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Matthew Burton's Top Tips for Homeschooling

Posted on 14th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

The nation's parents have recently had an almighty shock as school closures force them into the role of makeshift teacher. But don't panic, says Matthew Burton, Educating Yorkshire's inspirational headmaster and author of Go Big: The Secondary School Survival Guide, and don't succumb to the pressure to be perfect. Follow Matthew's five steps to retaining your sanity in this unprecented situation.   

Way back before I was even a twinkle in my dad’s eye in 1972, Alice Cooper famously sang ‘Schoooooool’s out for summer!’ Well, we’re not sure whether that’s the case. It might be, but then again it might not be. What we do know is that life has changed, and we all have to do our bit to help defeat this awful virus.

A month ago, the nation’s parents were working. Their children were at school. It was business as usual. Whether in museums, garages or offices; whether in shops, fire stations or supermarkets; whether in soft play centres, sports centres, garden centres or restaurants: it was, pretty much, the world we’d all known.

And then Wednesday afternoon came. Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education rose up to the dispatch box, straightening his green tie and reading carefully. ‘With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make an announcement regarding changes to the operations of educational settings,’ the announcement came. He went on. And then on a bit more. And some more. And then it came: ‘After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon, they will remain closed until further notice.’ Say what, Gavin?

‘But I’m not a teacher. I didn’t choose to be a teacher. Wha…? Whe…? How do yo…? Are you kidd…?’ Nope. Schools were shutting. In 48 hours.

And, parents: you’re up…

So, two weeks in, there are a few different ways it might have gone. You may have discovered your inner Miss Honey and have your very own Matilda following every instruction with the greatest gusto and complimenting your every attempt at a lesson round the kitchen table. ‘Mother,’ your darling daughter may chime. ‘I very much admired the way you ensured that the resource you provided stretched my abilities but also built upon knowledge I’ve already acquired.’ Well done you, if that’s you.

You might be winging it, but doing okay. You’re using the stuff school has given, and you’re making your own way too, and you have good days and bad days. You have moments where you would like to swear loudly into the fridge, but also moments where you think ‘I nailed that bit!’ Your kids are on the journey too – emotionally exhausted by the sheer madness of what we’re living through, but they get it. They need to do some school work, and that they understand. You’ll get there.

But you might not be. And that, my friends, is fine too. You might get a ‘Naaah’ to any request to do anything that doesn’t involve a screen. You could be forgiven for thinking your child believes they’re at a (rather cold and overcast) all-inclusive resort. They could cite ‘I can’t do it; I don’t know what to do…’ on a regular basis and leave you exasperated.

Whatever place you’re in, worry not. These tips are here for anyone, novice teacher or not, to help you – the nation’s army of surprise supply teachers – to make homeschooling a success.

Don’t worry about it

Easy to say; less easy to do. Do what you can, and don’t worry about what you haven’t covered. Nobody is expecting your child to be able to accurately recite Shakespeare’s entire first folio when they start year 7 in a few months’ time, so don’t try. Parents: cover what you can, do your very best, and don’t overthink it. If you need to, ask questions of your children (they do know loads) and try to enjoy as much as you can of teaching your own child. After all: when are you going to get this chance again?

Your relationship is most important

Things have changed. Everyone gets that. Life isn’t what it was a few weeks ago, and even the most pessimistic clairvoyant wouldn’t have predicted that early April 2020 would look quite so grim. What’s most important, as we’re all finding out, are people. Our loved ones, whether they be family or friends, are the most important things in the world. However challenging it may be to push your child to graft through number bonds when the sun’s shining and the garden beckons to them, don’t risk damaging your relationship with them. The ‘parent - child’ dynamic genie is out of its box now; this is going to be ‘parent/teacher – child’ for a while, so try and keep those roles separate and don’t frustrate yourself.

Talk about what’s going on

Whilst the devastating impact the virus is having on people’s lives and the world as we know it is clear, that doesn’t mean that children ‘get it’ all. They know some things: they’re not at school, they can’t see their friends, and there are a great many more FaceTime/Skype/Zoom/HouseParty calls than ever before in their short lives. But opening up on what is going on, is important. Age appropriate, of course, and it goes without saying that you know your children best, but knowledge is power…and that might light up a bit of the darkness for them.

Have an eye on the future

We don’t know when we’ll be back (to half quote Arnie), but we will. For some children, they’ll fall straight back into the river of school and get caught in the flow within seconds. Some won’t, though. Some will go back to a different school without the usual transition visits and preparation that every other year group since the dinosaurs were kicking about have had, and that’s something to be mindful of. Talk about what their hopes and fears are; talk about what to expect, and don’t shy away from telling your own stories of school – we’ve all got them, whether we like them or not – to help them see that this stuff happens to everyone…it’s just that this year group have been handed a particularly special bunch of circumstances!

Bounce back

Things are going to go wrong. Of course they are. Forcing your personal training business, your ten year old’s school life, every meal, social interaction and encounter into one house for a period of…who knows…is going to be tough. There will be moments of wonder and joy…but there’ll be moments of sadness and anxiety. They might blame you for what’s going on…purely because you’re the nearest person to blame. But what’s most important, and what will help your child to bounce back both now, and in the future, will be the power of wiping the slate clean, talking it through, and talk about how much you care about them. Resilience can only be grown and tested through adversity – and now we’ve got a good chance to work on that.

Above all, enjoy it, and pace yourself. Use your daily exercise to free your mind, if you can.  This newly formed nation of ‘home schoolers’ could last for a week or it could last for few months - so establish a routine, make sure you separate ‘work’ and ‘school’ as best you can…and good luck. And, you – yes, you – tuck your shirt in.

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