This article originally appeared on The 74, as a guest contribution from Prepared Parents co-founder and executive director Mira Browne.
“Dear Ms. _____: This spring I’ve taken a peek behind the curtain on how my son learns. I honestly can’t wait until school opens again and you take over, but I think I would be doing you and my son a disservice if I didn’t share what I’ve discovered about him over the last two months. Please indulge me as I flip the traditional parent-teacher conference and take the lead this time around.”
That’s the start of the letter I will write to my son’s kindergarten teacher when school officially ends. Like millions of kids across the country, my son will finish this year at home. He won’t have a class party or a promotion ceremony to mark this milestone, and both my son and I are OK with that.
Since schools closed in March, parents have been on the front line of their children’s learning. When the classroom is the dining room, we see where our kids excel, what motivates them, where they struggle and how they cope with setbacks. Never before have we seen so clearly who our kids are as students. A recent survey by Learning Heroes found that two-thirds of parents reported being more connected to their child’s day-to-day education than ever before.
For some, remote learning has revealed dramatic gaps in reading and math skills that went unnoticed when school was in session. Other kids have thrived outside the classroom, learning at their own pace, focusing without distractions and chasing their curiosity. Regardless of their experience, parents agree that it’s time to rethink how we educate students.
Here is what I knew going into this: I am by no means an adequate replacement for my son’s teacher. If I had to educate my kid every single day, I’d lose my mind. Yet that’s the role I’ve played these past two months. We have had some phenomenal wins, but many more monumental failures.
I wasn’t prepared for how hard it is to get my son to focus and stay organized and engaged. His immediate go-to is either “I can’t” or “I’m bored” — before the Zoom starts or an activity begins. In a classroom, does that reaction come across as not interested or, worse, not capable?
I’m also starting to believe that he may be hiding what he really knows — not because I’m the mom who thinks my kid is on his way to Stanford, but because I can see the wheels turning in his head. I’ve watched him enough to see the glimmer in his eyes and the half-smirk that tells me he gets this. An instant later, it’s gone. He shuts down. Why? Is it his confidence or his anxiety? More importantly, does this happen in school, and if so, how do his teachers help him over that hurdle?
What feels like it should be a fairly quick exercise of adding numbers or practicing sight words turns into a battle of the mental and physical wiggles. I’ve learned that anything rote and orderly is incomprehensible to my son. Instead, I have to follow his wild, free-flowing thoughts, ideas and stories to keep him engaged. In my son’s brain, 20 + 20 does not equal 40, and don’t even try to convince him of it. But the flower knight who chases 20 horses into battle against 20 other knights from a different kingdom may get him to sit down and do addition. Is this creativity harnessed in the classroom?
By mid-April, my husband and I abandoned all efforts at a productive “homeschool” schedule. Initially, I felt compelled to go all in. I had the day broken down into 30-minute increments on a large whiteboard, moving us from family walks to setting goals, learning time, reading, free choice and so on. A few weeks later, when my son’s school rolled out a schedule, we happily jumped on board. We were exhausted. Today, we are lucky if we can get him to participate in a Zoom class.
In my work, I translate the science and psychology of learning and development into tools for parents. I’ve learned that our minds have a remarkable ability to find and make meaning out of chaos. While each day feels vivid and unforgettable, the truth is, both our kids’ memories and our own will fade. The best way I know to honor what we have accomplished together as a family during this time is to take a moment now to write it down.
In my letter to my son’s teacher, I’m going to describe how our goals for education changed and what that process taught me about how he learns. I’ll share how we did our best to find short bursts of time to focus on sparking his curiosity, building his confidence, giving him strategies to calm his body and mind, and helping him to be more independent. I’m going to celebrate my son’s small wins that, taken together, mark big victories for him, as well as the concerns that keep me up at night. Often, our kids carry the wisdom in the moment, and I want to capture that. I want to recognize that this struggle has been productive.
Most importantly, I want his teacher to know that while I couldn’t replicate the classroom, I witnessed growth in important habits and skills that he can use when he’s back there. I know that this growth likely won’t be reflected on his report card, but if schools close again and remote learning continues next year, these insights will be invaluable to both me and his new teacher so we collectively know how to reach him.
Like our children, our experiences during this unprecedented time are unique. That’s why it’s so important to share what our kids are passionate about, where they are making progress and what concerns us most. To help you get started, we at Prepared Parents created a template with sample prompts to document your experiences together. Whether it’s a formal letter or a quick email, it can open a door to a partnership with teachers moving forward — because we’re in this together.
Parent-teacher conferences are going to look a lot different going forward because of COVID-19. We might meet virtually. We might stand six feet apart instead of sitting in child-sized chairs. And parents might take more of a lead moving forward.
Mira Browne is co-founder and executive director of Prepared Parents, a nonprofit dedicated to helping parents raise kids to be independent, kind and resilient using the best learning science and research.