We interviewed our resident teacher, Chris Uhres-Todd, for her input on how she’s handling teaching long distance, as well as helping her own children with their schooling. You can watch the interview or read it below!
QC: You’re our resident teacher and parent at Quality Classrooms, so you straddle both those worlds that everybody’s trying to work with right now. We have a couple questions for you. First is, tell us a little bit about yourself a little background about you and your family
Chris: Okay, my name is Chris Uhres-Todd. I’m a teacher. I’ve got three kids: one in grade seven, one in grade four and one started kindergarten in September. So I’ve got a nice range at home. At school, I teach grade three/four homeroom half time. I teach middle years art and ESL support as well.
QC: So you have a wide range of experience. What made you decide to start teaching?
Chris: Like all kids, you go through school and you want to be everything under the sun, and then all of a sudden I hit 17. I’m like, oh, this is it. I want to teach. And I loved it. I went straight into an education program, and physical education as well as primary education (elementary here), and loved every minute.
I got right into schools from I the time I was 18, doing teaching practice and teaching block. And then I taught in a couple of different countries. When I graduated, I taught in England and Rwanda, and then Togo in West Africa. And then I came to Canada, and I couldn’t teach here because I couldn’t get a teaching certificate. So that was a shock. But, I was able to go back to school and get my masters, and then I would get back into the classroom, which was awesome. I missed it.
QC: Okay, so tell us a bit about when you’re at home with your kids now, since so many people are home with their kids, what’s a typical morning look like for you and your kids?
Chris: So I do a little bit of work before they’re ready to start. I get up earlier than them and do a little bit of prep for my homeroom. And then at nine o’clock, we get a message from my school, the announcements, and we listen to that and we stand for Oh Canada and that’s kind of our signal to get going for the day.
So then, I’ve got the two younger kids working with me in our home office and my grade seven likes to go to her bedroom and work there. And I check in with her and I work a little bit, then check in with them when they need help. They come to me right back. But obviously, with a kindergartener at home, he doesn’t want to sit for long and he shouldn’t be sitting for long. So he’ll, he’ll do a task – a 5 or 10-minute task, either on the floor or at his little desk and then he’ll go play. He’ll say, “I’m done Mommy,” “Okay, go play. Go do something.”
QC: And that’s working?
Chris: It’s working. It’s not easy. There are days where I think, “I’m rocking this thing. I got it.” And days that go really badly and are epic failures. So it’s very much day to day, lots of up and down.
QC: You mentioned that you have a home office. Would you say that that’s a great place to set up a home learning area? Or do you have any tips for anybody on how to set up a home learning area?
Chris: So I’m very lucky that I do have a separate room, and it has multiple workspaces. And we’ve created a little more since this all began. So I’m lucky I can have the three kids working with me at the same time, and then we can close the door to take a break. So it’s a nice distinct area. So if that’s possible, it’s not possible for everyone. It’s really nice.
The other option we have tried is having a little basket for everybody to keep their work in. And their devices so that everybody has a movable object. So we can work in different places in the house but still keep our stuff together. Because obviously, the age of them and also I’m pretty messy. We’re all creative people. So we tend to be pretty messy. So yeah, a basket helps us keep things vaguely organized.
QC: And then you can also put it away when the day is done. And it doesn’t have to be that constant reminder of my pile of work is there, or the coach is there and I’d rather be there.
Chris: Yes, getting those set, the separation between work and home, is definitely very challenging at the moment. So, anyway to keep them segregated and know that I’m done for the day. And I’m focused on the kids right now. And they’re not thinking about school. That’s good.
QC: Do you find that’s a nice relief to have it be put away, as opposed to just having the clutter or having the work always present?
Chris: Yes, for me personally, it needs to be out of sight, I need to know that my work is in another place. And that helps me switch off.
QC: Other than these little releases when your young one is is done, any other tricks for how to keep kids focused?
Chris: I actually just had a team’s meeting last week with my students about that, and they had some pretty good tricks. They suggested taking a couple of deep breaths before you start work. And they also suggested doing most of your work in the morning, if you can, and then knowing that if you get it done nice and quickly, you have the rest of the day to play. So they’re already coming up with wonderful strategies. And I think asking our kids and our students, what works for them to help them focus again really gets them thinking about it. They always come up with better ideas than we do.
QC: Well, they’re the ones that they’re invested in, right? They’re the ones they’re interested in. So it’ll go further.
Chris: Yeah, a little reward. Let’s do this, then we have a break. Let’s do this. And we do the phys ed part or the craft of the art as a reward. So like carrot rather than a stick?
QC: Yeah. Do you call that bridging? My wife is using the word bridging from one concept or one action to the next?
Chris: Yeah, I’m more familiar with the word transition. But I think bridging is a similar idea. So just moving from one transition, and the bridge helps you get there. So the idea of when we get there, we’ll be able to do this afterwards. Yeah, origin, bridging, transitions, same thing.
