Podcast: Homeschooling During COVID-19 on Teachers in America

Photo: Debra Liese and two of her three children.

HMH Learning Moments continues with a very special episode on a problem that families across America are grappling with: homeschooling during a pandemic. We sat down with one parent who has a background in education to share her experience—in our very first Teachers in America podcast mini-sode. Like many parents, our guest Debra Liese currently balances working from home while also teaching her children, whose schools have been closed for the remainder of the school year.



The following transcript of the episode has been edited for clarity.

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Alicia Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This is Teachers in America, hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris. The focus of today's mini-sode is homeschooling during COVID-19 and we are joined by guest Debra Liese. Debra is a publishing professional with a background in education who, like many parents, has been working remotely full-time while helping to teach her children whose public schools have been shuttered during the COVID-19 crisis.

Currently the Curator of Ideas at Princeton University Press, Debra previously homeschooled one of her children, has taught multiple writing courses, and is a certified teacher of high school English with an MFA in writing. She has a lifelong interest in creative learning environments. Debra and her family reside in the state of New Jersey.

Now here are Debra and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: So, Debra, thank you so much for joining me today on Teachers in America. To start us off, can you tell us a little bit about your previous background and experience with homeschooling?

Debra Liese: Thanks so much for having me, Noelle. So, initially I became a bit of an “accidental homeschooler” when I homeschooled my oldest daughter briefly some years ago, and my reason for doing so was that we were between moves.

We were living in a house that we had up for sale at the start of a school year, and we decided that we would give it a try. At the time, we weren't completely happy with her setup at school. We wanted to access a bit more of an arts curriculum for her. She is a really artistic kid who liked to draw a lot and liked to do music.

She was in first grade at the time, and we just felt like this would be a good opportunity to experiment a bit with some individualization and some opportunities to give her more time to work on art. It did, however, go on a lot longer than we expected! Our house ended up not selling for quite some time, so we did end up homeschooling her for about a year and a half in the end.

But it was a really interesting experience. It was one I was completely the architect of at the time, so there was a lot of freedom. There was the ability to kind of scrap, in a way, the standard expectations that one has around a public school situation. And to pursue more unique interests and to put some more emphasis on things that I felt were our strengths.

And what we're doing now, of course, is the same thing that most of the country is doing. And that is serving as kind of a middleman or a facilitator in a virtual learning experience. I have three children and they're all currently in public schools, and we are doing virtual learning with all of them.

It's a pretty solid virtual learning experience as far as they go. Our schools are very technologically able, and so everybody has Chromebooks. Everything was pretty much ready to go within the first couple of days of the crisis starting. But it's a much different experience for me as a parent and as a teacher because I'm finding myself more being the middleman, going back and forth, trying to figure out what are these links the teachers are sending, what are the expectations?

And so while I'm at home working full-time, I'm also helping my kids to navigate the expectations of their school system. So it's been interesting. It was, I would say, a little bit bumpy at first as we got used to it, but we've ironed a lot out and I think it's going pretty smoothly at this point.

Tracing Shadows: More down time means more space for intellectual or creative activity for its own sake.

Noelle Morris: How many weeks have you been supporting virtual learning and then, remind us, you mentioned you had three children. What are their ages?

Debra Liese: So we've been doing this for eight weeks now. Hard to believe! And yes, I have three, so I have kids all over the age spectrum.

I have a third and a fourth grader, and I also have an eighth grader. So their experiences are all pretty different, as you might imagine. My eighth grader is actually doing a lot independently. She kind of disappears into her room in the morning and she is having some interactive teaching experiences with her teachers who are getting on Zoom and really teaching the class.

She has to log on at certain times of day. And she's getting, I would say, a pretty normal load of assignments. Things have scaled back a little bit in the sense that they're not able to do absolutely everything they were doing before, but I would say she's still doing a reasonable amount of schoolwork.

My younger kids just require a lot more assistance. So I feel like I'm sort of trying to divide up my work day between doing what I need to do for my job, which is 100% remote right now, and trying to run between the two of them with my husband's help to try to make sure that they have the support that they need—beyond just helping them with what they don't understand.

There's also just, I think at their ages, more the desire to have an interactive experience. They're just not happy sitting there, clicking links all day. They want to talk to you about it. They want somebody to kind of just be there with them.

Learning some rock skipping skills to combat Zoom fatigue.

Noelle Morris: I would think that your oldest has also had an easier transition, but how are your other two. . .are they beside you facilitating, are your other two children okay? Do they ever have a meltdown? Is one taking it easier than the other?

