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What’s tougher – helping your child with their maths, or juggling work with home schooling? Either way it’s hard going and some things will just have to give.

by Josephine Graham

Just over a week ago, on the last Friday of the winter half term, my son and I wrapped ourselves up warm and set out on a short excursion along the road to his school, to pick up his home learning pack for the next term.

It was a day of brilliant blue skies and dazzling sunshine, reflected in all directions by the thin layer of snow that had lingered all week. After collecting the pack from a socially distanced plastic tub outside the school’s front entrance, we indulged in a brief detour around the park, but then swiftly returned home, drawn inexorably by my groaning inbox and the 157 uncompleted activities in his ‘Seesaw’ online learning journal.

The next morning, I decided to get organised. So I took the learning pack out and began sorting through the worksheets and handouts.

But in the flow of this very practical task, something unexpected happened. Emotions welled up and I found myself having a little cry.

I don’t weep easily, and through the sobs, it was easy to fathom what had triggered this outburst. Seeing all the worksheets, painstakingly printed out by his teachers for each subject area, savagely confronted me with all my shortcomings as a parent.

A few weeks earlier I had done the exact same task (without the tears!) when, just one day into the new term, English schools switched to remote learning for the current COVID lockdown.

Like a good parent, I had looked through our first pack with my son and neatly filed it in an A4 folder, ready to be accessed over the next few weeks.

We barely looked at it again.

During those six weeks following the Christmas break I was beset with a volume of work that would be challenging to manage in the most average of times. Equalities priorities, staff wellbeing, floods, launching a new Council Plan, preparing for transition to Office 365. Not to mention the small matter of COVID and all the comms joy that brings.

Mentally switching from work mode to home school mode, repeatedly during the day, was a real struggle. Most days I managed to supervise a maximum of one lesson from the work the school provided online. My son also attended a daily Zoom session for his class – but that was pretty much it.

The idea of also sifting through all the printed worksheets to find him more stuff to do was completely beyond me. 

You might think that with all the support from the school, remote learning would be straightforward. Maybe for some, but it just didn’t feel like that for me. 

Is it any wonder then, that the paper hand-outs provoked such feelings of regret, guilt and wretchedness? What a waste of all that effort the teachers had put in. If only I’d done better.

I know I’m not alone

If you’re reading this, like me, you probably work as a public sector communicator. Or if not, you are aware of our work.

So you won’t need me to tell you that the last year, working through the COVID-19 pandemic, has arguably been the most gruelling period of our working lives.

And while relentless is a word, like unprecedented, that has become boring through overuse, the incessant demand for output from communicators is very real.

Like attacking the multiple-headed beast of Hydra, strike one task off the to-do list, and 17 more appear in its place.

Meanwhile, for parents, we are combining this work-based intensity with being asked to provide almost continuous attention to our children. From providing hugs and cuddles on demand, no matter what Webex call you might be on at the time, or answering one million questions about dinosaurs, to the heavy responsibility of maintaining something that resembles their education; the pressure of being switched on as a parent 24/7, while also trying to do your job, is exhausting.

Is it any wonder that it feels like a battle between two opposing forces? And is it really a fight that anyone can win?

So what?

So why am I sharing all this?

I guess it’s just to say… if you have also struggled with the combined responsibility of work, home school, and general parenting during the lockdown, you are not alone.

And, for those of you reading this who don’t have children, while I don’t want to launch a personal pity party, please recognise that for your colleagues who are fortunate enough to have children, this is what life has been looking like recently. It’s been really tough.

What next?

The government announced this week that schools in England will go back to face-to-face teaching on 8 March, and I know a collective sigh of relief will be breathed by many working parents across our nation.

We at least now have an endpoint in sight, and let’s keep everything crossed we don’t see any further lockdowns as we start this new phase of ‘living with COVID-19’.

In the meantime, here are a few thoughts to help put the battle between home school and work into some perspective.

Give yourself a break. Literally. Get outside every day. Take some annual leave. If you worked through the evening yesterday, take an extended lunch break today with your child and go for a walk.

Don’t sweat it if your children haven’t done that much school work. A lot of lessons for younger children seem very repetitive anyway. They will all catch up.

Don’t hold back on cuddles, no matter who is on your Teams/Webex/Zoom call.

Be kind to yourself. Because after I had wiped away the tears last Saturday, I realised something. In every moment during the last term, no matter how deficient my home school efforts may have been, I did my best.

Josephine Graham is internal comms lead and committee member at CIPR Yorks and Lincs. You can say hello on Twitter at @iojosy

Pic by Josephine

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