It is likely that all of you reading now are under some type of self-isolation situation, wherever in the world you may be. I know the situation isn’t looking particularly rosy, and for some it is outright gloomy. It is a hard thing to be going through for everyone, for some, certainly, even harder than for others. My experience has been less severe than for most, partly due to the fact that I had quit my teaching job already a few weeks before the lockdown began, to be able to spend more time and effort with my family, partly to be able to have some time to do what I really love doing: writing. So I was already mentally ready to spend a lot more time at home and doing exactly what I’m doing right now. The other reason why it hasn’t been too stressful is because my husband can continue to work from home, and although it took a few weeks for him and all of us to adjust to having him work from home 24/7, we have adjusted, and I think we’re now following a pretty comfortable rhythm that works for all of us. But I would like to think that other factors came into play, and that’s what I’d like to share with you, in case it might help you find some ease in these unusual times.
I started giving my kids small assignments every day, about a month ago, and as soon as the School Board organized online schoolwork for the kids to do, we simply added that to it. Because the situation is resulting in added stress for many families, teachers are incredibly flexible, and only gave small assignments and general guidelines, rather than rigorous homework and class-like structure. This has allowed me to be able to give my kids freedom in which classes they wanted to concentrate on first, for how long, and with what frequency. I’m a little of a mixture between a Tiger mom and a Free-range mom. I believe I need to challenge my kids to go beyond what they know are their abilities and get out of their comfort zones to be able to improve and grow their self-esteem and confidence, as well as to perfect their skills. At the same time, although I am a total Swiss person and love schedules and clearly defined rules, I have learned a lot from more holistic and “natural” ways of teaching.
My Native American mother and her Mi’kmaq culture, and the Rudolph Steiner approach to teaching, both emphasize respecting the integrity and curiosity of the child, allowing them to experience and observe. This way they learn more organically and naturally than in strict classroom settings. From my readings on play and other forms of pedagogy, as well as my decades of experience as a teacher (I’ve taught everything from Primary to University level courses), as well as through life with my own kids, I’ve learned that respecting the child’s interests, and giving them freedom of movement within safe boundaries, goes a long way. It allows for mistakes to be built upon in a safe environment, which is a very effective way of learning. In my classes, as at home, I don’t mind discussing things that are seemingly unrelated to the subject. I can always bring them back around to the subject, by creating a side-connection that will keep them engaged, allow for growth, and secure a healthy relationship based on mutual respect. This also inadvertently helps in seeing how seemingly completely separate aspects of our lives are, in fact, connected, even if only tangentially.
I interviewed once at a Steiner school in Switzerland, and I would have begun teaching there, had we not decided as a family to return to Libya once elections took place. My interviewer invited me to watch him teach a French class to his grade 9s. In this class he began talking about an article that he had found in a newspaper on how bees were dying in large numbers. Somehow, he was able to get all kids talking, in French, about nature, bees, politics, economics, science, the food chain, and also learning new French vocabulary! The kids got an entire French lesson simply by talking about aspects of their actual lives that was, not incidentally, related to their other classes. This is what happens when you have a well educated teacher who has interests far beyond his own subject of expertise, who is curious and loves to share. If he is respectful and generous with his expertise with colleagues the learning environment becomes a syncretic and synergetic one. This means a holistic approach to teaching, a collaborative environment, and a balanced relationship between colleagues and students. Teachers thus collaborate to make the entire school day interconnected by an overriding theme. I wanted to teach Spanish at the Rudolph Steiner school, because I have a PhD in Spanish literature, but they hired me to teach English, why? “Because you lived in an English speaking environment and we want our students to learn from people who can understand and appreciate the humor and culture of the language they’re teaching.” Not having lived or even visited a Spanish speaking country myself, I could not disagree, and I appreciated the subtle, but important nuance that this school had placed on the notion of learning.
So this is the background I bring to my “homeschooling.” The kids need to complete the assignments that the teachers give them, I add to it Arabic, Qur’an, and Deen (Islamic teachings) each day, and anything else they might need to be able to completely understand what they’re asked to complete, and then call it a day. I prefer to give them these assignments in the morning. I set up their work on the dining room table with their names, and they complete it on their own. I just check that it’s done, and they ask me if they don’t understand something. This allows me the two hours of quiet that I need in the morning to take my own live online Arabic classes that I’ve been following for the last six months or so, and which I hope to complete in the next four months. It is a highly condensed course, and requires 100% of my attention. The better I focus on my class, the less I need to study outside of the class. So being able to close my door and study with my Egyptian teacher online for those two hours, leaves the rest of the day open for me to do anything else that needs to be done with my kids. If my kids are able to be self-sufficient in their studies, and can be relied upon to complete their tasks (which I’ve been diligently following to make sure they know they’re accountable for it), I let them play their turns on technology (Playstation, Nintendo, computer), which can be doubled if they go out of their way to perform extra well on their academics, or complete their work diligently and carefully in less time. When this happens they get other perks, and I am able to spend more time writing. We never give more than double their turns, because that’s just ridiculous, three hours of electronic games per day cannot be good, it just can’t.