Debra Liese: I think you're right that this learning style is really well suited to my older child. And I think that some of that has to do with her age, but it also has to do with her particular sensibilities and orientation when it comes to her learning. She likes to work independently. She has a number of unique interests and I feel like having a schedule like this gives her a little bit more time for them. She also, I think, really appreciates having more sleep. It just really works for her. It gives her a bit more flexibility.

I think for my younger two, it's been a bit more challenging at times, although we've actually found a lot of positives in it as well. My younger daughter really enjoyed the classroom dynamic quite a lot. She really thrived on the socialization and the relationships with teachers, and she really liked to have a very predictable routine.

So, at first it was a bit of a challenge. I think it's gotten a bit better for her because our school has been really great about tweaking things as we've gone along and they have actually made some adjustments to the schedule. We're doing block scheduling now. And it just works better than having the kids run through all of these different subjects in a day. They have certain days of the week where they focus much more deeply on two subjects at a time, and that seems to work better for her. And her teacher has also been really flexible about allowing her to kind of log off of a Google meet early if she doesn't want to just sit there and listen to them go completely around the room.

As for my other child, I think he really likes it. I think for him, choice is the big thing, and I think that one of the nicer things about doing the e-learning is the kids actually have a little bit more of an opportunity to decide, “you know what. . . I think I'll work on this first because my brain is more in the mood for writing in the morning and I feel better getting all of my science out of the way before I sit down and do my independent reading.” So I found that for him, a kid who really likes to have some kind of say in what he's doing and how he's doing it, it was just really nice for him to be able to have a little bit of free will in this situation.

We do have our good days and our bad days. There were days at the beginning where the kids were sad and missing their friends and feeling like they didn't really know what to expect from the future, especially before the schools closed for the rest of the year. There was always this kind of lingering question of, are we going back? Is this temporary?

And I think actually having that question answered has allowed us to focus a little bit more on what we actually have in front of us, what we can work with, and what we can make out of it.

Some days are better than others.

Noelle Morris: I like that, you know, what we have in front of us. Because that's all we can think about right now.

Debra, one of the questions I do have for you is do you ever have those “mom moments" of guilt? Like you get so into your work that then you're just relying on your child or knowing that they can get through a few hours. I'm just curious. I just want to make sure that's not just me.

Debra Liese: Oh, no, not at all! I've definitely had those feelings since this all began. This is really the first time that I've had all three of my kids at home during a regular school year. And you know, it takes some adjustment. There was a pretty intense feeling for me in the first couple of weeks of this, that I really could only focus well on one thing at a time.

You know, I could either make sure my kids, my younger two especially, made it through the school day feeling functional and happy, or I could shut my door and focus on my online meetings and focus on my work and come out when those things were finished and check in on the kids and just hope that they had clicked all the right links and that their moods stayed up and everybody was feeling accomplished at the end of the day. It's taken time for me to get into a schedule with things and it's also taken, I think, a lot of understanding from my employer and my husband's employer. I have to say we're both fortunate enough to work for places that are very flexible and kind and understanding about the situation that we find ourselves in.

I've been coming through this with the feeling that there's a lot to be learned from doing this. More of a partnership with the school, better work-life balance sometimes for my kids, there’s more choice being offered. I can list a number of positives, but I realize that I'm coming at this as a person who has the ability to work at home and has a flexible employer, and I think that can sometimes just make a ton of difference.

The quest for private work space in a small house can be a challenge. Kids get creative.

Noelle Morris: What is something that you actually hope does not return back to just the traditional brick and mortar, not just as a parent, but as a teacher.

Debra Liese: You know, I think I mentioned it briefly before, but I think that one thing that's come out of this for us is the feeling that there's a really nice partnership between the home and school.

The teachers at my kids' schools have all been just great about communicating, I think particularly because this was just such a new experience for everybody. Nobody really felt like an expert going into it. So I think that at first, especially in the first few weeks, there was a lot of back and forth, and I found that the teachers were very receptive to me writing to them and saying, Hey, we're trying to do this activity, but it's really not working for my kid. Is it okay if we do this replacement activity? Or, gosh, you know, my kid really just can't do her math online. Is it okay if I print this out and then take a picture of it and send it back to you?

All kinds of little things like that would arise in the first couple of weeks. I found the communication back and forth to be really reassuring because I felt like we were all finding our way together and that schools were kind of relating in a different way to the students and to their communities.