QC: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of in the same vein. So for your kids, what does recess look like? You said with your kindergartner, you have that recess break. Do you do that with the others as well when you’re home?
Chris: Yeah, so we go upstairs; we make a snack. And the two younger ones especially need the outside time. I should have the outside time, it would be beneficial for me but I don’t always remember that. So they do go outside. Even if it’s raining. We’re lucky we have a barn so we kicked him out to the barn, “Go play tennis or something.”
QC: You live outside the city, right?
Chris: Yeah, I’m a couple of miles outside. So we’re lucky to have that space. And there’s always lots to do outside, so we are very privileged that way.
QC: But even just to get outside, even in the rain, whatever in anybody’s yard or even on the front step, really just to be in a different space probably helps.
Chris: Yeah, even if it’s raining, we’ll sit out on the front porch. Where it’s still dry, but you’re getting fresh air and you feel you feel like you’ve got outside time.
QC: Yeah. And you hear the rain and everything.
So if a student’s having a bad day at home, do you have any tricks for how to turn the day around? This is probably something that you used a lot in the classroom, but how can parents do this with their own kids?
Chris: So the break would be the first thing. If they’re really struggling and you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, I would suggest just taking a break, stepping away from it. Having a snack, going for a walk. And then when they’re ready, and when you’re ready, then come back to it. Because quite often, it’s us that struggle with it more than the students. I know. For me, it’s much easier to teach other parents’ kids than it is to teach my own.
QC: Yeah, it’s a lot closer to home, literally. So, next to that. Do you find it hard to switch between your teacher hat in your parent hat or how do you navigate that?
Chris: Um, definitely. Because when I’m focused on teaching, and my students, I want to do that. And it feels like an interruption when my own kids need help, which isn’t a good mindset to be in when you need to support them for their learning. So I try to get them to do an independent task. And I say, “When you’re done that, then go have a break. Mommy’s going to work for the next half hour. So this time on the clock, and you need to try and problem solve yourself.”
And that’s what we did in the classroom as well, encourage that problem solving. If you can’t figure it out, go on to the next one. When we get together and talk about it, then we’ll talk through the issues but you need to work independently.
QC: You can circle back. Do you find yourself going into teacher mode with your kids?
Chris: Yes! And they point it out to me,
QC: Oh, do they like it or not like it?
Chris: It depends. Sometimes they like it because it’s helpful. Sometimes they’re like, “No Mommy, you sound like my teacher.”
They’re also in French immersion and my French is terrible. So that’s an added challenge.
QC: So they’re teaching you French at the same time?
Chris: Yes. And I’m failing miserably.
QC: I guarantee you’re not the only one who’s in those shoes. We’re there too. Both of our kids are in French immersion and neither my wife or I speak French fluently. We both know a little bit, but they’re quickly outpacing us.
Chris: Yeah, when you’re problem solving, and only understanding every fifth word, yeah, that’s a problem.
QC: We’re not quite there. We’re not at the grade seven level yet.
Do you have any advice for parents struggling to keep up with the work the schools are giving us? Are there any tips for that? We’ll come back to this a couple times, but any tips for parents struggling?
Chris: So I’ve actually talked to a number of my parents and what we did a few weeks ago to make things easier was to put an asterisk beside the work that we really wanted them to focus on.
QC: Great prioritizing.
Chris: Yeah! So if they were feeling overwhelmed, they could drop the rest and just focus on the core tasks. But we also have parents and kids that want lots of work, they want to be busy, they want the creative. So we’re trying to find the balance, which is a challenge.
I would say, prioritize what your child is interested in as well. So follow the interest. If they’re interested, they’re going to be much more motivated. If they’re not interested, if they show resistance, drop it. The teacher will understand. We’re all in the same boat at the moment.
QC: And that’s something that’s really flexible working out of you’re at home that you can’t always do in the classroom. But you do have students in the classroom who are lagging behind or wanting more work. So, would you say that we’re expecting a similar spread when you get back into the class?
Chris: Our expectations are always so different for each student anyway; we’re very focused on individual learning journeys and making sure that we’re meeting each kid where they’re at. So, the same is going to be when we go back.
We understand that some students will have done everything we have given them, and more. [They] will have done their own independent research topics because they’re motivated and that’s what they like doing. But we also will have students that will have done very little, and also, students that have little or no support from home, either because their parents are working or because they’re just not able to support.
So we will be very flexible coming back. And I’m hoping parents will be too. They’ll understand; they’ve been on this journey for the last, how many weeks now?
QC: It’s almost a couple of months at this point.
Chris: Yeah, they get it. It’s hard.
QC: So that’s a really big key. The takeaway from that bit is, if your kid is interested, run, like just go with it, because any gains you’re making now will help later on anyway.
QC: Okay, so then what’s the difference between a Monday and a Friday for you? Are the days all blurring together like for some of us?
