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'It's worth all the pain': Belfast Telegraph writers reveal the highs and lows of homeschooling in lockdown


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Learning curve: Soley at home school

Learning curve: Soley at home school

Soley with dad, John

Soley with dad, John

Neve reading to the boy next door by social distancing

Neve reading to the boy next door by social distancing

Linda with her daughter Neve

Linda with her daughter Neve

Work and play: Lisa’s daughter Grace

Work and play: Lisa’s daughter Grace

Grace with her brother Ethan

Grace with her brother Ethan

Learning curve: Soley at home school

Three writers reveal their highs and lows of the trials of teaching their children at home during lockdown.

John Laverty: 'I'll never look at teachers in the same way ever again'

Primary school teachers are shocking liars. "Soley's a joy to work with," they said. "A delight in the classroom; never any bother."

Really? They must have been dealing with some other Soley, not the tiny tyrant, mini malcontent, diminutive diva combo I've been attempting to 'home school' over the past two months.

Every weekday morning brings a weary, leaden-footed trudge towards that unrelenting, exasperating, unwinnable battle of wills.

Two hours of pleading, delicate negotiation, occasional bribery, emotional blackmail and psychological terrorism.

"Write the sentence, Soley."

"No."

"Come on, do it for Daddy, please write it."

"No."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, just write the bloo..."

"Daddy, you said 'bloody'".

"I didn't."

"Yes you did. I'm telling mummy."

"No, no, don't. Tell you what, pet, let's just skip this bit..."

Yes, two bloody hours punctuated by toilet breaks, tantrums and tears.

But enough about me. What matters is that my five-year-old keeps learning throughout these unparalleled, unpredictable times.

She can spell 'coronavirus'. She knows why school's out, why mummy and daddy are working from home.

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Soley with dad, John

Soley with dad, John

Soley with dad, John

She knows what social distancing is, understands why she can't have play dates or visit grandparents, is aware those grim numbers read out on TV are examples of addition, not subtraction.

'Covid-19' doesn't appear on the daily online worksheets but it's a word and number that is easily explained, even to five-year-olds. The trick is getting them to learn other things when only one subject dominates grown-up conversation.

My respect for teachers has gone stratospheric since the lockdown began.

I took them for granted before; drop the little mite off and let them get on with it, I say. Sure they're paid enough, and what about those long holidays?

But they're not paid enough and that summer break, if anything, isn't sufficient reward. I'll never look at you guys the same way again. But at least I listened before the longest half-term in history began in March.

Draw up a routine and stick to it, they told me.

Sound advice. After breakfast Mummy disappears into one room, pupil into another.

We're fortunate in having work 'to go to' and different start times; I can't imagine how difficult it must be with both parents on a nine-to-five rota.

So it's this hopelessly untrained, unprepared late starter who gets the "joy" of teaching.

The worksheets, which go up on 'Seesaw' and are renewed weekly, mostly involve vocabulary and working out mathematical puzzles on a dusty old laptop I dragged out of the cubby hole.

Some of the lessons come across, to this fiftysomething, as quite challenging for a P2 child.

But I don't know how well (or otherwise) she's doing because, although the finished work is uploaded and marked online, there's no classmate to compare her with. Is she what her 'real' teacher calls a Helping Hand, or does she need one?

Moreover, Soley's used to learning, eating, playing, communicating with over 20 others, under the watchful eye of an experienced professional who helps steer all the little monsters in the same direction.

What's making my hair greyer, in addition to longer and more unkempt, is keeping her focused; she's at home but also 'at school' and should act accordingly.

Discipline maintenance ain't easy when there's a pile of toys and a tempting tablet offering unlimited episodes of Masha and the Bear a few feet away.

We mix things up; maths first some days, words on others. Add fun challenges from other useful sites such as 'Twinkl' (free to use during the pandemic) and 'Top Marks' ... yep, it's not just the kids who are learning fast.

And of course there's the latently controversial, rather-too-easily hacked Zoom which, as far as I was concerned, is a Fat Larry's Band classic from the early 1980s.

Whiteboard aside, there's no stress-ridden attempt to recreate 'real' school.

It took a while, but I've learned not to panic either about her 'not keeping up' or how the other youngsters are doing. I no longer feel under self-induced pressure to make everything perfect.

After all, she's only in P2 - but I understand why parents of older schoolchildren can get particularly stressed over this.

