How To Run a Home School That Works For You (with Dr. Jennie Weiner)

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Dr. Jennie Weiner is both a parent and an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut, so she has a unique perspective on the plight of parents, particularly mothers, and teachers who have to suddenly educate kids from home. In this eye-opening episode, she looks at what it means to be a “parent-teacher,” a remote educator, and the many roles schools play in our everyday lives, many of which we took for granted until now.

You can follow Dr. Weiner on Twitter and read her recent article in the New York Times, “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Home School.”


[00:03] Hi, I’m Jennie Miles Weiner. I’m an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut. And you’re listening to Good Kids. So like many people hearing about Covid-19 felt like one drop, and then a wave crashing over our entire lives. I work for the University of Connecticut, and there was some kind of inclination that this was serious, that it would disrupt school and people living in tight quarters pretty quickly, but nowhere near anything as fast or as impactful as I could have imagined. So I started getting emails about schools closing. And as an academic, I’m on all sorts of lists and on academic Twitter and things. So we started seeing that my alma mater, Amherst College, had closed and sent everybody packing. And then there just seemed to be a chain reaction, one after another. So that was happening. I happened to be on a data collection trip in South Carolina at the time, and I get a message like two days into it that all university trips and travel had been canceled. And of course, I was like, I’m already somewhere. So what is it exactly that I’m supposed to do. Simultaneously, we were getting messages that, you know, the first Covid cases had come to Boston, which is where I live. I live in Somerville. It impacted us fairly quickly because one of the spouses of a teacher in my local public schools got sick and tested positive. And so they were going to close the schools for like a Thursday and Friday for a deep clean. And it went from closing one school to closing all the schools and closing the district office. Then by the day after that was announced, the mayor got on and canceled schools, I think at that point it was for a week. And then the governor came on a day later and canceled schools for three weeks. So we went from basically, you know, a two-day interruption to a every day interruption ad infinitum. 


[01:56] So like many people, I think, have experienced this just, became very intense very quickly. You know, everyday you saw the news and there was something new to understand and recalibrate in terms of our lives and our kids’ lives. I mean, I think the other element of this, which is I think part of the reason that it felt so visceral, and I’m sure it felt visceral for a lot of people, but because I am an educator and I train educators and most of my people in my circle are educators. So whether it’s other university professors or my students who happen to frequently be principals, superintendents, teachers or people who have left that profession to explore educational policy and leadership, you know, they’re all grasping. They’re sitting in this kind of intense space of both being desperately worried about their own family, their ability to do their job with excellence, and their students and the families that they serve and worrying about them in new and more complicated ways than they had previously as well. So it all just felt like I was holding it both as a parent and as an educator. And that was a really scary place to be. 


[03:09] So when we first sort of found out that my kids would be home and we’d be working from home, I think a couple of things happened for me simultaneously. One is, as somebody who’s just had snow days as an educator myself, and attempted to quickly put something online to be able to continue my courses, and having that not work at all, I think I was highly suspect of whether or not any of this was going to work in the first place. So I think I was already at a mental state of not being overly optimistic that we would have school in any real way anytime soon. So I think that that was sort of like the perspective that I was taking. The second thing is I had the experience of last year of our school year being quite disrupted because of my child’s disabilities. So my son went through a variety of schooling placements over the year, including being home with us for almost a month and a half while I was trying to work full-time. And I was sort of homeschooling him during that period. So I had also been there and seen to some extent what it means to recalibrate your relationship with your child from just parent to parent-teacher. 


[04:17] If you’re trying your best, then you are being a great parent. And if being a great parent means that sometimes you just have to go and take a nap while they’re playing video games, or you know, or if you yell one day, or today works and tomorrow didn’t work, it’s not those incremental or the small discrete moments that make, I think, a great parent. I think it’s the collection. Just like one day doesn’t make or break a great marriage or a relationship. It’s the long-term accrued activities of love and care that make a parent a wonderful person and a wonderful support during times like these. And just give yourself a break. You know? And I would say that particularly, I guess, to moms out there, who are probably doing most of the home labor, given what statistically tells us, right, more women working outside the home and still doing the same amount of sort of like home work as in the 1970s. So like, I see you. I appreciate you. I’ll definitely toast you a little glass of rise tonight. And just be kind to yourself because we’re in it for the long haul. We exist within sort of a system, and the system doesn’t have flexible powers, it doesn’t have, you know, paid family leave, it doesn’t have systems that facilitate women to be successful in both spaces. And in fact, I think this idea of balance is a really problematic one. Like I talk about like work/home interface instead of balance, because I just think it sets us all up to always be behind instead of in front of. 


[05:55] And so I just would also ask that we think about the ways in which, again, schooling and child-rearing and these issues as they come to a head, really tell us something about how gender is sort of enacted and policies around that in our society. And that we need everybody to be feminists to make this change, not just to change how women internally feel about struggling in this space and being okay with imperfection. Whatever is working for your family is what you should be doing. And by working, I mean you have a sense of sanity, good humor, resiliency, and feel like you’re able to make it through, and do all the things that you’re supposed to be doing, then I think that’s the right thing to be doing. And everybody’s kid is different and everybody’s situation is different. And I think that’s probably the most important thing to pay attention to. 


