Kate Farrell

photography
Williston, VT

My Unexpected Transition to Homeschooling

Two Children Using a microscope

I was a public school teacher. I never expected to be homeschooling my kids.

We are all home. Fulltime. 24/7. All six of us. In the early days of the pandemic, we found a rhythm that felt healthy and responsive to our biological needs and circadian rhythms. Of course, we worried about the pandemic, but in our bubble day to day life followed a comfortable rhythm. Remote school was pretty loose. The adults’ and kids’ work got done, both parents got out to exercise most days and there were lots of outdoor activities for the kids.

Ten months into our pandemic lifestyle, my husband still teaches university classes from his home “office” (known as the guest room before covid). I run my fledgling photography business mostly by working late at night and on weekends. We’ve now got a menagerie of pets to keep us company.

Currently, sending the kids to in-person school is not an option for us. Our family anxiety profile demands that the covid risk be really, really low before we go back to school even with masks, distancing and all the rest. This fall, we enrolled our kids in remote school.

By November 2020, after two months of parenting through remote schooling I had lost touch with the natural, healthy flow we all need. My husband was maxed out by his job, toiling away in his basement office day after day. He would emerge for meals and brief me on how stressful things were down there — tech issues, grading, endless emails tied to covid-related uncertainty. Even our previously robust chickens had stopped laying eggs.

My typical lunchtime update to him would be something like this: I spent an hour trying unsuccessfully to get one son to engage with a remote lesson. Our other son did go to a lesson but then spent 45 minutes telling me about stupid it was, how he’ll never go again and that he now “deserves” to watch a show. Our older daughter has just stopped by to tell me that although she’s going to all her classes, she’s exhausted and will be holed up in her bedroom for several more hours to finish a project.

A journal entry from early fall reads: I’m lucky to exercise one day during the week. I work on Friday and Saturday nights, trying to get my photography business off the ground. I miss joining family movie night. My days are spent smearing peanut butter on bread, graham crackers and our puppy’s Kong. I’m so torn about all the cajoling to do remote school. What has happened to the joy of learning? This is not healthy or sustainable.

Why all the wrangling? Why not just put your foot down with the 4 year old and set strict limits on screen time for all? Well, it needs to be quiet. Those university students don’t want to hear kids screaming at their moms about screen time or yogurt in the middle of a physiology class. And, when my grade school kids attend classes, it needs to be reasonably quiet so they can pay attention and turn on their mics without the embarrassment of a tantruming sibling in the background. Cue the hushed stern mom voice, “Fine. 30 minutes. It has to be PBS Kids and then you are going outside!”

I was a teacher for 19 years. I left in early 2019 after developing PTSD when a student threatened to shoot a classmate in my class. While the spring of 2019 was marked by incredible pain and difficulty, it was also marked by a reconnection to a healthy biological rhythm. By then I had three kids in school and one in pre-k several days per week. On school days, I exercised every morning then ate a healthy lunch before tackling whatever small project I could handle. We had dinner together every evening followed by read aloud time first with my “Bigs” then my Little One. It felt good and natural and healthy to reconnect to that rhythm, especially with so many other challenges before me.

* * *

As a teen, I remember my parents talking in hushed tones about friends and neighbors who lost their jobs. We felt sorry for them and we tried not to judge them for showing up at more of their kids’ track meets owing to their newly flexible schedules. I vowed never to be in that horrible situation. I would find stable work. Teaching. I could make the world a better place and have a union job. Safe. Predictable. Secure. I wouldn’t get wildly rich, but I’d have a rich life. Kids, summers and school vacations with my family, the choice of where to live, a predictable paycheck and an annual raise.

But, at 42, I found myself staring down the long lonely Unexpected Career Change Tunnel. I will never enter my own classroom again. I can manage my anxiety, but not in a school with the constant specter of lockdowns and troubled teens. I needed to find a new way to earn money.