Chris: Not for me, because Monday is the start of the week. So, we set new learning Monday to Thursday, and then Friday is a catch up day.
I’m working between early years and middle years and I’m working on two different platforms. So my homeroom and early years, we’re setting a daily plan each day. In middle years, as an art specialist, I’m setting work on a Monday and a Wednesday.
QC: So leaving time to work.
Chris: Yes, leaving time to submit, because we understand that sometimes you need to take a day off. And also being flexible with deadlines, especially with middle years.
With early years, it’s flexible deadlines always. But with middle years, our platform insists that we set a deadline. But that’s not a harsh deadline. It’s just an encouragement to get the work in because we are going to set more. And some students are doing it and some are not. And I’m understanding. I get it.
QC: Yeah. So what do you find is the biggest challenge you’re facing teaching at home compared to at school?
Chris: The balance, for sure the balance. Trying to meet the needs of my kids at home and also meet the needs of students.
As teachers, we have very high expectations of ourselves and we need to let go of that a little bit. And that’s a challenge for us. Also understanding that students have expectations of themselves and being kind to families and students who are struggling. We’re all struggling with this. So having that lens of understanding and knowing that everybody’s doing their best,
QC: Yeah, gentle encouragement, eh?
QC: Okay, so you’ve touched on this a bit, but you said you schedule your own work. So is that how you can get your own work in: you set your kids a task? A lot of parents are trying to work from home, as well as home school their kids. Do you have any other tips for somebody who needs to get some of their own work done?
Chris: So I do some of the prep, either in the morning before they wake up or in the evening when they go to bed. But with teaching, I need to some of that during the day. We also have quiet time between one and two. So we have lunch from twelve to one, then quiet time between one and two.
And unfortunately my kindergartner has given up his nap. So it’s time for everyone. We had good five years, five years of good napping.
QC: So definitely take a break in the middle of the day?
Chris: Yes. So that time is for them to go to the rooms, do some reading, do some quiet activities, lie down in their bed if they want to or just putter about in their room. I don’t care what they do, but they need time just to be by themselves. Quiet time. And I work during that time. So I get some things done without interruptions.
QC: Okay, so how can parents ensure that their kids are prepped to return to school when that happens? What concerns are parents coming to you with or what’s your encouragement to help their kids be ready?
Chris: So I teach reading with my grade three/four homeroom and I would say reading, reading, reading. Whether it’s audiobooks or books, any type of reading that they possibly can do is wonderful, whether you’re reading with them, it doesn’t matter. Anything. Following along in a book, just reading will expose them to everything else.
There’s something called the Matthew Effect, where the more you read the more you know, so I am a big advocate of reading. Follow their interest; don’t worry about levelled texts, just follow their interest. If they’re interested in dinosaurs, go to Epic Books or find some books. I know the library is difficult at the moment. Anything really, even find some videos online.
And that’s the thing. Thinking of text is not just words on a page. It can be looking at articles online, it can be watching YouTube, it could, like text comes in so many different formats. So yeah, just exposing the language, rich language, and focusing on what they are interested in. And I think if they’re able to do that, and exposed to lots of different text, that will help with everything else, too.
The other thing was math. I mean, I’m setting a variety of math tasks, but a lot of them are fun and game-like. I sent my students home with them dice sets and playing cards. If you got playing cards at home, make some games out of it. I just set my students last week’s multiplication war to play with a family member. So, yeah, like making math fun. A lot of students at this point are starting to see themselves as not being mathematicians and being bad at math. So trying to get rid of that mindsets. We’re all mathematicians. Math is fun. And making it fun, not a chore.
QC: Yeah, exactly. And you sort of focused on the two core grounding principles. Like, if you’ve got basic math and you’ve got a basic reading, that can elevate everything else, because everything else is sort of built on it, wouldn’t you say?
Chris: Yes, yes, I believe so. A lot of the science and social studies we teach, we do that through reading as well. It all ties in together.
QC: Any final tips for parents with kids at home right now? Anything else that we haven’t covered or anything that comes to mind?
Chris: Just be kind to each other. And that’s for students and for parents. Be kind to yourself.
Yeah, let go of that. I talked about the guilt of not doing either job particularly well: let go of that. We’re doing our best and we need to celebrate that and keep on doing our best and this will pass.
QC: And we’ll we’ll all reconnect and catch up when we can.
Chris: Yeah, on a new normal.
QC: Yeah, on a new normal, that’s right. Now one final question. You sort of touched on it, but have you ever wanted to just write off a school day? Like, do you have those days where things have just gone off?
Chris: As a teacher, I can’t do that. But as a parent… A number of my parents have contacted me and said, “We took a day off,” and I said, “Well done. You need to take a day off, take a day off!”
QC: If that’s what’s gonna help tomorrow.
Chris: Yes, exactly! if you need to, do it! And don’t feel guilty about it; do it and come back fresh, and then prioritize what your students interested in. Have fun with it!