Remember when your older brother would pin you down on the ground, take your hands and whap you in the face and ask, “WHY ARE YOU HITTING YOURSELF?? WHY ARE YOU HITTING YOURSELF??”? Ughhhhh. It was the worst. Maybe not as bad as when he would snort up a big ol’ loogie and dangle it above your face before sucking it back up (sorry for anyone eating oatmeal right now), but the “Why are you hitting yourself?” thing used to drive me nuts. It made me feel helpless, frustrated, and not just pissed at my brother, but strangely pissed at myself for hitting myself! How crazy is that?? He actually succeeded in making me ask, “Why am I hitting myself?”. Maybe I was a slow child. Well, I’ve recently realized that there’s a pretty good lesson in that little bit of torture. Especially right now. Ok, not in the torture but the question that asks – “Why are you hitting yourself?
I noticed it this week when I was teaching my kids during our “special time at home”. I became the default homeschool teacher of the family because almost all of my work has dried up due to the current circumstances and Emily needs to keep us afloat right now. So she works in the morning while I teach.
Storytime. We had just finished our morning routine, which includes Emily and me drinking coffee on our laptops while the kids play and eat breakfast. Then, after I read the latest depressing news article it was time to start school.
I really didn’t want to do it. The first few days of this whole homeschool thing were light and fun because it was new and felt temporary. But after week two, the reality set in that I would be doing this every day for the foreseeable future. And I felt a heavy sense of “total bummer” set in. I think it set into the kids too, or maybe my vibe was rubbing off on them. But regardless, we all came to the table that morning looking like angry convicts showing up for community service. And things got worse from there.
Because I felt put-upon, I turned into my version of Mrs. Green, who was my fourth-grade teacher and the strictest, most no-fun person I knew as a 10-year-old. I was short-tempered, overly expectant, and rigid. At one point I got frustrated with Charlie because he refused to focus on his writing exercise, and I must have raised my voice because he got up from the table with tears in his eyes and ran to the bedroom. I found him crying on the bed, saying that I scared him. Woah. Shoot. Time out. I took out my feelings on him. I felt terrible. After lots of hugs and apologies, we called it a day. As I was cleaning up, I started to work out what happened and how I was going to get through this whole mess of a time without turning into Mrs. Green. Why did I lose my temper over a story about a monster eating ice cream? Why am I making things hard for myself? Why am I hitting myself?
I went right to my tattoo, which is where I go when I notice my reactions to things are getting skewed. I wrote a whole blog post about it, which you can read HERE, but the short version is that through something called “Narrative Therapy” I learned how to deal with my negative roadblocks. I have a “pipe cut in half” on my arm, and it reminds me that I have a tendency to see things through a tiny dark tunnel. But if I expand my field of view or “cut the tunnel open” as it were, I can usually see there are more ways to view a situation. So I came up with some ways to reframe my view of homeschool and how I can approach it without setting myself up for failure. Without hitting myself.
I preface this all by saying that it’s way easier said than done. I have to practice it daily and even then I fail a lot. I’m sure it sounds like super ju-ju happy pills, but it works for me. Give it a try. It may not work for you, but even if it helps for a few minutes before reality sets back in, that seems worth it to me. These are things I’m trying to do. Emphasis on trying.
Reframe “I Have To” to “I Get To”
I told you – it sounds suuuper cheesy and lah-de-dah, but just indulge me for a sec. I’ve started trying to pause every morning before I start school and think “When else in my life am I going to be able to spend this time with my kids?”. In normal times, I can’t be in school with them. I don’t get to see how they learn or what they respond to. I don’t get to watch them work through problems or figure out new concepts. But more than that, I will never get to spend whole mornings with my kids after this. However, before you think I’m the most annoying guy in the world, who just bounces down the stairs with a big smile shouting, “Oh Boy! I can’t wait to start school!” let me stop and say this isn’t meant to be a sustainable state of mind. It’s a trick, a tip that I use at specific times. When I feel a fight coming on, like when my kid is refusing to focus and finish an assignment, and I’m about to take my annoyance out, I try to remind myself to reframe it, to remember this is a special time, not a time for me to waste energy on going dark. It usually changes my mood, which then changes theirs. It doesn’t always work, but I’m trying. Dear lord am I trying.
