The pandemic shined a glaring spotlight on disparities in education as students faced a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis and an education system ill-equipped to handle the demands of online learning. One thing is for sure: In this new world, parents and educators must work together more than ever to help our kids fare well academically, socially and emotionally.
We spoke to a group of engaged teachers and parents of children in public, private and independent schools to ask about the lessons learned over the last year and how they plan to implement those lessons for this school year. Their responses, collected in the following vignettes, offer insights that can help us advocate for our children and consider myriad ways to partner with teachers and school administrators.
Tamryn Wilkins, LAUSD elementary school teacher, parent of a high school student and recent high school graduate:
It is always helpful for parents to establish an open and honest line of communication with me as it relates to their child. That need became even more critical as schools had to quickly pivot to online learning. If there is past and/or present trauma in the home, [knowing this] helps me — and other teachers — understand behaviors and why students may have difficulty accessing the curriculum. The pandemic made educating children a true parent/teacher partnership. It was imperative that parents help prioritize schoolwork and assist with learning when teachers could not be there to personally instill the value of paying attention during instruction. They also should encourage their child to ask questions if they didn’t understand the schoolwork and insist that they complete class and homework with integrity. Even after a tough school year, a home atmosphere that is conducive for learning and includes a work area with school supplies, and daily check-ins to see what the child has learned (and a backpack check), goes a long way to ensure future success.
Michele and Colvin Nakazawa, parents of two high school students:
Before last year’s school shutdown, one of the ways we partnered with our kids’ teachers was through weekly progress reports that were helpful in identifying problem areas, or if the kids fell below a certain GPA. If there was ever a concern, we emailed their teachers directly to see how they could improve, whether it was by asking if they could complete extra credit work or have them stay after school for tutoring. The teachers have always been responsive in getting the kids the help they needed. We taught them to advocate for themselves, which is important as our youngest [enters] high school.
Nikea and Damani Johnson, parents of children in middle school, elementary school and preschool:
We have raised our children in traditional public, parochial and now an independent school. One thing that has always been a top priority, regardless of the type of school or their academic needs, has been to form a partnership with their teachers because it creates a very powerful synergy and understanding of who our children are as students and people, what our expectations are as parents and how we can connect our combined efforts of what is happening at school and in our home to create the best educational and developmental experience for our children.
The pandemic was stressful, indeed, but our children did well during the year of distance learning because of the partnerships we built early on with their teachers that included honest, productive and regular communication that allowed us and the teachers to receive specific insights into challenges they may be having in the classroom, as well as social-emotional developments that may be occurring at home. Open and honest relationships with teachers allows for timely and effective strategies that support our children’s development and academic progress. Regular communication also means our children are always aware that the expectations we set inside the classroom and at home are the same and designed for their greatest benefit.
Byron and Yvonne Rose Jackson, parents of a college sophomore and 8th grader:
The pandemic was challenging, but our middle school daughter was well-prepared because of the valuable lessons we learned from a previous experience with our oldest daughter. As the youngest was transitioning from a public elementary school to a private middle school, she was diagnosed with an auditory disability. We were assigned a LAUSD liaison whose job it is to work with private schools to help get students on the right path. The elementary school principal was just as surprised as we were to learn about this service. The liaison, in partnership with the middle school resource teacher, developed an Individual Education Plan (IEP). We were notified regularly about her development through reports and teacher communication. When the pandemic hit, we took it upon ourselves to share information from our older daughter’s previous school with the head of school so the school would be able to pivot and help students during this difficult time. Despite the circumstances, and a move to a school better suited for her, she earned honor roll.
Allison Curry, elementary school administrator, parent of a high school student:
The equity gaps that we [educators] knew were there were exposed to the greater community during the pandemic. Parents were asked to homeschool with the support of teachers, and that put a significant strain on parents and teachers. My students did not have home environments conducive for learning. Multiple siblings on devices in one room with poor internet service made it difficult for them to master the content. I can say, however, that some students thrived because of the independent environment of online learning. Parents now have greater insight about ways to help their children.
Prior to the pandemic, my son and I were able to identify his ideal learning environment and find a school that supports his needs and works for our family. Small class sizes and no homework were two of the components that were most appealing to us. As a single parent, not having to spend our quality time fighting over homework is a gift. His teachers and I are in communication, and if there’s ever a concern on either side, the three of us work together to identify the problem, formulate a plan to solve it and monitor his execution. My son takes the lead as he is responsible for the end result, and his teacher and I support him in the process.
As an educator, I recognize that I am more informed than many parents, and most do not have the luxury of choosing the ideal school for their child. It is in these circumstances that the teacher and child must do the majority of the heavy lifting with respect to academic achievement.
The student population at the school where I work is a Title I school, with 100% of the students qualifying for free lunches. In an environment such as this, parents want what’s best for their child and hope for positive outcomes, but time, money, education attainment and, more often than not, language are barriers for them. In these cases, an experienced teacher is paramount to a student’s success. We must not only be experts with curriculum instruction but also be able to form a relationship with the student to get them to recognize the importance of the material we are delivering and why they should care enough to learn it.
The pandemic taught us that our society is changing more rapidly than ever, and it is necessary for school districts to change the ways they do things as well. A child can ask Siri for random facts such as the dates of the Civil War, but identifying the causes and perspectives of each side and how the country and their lives continue to be impacted by it requires students to think critically. Those are the types of skills teachers need to be teaching, in addition to problem solving and effective means of communication and collaboration. These skills, along with creativity, will be crucial to student success in the future.
Schools of the future must not only educate students, but also parents. Requiring a parent to support with homework when they are working 18 hours a day is unrealistic. My parents’ main concerns are keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table. As such, their ability to support their child academically will look differently than mine. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for education collaboration. For all students to succeed in the future, there will need to be clear expectations, as well as plans of execution for students to thrive even in a pandemic.
Sherri McGee McCovey is an L.A.-based writer, New York Times best-selling author and television producer.