Back to School: Love, High Expectations, and Flexibility

back to school with love high expectations flexibility

It’s a Monday in the middle of August, and here in San Antonio a lot of schools are going back in session today. I want to offer congratulations to the families that have children going back to school, mostly through distance learning. My kids are at Great Hearts Texas, and they actually started last week, but I have some thoughts about back to school that I hope provide some inspiration for the members of the San Antonio Charter Moms online community. The elements we need to keep in mind for back to school, especially this year, are love, high expectations, and flexibility. So let me explain why I think those three elements are important.

Back to School With Love

When kids go back to school this year, we need to show love to our children by helping them feel safe. These are strange times, and the circumstances are going to be different for each family, but we need to take time to explain about the situation at large to our children and answer their questions. We are all making decisions: Choosing some activities and not others. Who we decide to socialize with—whether that’s extended family, a few families in the homeschooling pod, or a group of neighbors. Whatever decisions you make, you can show love to your children by keeping them physically safe and also explaining what you’re doing so that they feel safe inside.

We also need to show love by treating ourselves and people around us with grace. We’re going to make mistakes. There are going to be times when we feel distracted or preoccupied, and times when it’s going to be harder to concentrate, and that’s true for adults as well as for kids. We’ve been social distancing for almost six months, but it still kind of gets me sometimes. I know I need to give myself grace sometimes for feeling not quite myself. I encourage you to do that for yourself and for your kids, too, because there might be times when they just feel a little off, and they need a little time and space.

Another way to show love during back to school is by being a good listener to your kids’ questions. Developmentally, their concerns will vary at different ages. Maybe they’re wondering whey they need to wear a mask in a certain situation, why they can’t be on campus and see their friends, or why they have to stay a certain distance apart. Even as adults, we have lots of questions, and it’s hard to keep up with the news. Your kids are going to have lots of questions about back to school during the pandemic, and you can show them love by trying to listen and answer as best you can.

A key thing about love is just to say it out loud. You need to say, “I love you,” loudly, to your children and the people in your life. Don’t just assume that they know. Say “I love you” and, not just in words, but show it in your actions as well. However they appreciate love, whether it’s fixing food for them, giving praise for something that they do well, making time to do an activity together that they enjoy, watching a movie or take a dance break—there’s lots of little ways to show love and it’s important to take the time to do it. I urge you say “I love you” out loud to your children: They need to hear it right now, especially, and find those little ways to show that you love them.

High Expectations for Back to School

Another element to shape your thinking about back to school is high expectations. Even as disrupted as things are, we all benefit from high expectations. We all need structure, and back to school is a good time for a reboot. We can add structure by having a sleep schedule, setting aside time for exercise and playing outside, taking screen breaks, and having consistent meal times. Before the pandemic, many of our rhythms were dictated by things happening outside of the family, but now we have an an opportunity express our choices and build the structure that works for us. I hope that that some of those preferences carry forward into the future.

Just as structure is a way to set the foundation for being able to live up to high expectations, so is measuring progress. Whether you’re choosing distance learning or homeschooling, a key aspect of success is just showing up. It’s important to make a plan and stick with it—whether it’s time to sign in for distance learning, or time to focus on homeschooling. It’s hard at first, but it gets easier with consistency and building good habits.

Reaching your goals requires a process to get there. It’s taking a big job, breaking it out into smaller jobs, and working on it in pieces. A lot of skills just take practice. That’s a lot of what kids are doing at home: for foreign languages, practicing the vocabulary and the verb endings; for math, practicing the math facts and doing the multiplication tables. It’s not glamorous, but that’s what it takes to get things done.

We have time on our hands, so how do we use this time? It’s important to choose activities that will lay a foundation for the future. We can focus on things that matter, like making sure that our kids are making progress on literacy and math, because that will open up possibilities for them in the future.  We can make sure the learning feels relevant by talking to our kids about their lifetime goals. Also, we can make sure that they’re getting good at using technology: using the devices or tablets that they get from school, creating with office software, joining video conferences, and learning to touch type. Learning coding can create opportunities for good jobs in the future. Those are some examples of why I think high expectations really matter in these times.

Flexibility for Back to School

We can show love to our kids, and hold them to high expectations, but we also need to be flexible about how the learning happens. Learning is not about the building, the place, or what the structure is called; it really comes down to processes and also having relationships. The process means you’re breaking things into steps, you’re putting in the time, you have the structure and the high expectations. The relationships mean that, whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a mentor, or a tutor, there’s someone that the student knows loves them and has high expectations for them. That person is going to support them along the way, answer their questions, say “I love you,” and do things that demonstrate that love. Those are the keys to success.

Over the summer, we’ve talked about lots of different activities that families can do, and we’ve talked about schools reopening. But today, on a day when a lot of schools are reopening, I wanted to come back to these fundamentals about back to school. What really matters? What essential things are going to get us through the pandemic? My back to school message is to focus on these things: Love—show your children, say “I love you” out loud to them, and answer their questions to help them feel safe. High expectations—have structure, measure progress, show up, turn things in, look at grades, and lay the foundation for what’s going to matter in the future. Flexibility—talk about things that are relevant, whether it’s technology, whether it’s long term goals, and remember that learning doesn’t have to be tied to a particular building or system.

Learning is really about having a process and having relationships so that the the practice gets done and the habits are there. Students need to know that there’s somebody looking out for them. Whether that’s a parent, a teacher, a tutor, or a mentor, every student needs to know that there’s somebody who loves them, who will answer their questions, and who will help them feel safe. Someone who believes in them.

I hope that this back to school message—about love, high expectations, and flexibility—gives you some comfort and inspiration during a really stressful time. I’ve been doing Charter Moms Chats since March and in some ways things have changed since them. In other ways, there’s little or no change—we’re still spending a lot of time at home, we still have to manage our own schedules, and we continue to seek ways to stay positive and find hope. So for those of you whose kids are back to school today with distance learning, I hope it’s a great day and the start of what will be a promising school year.

Charter Moms Chats

Listen to Inga Cotton’s back to school message on Charter Moms Chats.

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Inga Cotton

Parent activist and founder of San Antonio Charter Moms. Raising two children to be independent adults who do good in the world.