‘I am not a teacher. What am I going to do?’

Education / Featured Sliders / Lifestyle / Stories / May 12, 2020

Mothers tackle challenges as they take on education at home

Story by Nina Todea
Photos by Julie Smith

Three-year-old Hayden Varner just wasn’t having it anymore.

He was used to routine and the safety that came with it. He was used to his naps at a certain time, his blanket laid a certain way. And when his mom, yet again, didn’t do it right, he broke down and cried.

“I couldn’t figure out what the deal was,” said his mother, Ashley Varner.

Only after her son stopped crying and calmed down did she figure it out: “I wasn’t putting the blanket on him like the day care lady did when he would lay down for a nap.”

When the Jefferson City School District temporarily closed its doors March 18 amid fears of the coronavirus spreading, the shuttering was just that — temporary.

Ashley Varner and her daughter Justina share a laugh as Ashley helps her with her fourth-grade writing project.

And although the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services didn’t close but instead loosened regulations in child care facilities, attendance dropped. Children were staying home.

Not even a month later, on April 9, Gov. Mike Parson ordered the state’s public and charter schools to close for the remainder of the academic year. Remote learning would continue.

At home, parents were left with a daunting task.

Nakole Wooley watched as the news broke with a heavy heart for her first-grader, Landry.

“I did cry. … I cried because there’s no closure for those students or for the teachers. And I was like, ‘OK, how am I going to do this for another six weeks?’”

Speaking over the phone April 7, just three weeks into remote learning, Varner’s deep sigh crackled over the line.

“It’s been a challenge. I’m not going to sugarcoat this in any way,” she said. “It has been a real challenge.”

———

Varner’s two school-aged daughters, Claire, 8, and Justina, 9, miss their teachers at North Elementary in Holts Summit. The

Hayden Varner, 3, enjoys blowing bubbles with mom, Ashley, while playing outside with his sisters during a break from their online classes.

phone and frequent video calls from their teachers help, but it’s not quite the same. Neither is learning by paper packet or through online resources. Even the sunflower seeds sent home to grow and learn about the plant life cycle don’t necessarily make up for the sudden separation of teacher and student.

Remote learning is new territory for everyone.

The Jefferson City School District acted quickly to get materials home to parents, sharing information for iReady, an interactive online learning tool the students had already been using at school for core subjects, and sending Google Chromebooks and library books home. Not forgotten were the special subject teachers — art, music, physical education, etc. — who shared links and coursework calendars with parents.

Varner, who is executive director at the Jefferson City Public Schools Foundation, said she believes the district set students up for success by providing the materials so parents could in turn provide the framework.

“That’s really the sense that I’m getting from the district. I’m more of a support. I’m not necessarily the teacher that is teaching new concepts,” Varner said. “What I’m doing is reinforcing what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it to this point.”

Still, much of the details were left up to the parents. Does drawing with sidewalk chalk count as an art lesson? How about a walk in the park pointing out different plant and animal species for science? Can a dance party count for music and physical education?

With their mom, Leslie Sebastian, watching, brothers Reed, 3, and Drew, 7, take turns on the hopscotch drawing on the family’s driveway.

Leslie Sebastian says yes. She and her 7-year-old, Drew, a first-grader at Pioneer Trail Elementary, quickly got creative, finding items around the house to make music or taking to the driveway for a game of hopscotch.

The subject that’s stumped many parents, however, is math, forcing them to think outside of the box. Sebastian brought in building blocks as a visual aid. Wooley and her son, Landry, dumped out pennies to count when he ran out of digits on his hands. And Varner refreshed her knowledge on long division.

“Now, I know it sounds silly, but it’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and done long division how I remember to do it. The whole joke — are you smarter than a fifth-grader? I don’t know,” Varner said with a laugh. “I try to be creative in explaining how division works.”

While math for first- and fourth-graders may land in one general ballpark, math for a high school junior is a completely different game.

Ciara Wright juggles numbers for a fifth-grader, a sixth-grader and a high school junior. Her daughter, Haeven, 17, is a junior at New Bloomfield High School, and her two younger children attend New Bloomfield Elementary.

Fifteen years have passed since Wright graduated in 2005. The math, she said, is “very, very different” from when she was in school.

“I can’t do their math. That is one thing I have learned since my eldest started school,” Wright said.

When it comes to her children’s math homework, she relies on their teachers, who are generally only available for a window of time per day. For the most part, it has helped, Wright said. But when there are additional questions, especially for science, she turns to Google.

Wright sighed.

“I don’t remember it from school — I have to use Google a lot to help out,” she said.

———

What might be a difficult task for even a teacher to complete is made all the more strenuous for a mother balancing teaching children, working from home and — in many cases — the general responsibilities of the household such as cooking, cleaning and laundry.

What has helped Varner the most is enforcing a routine. She and her husband have made sure to keep their children on schedule, waking them up at 6 a.m. And getting them to bed by 8:30 p.m. at the latest.

It’s not summertime, she stressed. It’s still the school year.

Ashley Varner assists daughters Claire with her homework while Justina, at right, works on her writing project. Claire and Justina are in second and fourth grade, respectively, at North Elementary School and are continuing their studies at home while they’re out of school.

