How to Work and Teach—at the Same Time

Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images

As COVID-19 spreads across communities, schools may shut down, possibly for weeks. Historically, closing schools has been an important tactic in slowing the transmission of an infectious disease. And the fortunate among us will be able (or mandated) to work from home during this time. But lucky does not equal easy. Twelve U.S. states say they are set up for “e-learning days,” which could mean daily online classes and homework. In other places, distance learning will be more haphazard, but it’s very possible you’ll be asked to monitor assignments that reinforce classroom learning, or engage your kids in educational activities.

You know, while you work.  

I homeschooled my daughter from grades 5 to 7 and also worked, often from home. So I know you are being dropped into a situation that is, on its best days, exhausting. Add to that the tension that comes with having your own routine suddenly disrupted, plus anxiety about potentially contracting the coronavirus, and you’ve got a few rough weeks ahead. Schoolwise, I suggest that your goal be to survive it. With that lofty bar in place, and with some very big assumptions (that your children can entertain themselves for some periods of time, that you know other adults who can share the caregiving responsibilities, that anyone still in diapers is otherwise engaged and that the people in your house are healthy), here are quick and dirty—er, totally (hand-)sanitized—tips for becoming a temporary working homeschool parent, learned from more than 540 school days on the front lines.

Avoid insurrection

To a kid, “school is closed for two weeks” sounds a lot like “all education, rules and hygiene standards have been canceled indefinitely.” If you interrupt that wave of bliss with a Day One, 8:30 a.m. math packet, you could incite rebellion. If you’ve got flexibility, consider starting the shutdown with a minibreak (even if it’s just a free-for-all weekend). Let your kids know how long total anarchy will be tolerated, then let the video games flow. It will buy you some time to get your game plan together and get some work done.

Synchronize your watches

You probably won’t need to teach six hours every day. Learning one-on-one is generally faster than learning in a traditional classroom. You may have school requirements to contend with, but to give you an idea, a homeschooled elementary student can typically get a full day’s worth of academics done in two to three hours (and middle schoolers, three to four hours).

Even in that shorter time frame, you and your student will need breaks. One-on-one learning is intense for both student and teacher. It’s absolutely OK to pause a tough lesson and resume it tomorrow. And you need to create some down time to make up for the short, natural breaks in your child’s and your days (lining up for recess; chatting by the water cooler) that don’t exist right now.

Look for help. In some homeschooling families, parents may divide and conquer subjects (or kids). Maybe a relative or neighbor would take the kids a couple of times per week, or perhaps a family from school would trade off so that the adults can take turns working. If the kids can do schoolwork together or with the on-duty adult, all the better.

Create a strategy . . . with input

Block your time. And know that learning doesn’t happen only between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Shift a block of work hours to the early mornings, when your tween is asleep anyway. Or schedule schoolwork on evenings and weekends (or whenever your child is likely to be in the best mood).

Kids can help make the schedule. If you need to share the computer or allot hours to help each child separately with his or her work, ask the kids to offer solutions. My daughter started each day with 30 to 60 minutes of reading because it helped her wake up. I worked, she read, and by the end of fifth grade she’d consumed more than 100 books and I seemed like a stellar educator.

Even if there is no formal schoolwork to complete, you can set “school hours” when the kids will need to occupy themselves and you’ll have semi-guaranteed work time. Create a list of activities and toys available to the kids during those windows. When they get bored while you are working, tell them to go to the list.

Sample schedule (for one adult, one kid)

7:00 – 10:00
Adult: Work.
Kid: Get cereal, read or do school-hours activities.

10:00 – 11:00
Adult: Work when possible.
Kid: Online class.

11:00 – 12:00
Break and kid homework with parent help.

12:00 – 1:00
Lunch and go outside.

1:00 – 1:30
Quiet time (everyone to separate rooms/corners for independent activity).

1:30 – 4:00
Adult: Work.
Kid: School hours over—free time! Video games and TV OK.

