has suddenly been altered in a way they won’t have experienced before. Work hard to establish and stick to routines. Without turning your home into a military-style regime, start times, breaks and end times will help everyone. And they will become important boundaries for the months at home together. This will be a long haul.

2. Be clear when you are in your job as teacher – this will help. You can play the role with young children in lots of fun ways and negotiate with the teenagers, just like you do on normal boundary setting.

3. Set up a weekly timetable to get going. If you have printing facilities get it up on the wall so everyone can see it and you can take your children through what’s planned. Give it a week and review what’s worked and what didn’t. Build in a balance of the core subjects of English and Maths with other subjects, if you are confident. The school should provide the basic guidance here but you can find lots of model lessons online for free – many teachers are busy right now recording activities you will find on the school’s website.

4. Make sure your children have some physical movement during your lessons and when you change activities. It’s so important to keep the kinaesthetic movement going, even in the smallest of spaces. This means some level of physical activity to complement table-based learning. Dancing along to YouTube videos will work for both of you.

5. If your children are doing GCSE courses or similar, for most of the time they will receive detailed guidance from schools. Your role in most subjects, unless you are a physicist or geologist, will be limited. But you may be able to help with the quality of written tasks, testing out ideas and opening up to learning from them. You are a captive audience!

6. Praise, rewards and sanctions – we know that the golden rule is lots of praise and little criticism to motivate children in most circumstances. You can incentivise your children by praising their efforts and perseverance as well as the work they produce. Invent rewards that will work according to your children’s ages – from simple things like star charts you can print or draw to whatever works best with your teenagers. They will need to feel a bit grown up and definitely part of the solution when it comes to deciding what constitutes a fair reward and isn’t perceived to be childish.

7. Space – give your children space to learn within your flat or house. This means literally if you are able to set up class in one part of a bedroom or the kitchen, and also psychologically. Teachers will be working their way around the class like a honey bee seeking pollen, with a stop here and a stop there. So your children will not be accustomed to high levels of individual attention.

8. Rites of passage – your children may feel cheated because they missed out on that Year 6 trip in June or the school prom. There will be lots of emotional pain because they didn’t expect to say goodbye to their teachers and classmates so quickly. This is not an area for the timetable you set up, but one to be aware of as it will surface, sometimes at unexpected times. You can plan for the future with your children when there will be opportunities to pick up some of these incomplete threads in their lives.

9. Learn together – you will do this instinctively with your children as they grow and it’s one of the best things about being a parent. Now you have the opportunity to build it into your teacher routines when you have set a project that will last a few days or weeks. Choose a topic that interests both of you and go for it!

10. Screen time – keep it under control exactly as they do in school. The internet is a tool for knowledge and learning, but not the end product. It’s technology that we teach children to navigate at school to learn what is safe and what is dangerous, also what information can be trusted and how to use it. Your children may be more sophisticated users of PowerPoint than you but they won’t necessarily have the skills to filter out the information they need.

11. Homework? This might sound like a bad joke in the circumstances but it’s a serious point! Your older children will be accustomed to long spells of working alone, particularly in the run up to exams. For those who have examinations in 2021, maintaining this habit will be important to build up more knowledge and deep analysis that modern GCSEs and A levels require.

12. And don’t forget fun. I always found that cooking easy dishes like pizzas and fairy cakes worked a treat with small groups. They enjoy the physical contact with the raw materials, can see it cook and there’s instant gratification when they eat the end product. Definitely something to have on your timetable, Miss or Sir.


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