Coronavirus: The view from the kitchen table

As published by

Once upon a time, my daytime kitchen was just that – a place where I, and I alone, worked, cooked, socialised, pondered, listened unselfconsciously to Tracy Chapman and fumed at the shortcomings of my husband and child before I greeted them in person with a genuine smile as a result of the earlier, healthy and strictly private fuming time. It was a place where I reigned.

Lost Kingdom

Now, I have lost my kingdom. I share it with my nine-year-old, school-from-home daughter and my still earning, work-from-home husband. I thought our kitchen table was a decent size until I started measuring it in the number of electronic devices it can hold rather than in cubic meters. One or the other of them is always looking over my shoulder at what I’m writing, or offering me more cups of tea, or asking for validation or reassurance or what’s for lunch and it’s still only 11am and because I’m not a teenager they don’t accept that my use of headphones and music (Tracy Chapman) means that I am UNAVAILABLE. (My husband has just looked over my shoulder and told me that the kitchen table should be measured in square not cubic meters; my daughter has joined him in a mathematical conversation unintelligible to a person with an Eng Lit degree and I have to find the genuine smile without the private fuming time, my personal home-school challenge for the day.

The Form Tutor’s at large on Zoom

When it comes to home schooling, one thing’s for sure – we’re all in it together. And that means all who congregate daily round the same kitchen table – mum, dad, children of different ages and with different needs, dog, cat, last night’s wine glass, this morning’s coffee dregs, half-eaten apples, empty snack packets and last but looming anything other than least, the Form Tutor, at large on zoom on a device near you and potentially noticing the overflowing recycling bin as well as last night’s wine glass.

In truth, seeing my daughter’s Form Tutor on Monday morning at the start of this summer term with a difference was a pleasure. Suddenly, I was starting the school day too, without the kiss at the gates and the ever-so-slightly anxious look over the shoulder on both sides. My daughter was visibly reassured and relaxed by the one-to-one, face-to-face (or nearly) few minutes with her class teacher, and I was (less visibly, I’m a grown-up, but no less wholeheartedly) reassured that home schooling was going to be OK.

A scary requirement for personal upskilling

In the crazy days of the end of the Spring Term, school had suddenly become the enemy, guerilla warfare infiltrating my family life and safest places with maths challenges and spelling tests, reading lists without a library and a scary demand for personal up-skilling in new apps and IT interventions. I endured a crushing awareness that the usual sport, music, craft and social intervention that my privileged child usually takes for granted was only going to happen if I provided it, without recourse to an art room, a school orchestra, sleep-overs or anyone to throw a netball to except Yours Truly (we urgently need a netball hoop, is Amazon still delivering and can I justify it as an Essential Item, she is an only child, after all…?).

Thankfully, over Easter the sun has shone and we have all taken some deep breaths. Society has rallied and realigned expectation with reality and this wartime lockdown period in our lives might just cope with the label of Special rather than Strange. Maybe this is going to be one of those periods of time that, just like those precious pre-school years or the final months of childhood before Senior School, we will look back on and wonder why on earth we didn’t make the most of it.

Here’s my hopes for the coming weeks.

Mum, not teacher

Most importantly, I aim to keep doing my job as Mum, not teacher, in my daughter’s life. Before Easter, I didn’t know when I was supposed to push, encourage, cajole, intervene or comfort during each hour of a different lesson. My daughter is a good student, but she was miserable and nothing I did inspired her as it wasn’t her Mum she wanted, it was her teacher. In the independent sector, at least, the teachers are still there, and they didn’t go into teaching to sit in a room on their own with a laptop but to interact with children, to push, encourage, cajole, intervene and comfort them as their professional judgement dictates.

If I find it hard to identify my role within the home-schooling framework, then so do siblings. A friend of mine has two Junior School children of a similar age with very different learning styles and there is, so far, little in the way of differentiation in zoom teaching. One child loves writing – reams – and the other has hit her target after half a page: how does Mum square that circle, where should she direct her praise, and what does she say to the one who feels the pain of the other and anxiously offers to write less, just to be kind – surely a sister’s heartwarming thought is a student’s misguided notion? As a mum, praise can be directed away from learning outcomes towards characteristics demonstrated, efforts made, qualities exemplified. My friend is also trialling a staggered timetable of work and play, all piling round the kitchen table together is not the only answer. In some families, Year 11 students have little focus now that their exams have been cancelled, and I can imagine the fury that their Year 10 – and indeed Year 12 – siblings must feel at the unfairness of wading through a curriculum now that is critical to their own GCSE’s next year. This one stumps me – but given that every Year 10 sibling must feel the same, talk to the experts, the Head of Year, and let them do their job.

Break Time

Cooking is a practical, active, co-operative task to break up the screen time of home-schooling. Making bread as a morning break activity and watching it rise during the next lesson is also on our menu. A hand of cards is another of our practical, indoor break-time activities, we like Skip-Bo from Mattel or Ah-Harr from Wildcard Games, but there are innumerable card games for older children, perhaps starting with Whist or its variation for two players, known as German Whist.

One of the special moments in our day is always the one that starts with ‘Hello, darling, how was your day?”. Before Easter, this moment had shape-shifted unnervingly from special to strange, as I had already shared the angst in her home-school day with equal and only just vicarious measures of tween insecurities. So now, as we start the new term, we are going to mark teatime by making Coronavirus Quilt together. This keeps our hands busy without the pressure of keeping a conversation going, having already shared the school day. It’s liminal time and space between school and home. With a patchwork square for every day of home schooling, our quilt will become special, first-hand piece of historical evidence of what we did in this strange intermission in our lives. Whilst rightly applauded medics and other key workers amongst the parents of the nation have a whole set of different challenges, those of us at home have to keep the home fires burning.

Unforgettable moment

What I can do in this special time, this unforgettable moment in history, is watch my child learn, watch her grow, watch her struggle and watch her succeed, because I am right there beside her every day and that is a gift that I thought I had lost forever when I walked away from the school gates on the first day of Reception with tears in my eyes. Through home schooling, what I can learn about is my child. My child is a whole person who will become an independent adult in a world that is, more so now than ever, constantly changing and unpredictable. What she experiences in this time will shape her understanding of society, of community, of family. Right now, she can learn her three Rs of Resilience, Resourcefulness and Respect for herself and for others precisely because her privileged childhood of independent schooling and family travel and a long list of extra-curricular activities has encountered a challenge. It’s only for a term, at most. Let’s make that time count, let’s stand up and be counted, not as teachers but as parents, so that when our grandchildren ask us “What did you do in the War on Coronavirus?” we who were at home will be proud of the answers we give them.

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