We live opposite a school. During the first lockdown it was shut, and the eerie silence of the playground is one of my most haunting memories of that time. Now, though, it is open, and at breaktime little voices fill the air.
My nine-year-old daughter can see all the pupils from our kitchen table, her new classroom. And I know what she is thinking. That these children, mostly the offspring of our wonderful NHS key workers, are happily in classrooms alongside patient teachers smiling encouragingly at them while she is stuck at home learning from a woman who has the teaching skills of Kevin the Minion from Despicable Me.
Except that Kevin is more patient. He probably wouldn’t lose his temper every ten minutes while sucking air in through his teeth as he passively-aggressively mumbles ‘Why can’t anyone else empty the bin? Have their arms fallen off?’
Homeschooling is undoubtedly one of the most stressful elements of these uncertain times.
Lorraine Candy reflects on homeschooling throughout the pandemic. Pictured: Lorraine and husband James with their children Sky, Grace, Henry and Mabel
Such disordered family days feel never-ending. Mondays start well, on Wednesdays you hit a wall of worry and by Friday you’re mentally and physically exhausted.
And we’re the lucky ones. My husband James and I are both in work and in good financial and physical health. We have four children: our daughter Sky, 18, is at university studying engineering but the rest — aged 17, 14 and nine — are at home.
The two older children are at private schools and mostly Zoom learning face-to-face with teachers; our youngest, Mabel, is at a London state school and grappling with Microsoft Teams guided by Mum and Dad.
We are blessed to have enough devices for our children to learn from, but I know this is not the case for those families struggling in cramped conditions and without laptops.
The Government has given almost 900,000 computers to those in need, and the Mail’s own Computers for Kids campaign has raised just under £7 million so far. But Ofcom reckons up to 1.8 million children are without them. Homeschooling is undoubtedly harder for the parents of these children, but all mums and dads find supervising lessons at the kitchen table overwhelming.
For me, humour has proved to be the parenting tool that will get me through. To that end, I’ve kept a light-hearted diary of our homeschooling week. Maybe it’ll make you fell less alone because we are all just making the best of the worst of times and muddling through.
Who will win the newly instigated Family Member Of the Week award? The bar is low. I’ve initiated this comedy prize to raise spirits.
Last week was gruelling: balls were dropped, homework forgotten, books left unread and screen time woefully unmoderated. Work kept us up late at night after lessons, then insomnia came for all of us.
Lorraine (pictured) said her eldest teen celebrated her 17th birthday in the kitchen and has been slogging away on screen for A-level exams
There was some swearing and shouting, one family member would have benefited from a ‘personal hygiene for beginners’ course on the curriculum and another may need to review his ‘theory of minimal assistance’ as an educational aid.
I’m obviously clutching at straws but perhaps a potential award will work as a reminder for us all to stay upbeat. Like the golden possibility of a mention in school assembly?
Dad thinks he is the favourite because he has a more relaxed attitude to schooling and is less of a time-keeping fun sponge than Mum. He doesn’t nag people to eat vegetables, get dressed and clean their teeth. And he can do maths. This is a homeschooling super-power, so he thinks he’ll get the most votes.
I am a maths moron but I am the one who knows where all the spare rubbers and rulers are. I own the only black Sharpie pen that works. I can locate the snacks hidden to stop them being eaten five minutes after we’ve put the shopping away.
I can do arts and crafts and, despite leaving a Cornish comprehensive at 16, I seem to know most of the Shakespeare storylines. But I am also the one bogged down by the family’s emotional to-do list, the one constantly buoying up everyone else’s low mood and reminding our teenagers that things will get back to normal ‘soon’, which is obviously a fib.
When I tell my eldest teen enthusiastically about the FMOW Awards she just mutters: ‘Oh my God, Mum, what is wrong with you?’ and I am reminded bleakly that this thing is so much bigger than all of us.
She hasn’t seen her friends for weeks, she celebrated her 17th birthday in the kitchen with two over-50s (us) and, now in Year 12, has been slogging away on screen for A-level exams she may or may not take. A made-up joke award won’t help her.
Lorraine revealed she’s been writing a book and hosting a podcast, while her husband James works from home for an insurance company (file image)
I’m discovering that old patterns of competitive couples’ parenting are starting to re-emerge. Remember those newborn days when a sleep-deprived you bickered with your partner over whose job/health/chores were more important and, thus, who deserved an uninterrupted night?
It’s starting to happen again as we compete for space at the quietest table in the house.
While James works from home for an insurance company, I’m writing a book and hosting the weekly podcast Postcards From Midlife — both tricky when you are interrupted 19 times an hour to answer questions about lunch and clean socks. Every room at home seems to have someone in it buried under a mound of exercise books and empty crisp packets.
By lunchtime today, my 14-year-old son Henry has blocked me on WhatsApp after I gave him some biscuits in my PJs while his Zoom video was turned on (so embarrassing); Mabel, the nine-year-old, keeps asking: ‘When is Dad free?’; and my eldest, Grace, has accused me of ‘standing too close to her’ in the kitchen. All tempers are frayed.
While Mabel would never dare tell a teacher she ‘just doesn’t feel like it today’, she has no qualms saying it to Mum. The questionnaire on Crime And Punishment has defeated her and, frankly, our stab at Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth has all the imagination of the Go Away note I’ve left for cold-callers on our gate. The circle of dread is rotating endlessly on her old computer as Microsoft Teams loads slowly.