Reframe “I can’t do this” to “This is mine”
These days it feels like we’re in the backseat of a car and the driver has jumped out the door. It’s almost impossible not to bring the outside world into the home. I feel hopeless and anxious all the time. But when I really try, I can actually use homeschooling to fight the whole thing. I try to remind myself that this is one of the few things that I can control, that it’s my little world that I get to create and moderate. I’m slowly finding power in that. Whenever I successfully get my kids to finish a little assignment and move onto the next one, I find that I’m not thinking about the outside world. Instead, I’m getting the endorphins going from achieving a little goal that I set and helped shape. It’s almost like the school day is a little bubble where news can’t reach, where I have control of things, and where I can allow myself to feel happy. I just need to remind myself to indulge in the small little victories and give them more weight than I normally would.
Reframe ” I need you to finish this” to “Sometimes a crab pinches a man’s butt”
This one is probably specific to my situation – I have young kids who are in public school, and they haven’t been given very strict work requirements. Our youngest is in preschool and the oldest is in kindergarten, so they aren’t being asked to pass a bunch of quizzes and specific assignments. Although our teachers are AMAZING and have created helpful and fun online tools for us to follow, I’m able to freelance a bit. And because of that, there can be a feeling that I’m not doing the correct workloads or I’m not giving them enough to do, or they’re not learning things well enough. We’re not doing enough! And while I’m all for structure and curriculum (see my typical school day below), I found that when I put pressure on myself to be a “good teacher,” it’s led to me getting uptight which then leads to fights and friction. So I pause and try to give us all a break.
When I can’t figure out how to get Charlie to focus through a lesson, and I’m about to lose my temper, I remember I AM NOT PROFESSIONAL TEACHER. Why am I hitting myself? We can only do our best. So guess what? This morning after I tried a few times to get Charlie to finish a letter-practice sheet, I just said “screw it” and drew a picture of a crab pinching a guy’s butt. It made him laugh, and he was excited to write the corresponding sentence. And I remembered, duh, kids respond to fun things more than threats and nagging. And I didn’t correct his misspelling, because the little battle I won was worth more to me as a father than I care about being a teacher. He learned some letters without a fight, and I learned that I’m pretty good at drawing buttcheeks.
I also noticed that my focus on my kids finishing certain assignments has been coming from an ego-driven place. Which was super humbling when I realized it. Why did I care SO MUCH if Charlie got through the three pages of math problems that I arbitrarily assigned? Because I wanted to feel like I had done my job, which is insane. This is not about me. I’m not a teacher, and it’s pretty pompous to assume that my version of teaching is the correct one. So, I let go of the reigns a bit, and when I feel myself getting worked up. I give it my best shot and if that doesn’t work I pivot to something else that makes everyone less stressed out. Like a story about buttcheeks or poop. Poop always works. And if it doesn’t, I just bail. IT’S OK TO BAIL.
I guarantee that in ten years, it’s not going to matter if I got my kids to perfectly write a lowercase q while we were in quarantine. It’s going to matter how close we are as a family.
My whole thing right now is just trying to figure out how to make things easier for myself. We’re going to be in this for a while, so how do I keep it going without turning into the worst version of myself? What are the things that I can control so I don’t make things harder in these hard times? How can I keep from hitting myself? I’m learning new things every day and am trying to change my view of it constantly. But I’m also failing constantly. It’s f’ing hard. I have to keep trying these things, otherwise, my kids would be asking why the teacher’s math lesson is having them count the empty beer cans at 11 am. I can do this.
Just because I’m curious about what everyone else is doing daily, I’ll share my ideal school day with you, and please let me know what I’m doing wrong or what you guys are doing to get through this insane time!
Wake up – Kids play while Emily and I drink coffee and catch up on work stuff on our computers. Breakfast is normally 7:30 or 8 am.
8:30 am – Everyone gets dressed! I tried to teach in my sweats and it really pulled me down into the chair. I don’t know why, but it totally affected my mood and reactions in a bad way. So from then on, I insist that we all get dressed for school. Are you guys doing this?
9 am – Reading/Writing. We usually start with Charlie doing sight words that we have on flashcards. We were supposed to be doing this nightly when he was in school, but who has time to do that after school and before bed? So we totally slacked. But now, we’re doing them like 2-3 times a day. Elliot tries to read them too, but she usually just watches.