For me, 'home schooling' will only truly end when she flies the nest, not when a lethal, currently incurable pandemic recedes. Indeed, you may not see the fruit of your torturous labours for years.

The priority therefore is her mental and physical wellbeing and if you can fit in a little schoolwork, well...

Hands up: I cannot deny the unparalleled relief that comes with the lid of that dusty old laptop descending at lunchtime but - no, honestly - sometimes I actually enjoy doing this.

And if there's one good thing to come out of this scary, diseased world, it's realising - no, relishing - the unexpected, precious extra moments you get to spend with someone you love more than life itself.

That's one lesson learned.

Linda Stewart: ‘By lunchtime everyone’s nerves were so frazzled we would turn with relief to baking or crafts’

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Linda with her daughter Neve

Linda with her daughter Neve

Linda with her daughter Neve

When this is all over, I’m going to need some kind of Joe Wicks-related therapy.

It’s fantastic that the self-styled Body Coach is running free #PEwithJoe exercise sessions on YouTube every morning, but boy, does he ever spark rows in our house.

Every morning our home echoes to slamming doors and shouts of “Leave that dog alone!”

My daughter Neve (9) prefers to pile cushions on the dog’s head and will even feign injury to get out of her least favourite exercises (burpees, Joe, nobody likes burpees).

Neve’s last school day was on Friday, March 13 when her classmates at Academy Primary School in Saintfield were dressing up as their favourite book characters for World Book Day. She had only started at the school in January and we were looking forward nervously to our first progress meeting with her teacher.

By then, the school was already preparing for lockdown and had sent home a workbook designed to take the children through two weeks of home schooling.

That workbook did get us off to a bit of a start in the week following St Patrick’s Day, but I have to admit we were lucky if we made it through four activities in a day and the glowering was something to behold.

We usually managed two literacy activities and two numeracy activities, but by lunchtime everyone’s nerves were so frazzled that with relief we would turn to baking or crafts.

At the start, I worried constantly that my wobbly teaching skills were causing Neve to trail further and further behind. It didn't help that we were in the middle of renovating our house and no longer had a proper kitchen, let alone a printer, craft materials or graph paper, and that I was also trying to juggle freelance writing somewhere round the edges.

But I was reassured by the valuable guidance I was given by Neve’s principal, Stephen Moore, who advised setting balanced periods of focused learning and relaxation, concentrating on the process rather than the outcome, and including life skills and board games to introduce a fun element.

We baked banana bread, tripling the quantities to make use of three-times tables, and used a kit to build a unicorn garden complete with wooden castle.

With the upheaval and anxiety that was floating around, it was a relief to give Neve a straight two weeks off for Easter. That break in home schooling was a release valve for the pressure that had been building, allowing us to reset and adapt to life in lockdown.

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Neve reading to the boy next door by social distancing

Neve reading to the boy next door by social distancing

Neve reading to the boy next door by social distancing

We put up a tent in the garden and Neve would disappear inside for hours on end, absorbed in a pile of Wimpy Kid books, while we got on with our other duties.

When Easter ended, we found the teachers had been busy. A comprehensive new home learning section had been added to the school website, with a list of numeracy, literacy and ‘World Around Us’ activities and answers posted at the start of each week, and a suggested daily timetable starting with Joe Wicks, literacy and numeracy in the morning, and art, World Around Us or PE from 1.30pm on. Most of it could be written into the workbook, although there was the occasional struggle with activities that needed printed materials — coordinates are tricky without a printer, for example.

We’ve unearthed an old laptop that Neve uses for her daily schooling, while her dad works on the computer upstairs. I try to do my interviews during the day and then get up at 6am the next morning to write in peace while the house is quiet and no one is shouting “Muuuuuum, I need help!”

The flexible format means we can choose activities throughout the week depending on how our own work is going — if we’re busy, we give her something she can get on with alone, and then focus on the more intensive schooling tasks when we’re free.

I try to include two literacy and two numeracy tasks each day, interspersed with World Around Us and some of our own activities, such as Neve’s daily lockdown diary, which currently features drawings of tigers and pages of variations on ‘My mum is so annoying’. But it can take forever — twice last week she was finishing her work at 5pm.

We enjoyed doing the police report on McCavity the Mystery Cat, making a story book about a small creature and writing our own limericks, although the tasks on train timetables were a bit of a trial. There’s such a wealth of material tailored to Neve’s level, I no longer feel so fearful about her falling behind.