“It’s a time to learn — plus I’m tired at night, let’s be real,” she said. “I want to go to bed and get that rest, too.”

Within that daily time period, she’s learned to be flexible, encouraging her children to take breaks from sitting at the table. Children aren’t meant to sit still, she said, and “learning can happen anytime.”

What’s most difficult is finding a time to sit down at her own computer to answer incoming emails and show up for Zoom meetings. Her husband is an essential worker who still goes into work each weekday. She’s an essential mother. Closing the door to her bedroom while on a Zoom call hasn’t always ensured she won’t be interrupted.

A few weeks into remote learning, Sebastian and her family were still finding their groove.

Drew’s first-grade teacher, Jessica Brewer, had suggested setting goals. Sebastian took it to the next level, dragging an old whiteboard out from the basement and marking out a handful of activities for each day.

“My initial reaction was, ‘I am not a teacher. What am I going to do?’” Sebastian said. “By the time the second packet came around, I was like, ‘Yeah, I got this. I can do this.’ … I still don’t know if I have it all yet, but I’ve got a plan in place.”

It helps that her son is proactive and wants to learn, she said, but she still found herself getting up earlier than she normally would for work and working past her usual timeframe while balancing her new responsibility.

The constant contact with Brewer has been a life-saver, too, from Google Hangouts to emails and phone calls. Sebastian said it frees up her time when Brewer reads the students a book over video, and it helps her first-grader miss his teacher and peers a little less.

Wooley, whose son Landry is also in Brewer’s first-grade class, said she’s appreciated the engagement. She was initially concerned she wasn’t getting through enough of the material, but after speaking to Landry’s teacher, she was reassured she was doing her best for her child.

Having a team of teachers just a call away provides comfort — and accountability.

“(The teachers) put their time into it. We need to put the time into it and make sure that we’re doing it right on our end also,” Wooley said. “We can’t miss this opportunity to continue educating them.”

———

The mothers are taking the new situation week by week.

Drew Sebastian, 7, draws in his family’s driveway with chalk.

“I’ve realized I need to do some self-care and give myself a whole ton of grace. … I feel like I’m doing three full-time jobs right now,” Varner said. “What I’m learning is that it’s OK to not get all the things done.”

One night a week, Wooley leaves the house.

She’ll take a drive and talk on the phone or park down the street and spend a moment on FaceTime with a friend. Her husband steals some time away Sunday nights to play poker with friends. They used to have a babysitter once a week for date night and twice in the mornings to run errands. They don’t have that anymore.

It’s not that having the children at home isn’t nice — it is, Wooley promised — it’s just that it’s challenging. She and her husband have had to figure out new ways to work as a team.

Even though her son has wanted to be homeschooled all year, Wooley said, it took a moment to switch over. As the weeks passed, Wooley watched Landry become more confident. He takes the initiative now and seems to be thriving in it, she said.

Not everyone feels the same, and that’s OK, Wooley said. Every parent loves their children and wants to do what is best for them. No one expected what happened. She advised mothers to not compare themselves to others.

“Because comparing? Oh, that is a way to make a mom feel horrible quick,” Wooley said.

Even before New Bloomfield released students, Wright and her husband had made the decision to pull their children out of classes if the district didn’t plan to. While she said her family is taking the pandemic seriously and not leaving the house unless absolutely necessary, she vowed to not let it overwhelm her.

“I just told the kids, ‘Don’t let it overwhelm you. Don’t let it stress you out because then it starts to affect our mood, it starts to affect our bodies,’” she said. “Right now, I am at peace with how this is. I decided in the beginning I wasn’t going to let this control our life.”

And in Varner’s household, she and her husband, a counselor by trade, sat their two girls down to talk about what they were feeling.

“Sad and angry is what I’m getting. Nobody is happy about not being able to see their friends. Nobody is happy about not going to their birthday party,” Varner said. Or Girl Scouts. Or ballet class. “The list goes on and on and on. … There’s some tears, you know?”

She’s had some rough days as well.

Hayden Varner, 3, enjoys blowing bubbles with mom, Ashley, while playing outside with his sisters during a break from their online classes.

“You know what it reminds me of?” she said she asked her husband one day. “Maternity leave. You stay home 10-12 weeks or however much … and those first couple of weeks are so overwhelming, and you can’t leave the house. It’s just the constant demand and need of this newborn baby. And then after a couple of weeks, you start to get your feet on the ground a little bit.”

She was comforted by a realization she had one day: Parents, she said, are teachers by nature.

“We have to take this little infant that doesn’t walk or talk — all it does is cry and poop and sleep — and make it into a human,” she said. “It takes a village, but we are their first teachers.”

———

On April 11, Sebastian’s 7-year-old celebrated his birthday at home with more than 50 cards pouring in through the mail. Not a single card was a store-bought duplicate. Some were from friends and family, and a handful were from his classmates.

Sebastian had shared her idea of brightening Drew’s birthday through cards to his teacher as another way to keep the students connected. She figured other families would appreciate the notion as well.

She was right.

After asking parents, Brewer made it a plan to continue the birthday cards throughout May.

The experience was a sliver of happiness for Drew, who excitedly checked the mail every day. Even though he didn’t get the chance to see his friends in person, he was content with the cards, his mother said.

And it will be a birthday to remember.


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