Teachers and other school staff face new challenges during this extraordinary time, as they support families at home. This article aims to provide some support and advice around these unique challenges, drawing on a range of research about parental engagement, but should also provide insight for work in schools far beyond the present circumstances.
Homes, not classrooms
The first thing to say is that these are extraordinary times, and we shouldn’t be trying to recreate classrooms at home, or recreate the same style of learning at home that would generally happen in the classroom – first, because it’s simply impossible, and second, because it wouldn’t work.
Homes are, in general, not classrooms and rarely contain the numbers of children that inhabit most classrooms. School settings have evolved to be efficient (more or less) in providing education to groups of children – groups who are gathered together by age, rather than by being members of the same family. Although a good many teachers are parents, most parents are not classroom teachers, and we’re not going to turn them into classroom teachers overnight – and we shouldn’t be trying to. That’s not what their children and young people need at the moment.
In teaching, writing and presenting over the last 10 years or so, I’ve often asked school leaders to consider what’s really important in schooling – to think about what schools are for, and to concentrate on that. Schools were originally set up to enable groups of children to learn the things that society deemed were important for them to know (Goodall, 2017), and have come a very long way in being able to do that, mainly through the dedication and professionalism of the staff within the school walls.
Now, though, we need to get back to those basics, to become radical if you like (the word means ‘root’) – what’s really important for our children to learn? To do, to be, to become?
And how can we help families support that learning? Now, more than ever, we need to see growing partnerships between school staff and other families – and I say ‘other’ because one facet of the whole debate that seems to be ignored is just how many school staff are themselves parents or carers…
The value of parental engagement
Research has shown the value of parental engagement for many years – the more that parents are involved with learning, the more that children attend school, the more that homework is done, the more that behaviour improves and children achieve more; there’s more than enough evidence to show this (Fan and Chen, 2001; Fan and Williams, 2010; Hornby, 2011; Jeynes, 2012, 2014, 2018).
But it’s important to understand what ‘parental engagement with learning’ actually means – it doesn’t mean coming into school, and it doesn’t necessarily mean checking on homework (and it never has); effective parental engagement with learning means the attitude towards and support for learning in the home (Goodall and Montgomery, 2014). So supporting parental engagement isn’t about just giving young people more homework or worksheets; it’s about ensuring that young people have the best opportunities for learning that we – as a society – can provide. (And I would argue that that should always have been the point of homework, anyway (Goodall, 2020)).
Parents (those who are not teachers already) are not going to turn into professional teachers overnight (consider how much training you had before you stepped into the classroom and how much you’ve continued to learn since that first day!). We need to stop thinking about ‘what we would have done if they were still in school’ and start thinking about ‘how we can support learning now that they’re not in school’.
Supporting families to support learning
We also need to realise that not all families will have everything we might like them to have, and not taking account of that could further disadvantage some of our most vulnerable students.
Many families won’t have enough devices for all children and adults in a family to work at the same time – asynchronous support for learning, where possible, is a good option. Not all families will have a ready store of Playdough, Lego or paper plates… we need to think creatively about supporting learning in different situations. For many of us, this was one of the reasons why we wanted to be in education in the first place, to facilitate learning wherever and whenever we could – if we can, this is a time to recapture that creativity.
Many parents are very concerned about being able to support their children’s learning, particularly for older children; parental lack of self-confidence was a barrier to engagement in learning long before COVID-19. Early on in your communication with families, it would be useful to let parents know your stock answers to ‘Miss/Sir, I can’t do this!’ You know the answers: ‘You can’t do it yet!’, ‘Okay, how do you think you can find out how to do it?’, etc. Share these with parents – let parents know that it’s okay not to know the answers, as long as the search continues.
This is not, as I’ve said, a normal time. Many families will be experiencing grief and loss; most of us are worried about loved ones, particularly when separated. Trying to carry on as though nothing is different is simply not going to work. We need to acknowledge the fear, the grief and the lack of time, equipment, training and resources facing families as they try to support learning.
I’ve said that we need to start from the basics, from the root, and the basics here are that everyone involved wants what’s best for the child: you, the parents, other family members. We need to be working with families to provide that ‘best’.
‘Best’ is not synonymous with ‘everything’ – not everything can be the best. Think about what’s really important – what do your students really need to know, to be able to do? What can be left aside for now? Approach creating materials for family learning as you would any other teaching material: start from the endpoint and work backwards, to how to arrive there. And please, let parents know that you’re not expecting them to be professional teachers: you’re hoping that they will support (not necessarily even lead) their children’s learning, with your help.
The past, the present and the future
Teachers, parents, local authorities and government bodies are all trying to make this work for children. No one knows what the long-term effects will be. I’m hoping that one outcome will be that many parents are far more connected with their children’s learning than they had been in the past, and that the partnerships between teachers and families that are being created and strengthened now will continue.
We won’t walk back into the same classrooms, with the same young people, as the same teachers: we’re all being changed by the pandemic. But it’s not about the classroom or the school – but then, it never was. It’s always, fundamentally, been about the learning.
In summary: Things to consider
- Remember to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ – many teachers are parents themselves, so they are working to support pupils at a distance as well as to support the learning of their own children, or to care for other family members; this is a very difficult time for everyone. It’s far better to do fewer things that have impact than many things that don’t.
- Taking into account what’s already been said, don’t produce so much work that parents are going to feel that they are failing their children if they can’t get through it all. This is really not a time for busy work, or for homework that has any aim other than supporting learning (Goodall, 2020).
- Concentrate on what’s really important – what do pupils really need to be able to do or need to know? What can be left aside?
- Treat creating materials for home learning as you would creating learning experiences in the classroom – look at the outcome first.
- Remember that not all families will have access to lots of materials; as far as possible, suggest ideas for learning that don’t put a burden on families in terms of money or excessive time.
- Just as you try to make learning in your classroom an enjoyable experience, try to help parents recreate that for their children.
Note: This article was written with help from a 3D octopus. If you have a smart phone, Google octopus, giant panda, wolf, etc. Click on the ‘See in 3D’ that appears under the Wiki article; after a short while, you’ll find a virtual animal appearing. This is an obvious conversation starter with young people of all ages, but it’s also amusing and oddly comforting for isolating academics…
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Hornby G (2011) Parental Involvement in Childhood Education: Building Effective School–Family Partnerships. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.
Jeynes W (2012) A meta-analysis of the efficacy of different types of parental involvement programs for urban students. Urban Education 47(4): 706–742.
Jeynes WH (2014) Parental Involvement that works… because it’s age-appropriate. Kappa Delta Pi Record 50(2): 85–88.
Jeynes WH (2018) A practical model for school leaders to encourage parental involvement and parental engagement. School Leadership & Management 38(2): 147–163.