You Don’t Have to Choose Between Doing Your Job and Homeschooling
It sounds impossible to juggle, but it can be done, with some creativity and flexibility
Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to email@example.com. (Your name will not be used.)
Dear Laura: Like many people during this global pandemic, I’m working from home for the foreseeable future, and my kids’ school is closed. They have a pile of schoolwork to do online, and once they’re done with that, I’d prefer they do something more educational than watch YouTube videos. But my schedule is still packed with work and remote meetings. Any suggestions for managing the logistics of homeschooling and working?
You’re far from the only person struggling with this right now. (If you really want to feel seen, check out this viral rant by an Israeli mom about her kids’ homeschooling.) Doing the job of a trained and qualified teacher, plus your own job, sounds close to impossible.
But it can be done. Even before the global pandemic, plenty of parents with flexible jobs had figured out how to do both, and still have some time left for fun. Managing it all requires you to be creative and accept some basic truths.
First: Homeschooling doesn’t require six to seven hours of classwork a day. For one thing, some of the school activities in a six-to-seven-hour school day are things your kids are probably doing at home anyway: eating lunch, running around outside, silent reading.
And formal instruction, with worksheets and lesson plans, isn’t the only way to learn, or even the best way. As the writer Sim Kern pointed out in a tweet recently, “we teach that way in schools because of CROWD CONTROL, not because it’s the best way to learn. Kids have a rare opportunity here to engage in deep, authentic learning instead.” Individualized instruction is more efficient, and can be packed into fewer hours. It’s also worth broadening your idea of what’s “educational”: A walk outside, accompanied by a discussion of ecosystems; making a pizza dough from scratch as a biology lesson; or a jam session with musical instruments owned or improvised (much of which can be done in the afternoon or evening).
Second, you don’t need to be a subject expert with a collection of lectures at the ready. Thanks to modern technology, kids can direct a lot of their own learning with online resources such as Khan Academy, DreamBox, or even Wikipedia. If a child needs an explainer on an algebra concept, she can Google it, and find plenty of options. There’s a robust market of language apps that will help practice those skills.
And with so many self-quarantined families now in the same boat, resources are more plentiful than ever. The recorded books company Audible has made many kids’ audiobooks free for a limited time. Children’s book authors and Hollywood actors are doing story readings and drawing tutorials online.
I’m not saying your kids won’t still barge into your makeshift home office to ask questions, or show up at inopportune times during your remote work meetings. But if they’re old enough to be in school, they’re old enough to understand signals, such as that a closed door means “not now.” You can further enforce those boundaries by creating times when it is okay for them to come to you with questions, such as over lunch, or during your mid-morning coffee break. (And anyhow, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing for our colleagues to see and understand what working parents are dealing with.)
Finally, a general schedule — with some flexibility — can manage expectations, and help everyone stay sane. In my house, the three school-age children know that they are expected to be up and dressed by 9 a.m. I create a checklist of daily requirements for them: One hour of reading, 10 minutes on a language app, music practice, and the work their teachers have assigned. Sometimes I add projects, such as some furniture assembly I hadn’t gotten to (hey, it’s homeschool shop class!).
They are expected to be done with their lists by lunch (generally 1 p.m.). After that, they have individual quiet time for an hour, and then everyone goes outside for an hour or so. This takes us to about 4 p.m., at which point I don’t care if they play Fortnite for the rest of the day. I’ve generally done most of my work by then, so I can relax, too.
Does this work perfectly? No. My children can turn even silent reading into a disruptively loud activity. I’ve taken to doing any work requiring quiet from 6–7:30 a.m. If you’re a night owl, you might try to log a quiet hour or two after your kids go to bed.
But try to give yourself a break. Working parents often overcompensate to avoid a perception that they’re working less — when “full-time” actually encompasses a range of different workweeks. And they tend to beat themselves up over “missing” their children’s childhood — when they’re actually present more than they give themselves credit for. The good news is that eventually we will be on the other side of this. You are not going to screw up your children’s education or your own career too much in a month, or even a few months.
Try to find ways to savor this time, as strange as that may sound: Take an hour or two between calls, if you can, to squeeze in some fun. Bake a batch of cookies together, or challenge the kids to a video game showdown. Soon enough, you won’t be able to do this on a Tuesday morning.