Don’t Abandon Our Littlest Learners…
..The Ultimate Test of Work-Life Balance in the Era of COVID
We are on our 13th day of social distancing in Case de Amontillado, the official name of the Strange-Isis abode. Some day I’ll write about why we named our house after my favorite macabre tale when we bought it two years ago, but today it seems eerily appropriate. I haven’t been out of Casa de Amontillado in any meaningful way for the last 13 days. I’ve become an Iowan Fortunado of sorts, walled in with several bottles of fortified wine. We’ve been practicing an extreme form of social distancing, in part because Strange is a health care provider working with immuno-compromised patients and it just seems wrong to be cavalier. For now, allow me to opine about what I have learned as a mother and professor over these last 13 days.
As a member of society, staying in my house is merely an inconvenience for me. It seems wrong to put someone in the position of fighting for their life for convenience. So, walled in we’ll stay until this passes.
As an educator, this is seriously fucked up.
I’ve got two major groups of people whose education I am responsible for – my undergraduate and graduate students and my own K-12 aged children. I have been absolutely astounded and dumbfounded at how different our expectations are as a community for these two groups.
Typically, I can hand off the educating of my children to the school system. They do the heavy lifting and I head into the economy. I know exactly how good I have it. My children attend some of the best schools in the country. More than 90% of Iowans graduate high school and our kids’ teachers have been outstanding. But, when the public schools closed, this is what we were told:
The District is following the guidance of the Iowa Department of Education, dated March 18, 2020. Per Department guidance, students cannot be required to participate in any form of online learning. The District will not be transitioning courses to an online instruction format. At this time, the District is focused on making technology and resources available to families who wish to use them. Teachers will not be creating instructional programming, sending home assignments, or providing feedback to students during this school closure.
The district is providing stop-gap resources in some areas. They are still providing meals and they are offering Chromebooks and hot spots to elementary families that may not have computer access so that they can stay informed. I appreciate that, but the district will offer no other guidance on how to keep children engaged with learning. I understand not providing a complete curriculum and I understand the rationale to not offer formal online classes. Of course, that would provide an advantage to students with technology resources and a disadvantage to those without. It provides a disadvantage to children whose parents can’t be home with them or who may not be able to help their children learn because of their own education limitations. I think that providing nothing is a bit extreme, but I can at least understand the rationale. Everyone realizes that this is not the end of the world and motivated parents can find ways to engage their children. To their credit, some of my children’s teachers have reached out with learning resources or have personally offered to provide Zoom forums so that the children can still see their friends. I am grateful for all they’re doing.
Contrast that with the response at the university level. To be clear, I am not speaking simply about my university or a single other university, but what seems to be the consensus of how many major universities are handling this. The message that many of us are receiving is that university-level instruction must continue. We must maintain the same rigor we always have. We can’t simply end the semester because some students would miss out on critical information. It is expected that we will translate our courses in a way that we will maintain our grade distributions. We can’t use pass-fail grades because professional schools and some scholarships and financial aid consider GPA. Some of my senior colleagues are remarking that, although we need to shutter our labs, this could be a wonderful time to focus on our writing and increase our productivity.
So, let’s recap. If you’re a K-12 child….
If you’re a university-level student…
And, if you took any one of those situations alone it would be stressful, but manageable. Do you know why I am so mad at the whole thing though? Who do you all think is going to teach all those people?
The part that has me so lit up inside, so very angry, is the fact that there is an unspoken expectation that we should ignore our children, or sit them in front of a screen, and carry on as if nothing has happened. I have yet to hear of an institution saying that they realize the burden that has been placed on families and that they realize that they canot demand normal expectations of productivity. I have not heard of institutions prioritizing the duties of their faculty so that they know what is valuable to focus on and what can be set aside for a couple of months. Instead, there is an unspoken cultural expectation that we should sacrifice our families in order to keep the lights on in the ivory tower.
At a societal level, this is disastrous. I’m a university professor. Any one of my regular internet trolls would tell you that society would not really miss me if I cloistered for a month or two. Strange, on the other hand, is a physician and might be useful right now. By giving non-essential people a break to manage child care, we can give others space to focus on fixing the problem. Instead, we’re negotiating careers and caring for a family of seven and I know that we are a distraction. While I know many of us are grateful to not be laid off, I think we’d also be grateful for clearer expectations beyond our classroom teaching.
I asked a colleague what they thought would happen if we all filed for FMLA and just used our sick leave or vacation time and they stared at me blankly. What if we only did our teaching? If these were normal times, what would we do if we suddenly had a family member that needed around the clock care?
I can’t leave my children to run feral for the next two months. My children are still young enough that they need an active and engaged parent at home most of the time. Children are much more vulnerable to disruptions in their learning and routine. On top of that, they are dealing with new emotional challenges related to disruptions in their social networks. My kids miss their friends. I did an experiment with my eight-year-old TD last weekend. I let her do whatever she wanted (within reason) for eight hours while I engaged in other activities. She fell apart after the first day. She laid in her bed and watched The Voice all day and then cried. I felt her. On Monday and Tuesday, I provided them with some structure and engaged with their learning. TD absolutely thrived. I’ll share in another post exactly what I’m doing with my kids.
There is no doubt in my mind. I cannot leave her and Little I to fend for themselves so that I can review another manuscript. It’s not ethical. At the end of the day, I will make choices that prioritize my students and minimize the fallout. I will scale back other professional activities. Still, I can’t help but feel resentful at the lack of recognition that family is important to.
This will be the ultimate test of my work-life balance. Usually when someone asks me how to aheive “work-life balance,” what they really mean is, “how do I still maximally excel at work while not abandoning my family?’ This time, I’m going to have to make sure I excel at my family while not abandoning my work.
The problem is that even universities don’t care about society as a whole, or their workers’ work/life balance anymore. They only care about their bottom line and their notoriety.
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