4:00 – 5:00
Kid: Hang out with adult (help with chores, errands, etc.).

5:00 – 7:00
Dinner and family time.

7:00 – 10:00
Adult: Work two more hours (presumably with interruptions).
Kid, with another adult (or alone): piano/reading/games/free time and bed.

Have all weapons ready

Put all those art supplies, building toys, puzzles, board games and books in places where the kids can get to them without your help. And don’t discount adult coloring books and puzzles for older kids. Without friends present to gawk, teens may happily revert to activities they used to enjoy.

Be frank with the kids about what you need in order to get your work done (we had a “blood or fire” clause when I needed to take a call). And find out what will help your child get schoolwork done quickest and with minimal whining. Listening to classical music or doing math on the couch may make things go a lot smoother for both of you. Suggest doing schoolwork in pajamas—it is one of the unmitigated joys of homeschooling.

Familiarize yourself and your children with new classroom technology, set up accounts and bookmark websites. The more they can do on their own, the more time you’ll have for work. 

Find movies—aren’t there, like, 70 million nature documentaries alone? Or watch the entire library of Full House. Honestly, nobody is going to judge you. The screen is your friend in times of need. If the kids are zoned out, you can Zoom into a meeting.

Employ guerrilla warfare

If you are tasked with getting in nonspecific “educational hours,” use whatever you’ve got around you and count any hours of the day when education happened. (Pro tip: Kids are always learning, so in a pinch, “education” can be pretty darned broad.) Practice musical instruments after dinner. Take walks after work to identify birds or plants. Start a bedtime read-aloud book as a family. While you work, let kids turn cardboard boxes and other scraps into a house for the dog. (I believe the technical term is “craft time.”)

One of the best things about homeschooling is the extra time available to let students go deep into topics they are interested in. Being motivated to learn is refreshing. It’s also one of the best ways to keep kids busy for a long time. Help them get started researching anything they want to learn. The mysteries of cat behavior? Fine. Greek mythology? Excellent. Have them make a project or put together a lesson to teach you.

The key here is to dictate what they are doing as little as possible. The more they own it, the longer they’ll do it. Learning to program on Scratch is educational. So is writing and performing a skit.

And don’t discount life skills. Have him help cook and clean. Ask her to file bills or alphabetize your spices (a desperation move that I have never regretted). Instruct him in doing his own laundry. Teach her to French braid. Are they complaining? Remind them you have the email address of a mom who knows all the math worksheet websites, handily placed at the bottom of this article.

Socialize the troops

If meeting friends in person isn’t an option, encourage your kid to chat or play games with others online. This can be a great time for you to work. If this is new to your child, talk first about online behavior. And be aware that bullying at school can move to a virtual location, so keep tabs on what’s happening.

Socialization does not require a same-age peer group. Check in on an elderly neighbor. Have your kid practice phone etiquette by calling a friend. Write a letter to grandparents. You’ve got an opportunity to slow things down and help kids learn to navigate the world outside of school.

Go easy on the civilians, and on yourself

This is a change in routine for the whole family. Being in the right frame of mind is half the battle, so if your child is just not having it with a certain assignment, leave it for a day. Get something else done, or do something fun. This is not medical school, and one assignment is not worth your losing work time.

Working from home can blur a lot of lines. Add schooling from home and, well, unless you want to find yourself writing an advice story at 10:17 p.m. on a Saturday, I suggest you enforce off-hours for yourself. And get a group text going with some fellow parents so you can air your frustrations and keep functioning as an employee, a parent and an accidental teacher. Finally, find one thing each day that went well, either with work or with the kids. Be proud of that (possibly very minor) accomplishment—it is an accomplishment in the Time of Coronavirus—and let the rest of your day wash over you. You survived, and the kids are OK. 


Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of stanfordmag.org. She did not ruin her daughter, who is now a straight-A student outside the home. Email her at summerm@stanford.edu.