There's a bit more flexibility. There's a bit more focus on the kids' emotional health. I know that my older daughter often has little one-on-one Google Hangouts with her teachers, and [in middle school] she just never really had that kind of one-on-one communication before. I think the way they're going about it is really encouraging.

Most of the public schools are, you know, pretty pressured, generally speaking, trying to get the kids ready for standardized tests. We’re just seeing them all go out the window this year. They're no longer getting ready for standardized tests, and the focus really has become on how is everybody doing.

We've been talking about social-emotional learning for years and yet I'm not quite sure I've seen a lot of really great social-emotional learning in practice until just recently. I mean, I'm sure a lot of it happens at school and I'm not a part of it, but that wall has kind of come down and now the home and school life is really blending together.

I'm really getting to see how accommodating teachers can be when they're able to be. It's really interesting. And I see a lot of individualization happening in very subtle ways, just as the teachers interact with parents and try to get a better sense of what works for each kid.

I mean, there are certainly frustrations, and there are days when I'm trying to do a meeting for work that's critically important, and suddenly a virtual cello lesson will just come busting in! But it's nice that as a society, as a human community, that we're all kind of in it together.

My husband and I have both said that quite a bit to each other over the past few weeks, that if this had happened two months ago, three months ago, and you had your kids interrupting your meeting, you would be fairly mortified. But now we're all kind of experiencing that on a day to day basis, and that's been kind of humanizing. We've all kind of seen these little parts of our coworkers’ personal lives, and we've all received, hopefully reassurances that, Hey, it's okay.

Noelle Morris: And I think we have to both as parents, as teachers, and as the learner, all, just be a little more aware of where everyone is. Just be nice about it.

So I would like to ask, as we wrap up this call, Debra, what skills do you see your children learning that you hope the teachers will see when they do get a chance to be back face to face and in any capacity that that is?

Debra Liese: I guess one of the things that I think has been a real plus from this experience is the amount of time the kids get to pursue independent reading.

Days dedicated to independent reading allow the kids to have a degree of choice when it comes to learning.

Our school has been doing days that are dedicated—this is the elementary school I'm speaking of—they’ve been doing days that are dedicated to reading and writing and then separate days that are dedicated to math and science. And so when they do the reading and writing day, a good chunk of what they do that day is read.

And it really encourages trust, I think, because they're basically not saying, Hey, here are some Google forms. Check off all these things and then send it back to me. They're just saying, okay, so spend 45 minutes or an hour or whatever the time period is reading a book of your choice. And then at the end of the week, they kind of confer with their teacher about what they've been reading. And I mean, that's just wonderful.

I think one of the things that has kind of fallen by the wayside in our relatively over-scheduled society as far as kids' activities are concerned is just that free time to pick a book you like and just read it. I've seen my kids doing a lot of that recently, and I think that's really great.

I guess I would say other than that, it's really nice that the kids, to a certain degree, are getting the chance to have a little more agency in how they do things and when they do things. Just that element of choice, which I think has been so valuable for my middle child. I see the potential for that to be a really positive thing if integrated into a regular school environment down the road.

And I guess finally it would be that big piece about mental health and teachers reaching out so much, trying to see how kids are in this way where they're really genuinely interested and really trying to make time for that one-on-one conversation. A little bit more emphasis on that personal mentorship, which particularly my older daughter has really experienced with some of her eighth-grade teachers.

I think it's a really positive sign to see educators making the time to do that, and it's gotta be hard for them. I know a lot of these teachers have kids of their own at home, so I give the teachers a lot of credit for just making that extra effort to reach out. I'd love to see that continue.

I think that’s probably the most important piece.

Depending on where you live, remote learning can mean more time outside in nature.

Noelle Morris: I appreciate you being open with having a conversation as a parent and as someone who was doing homeschooling before, even though it was for a transition, what that looks like and feels like. It's so nice to have a conversation that is parent to parent and former educator to former educator.

And I appreciate that as a whole, we’re continuing to support our public education and teachers everywhere, whether it's private or public. So thank you so much.

Debra Liese: Sure. Thank you so much, and good luck to you as well.

Alicia Mitchell: Thanks everyone for joining us today. If you'd like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today's show and will please rate and review and share with your network. You can find Teachers in America on the HMH YouTube channel and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped for the transcript and key takeaways. The links are in the show notes. During this time, HMH is supporting educators and parents with free learning resources for students. You can visit hmhco.com/learningsupport for more information. Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company.

Thanks again for listening.