New Challenges of the New School Year

By Shyama Parui

Before the first day of kindergarten dawned, my oldest child, who was five years old at the time, woke up at least twice in the middle of the night asking if it was time to get ready. I watched as the bus picked up all the kids from the end of our driveway and through my eyes, my child appeared tiny compared to the gigantic bus. The bus driver smiled at me with a reassuring look, so I made my way to work. At my desk, my mind wandered away from the strategic planning workshop I was planning and fixated on all the possible things that could go wrong on the first day of school. Instead of panicking, I reached for the phone and a kind voice at the other end convinced me that all was well. That moment was marked with both relief and joy.

A few weeks ago, it was the first day of high school and it looked different in more ways than I had ever imagined. After moving to a new house in another school district, we felt kind of lost even though we didn't have to find our way to a physical location. Fortunately, the same enthusiasm for attending a new school was alive as a freshman.

An alarm woke us up, I tried to make the morning special with chocolate chip pancakes for my kids, but at the designated hour, nothing happened. The virtual learning that was supposed to begin was at a standstill. A statewide problem related to North Carolina's schools made it impossible to begin. Frustration and complaints ensued until my husband suggested to both our children that it would be best if they treated it like an extra day off. An aha moment occurred, followed by “yay". This time, however, I was filled with an unusual fear.

No, let's make that plural – fears. I have been thrust into the roles of Principal, Librarian, Cafeteria Manager and a walking Wikipedia. Every morning I wake up wondering what I will be quizzed on and more importantly, where can I hide during my recess. As pajamas have replaced school uniforms, lunch and breaks stretch longer than class time for kids but “me time" for parents, particularly mothers, has shrunk. Occasionally, I get to play teacher leading to frantic reviews of videos from Khan Academy or desperate attempts to revive old memories from my school days. For Heaven's sake, I thought I was done with tests and grades on algebra and grammar. I can see why door signs reading, “E-learning in progress, do not ring doorbell unless you have wine or teach math," have joined the ranks of profound quotes on education.

Jokes aside, traditional methods of teaching have been upended since spring, challenging students and teachers alike. If the ultimate goal of education is to transfer knowledge and skills for young learners to gain wisdom, we are probably lagging behind but it's not because we are incompetent. Today, our generation of parents and teachers are tasked with surviving a pandemic, keeping our students healthy, safe, ensuring that their education continues without being present in a school building, and the list goes on. It is never enough and as committed as we are, I worry that we are slowly collapsing under the weight of these responsibilities.

The current home school scenario is not without merits. Hilarious anecdotes of parents chasing their kids around the neighborhood to get them back in class keep us entertained. In addition to refreshers on geometry, I am acquiring a wealth of information on American history, which I welcome and researching the psychology behind the learning styles of both my children.

I have one child who plans her day like clockwork, but one of them allows her heart to dictate the schedule which results in class work being submitted right at 11:59 pm, seconds before the deadline.

When I have the urge to impose a strict timetable of tasks, I am reminded of the shift in a teenager's circadian rhythm. Does it matter if they sleep and wake up late if they are getting a restful night's sleep and leading a healthy and happy existence?

The joys of such flexibility won't last forever. Our tendency to reward greater productivity and undermine the importance of rest has resulted in multiple sleep and health-related issues. We often see sleep as the enemy, but on the contrary, it may be the very basis of peak performance.

A culture that nurtures education has the power to transform a dull environment into an intellectually stimulating one. My concern about an extended slump in my children's learning was alleviated when our Bengali community, Srishti of Charlotte, sparked a series of digital events. Multiple educational sessions were organized and facilitated by subject matter experts on a voluntary basis.

Middle and high schoolers also got opportunities to teach the younger kids various skills ranging from sketching to coding. Interactive storytelling, photography, Bengali language, and other skills taught through virtual channels enriched days that would have been wasted on television. It was a safe space to simultaneously learn and teach without judgment or pressure.

We could passively wait for things to return to normal, but I would make a case for actively applying the lessons learned by giving education its due importance, compensating teachers for their incredibly tough and complicated jobs and last but not the least, fostering an environment that builds adaptability, scientific thought and creative problem solving.

It is only then, that we will be better equipped to face future crises.

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Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com