Then we work on a lower case letter. We ordered some handwriting workbooks from Amazon that have sections for tracing and then sections for writing on your own. We started with ‘a’ and are working through the alphabet. I have Charlie write all the letters that we’ve worked on as a review, then start on the letter for that day. Elliot usually only has the patience to get through a couple traces and then she wants to draw. So she draws through most of the first section of school.
Then I’ll have Charlie write out a few words that start with the letter we’ve learned. It’s a work in progress. His teacher sent us a pdf of these sheets that have an area to draw in and lines for writing. He can do either do a step by step ‘How To’ or a story that he creates. I usually try to get him to do three different steps or parts of the story, but sometimes it’s just one page. Like when a dog barfs.
10:30 am – Snack and recess. Usually 20 min. I’ll sometimes go do a workout with weights during our snack break, because someone has to protect the family from the wolves and bears up here in the mountains.
11 am – Math and more reading. We use number bonds and number sentences. I have never seen bonds before but figured them out pretty quickly. Take that C- in high school math!! Elliot works on counting while Charlie does math. If it’s nice outside, I’ll send her to get a number of leaves or pieces of bark. Then we do adding or subtracting with those. And then she wants to draw again. She really likes to draw.
One more round of sight words then I have Charlie read three little books to Elliot. We’ve burned through all of our Bob Books and the Little Comics ones. They’re really good but I think Charlie is ready for level C. Any recommendations? Also, is anyone else dealing with their kid looking at the pictures instead of reading the actual words? Cheaters! I’ve started covering the pictures so he has to use the words. I’m mean. **UPDATE – After a barrage of comments from informed people, I’ve learned that this is NOT cheating, and therefore will be allowed in my school district going forward. Thank you, Superintendent Henderson**
12 pm – Lunch and recess and DONE.
After lunch, we usually go outside and get some nature time. We can call it P.E. but it’s usually just a chance to feel like we’re not stuck indoors. Emily usually does arts and crafts with them in the afternoon or they help her with a project or they play with legos. And that’s how we end the school day. We feel very lucky that they are young enough that we can really just feel good about playing with them a lot (which we do) and because Charlie is in public school there isn’t a rigid program or a bunch of zoom classes that we have to do, and Birdie is 4 so we feel like building a fort is more important than practicing her letters.
That is like the “goal schedule” by the way, we don’t achieve it every day. In fact, the kids are downstairs right now on the iPad doing a learning app recommended by Charlie’s teacher, called ABC Mouse, because I have to write this post before Friday and Emily is on a conference call with her employees. And guess what? I’m gonna stop early and let them play because I don’t want to teach after writing this. I know that I’d be a Mrs. Green today because I’m tired, so I’m not gonna “hit myself”. And guess what else?? Tonight we’re gonna watch some TV with the kids, which we never did on most weeknights back in real life, but in crazy life, we watch way more tv than normal. And maybe that will change the longer this goes, but we’re totally fine with it for now because we all need joy right now. And guess what else, else??? We’re letting the kids stay up wayyyy later than we did in normal life because they’re sleeping in wayyyy later here in crazy life, which means an extra hour of quiet coffee time before school starts. And that’s why it’s nice to be the principal – I MAKE THE SCHEDULE! HA!
So, we are only 3 weeks in so it’s hard to make big statements. But if we look at this awful COVID thing as just a menacing older brother sitting on our collective chests, grabbing our wrists trying to make us hurt ourselves, maybe we can find little ways to fight back, stay sane and even enjoy some moments as wildly unprepared “teachers”. I know that little victories can seem insignificant in the face of such a daunting crisis, but if we open up the tunnel vision a bit, try to reframe it, we can carve out a little space that the darkness doesn’t own. And I think there’s hope in that. We can own our good times on our terms. If we are gentle with ourselves and our kids, if we take pride in what we’re able to do for our families during this sh*t-storm, if we give ourselves permission to fail and to make things easier for ourselves, if we can stop hitting ourselves, we can make the little victories feel enormous.
In a weird way, we’ve been given an opportunity to spend some important time with our kids, and I know there’s a lot of pressure to get it right, but I’m learning that the thing I want to get right is my relationship with my kids so that after we get through this they don’t remember shouting about math, but laughing about buttcheeks.
Stay safe and keep looking for the silver linings. And the white wine. And if you are a parent turned home school teacher, let’s collectively stop hitting ourselves.