Learning How to Teach (While Working) from Home: Insights from Wordsmithie’s Tired (Yet Tireless) Parents

homeschooling during covid19

As the coronavirus crisis continues to keep many of us sheltering in place, figuring out how to work from home with kids around is a minute-by-minute challenge for many workers (and their employers). At Wordsmithie, a distributed company celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, we have the WFH part down pat. Adding in kids to the mix makes it much more challenging. Read on to learn how four parents on the Wordsmithie team are rising to the occasion with kids from two to 20 to make it all work (plus, get some fun resources at the end of the post).

Alexandra Kenin (Studio Chief): WFH with an energetic toddler and dog

I’ve worked for Wordsmithie—and worked from home—since 2013. Normally, I have childcare and a dog walker to help me get things done during the day. But, beginning on March 17, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco received a “shelter in place” order from our mayor. Shortly after, a statewide decree swept through California.

Since then, things have been….different! I have an almost two-year-old and now I find myself responsible for his care, as well as for my dog’s walks, while also juggling working all day.

So how am I making it work? Well, in our house, there’s my partner, Brett, and my mom who’s also staying with us for the time-being. I jokingly say that we’ve turned our son, Dylan, into a factory job where we all need to take shifts. I care for him from 7:30–9:30 a.m., my mom is on duty from 9:30–11:30 a.m., and Brett takes over from 11:30 a.m. until Dylan’s naptime, which is from 1:00–3:00 p.m. In the afternoon, we do it all over again with one-hour shifts until Dylan’s bedtime!

It’s a balancing act, for sure. But, breaking up the day into shifts has helped us. For me, for example, I get a solid work block from 9:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., and I can accomplish a lot in that time…if I’m not taking our dog on the hour-long walk she needs every day. The good thing is that Dylan is learning quite a bit just by having us home with him. We’re reading to him, teaching him letters and numbers, and just playing together.

We’re making it work for now, knowing that this too shall pass. (This is going to pass, right?!) In the meantime, I’m enjoying all the family time and watching my son blossom into his own person. He won’t remember this time, but I will.

Alyssa May (Project Manager): Learning as we go (ages 6 and 9)

It’s early April, 2020, and I wouldn’t have expected our lives to be like this…not even for a second! We’re advised to stay in our homes and only leave to get necessities. Schools, restaurants, and most stores are closed. Social distancing has become a common term that is used countless times throughout our day.

My life as a stay-at-home-mom and a part-timer at Wordsmithie has abruptly changed now that I’m also having to homeschool my two children, six and nine years old…indefinitely. “How can I make this work?” I ask myself this question on a daily basis.

Two weeks ago, when this all started, I put together a strict schooling schedule from 9 a.m.–3 p.m., which I displayed on a white board in my kitchen. Math, Science, Reading, Spelling, Handwriting were all in their own time slots. But, then…my plan started falling apart. Emails, phone calls, work, scurrying to find educational resources online, laundry, meal prep, and other factors threw off our schedule. The kids would start getting restless, asking for “recess” or screen time, saying they were bored. I was getting flustered and stressed because my schedule was off and I was losing control! But, then…I reminded myself that we are all in a similar boat…not the exact same vessel, but a similar one. Regardless of how much (or how little) math, science, and geography we teach our kids, they will be fine.

So…fast forward two weeks, and I’m here. I’m no longer creating a strict school schedule. Rather, I’m beginning our school days with the “Word of the Day,” which is a positive word that we have to use or demonstrate throughout the day. We are also doing yoga or exercises in the morning and the afternoon, to center ourselves. Self-care has become more important now than any math equation or writing project.

I also ask my girls to educate ME on something new each day. I’m teaching them real-life skills that they will need to become decent human beings and successful in life. We take family walks, breathe in the fresh air, and appreciate nature. We enjoy family dinners, play games together, and discuss new topics every day. And along the way, we are growing closer and going through this life-changing epidemic together. While I wish that our world was not in this situation right now, I am thankful for what this experience has taught me about teaching and learning from my children. For I, too, am being homeschooled.

Stephen Kent (Managing Editor): Scheduling by trial-and-error is painfully fruitful (ages 9 and 12)

I half expected and feared that I’d be stuck in a Bill Murray-esque Groundhog Day loop during the coronavirus shelter-in-place, but my days have been anything but the same. I, like Alex and Alyssa, write, edit, and project manage for Wordsmithie’s clients. I’m also temporarily full-time-homeschooling (deliberate oxymoron) my two children, ages nine and 12.

As an employee of a distributed company—whose people are spread out AND connected AND inclusive AND productive—I expected the transition to our new normal to go smoothly under a strict schedule that left no room for surprises. I followed the conventional advice circulating in the online eduworld and set up dedicated spaces for everyone to work. I then gave them their assignments, printouts, school iPads, and timers, twice-reviewed THE schedule I needed them to follow, and left them to it. This worked until it didn’t.

I ran into many of the same problems experienced by Alyssa: Boredom, constant interruptions, and incomplete tasks. I asked myself, “What am I doing wrong?” At first, I had no answers. Like many parents would, I then followed a hunch and determined that my kids were feeling spread out AND disconnected from their parents, friends, and teachers. In real terms, THE schedule needed to adapt to accommodate their need to connect. To fix this, we set up dad’s office hours, Hangout playdates with friends, and Zoom classes with their teachers. Again, this worked until it didn’t. Dad’s office hours turned into actual hours of instruction, Hangout playdates cut into school time blocks on THE schedule, and Zoom classes interfered with scheduled play time.