The rest of the day is spent reading, talking, playing board-games, playing with toys, shooting hoops in the front yard, or bouncing on the trampoline in the back yard. They play pretend games with each other, and they help me with home chores. I don’t have daughters, and my kids are four between the ages of ten and sixteen, so they can all participate in helping out, especially since it is not expected in the culture my husband comes from. I grew up with a brother and a sister, my sister and I did most of the work, because we are the oldest, but also because we are girls. My brother pitched in here and there, and got more involved once sis and I moved out, and then got to go to military, where he had to learn the hard way how to take care of himself and get everything right. My husband never had to do anything at home either, until he went to university in a foreign country and suddenly had to figure out how to do everything on his own. So he appreciates that I’m involving our boys in housecleaning, because he knows it will help them when they will need to be self reliant and independent. It also helps them to appreciate the time and effort that I put into their meals, their clothes, their living spaces. They are therefore more caring and respectful of my time, and try their best not to undo my efforts by being sloppy, messy, or inconsiderate. They also take a lot of pride in knowing that they had a hand in making the home look nice, clean, and tidy, or the food look and taste as good as it does. Hopefully this will also set them up for being more caring and considerate husbands and fathers.
Finally, I wanted to share with you one element that I’ve learned a lot from that most of you probably, fortunately, have never had to experience, but might find yourself overreacting should it be taken away. It’s a good idea not to put all your eggs in one basket. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. But have you ever considered it in terms of services also, not just physical objects? You know you don’t want to put all your money in one stock, or stuff all your clothes in one suitcase, or put all your fresh parsley in one dish. But what about your energy? How much of your energy is invested on reading, writing, communicating online? Do you have physical books? Do you have other non-internet or non-technological ways to spend your time? Do you knit, sew, play games? What if the electricity went off? Would you have a melt down? Then you’re probably too dependent on it.
I lived in Libya for seven years, some of this time was during turbulent civil war. We sometimes went days without electricity or water, and sometimes this included the internet (not all internet outlets are dependent on electricity, as you probably already know). We knew this when we moved into our condo, so we bought a combination stove that worked with gas and electricity, giving us the option. Most households have gas stoves, but I didn’t have anyone to change my gas tank if my husband wasn’t home, so I wanted the flexibility. We would fill 6 and 7L bottles at the mosque or at my parents in law’s house, both of whom have wells, to do our cooking and cleaning. Here in Canada, we would have to purchase bottled water at the store if the water were cut, but thankfully it rarely happens, and when it does, it’s usually only for a few hours. Through difficulties you learn to get creative and you build resilience, and this is what I mean by not putting all your eggs in one basket. Be kinder with yourself, and with others, not everything you have is a given, not everything you use is necessary. Diversify your sources of entertainment, fine tune your creativity, and use this time to better understand how all these givens can become and perhaps have become crutches that prevent you, in some way, from being your most wholesome self.
Another very important point, which I have not touched upon yet, but is really quite important. Is to take care of your physical bodies through the food you eat and the exercise you do. Make sure you drink plenty of water. In fact, you might want to pick this time to substitute your juice consumption with water. Water hydrates you (dehydration can cause fatigue and all sorts of health and other problems), without all the added sugars that you frankly don’t need. Don’t binge on unhealthy foods, as this is a sure way to decrease your energy and productivity levels, and may put you in an even deeper hole you’ll have to dig yourself out of once this is over. I spend a lot of time at home anyhow, but these weeks I found myself needing to exercise twice as much to be able to consume all the energy I felt I still had at the end of the day. I couldn’t sleep simply because I hadn’t consumed all my energy accrued through the day, and I needed to eliminate it to be able to get a decent night’s sleep. Food consumption (what types of food and how much), exercise (from yoga relaxation to HIIT), and meditation (praying five times a day or simply doing more deep self-reflection), are all part of you and they all work together to keep you healthy. If you balance them well, you can continue to grow mentally, improve spiritually, and persevere physically, and it all adds up to a fuller, more meaningful and fulfilling life.
As a last point, I hope that we can all come to appreciate what we have more, and try to share it, even if it isn’t much, with others who don’t have it. Spend some extra time talking to people you know who don’t have kids and might be completely alone at home, literally in isolation. Support the small businesses around you who may be struggling to pay the rent on their deserted places of commerce, encourage them to sell online, or to sell gift cards to be redeemed after the lockdown is over. That might not be much, but it might just make enough of a difference between reopening and declaring bankruptcy.
Stay safe, stay healthy, stay at home, and may you come out of this a better, stronger version of yourself!