12th May, 2020
Almost two months have passed since a temporary assignment to become a home-school teacher was suddenly imposed on me, spinning my professional routine and identity on its head. I have three primary-school aged children whose home tutoring needs are demanding and diverse, and with each week of lockdown that passes, I am learning through trial and error what works well for us and what doesn’t.
Of course, this new job of mine is more multifaceted than the simple title of “teacher” suggests. I am essentially the headmistress of my kids’ home-school, setting the culture, rules and routine (the CEO, if you like), navigating a complex dynamic of both leader and service provider in equal measure. I am responsible – during lessons and break times – for managing my children’s care and well-being, filling the roles of referee (of both games and sibling disputes), dinner lady and first aider. I act as the diary manager of multiple social, academic and hobby-related virtual meetings and it is also incumbent on me to liaise regularly with my children’s schools (akin to reporting to HQ, I suppose). My husband (i.e. my “team”) is an NHS consultant working in a Covid-19 intensive care unit therefore only intermittently available to run home-school classes, which in effect makes me his manager too, briefing and delegating to him when he’s available.
Ok, I exaggerate a little. Home-school is hardly all work and no play; neither is it the sole focus of life on lockdown with kids. It has to fit in around many other domestic, work and care demands, taking multi-tasking to a whole new level. I do, however, recognise that since my home-schooling role began, I have been continually adapting my approach and techniques to address my children’s needs (and maintain my sanity) by drawing on the skills and resilience I’ve mastered from the workplace. Here are five lessons I’ve learned so far and my observations of the transferability of skills between the workplace and home-school:
1. Harnessing the essence of strategic engagement is key
A fundamental skill required in most workplaces is the ability to tailor bespoke messages for diverse audiences in order to achieve a specific goal. This usually requires listening, empathy, and selecting the language and approach that resonates with the audience in question. Another core skill is the ability to condense complex and lengthy information into succinct summaries, enabling effective engagement with colleagues and external stakeholders alike.
For home-schooling parents, such skills can be equally applicable and valuable. For example, scrolling through the reams of school communications to extract the essential nuggets of information; or using the right language or levers to enthuse a child to take on a more challenging worksheet. Using chocolate coins as counters may motivate my younger son to complete a maths exercise, for example, but it won’t necessarily have the same effect on his big sister grappling with long division. Similarly, effective management of how and when key messages are communicated, such as whether or not a piece of work is “optional”, has the power to either boost or diminish motivation and morale.
In the current emergency situation, primary home-schools are not expected to strive for academic excellence. Keeping children productively occupied for part of the day and demonstrating that they have applied themselves to complete a given task, possibly learning something new, seems ambitious enough. If this can be done without emotionally-charged outbursts of frustration, then you’re winning. Doing it while trying to get your own tasks done is incredibly stressful, particularly when managing more than one age group simultaneously. Success often relies on framing instructions in a way that engages a child to take on the challenge set and focus. Get it right and you can enjoy witnessing your child glow with satisfaction at solving a problem; get it wrong and sparks can fly. The similarities to basic stakeholder engagement strategising and planning are uncanny.
2. Clear communication is the bedrock to fostering a positive team spirit
Communicating honestly and constructively with colleagues and fellow householders is clearly important in fostering good relations both at work and at home. But the fast-paced and intense changes to workplace and home environments brought about by the Coronavirus lockdown means that people are operating under increased pressure as they adapt to new modes and necessities for communication.
I gained some insight into this recently when my husband, on his day off from work, was left in charge of kick-starting the home-school day while I took the opportunity to go for an impromptu long morning run. Usually, handing over childcare responsibilities to one another is straightforward. But in this case, our failure to communicate our respective assumptions, needs and plans resulted in him being totally unprepared and the morning ended tantrum-filled and unproductive. You could say our “team morale” was pretty low too.
On reflection, the mistakes we’d made were obvious. Had this been a workplace scenario, some type of handover communication would have occurred detailing each colleague’s responsibility and availability, providing opportunities to raise questions or concerns before “out of office” notifications were switched on. As a workplace team, we might have invested efforts earlier on to discuss our priorities, styles and the job’s demands so we could be adaptable and dependable in one another’s absence.
Under current home-working arrangements, as colleagues are required to work more flexibly around their own and others’ needs, effective and regular team communications are essential. Managing expectations and providing comprehensive handovers encourage a healthy work-life balance. The same principles apply in home-school team working, where small and considerate pointers to communicate instructions and expectations go a long way to fostering a positive team spirit.
Organisations communicate their culture and rules through the likes of codes of conduct, employment policies and mission statements, which employees sign up to. Parents similarly set rules and routines for their children’s conduct and behaviour to generate a sense of security and mutual understanding, and agreement, of expectations. In the same spirit, I engaged our children to draw up a basic home-schooling timetable and some ground rules. These aren’t particularly formal or sophisticated, but they have provided a useful framework to structure the day and manage behaviour. Agreeing them in writing together with the children gave them the opportunity to express their preferences and helped set a positive tone to home-schooling, generating excitement even.
3. Feedback can have a transformative effect
Using feedback effectively in home-school can make the difference between supporting your child to simply complete a task, and doing so while boosting their self-esteem, confidence and love of a subject. Delivering negative feedback in home-school can all too easily veer into nagging e.g. “how many times do I have to ask you to clear your plate from the table?” (I’m still counting…). Utilising the lessons I’ve learned about delivering targeted and constructive feedback in the workplace helps me address issues with practical solutions to avoid clouding my judgement with emotions and sweeping generalisations, which can cause further friction. Of course, this is much easier in theory than in practice where children are involved!