Like the brave Amazon and Instacart workers organizing across the country, the kiddo union in my house presented me with a new option for THE schedule. I’ll be honest and say it was not my first inclination to allow their input into THE schedule. But then I realized (or, more accurately, reality showed me) adherence to the idea that control over MY schedule would protect me from the dreaded loop of days was actually producing chaos and unhappiness in our house.

It was obvious that I needed to be inclusive when it came to developing, modifying, and following THE schedule. So, in came shorter but more frequent blocks of education and free time, plus a longer lunch break. A fragile détente in our personal Cold War was reached—iPads were happily handed over in exchange for completed assignments—and our household began to thaw. The peace is still holding but I can sense we’re heading for another schedule change.

I asked my kids at dinner last night if they felt productive during the day. I got an earful but the gist of it was “no, not in a fun way.” After a long discussion, we decided we needed a schedule that makes us all feel productive in a fun way. What’s that mean, you ask? Well, for our family it means a broader interpretation and use of “education time” and “free time” on THE schedule. Education time today included learning how to make pancakes and assembling a baseball pitchback by reading and following the directions. Free time today included bathing the dog and then explaining what worked and what didn’t work, and also caring for the maple trees and then the boys describing what they observed on the new leaves and in the soil. Like my other teammates who are parents, I, too, am being homeschooled. It’s just different every day because THE schedule keeps changing!

David Bergheim (Chief Strategy Officer): Older “kids” (ages 16 and 20) mean less work (or do they?)

I have it easy compared to Alex, Alyssa, and Stephen. My sons are old enough to (largely) fend for themselves, so I can wander off to odd corners of the house without worrying that they’re going to do something crazy. Then again, my youngest son is 16, so maybe not.

My wife and I survived the toddler years, and the pre-school years. Kindergarten, first grade, you name it, we survived it. But we never faced a homeschooling mandate when our kids were young enough to need constant supervision. The worst thing we endured was the standard 8:00 p.m. announcement from one of the boys that a major project was due the next day, just as their bedtime approached.

But lest you think that I have it easy, please remember that my wife and I are sheltering in place with a teenager and his 20-year-old brother, who is home from college while finishing up a (now online) coding bootcamp. As long as the WiFi connection is working, my older son doesn’t have a problem getting his assignments done. My younger son? Not so much.

In his defense, I was a happy-go-lucky 16-year old boy once, too. When they shuttered the schools here in Tucson—but kept the homework coming—they sucked all the joy out of his life. He can’t see his friends (a bummer), or see his girlfriend (a disaster), and he can’t see himself sitting down at the computer to work on school assignments. Threatening to ground him won’t do any good. We’re all pretty much grounded anyway. So what’s a dad to do?

Good question. If you know the answer, please let me know. I could try standing over his shoulder for hours at a time to make sure he gets the work done, but neither of us like that idea very much. The one thing that motivates him is when he’s engaged in his other passions. Our son had a brief burst of energy after his football coach held a team call. He left that meeting so motivated that we managed to get two completed school assignments and an unloaded dishwasher out of him. It was a banner day.

For those of you with young kids, hang in there, it will get better. Until they become teenagers. Then it will get worse. But it’s still better in some ways. Because kids are, frankly, the best. Even when you’re all trapped inside together trying to work, learn, and stay sane.

Resources you might like…
We hope these thoughts from some of our Wordsmithie parents are useful, or at least brought a smile to your anxious faces. In addition, below are some great resources we’ve come across to help you get through the day(s) as parents of unexpectedly home-schooled kids:

  • Google’s Applied Digital Skills site has resources for parents and others tackling home-based learning (or work). And if your kid’s school uses Google for Education tools, you can learn more about how to use that technology at their new Teach From Home site.
  • Explore.org has a wonderful collection of live-streaming animal webcams to charm anyone (kids and parents alike) needing a break or an instant natural science lesson.
  • For hands-on learning, check out TinkerLab, which features science experiments, crafts, and more for young “makers” and their families.
  • If you have kids aged 2 – 7, visit Khan Academy for Kids for online learning and fun with whimsical characters and interactive lessons designed to attract kids’ attention.
  • Take the kids on a virtual field trip with Discovery or Google (which has Expeditions for students, as well as Google Arts and Culture collections from institutions around the world). And if you want to enjoy the (virtual) great outdoors, try visiting a few National Parks.
  • Enjoy story time with your kids anytime with Storyline Online.
  • For an endless array of learning videos, check out the free YouTube Learning pages.
  • Many PBS stations around the country are reworking their week-day programming to map to local school curriculums. Find out what’s on in your area by going to PBS.org and choosing your local affiliate. You can also visit PBS Parents for more resources (and PBS Kids for videos, games, and other fun, age-appropriate activities).

These are just a few of the thousands of resources out there. Don’t feel overwhelmed! Just do what works for your family. And of course, please stay safe and be well!


What's better than experience and advice from one of our talented Wordsmithie bloggers? Experience and advice from many talented Wordsmithie bloggers! We've banded together to jam on a topic and wish you happy reading.