When it became apparent in March that it was a question not of if schools would close, but when, I resigned myself wearily to the new normal. I was worried about all sorts of things, but mainly a) how the children would cope without contact with their friends and teachers, and b) how on earth I would be able to keep my editorial business going in a pandemic while also providing some form of education for my two children.
This post comes bristling with caveats. In some ways, I expect my experience of being forced by circumstance into temporary homeschooling while also needing to work is typical. In many others, I’m fully aware of how lucky I am: I share the childcare/schooling time with the children’s father; I work flexible hours, which are to a large extent under my control; my hourly rate is sufficiently high that as well as accommodating lessons I can also afford time off; my children are eight and ten, so are neither in an important exam or transition year nor young enough to need constant supervision; I have two computers and a printer, and the children both have tablets on which they can access books and games.
In the beginning, I think many of us coped with the reality of what was happening through the medium of humour. On Twitter I saw various ‘lesson plans’ on a theme:
9.00: iPad time
9.30: iPad time
10.00: iPad time
11.00: iPad time
… and you get the idea. It was clear from the start that, joking aside, while we were under fairly strict lockdown screens would play a larger part than usual in the strategies for coping with having children around all day. To (over)compensate for this, and for the general sense of loss surrounding the closure of schools for what I assumed would be months, I found myself preparing all sorts of elaborate timetables, and devising a name for our class of two – Redwood Class. (In the children’s school their classes are named after trees. They’d been in a class together before, when they were in years 3 and 4.) The basic plan included lofty ambitions for daily afternoon doses of nature documentaries, chess matches, learning other languages, creating art … little of which has come to pass.
But ten weeks or so on from when we started (give or take the odd school holiday), the thing that surprises me most is how much I now enjoy teaching my own children. In the early days, although the school sent a lot of supportive emails, they gave us little in the way of any structured lesson planning. Doing it for myself was like that dizzying moment of first riding a bike when the stabilisers are off. Yes, there were some worksheets on the website for each year group, but it was made clear that these were for us to use as we saw fit, there was no pressure, it was all rather optional. The gratefully received message was that the main thing was to keep everyone safe and happy, and for the adults to do the work they needed to do to survive. Anything we could manage on top of that would be a bonus.
I used some of the worksheets, and I ‘taught’ the children together in their class of two. They’re only 22 months apart, so I thought I could get away with that in the short term. I wasn’t sure what I was doing; teaching’s always been a bit of a mystery to me, despite coming from a family of schoolteachers. My mother was a primary teacher when I was growing up. But still, I’d never been able to fathom how teachers had so much to say. How, I wondered, did they have the confidence in their own knowledge to be able to impart it to others? Now, as I try to do it myself in a more formal way than I regularly do as a mother, I begin at last to understand that it’s not just about telling children things; it’s about showing them what they already know and what they can go on to find out for themselves. It really isn’t about me, but about them. And I’ve been amazed to discover how much they know already (as well as gently pointing out that sometimes they really don’t know it, and they need to read the question more carefully). It gives me such joy to sit with them, to work through things, to disappear off into rabbit holes with them, to discuss real issues, to grapple with concepts, to find out about art. At the best of times I stop worrying about whether I’ve had any emails, or not had any emails, or when I’ll manage to proofread that chapter that needs doing, and we’re just there in the moment, discovering things together. And it is magic.
But work doesn’t go away (or at least, I really hope it doesn’t). I’ve always kept work and children separate. Editing and proofreading, for me, require so much concentration that I can’t even listen to music while I do them (I know many editors can). So I was extremely concerned about how I would manage to keep my business afloat while also giving as much as I could to the children. Although fortunate in many ways, as I explained above, I’ve never been in a position where I could afford to stop working even for a short time. And work was looking uncertain – it’s steadier now; some workstreams have continued, and I’ve managed to find others to make up for gaps, but seeking out new work is a whole project in itself. It’s an ongoing process that’s as important, day to day, as meeting existing deadlines. A problem with crises is that this constant low-level marketing (what I’ve referred to in the past as ‘stealth marketing‘) is necessarily the first casualty of having to restrict working hours to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.
My way of managing ongoing work and deadlines, alongside the schooling, at first depended on snatching chunks of time between lessons, when I’d send the children off with snacks to ‘amuse themselves’. I knew this essentially meant playing a lot more Minecraft than usual, but I didn’t think about it too much. Sometimes you have to draw a line under thinking about anything too much, especially at the moment. After lunch (which is when we finish ‘school’ most days), they’d go off and ‘amuse themselves’ some more while I got a meaningful amount of work done. Then later in the afternoon we’d go for a walk, or to Cathedral Green for a run around. In the early days I was so paranoid about the policemen cycling past and cheerily waving at us that I’d barely let the children flop down for a rest between bursts of ‘tag’, in case it looked as if we weren’t really exercising.
And I suppose we’ve muddled through so far. I have less income, but not catastrophically less, and the government grant for self-employed people has helped (again, I’m one of the fortunate ones who qualified; there are so many gaps in provision of support). The children have learned some things. They’re OK, though my daughter (the ten-year-old) misses school terribly. On the other hand, my son really doesn’t miss it much at all – and that raises other questions that will need to be answered in time.
Recently, there’s been a marked change of tone from the school, I suspect in response to a range of factors. Now, there are lesson plans for three subjects for each child every day, so I’m teaching the children alternately through the morning, and this takes up more time, which gives me less time for work on the days that I have them. I enjoy the teaching, and am grateful for access to the teachers’ planning so we can feel we’re studying the same things they’re working on in school. But I know in weeks when I have deadlines, it won’t be so easy. Then I can’t set work aside, and the children will receive less hands-on time from me as a result. That’s OK now and then, but it’s not a sustainable long-term plan.
And this is the rub. Even the more fortunate among us – let alone the parents who are doing it alone, or who are in underpaid work, or who are required to leave the house for work, or who are not able to depend on childcare by grandparents when usually they do, or who have many children, or very young children, or children with special needs – are being asked to pretend not to notice that we’re doing two, three or more jobs in the time that we used to do one. And we’re being asked to do this with no end in sight.
My children are not among the year groups who are meant to go back soonest, but even the children who are are being turned away, and I don’t blame the school at all for this. It’s entirely the fault, as far as I can see, of the government, along with so many aspects of this crisis that have been criminally mishandled. I don’t have any confidence that my two will be going back in September, even, though we’ll see. Again, I find it best sometimes to shut down these lines of thought. It’s simply too much. I’ll keep coping with what’s in front of me, continue to find things to enjoy in it, unexpected satisfactions and pleasures – but it doesn’t stop me being angry with the way that parents are being expected to do something most of us would never have chosen to do, are not really equipped to do – and some are not equipped at all, with so little acknowledgement or practical support from the government. And it makes me angry to think of how much more unequal society will become as a result.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008, and as the temporary teacher of Redwood Class since March 2020.