Back-to-school expectations must be adjusted this year

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I can’t believe my kids are going back to class in a week. This summer has gone by too quickly, and now I’m tagging school supplies, washing backpacks, and attending orientations. Every morning I find my inbox flooded with emails about bus schedules, updated policies, and reminders. Our summer happiness quickly turns into another year of pandemic education.

Unlike past years, when I deliberately worked to keep track of my children’s grades and check with their teachers, this year there will be very little. As many of us have been reminded over the past year and a half, very few things matter as much as the mental health and general well-being of our children. During this school year, I plan to fire or cut back on anything that doesn’t really matter academically and instead make sure my kids are doing really, really well.

We and our children have been through so much. Between distance and in-person learning, or sometimes a mixture of the two, the debates over masks and vaccines and the confusion, the loss of extracurricular activities and the constant changing of guidelines, we’ve all lost our minds. The teachers, many of whom are parents themselves, have become some of the pandemic’s superheroes, but they never asked for the role. Instead, like all of us, they were thrown into a hurricane of confusion and expectation.

If distance learning has taught parents anything, it’s that being a teacher isn’t that easy. They are overworked and underpaid. We just got a taste of what it means to be a teacher, and whoa, most of us left jobs we were never hired to do.

Knowing what we know now, with some pandemic experience under our belt, I have to share this. Parents, we have a duty to fulfill this year. It’s simple: Fire.

The most important part of our children is not their knowledge of books, nor their test scores. Our children have not fallen behind and need to be pushed to catch up. Think about it. Behind who? We have to extend a lot of thanks to our children who have endured a traumatic and continuing situation. In addition, our children’s teachers need the same level of empathy, recognition and support.

I really hope the pandemic has taught us that what matters most is that our children are doing well mentally, emotionally and physically. They should know that it is better to focus on rest over equations and movement over bulletins. Healthy peer engagement is so much more important than writing a perfect research paper. We need to set an example for them, encourage them to do their best, while giving them a lot of support and encouragement. Doing your best and going above and beyond, to your detriment, is not the same thing.

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Before you piss me off, DM me that what I’m saying is fine for the little ones, but you have a high school student, I already know that. Yes, preparing older children for life after high school is important. I am a former university professor. I’ve had a lot of students who couldn’t function well without their parents (and teachers) responding to their every whim. I also had students who were very successful because they were prepared. Life after high school absolutely matters, but if the only thing these almost young adults are prepared for is education, parents fail. I have seen students collapse due to unmet mental health needs.

Children of all ages need to know that they care about everything. The overall health of our children doesn’t just depend on their measurable intelligence. I have had brilliant students who went into mental breakdowns after being pushed by themselves and their parents to be successful at all costs. Although I did not teach during a pandemic, I have come to understand that without general well-being, children do not succeed, no matter how admirable their surrogacy is.

By relaxing and drastically reducing our efforts, we teach our children to do the same. It is neither healthy nor useful to charge through our emotions and experiences, to avoid the realities of schooling in a pandemic, and to move forward as if nothing had happened. Much has happened and is still happening. Every day we receive a wealth of new information about masks, vaccinations and what each school district is doing about it.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had days when the pandemic hit me. I’m frustrated, I’m confused, I’m angry, and I’m heartbroken. If I feel these emotions, why shouldn’t my children, who wear a mask six hours a day while being supposed to learn, not be allowed to feel them too? None of us could have ever imagined, or ever wished for, this pandemic. At a minimum, we need to make room for the ups and downs that come with trying to learn during this time.

Yes, the pandemic has challenged us to be more flexible than ever. This is not a bad thing. But pushing ourselves to the brink of total collapse, always demanding that our children do and be more, and the same demands on teachers, is simply not sustainable. What if we all just signed a unified authorization form that says it’s okay to do the bare minimum, leave room for creativity and rest, and give up the rest? What if we granted grace every moment instead of criticizing and demanding?

I hope that despite all the obstacles, this school year will be both memorable and joyful for my children, and yours too. I hope our children learn to fully honor themselves, to listen to their bodies, and to recognize that their grades don’t matter as much as their well-being. I think it can happen, if the parents show the way.


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