By the time we get to our PE lesson (star jumps, running on the spot), we’re both more murderous than the Scottish queen and I don’t need a calculator to figure out I must get up at 5am tomorrow to get all my work from today finished.
Teachers will have a long-term goal in mind for all this learning, while parents have no idea what the point is of knowing square roots and word suffixes. I simply don’t know the answer when my youngest asks: ‘Why am I learning this?’
My husband disappears for two hours to wash the back patio in the rain: a classic example of helpful-not-helpful distraction activity common in lockdown parenting.
I take a deep breath and do the daily ‘I am grateful that…’ reminder: Thank God I am now only schooling a nine-year-old and supervising two teens. Parents of pre-schoolers and newborns are the real heroes. Ditto single parents.
Lorraine (pictured) said on Wednesday, she stays off the WhatsApp groups where other parents seem to be doing it much better than her
This is always the worst lockdown day of our week. We hit what we call the Wednesday Wall. Today, I stay off the WhatsApp groups where other parents seem to be doing it much better than me. I wander round the house emptying bins, replacing loo rolls and scraping old Pop Tarts off the carpet wondering if all those Instagram influencers are right about ‘the joy of meditation’. I Google ‘helping teenagers sleep’, and even Mabel’s Year 5 Assembly on screen makes me tearful.
Last lockdown, I made a lower intestine out of a pair old pink tights stuffed with wet porridge oats. It was a Year 4 homework highlight. I only knew how to do this because of BBC Bitesize (a godsend). Lockdown No 1 felt like an adventure but there is no sense of adventure this time round.
We’re emotionally ragged; we’ve lost people and missed people. Many of life’s monumental moments have been cancelled or ruined. There’s been sadness and grief. The rollercoaster of anxiety, stress and knife-edge news bulletins has beaten parents down. And the news homeschooling may last until Easter is overwhelming.
Another epidemic is sweeping the country; one of loneliness and declining mental health, especially among our young people whose hearts have been broken as hopes for their immediate future are dashed. Under this blanket of bad news, mums, dads and carers have had to summon up the enthusiasm to make homeschooling ‘fun’. But to throw ourselves at it in the manner of the nation’s PE teacher Joe Wicks? On a Wednesday? We really don’t have it in us.
Neither the state nor the private schools my children are at seem to have been charged with offering ideas to make home learning in front of screens more enjoyable. There is no Minister for Good Times sweeping in with thoughts on how to rally round cheerily every day as parents. But today I am just grateful I am not an actual teacher, trying to teach both those in school and at home.
Lorraine said she got a stream of adverts for tutors on social media on Friday (file image)
Dad is unavailable for maths so it’s my turn. I have been up since 6am so I’m tempted to pay my 14-year-old to do the nine-year-old’s sums for her. But as a parent, you should try to model the behaviour you want from your kids (as the experts would say). And honesty is a good parenting policy.
However, I can’t do double-digit long division. A rage rises in me as Mabel and I try to thrash it out. It’s impossible. My patience has gone and I leave the room feeling inexplicably tearful. No one told us that homeschooling would trigger in us all those buried feelings of uselessness that we ourselves encountered at school, did they?
It seems we’re teaching our own kids while trying to soothe the kids we once were. In the end, the teens come to my rescue on the maths front and we’re all back to normal (whatever that is now).
Then two of Mabel’s fish die and the dog is sick under the kitchen table. It was an old Pop Tart.
I’m getting a stream of adverts for tutors on Facebook and a follower on Twitter reminds me my maths teacher at school was called Mr Gilbert. I can still hear him commanding me to ‘stop talking’, which explains things.
But spirits are lifted today and a better routine is emerging. I’m ignoring the fact the kitchen looks like we’ve been burgled by 2pm and we’ve FaceTimed all the school friends the kids haven’t seen. We’re doing the best we can.
We’re not as good at this as teachers, but we don’t have to be do we? This week, though, I have learnt the following:
- When the going gets tough, go outside. Sometimes we abandon lessons for a walk. Your children’s well-being is the most important thing. Also, we’ve splashed out on luxury biscuits. I know sugar is bad for kids yaddah yaddah, but as rewards go for assignments accomplished, millionaire shortbread is very effective.
- Cut some slack. The teens have benefited most from this with extra long lie-ins, but the family member who asked for peas in a separate bowl from the bolognese was indulged for the first time ever.
Food assumes a premium status during these weird times so spoiling a fussy eater is a treat I can live with (occasionally).
- Screen time is high and I’m fine with that. Children and adolescents need connections to their friends and this is how they find it. So we have stopped arguing over screens apart from no phones in bedrooms after 10pm.
- Opting out of competitive homeschooling is sensible. I refuse to discuss it with other parents.
- We’ve concluded that the mantra ‘we can do hard things’ is the way forward.
Mums and dads cannot fix this situation for their kids, but psychologists are always keen to remind us that children are more resilient than we think if you are alongside them with patience, kindness and empathy.
And, yes, Dad won Family Member Of the Week. We’re a family fuelled by tea, and he makes a good cup of tea. You don’t get that at school, do you?