Exactly 10 days before the pandemic began to let us know that life was about to really change, I cut the last ties with my teaching career and committed to starting my own photography business. It was something I’d been considering as a scalable side-gig for some time and was a natural fit — something that would allow me to be creative, share my passion for authentic family photos and storytelling while working mostly from home at Kate-pace.

I knew it would be hard and uncertain work. I did not expect to be learning about marketing and web design with all four of my children home 24/7 doing remote school during a pandemic. But, we embraced it, especially my flexibility. I took care of the kids while my husband worked and he took a break most days so I could exercise. I fit my work in late at night or on the weekends. At first it felt like an adventure, but it grew to be draining, especially as covid numbers started to climb this fall.

I vented in my journal:

I am exhausted. I’ve worn myself into a tizzy with toxic positivity: we are lucky to be at home, with lots of land to play on; how nice that we have an old dog and a puppy; we are not sick. My work is flexible. Yes, all true. I’m deeply grateful.

And, this is hard. Just starting a new career at 42 would be hard. Forget the pandemic, children in tow and the anxiety that now grips my family. The fact that I legitimately thought I would be shot at work sent lasting ripples through all of our minds. Now we stay mostly at home to avoid a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus.

* * *

Back when my second child was 10 months old, I switched to an alternate day work schedule. That helped a lot, but the school days were still very challenging. School time and baby-biological time didn’t mesh well for us. At home, our schedule was predictable yet flexible.

The connection between me and them was so real, so physical, so emotional, so biological. We nursed when their bodies told them it was time. My body responded in turn and was ready to meet their needs.

In order to nurse, it’s best to get cozy and relax. Sometimes that meant gazing at my child with awe, wonder and love. Other times it was reading to my toddler daughter while nursing her younger brother. It was in those days that she invented the term “milka” which promptly entered the lexicon in our house. When I was “doing milka”, I always had a good book going — one that was interesting, but not scary; informative, but not too depressing; something hopeful. Rediscovering my love for reading was the great surprise of nursing and catalyst for years of read-alouds.

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“Milka” and reading on a Saturday afternoon.

Nursing was a part of my life that ran on biological time. Every six weeks or so, I’d find a new rhythm with my nursling. The 11pm feeding routine was a bit exhausting but that quiet late night time was the perfect chance to read about taking photos in manual mode. Pre-nap nursing was a welcomed midday time away from time — a chance to snuggle with a baby and a photography magazine or good book or maybe doze for a few minutes myself. There were times when I nursed two at a time and felt so grounded as a mom and connected to my children that I hoped time would just stop until I was ready for yet another meal-sized snack. One year I figured out how to nurse a baby while coaxing a toddler into a snowsuit — we got pretty good at that! As babies, both my boys refused bottles during my school days resulting in some epic nights. Of course, it was exhausting. Yet it also felt right to be available to such a small person at the moment when warm milk and snuggle time with mom would fix all that was wrong in their little world.

But, at school, we lived by the almighty bell. Classes began and ended on cue. Lunch lasted 23 minutes. Bathroom breaks were fit in between classes. Pumping happened in the nurses’ offices during my planning blocks which pushed planning to after school. Faculty meetings were on Tuesday afternoons. It was always a race to get back home to biological time, to that rhythm with my kids and with my own body. A tingling sensation in my upper back would remind me of the baby waiting for me if I tried to stay late at school.

* * *

On a late fall run through the woods, I could feel that our fall 2020 rhythm wasn’t healthy and yet I wasn’t sure how to shift. On one hand I was holding the idea that biology is in control now: a virus, just a bit of RNA wrapped in a molecular envelope, has governed our daily choices for nearly a year now. On the other hand, I was holding the idea that the pace of our lives had become so synthetic: driven by Zoom Classes and arguments with kids over screen time. I knew that staying home was our best option in the face of the virus.

I’d been reading The Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature which had me thinking about how “Core Routines” could ground our days, providing the balm our souls were craving and catalyzing a shift to organically engaged living. My thoughts wandered to the idea that connecting with our own natural, healthy rhythms will still help us in difficult times. I began planning a move away from virtual learning and back to learning in real life at home.