Technology is definitely our friend — Neve rather enjoys the Mathletics tasks set by school, although she complains that her teachers will think she’s getting the questions wrong because of our glitchy laptop. It’s hard to see how households without ready access to digital devices would be able to cope.

And while we’re lucky to have a good garden, Neve is devastated that she isn’t getting to cement friendships with her new friends as she had hoped this summer.

The highlight of her ninth birthday this week was the chaotic and hilarious Zoom call with around 20 of her friends, many of them singing, dancing around and play-fighting with siblings. So, now that I’ve mastered Zoom, I’ll be making sure she talks to children her own age much more from now on.

Lisa Smyth: ‘We received a lovely email from the principal reassuring us they don’t expect miracles’

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Work and play: Lisa’s daughter Grace

Work and play: Lisa’s daughter Grace

Work and play: Lisa’s daughter Grace

Not long after my eldest child was born, it became clear that it was going to be impossible to find childcare that worked around my irregular hours.

So, I left the security of my job to become a self-employed, work-at-home mum, setting up an office at our kitchen table and working around the demands of my two young children, Grace, now six, and Ethan, who turned three at the start of the month.

It means I’ve had six years’ head start compared to most people who are now experiencing the joys of working from home with children in the background.

What has been a completely new experience, however, is taking on the role of teacher on top of all the other jobs I have to complete every day.

I had such high hopes as the prospect of school closures became a reality.

I spent a small fortune on Key Stage 1 workbooks to supplement the work being provided by Grace’s school (I was so clueless I had to research to find out she was Key Stage 1).

I bought her a special notepad for her to complete her work in and a plastic organising folder for me to neatly separate her work up according to the day it was to be completed.

We set her up a small desk and chair away from the noise of the rest of the house and got up the first morning with high hopes of keeping to a strict schedule with allocated breaks. So far, so good. Fast forward eight weeks and the wheels have come off.

Her school emails a pack of work at the weekend for the week ahead containing spellings, tables, links to online teaching resources and projects to reinforce the subjects covered that week, with a suggested timetable to complete the work.

I think we managed to stick to it for two days.

Setting aside the obvious challenges of trying to teach Grace while her very rowdy brother climbs over me competing for my attention (have you ever tried asking a three-year-old to sit quietly while his older sister works through the intricacies of number sequencing?), my job is a major obstacle.

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Grace with her brother Ethan

Grace with her brother Ethan

Grace with her brother Ethan

My hours are just as irregular as they ever were, but given that I primarily cover health, I am busier now than I’ve ever been.

Add to that the fact that I am the only person who can shop for two vulnerable households and time is a commodity. So, we have had to become extremely flexible with our approach to home schooling — basically, we grab opportunities when we can.

Thankfully Grace’s school doesn’t expect updates on the work we have achieved and we even received a lovely email from the principal reassuring us that they don’t expect miracles.

Given that a friend of mine got a text message from her son’s preschool asking why she hadn’t emailed in proof of him completing a messy art project, I feel very lucky.

With Grace being six years old, I’m not overly concerned that her education is being destroyed beyond repair and I think at her age, learning can be achieved in a less formal setting.

We spent a rewarding morning together last Friday, lying in bed in our pyjamas, discussing World War Two and researching it on the internet, watching grainy footage of Hitler, learning about VE Day, reading about the Holocaust and looking at photographs of the Blitz.

As a result, she has a new-found fascination with Anne Frank and an appreciation for the sacrifice made by families at that time.

Of course I worry that Grace isn’t doing as much work as she should and that Ethan won’t be ready for preschool, if and when he ever gets to go, but more than that I am worried about the emotional impact of lockdown on my children.

Grace is struggling massively with being separated from her friends, so we try to arrange virtual playdates as much as possible.

It is much harder for Ethan — not only has he no idea why his life has changed so much, he can’t catch up with his friends on FaceTime so he has been completely cut off from his social circle.

Only the other night, I was sorting out his clothes and he spotted his playschool uniform and scooped it up and hugged it.

I keep reminding myself that Grace and Ethan will remember lockdown for the rest of their lives and I want them to remember it for the right reasons.

In years to come, I want them to talk about the summer we spent together as a family, the hours we played together in the garden, the nights we stayed up late watching movies, the afternoons singing and dancing around the kitchen.

At a time when so many lives are being torn apart by this awful virus, the value of family has never been more apparent.

I think that through all of this, that is the most important lesson I can teach my children.

Belfast Telegraph