[09:13] I think this is unprecedented and so difficult for everyone in so many ways, right. You can think of the benefits of “being by yourself,” but also sort of how debilitating it might be if you’re by yourself and you have no one to talk to and you’re at home quarantining. My kids bring me a lot of joy, even though, you know, sometimes they don’t. So I think it’s all really hard. I just think what’s what’s particularly difficult about being an educator during this time is just the expectation of dependency so many people have on educators to create a sense of normalcy. You know, I would think it’s similar to the extent of like being a therapist during a time like this. Like people are looking to you to say, explain this to me, help me process this. And you yourself are not able necessarily to process it. Because you also are going through those things. So I think that’s maybe the complicating factor, just holding so much for so many people. 

[10:08] We live in a society where the school closes, and that means kids aren’t getting fed. The school closes and children are not getting basic medical services. I mean, I have a child with disabilities, emotional disabilities, and that means he doesn’t get his counseling. He doesn’t get his O.T. He’s not getting opportunities to talk to trusted adults and people who love him and understand him to make him a whole person. Like that’s completely shut down for us. And my child is even, you know, on the lesser extent of receiving services. So can you imagine a child who has M.S., or children who are living with insecure home environments in a sense that like, you know, their struggle with food security or homelessness or mental health issues or whatever the case may be. The school has become in our society, the hub of all of that, which is, I think, quite unfair and problematic. And so if you’re a teacher and you know you’re providing those services for children that you love, deeply love and care about, it must be terrifying. You do not know what is happening. It’s really, really scary and hard. 


[11:19] And then I think there are other people that are fearful, like people who are fearful because they’re worried about losing their job or they love their child very, very much and they’re worried about their simple mental health and well-being. Many kids who go to school not just to learn, but also because they socialize and connect with their friends, and that’s very meaningful and important. So I think all those things together really can create a very, very stressful situation for many parents. Obviously with variations, depending on where you sit socioeconomically, where you sit sort of in terms of your privilege and your opportunity and what your expectations are for your kid in the long run. So I think all of that together just creates quite a terrifying space. 


[12:06] I have friends of mine who are superintendents who are telling me that there are parents who are calling, and I would say in an unkind way demanding more materials. Like why are they doing their job? But I also think that there are plenty of people who are not behaving that way, who already knew or are coming to understand that the school is far more than something that you just send your kids to. I mean, Shonda Rhimes had this funny post about, you know, my kids have been home for like five days, every teacher should be paid a million dollars a day or something like that. On one hand, I think that’s really wonderful because it shows that people really understand how hard it is. On the other, you know, it shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to understand that teaching is a real profession and that teachers are working this hard every day to educate, support, interact with, love, connect with your child. So I really hope this experience will turn into advocacy for schools and for teachers, and for different kinds of funding systems, to make sure that, you know, again, it doesn’t take a global pandemic to make sure a child has the resources, whether they be books or a Chromebook or Internet access to be able to access curriculum every day. 


[13:18] I would say, you know, think about how to approach your teacher and partner with them, offer yourself in a humble, compassionate way and say that you’re there for them, that you appreciate them. Write a letter right now to a teacher and tell them that you know what they’re going through and you appreciate what they do. I think those small acts of kindness also are really important in addition to sort of these larger social movements, which I hope will come as a result of this. But I think, you know, so much of the narration or narrative around teaching for so long with the accountability movement has been that teachers are somehow to blame or that they’re not doing enough or that they should be doing more. And I think, you know, just trying to move away from that would be just a helpful thing, I think, for everyone as well. 


[14:08] I’ve so admired one of my son’s teachers who has been very open about the struggles that she’s had in terms of managing her home responsibilities, a toddler, a husband who runs his own business, and obviously wanting to give us the resources and support we need for our kids at home. And she’s done it in this way that’s really encouraged exploration and connection with each other. And this sense that she’ll give us something and she sort of says like this is an interesting activity to do, but it’s not mandatory. You know, she’s sending clear messages that this is for the benefit of your kid and for you if it works for you. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. And that I would just say to teachers, you know, there are lots of parents who understand and care so deeply and appreciate you so deeply. And it’s OK to be human. And it’s OK to put boundaries on things because we are all struggling. And know that there are parents who appreciate that kind of honesty and openness. You may feel a tremendous pressure to do it the right way or to, you know, spin all the plates at full speed, too. But we’re in it together and we appreciate you. 


[15:32] If you want to hear more from me, you can find me at the University of Connecticut Department Educational Leadership and feel free to email me too, if you’re interested in any of these topics. I would love to hear from you.


[15:51] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Molad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard, share, rate, review, say great things about us.


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