* * *

The pond behind our house has been our natural gateway to seasonal learning for nearly nine years. To find out if it’s raining, we glance out at the surface of the pond. The first ice at the edge signifies that summer has lost its grip and the winter half the year has arrived. In the deep of our Vermont winter, we measure the thickness of the ice before skate skiing on the pond.

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Kids looking on from the pondside while Dad measures the thickness of the ice.

When the last of the ice melts, we know that warmer days are coming. We’ve spent countless hours catching and releasing frogs at the water’s edge. With the pandemic inspired addition of a dock, the pond is our favorite swimming spot.

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Searching for frogs!

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Our new favorite swimming spot!

Having been a public school teacher, thinking about homeschooling felt almost treasonous. I love my kids’ teachers! I am so impressed by the spiral curriculum, educational games, interdisciplinary activities and attentiveness to social-emotional learning. The thought that my kids would miss out on these rich lessons makes me really sad.

But, that was not their experience. We have some square peg kids that we had been trying to stuff into the round holes of the public school system. And it was not going well. I was deeply concerned by the way they reacted to remote school. I was constantly trying to balance my relationship with them against their educational needs, all while starting a new career.

And so, we are stretching in another new and unexpected way as we pivot from remote to home school. Our renewed focus is on reconnecting with our biological rhythms of sleep, eating, play, learning and growth.

Just a few weeks in, I am noticing positive shifts. Screen time, even my too-frequent news checking, is down! We’ve got room for improvement and yet we’ve improved! We are all sleeping more and the kids are playing outside more, especially in the late morning. In the season of early sunsets, playing outside before lunch makes perfect sense. In winter, there is plenty of time to read, write, experiment and calculate after the sun sets.

When my kids were preschoolers, I read to them several times each day. They re-enacted the books we read and “read” to their dolls. Once again, read-aloud time is a cornerstone of our days. Rather than fitting it in more days than not, my big kids and I are gathering for over an hour most days to travel away from pandemic plagued 2020. We snuggle together on the couch near the cozy pellet stove while I sip tea and read aloud.

Our reading time is punctuated by animated conversation. We discuss racism and sexism. We love to talk about what might happen next in the book and compare that to what we would do in a similar situation. Our reading has inspired drawings, writing, LEGO creations and role playing. My four year old enlisted me as her co-author/illustrator of a book about unicorns. Markers and crayons cover the kitchen table for hours most days. Creative kids are messy and I’m so glad to see these signs of creativity returning to our house, even if it means “clutter” on the kitchen counter! With a teacher encouraging at the edge (and mindful of specific learning goals), it’s student-directed learning at a healthy biologically driven pace.

I continue to piece together my own work, but I’m beginning to see pockets of time emerge more predictably. My in-person photo sessions are on hold due to Covid so I’m taking this opportunity to write, plan and work on my own photo projects. It’s not easy; we are working really hard and there are bumpy days. But reconnecting with nature and books, is bringing back our innate curiosity and creativity which naturally fuels learning and makes the days more enjoyable. We are all more rested, learning to adjust our daily routines as needed and thankful that even the chickens are laying again.

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The sun breaking through behind the pond at sunset on a stormy day.

And still, these are tough times. We are hunkering down during this winter, sheltering at home. I hope that a renewed focus on learning in real life and noticing what rhythms feel good to our family now will help us maintain a healthy pace. It’s the only way I know to give myself the best chance to be my best self. And, I need to be my best self to do all that I can to keep my family as safe as possible during the pandemic. Just as the pond changes its rhythms with the seasons, so will we. I don’t know how long this season will last, just that if we are attentive, we’ll know when a new season arrives.

This essay was originally published on Jan. 30, 2021 on Medium.

Kate Farrell is a photographer, writer, endurance athlete and former science teacher. She and her husband live with their four children in Vermont.

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Kate Farrell is a professional lifestyle family photographer based in Williston, Vermont, serving the greater Chittenden County area including Williston, Richmond, Jericho, Underhill, Hinesburg, Huntington, Charlotte, Shelburne, Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and Colchester.