Just as bonuses and disciplinary procedures in the workplace aim to encourage desired behaviour and discourage the other kind, incorporating home-schooling rewards and penalties, driven by deliberate and regular feedback, is a useful motivator. The prizes and forfeits may be different, but, as above, the same principles apply.
Empowering children to provide feedback too – both on their own performance and ours – as a workplace line manager might do, teaches them to develop emotional intelligence, self-awareness and a sense of responsibility for their actions. And, just as line managers support their direct reports to articulate and develop their strengths and interests, encouraging children to express their preferences during this extraordinary lockdown situation releases them to explore and indulge in what they are drawn to at their own pace, without the constraints of the curriculum.
4. Develop a filter to focus on success
Here’s a quick maths lesson for you: for each child in my home-school, there are on average three daily emails from teachers, with at least four documents attached; add to that three Zoom or phone calls per week; plus five weekly texts or emails relating to extra-curricular virtual classes. Now add on two Whatsapp Groups per child (one for the class, one for the year group); plus two Facebook Groups per child (one for the year group, one for the entire school). The sum total? A lot of “noise”.
The daily communication traffic that surrounds the home-schooling environment is comparable to returning to your inbox after a week of annual leave. And the content does not always serve you well. Whilst there is helpful and constructive information to be found, much of it can add pressure, make parents feel inadequate, spread panic and encourage negativity.
Many comical memes are in circulation joking about families losing their patience with young children in lockdown, but in reality the potential mental health impacts are no laughing matter. Many parents, particularly those juggling home-working with home-school, are under intense pressure on all fronts and the detrimental impact to their well-being is not to be underestimated.
I’m learning that being able to trust my instinct and filter out the essential information from the “noise” is as much a useful skill in the home-school as it is in the workplace. Measuring your performance against others at work can help to motivate and advance professional development, but it can also trigger negativity and self-doubt. Focussing on your own goal (be that a workplace promotion, or a successful literacy lesson with your six year old) requires identifying your desired outcome, assessing the skills and environment needed to attain it, setting yourself tangible targets and realistic milestones, and reviewing your progress as you go. Being deliberate about seeking advice and support from a trusted network also helps.
Filtering out “the noise” to take in what serves you and discard what may be distracting or destructive can help you remain single-minded on your success, however big or small.
5. Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes
They say it’s lonely at the top, and from my home-schooling experience so far, I can see why. As CEO/headmistress of my home-school, there is constant pressure to perform and be visible. The children will quickly detect if I’ve lost motivation in an activity, am distracted, or let bad behaviour go unchecked, and they will accordingly lose interest or become uncooperative.
Motivating others can be easier than motivating yourself. For example, I’ve found that our children focus better after some physical exertion so, like many others families around the world, we start each day doing some form of physical exercise together. This is usually a live PE lesson with Joe Wicks or taking on the national challenge to run a daily mile. Now, even the fitness fanatics among home-schooling parents are unlikely to willingly subject themselves to this on a daily basis, but it is difficult to generate enthusiasm without leading by example. One rainy day I even found myself encouraging our children to run a full mile throughout our house rather than venture outdoors: we circled the dining table and climbed the stairs countless times to hit our target distance. I can safely say that I would never have done that had I been home alone, but the excitement and adrenaline it triggered was palpable and had its desired effect.
This home-schooling experience has given me some insight and compassion into what strong leadership takes. Who is there to motivate the motivator? Comfort and advice can be sought from peers and mentors, but maintaining conviction in your chosen path is not always easy and, for workplace leaders and parents alike, it is impossible to know if you’re doing the “right” thing. Understanding what your core values are and keeping to them, being authentic and trusting your instinct strike me as solid foundations to work from.
I also have renewed appreciation for the leadership it takes to delegate. The home-school teacher in me is constantly trying to strike a balance between maintaining control and encouraging initiative to be taken. This is often recognisable in workplace leadership styles too. Though it is usually a lot easier and quicker for me to do something myself than coax a child to do it, empowering my children with appropriate responsibility helps foster their independence, increase engagement and build self-esteem. Workplace managers will recognise the satisfaction at seeing a direct report develop and flourish under their leadership, and relinquishing control also affords them freedom to focus on their own job. There too is something satisfying and liberating in delegating responsibility to a child so that they are complicit in the consequence, though it requires untold patience, which is often in short supply during lockdown.
As we look towards lockdown restrictions easing, there is still a great deal of uncertainty around the risks of children being exposed to, and transmitting, the Coronavirus, and no one yet knows how long parents’ home-schooling services will be required. For many, this is the ultimate test in adapting to chaotic change and rising to a wildly ambitious challenge that few would have opted to take on. When schools eventually reopen, the personal toll it will have taken will become evident, to parents and children alike. In the meantime, hard as it is to appreciate in the moment, home-schooling is affording parents an opportunity to connect with our children in a unique way, see close-up how they learn, spend more time at home together and be thankful for the role their schools play in our lives.
I imagine adapting again to a new normal once this is all over, my resilience both hardened and depleted, having possibly acquired some new skills (long division may be one of them) and honed existing ones. The lessons we are learning in my home-school go beyond just the academic tasks helpfully supplied by my children’s teachers. Both from a professional and personal perspective, I certainly would not have chosen to put myself in this situation. But on balance, in the long run, I may well be richer for it.