Like many parents, I have a complicated relationship with homework. One day I’m reminding my children to get to work – vocabulary doesn’t happen by osmosis – and the next I’m struggling to understand the work myself, let alone find the time to help.
I’ve had nearly two decades of helping my children (now aged 22, 19 and 12) with everything from simple addition to Spanish verb endings. Homework has covered the gamut of straightforward memorization or comprehension, to detailed research of family matters, complete with photographs and tales supplied by me.
There are some things I accept about homework: teachers can’t spend the entire lesson making sure all children keep up and most students need time for new topics to sink in. Unfortunately, however, there are a few items on my dislike list too.
First there’s the dreaded instruction to “Ask a parent to help”. Many of us also work full-time, have other children needing homework help, dinner or a lift somewhere. While we love helping our children learn, we don’t always have the time to build a small scale ark at the end of a long day.
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Inviting parental involvement can also be a slippery slope. My approach is usually to brainstorm ideas then see how much the child can do on their own. But I’m well aware of parents who roll their sleeves up and do 99% of it themselves. Therein lies the dilemma – I don’t want to do my child’s homework for them, but I also don’t want their lovingly created ark to get laughed off the playground just because it looks like a child made it.
An introductory email at the beginning of the school year, spelling out exactly how you’d like us to help our children, would be extremely useful. Do you want to see all their mistakes or should we go over homework, catch mistakes and have them try again? How much of their homework should we help with? Is it okay to write a note on the homework pointing out the exact place where the penny didn’t drop?
My pet peeve is the extra questions or challenges thrown in at the end of a homework sheet. This can range from an extra set of brackets suddenly appearing in the order of operations maths homework, to a newer verb added to the “Use this verb in a sentence” assignment.
It may seem harmless – a good exercise in independent learning, even – but parents have a one in three chance of this ending well. Some children rise to the challenge and give it a go, others are frustrated they can’t do the work, and the last third simply say “Why do optional homework?” and resist all persuasion. Most of us aren’t teachers and simply don’t know how to introduce new concepts or topics without tears – theirs and ours. What’s more, while many children are quite happy to take instruction in the classroom, bristle when their parent tries it around the kitchen table. I get that sometimes it’s a race against the syllabus, but if parents are expected to cover new material, please give us tips on how to teach.
It appears I can no longer do long division and multiplication. Or at least, I can’t do it the way my children are taught. If I’m going over their homework, I can tell them whether their answers are right or wrong, but for the life of me I can’t tell them why in terms they understand. (The phrase “Carry the one” is like a foreign language to them.) For me to help them, they first have to teach me their method so that I can see where they’ve gone wrong. If they don’t fully understand that method, it all falls apart very quickly.
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Cheat sheets – where teachers share their method with parents – would be really useful. There are now excellent internet tutorials on many academic subjects; sending us links to these if they use the same methods would be extremely helpful. Last year, when my youngest was studying operations of arithmetic (Brackets, Operation, Divide, Multiply, Add, Subtract, or BODMAS to me), his terminology was so different to mine, I had to email his teacher to confirm that I had remembered the method correctly. Her availability to me was much appreciated – I know teachers have a life outside of school.
Too many subjects per night
The kids may have five or more lessons a day but problems arise when subject-specific teachers all give homework on the same night. Even if students don’t have after-school activities, life (in the form of a sibling trip to A&E or a panic shop for new gym shoes) can get in the way, making hours of homework a challenge.
Teachers can help by allowing students a day or two extra to hand the work in work so that they can plan when they’ll do each assignment. After all, time management is a life skill we all need. Alternatively, collaborate with colleagues to ensure that pupils aren’t being given every single subject for homework on the same night.
As I said, it’s complicated. Most parents want what’s best for their children; we want to help them do well, but we vacillate between tolerance and outright hatred of homework, depending on what else we have to juggle. Teachers can’t win either as there are usually complaints when there’s no homework at all. We need a middle ground, where teachers teach and parents support the learning at home, both parties respect each other’s’ roles and communicate regularly about the how best to help the individual child.
Toni Hargis is a British author and blogger, currently living in Chicago, US.