The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Distance learning is straining parent-teacher relationships

Rocio Caballero-Gill helps her 6-year-old son, Giordon, with his remote school assignments at their home in Ashburn, Va. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)
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Renee Enyart, 28, was across the room from her sixth-grader when it happened. She glanced over and saw her daughter Emi, who was virtually attending science class at their home in Winter Haven, Fla., reaching for her laptop’s power cable. Suddenly, a sharp voice rang out from the speakers. “It was just an instant scolding: ‘I told you to look at the screen. You know what you’re supposed to be doing. I shouldn’t have to tell you guys,’ ” Enyart recalled.

Tears sprang into Emi’s eyes. “I didn’t know she was unmuted, and I just told her, ‘Go ahead and let it die.’ Because it just annoyed me — she was still paying attention. She was grabbing our charger, trying to be present in the class,” Enyart said. “I was actually kind of glad that the teacher did hear it, because for a second it was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ She instantly apologized.”

In a normal year, a parent-teacher skirmish over discipline might unfold in slow motion through secondhand accounts and private conversations outside school hours. But in 2020, this type of clash has become familiar to parents whose kids are learning remotely and teachers whose classrooms have gone virtual.

In September, a video of a parent angrily confronting a teacher over the teacher’s comments about George Floyd’s death went viral. Elsewhere online, parents are expressing alarm about what they’ve overheard: that their teachers don’t seem to know how the electoral college works, how many countries are in North America, or whether plants are living things, for example.

Meanwhile, online forums such as the subreddit r/Teachers, where teachers often share stories, encouragement and strategies, have filled up with frustrated and incredulous posts about parents’ antics: asking a child to do chores during class, helping a kid on tests or asking a teacher to refrain from drinking beverages near their laptop so that their own child doesn’t attempt to do the same.

It’s no secret that everyone involved in distance learning is stressed out. Teachers are struggling to get to know students and families they’ve never met in real life. Students haven’t seen their school friends in months. And according to a Pew Research Center study released in October, 68 percent of parents whose kids are learning online reported being concerned about their children falling behind, 12 percentage points more than parents whose kids are learning in person. But one powerful determinant of a student’s success is the quality of the relationship between teacher and parent or guardian — and as that relationship has gone virtual, it has often been strained.

Teachers have had to adjust to class instruction being fully visible to parents at all times, and parents have had to shoulder more responsibility for the development of their children’s habits and behaviors, often while fulfilling their work responsibilities. As a result, parents and teachers have had to learn new ways to collaborate for the sake of the kids in their shared care.

“The quality of the parent-teacher relationship is really a pretty significant driver of some of the outcomes that we hope to see in children as they progress through school,” said Susan Sheridan, director of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families, and Schools at the University of Nebraska, adding that a strong parent-teacher relationship creates a sense of security and stability for the child.

Plus, children are incredibly observant, Sheridan added. So the adults in their lives should “be careful about what we’re modeling for them. They pick up on the types of communications and messages that parents and teachers send, both verbal and nonverbal, about how they view each other, and how they view each other’s roles in supporting that child for whom they both bear some responsibility.”

In virtual learning, the usual roles have been altered dramatically. Teachers have fewer tools at their disposal to hold students accountable now that teachers and pupils don’t share a physical space. Natasha, a 36-year-old high school science teacher in Nashville, pointed out that she used to have a say in whether a student slept through class or not. She doesn’t anymore.

“Since the kids aren’t in the classroom, [we’ve had] to rely on the parents,” said Natasha, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her career. She said it can be difficult for teachers to know whether kids are working. “If a student doesn’t have their camera on, I don’t know if they’re taking notes, if they’re laying across the bed asleep.”

In other words, it is always an adult’s job to enforce the rules. Now that students are learning in their homes, enforcement has fallen to parents, and not every parent is prepared — or available — to do it. “As parents, when we send our kids to school, we feel assured that, you know, [teachers are] professionals, and they’re going to get the job done,” Natasha said. “But now, a lot of things that typically parents don’t have to be concerned about in the education process, they now do have to deal with.”

That also means parents are now getting an unprecedented real-time look at their children’s education. Sometimes, this provides parents with a humanizing glimpse into how hamstrung teachers really are. Other times, it offers them the chance to intervene when they don’t like what they’re seeing.

Lauren, 23, an elementary school teacher near Gary, Ind., has been teaching in person and online simultaneously all year. Early this fall, Lauren, who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid unwanted publicity for her school or colleagues, downloaded a phonics lesson she hadn’t taught before and assigned it to her remote students. The assignment involved matching simple words to illustrations. A cartoon of an overweight person was to be paired with the word “fat.”

“One of the parents got really upset about that,” Lauren said. Soon, the parent was trying to get Lauren’s attention on Zoom while Lauren checked on her in-person students, and “she was talking to other parents in the chat, like, ‘Oh, that’s so mean,’ ” Lauren said. By the time Lauren returned to her computer, other parents had chimed in to agree, and the first parent “basically called me out in front of everyone,” Lauren said. “It was embarrassing.”

But she knows she’s not alone. Other teachers she knows have been confronted by angry parents when their interactive whiteboards have malfunctioned, she said, and one teacher she knows got a call from a parent who simply wanted her to know that, from what he had seen, he wasn’t impressed.

Morgan Jackson, a 27-year-old high school English teacher in Philadelphia, recently had a similar experience. On the second day of school, as a getting-acquainted exercise, she invited her students to fill out an identity-chart worksheet that asked about ethnicity, race, first language, disabilities and abilities, religious or spiritual affiliations, among other things, as well as sex and gender.

The students were to fill out the worksheet and share it with Jackson. But after a student asked her the difference between sex and gender, her phone began to ring while she was teaching. “I called back on my break,” she said, and an angry parent “proceeded to yell at me and tell me I was going against everything Muslims believed in.”

Since then, Jackson has made changes to how she teaches. She skipped, for example, a lesson she had planned about an overdose scene in “Fahrenheit 451.” “Typically, because Philadelphia is so rife with overdoses and drug issues, I would have had an in-depth discussion and read an article about that. But because it’s such a controversial topic, and some parents don’t want their kids knowing about that side of Philly, I kind of cut that out,” she said. “I feel more monitored now than I did when we were in class.”

So how to alleviate some of the strain on the teacher-parent relationship? For starters, Sheridan advises parents who’ve overheard something they find objectionable to speak to the teacher one on one, away from students and outside of class time. She also advises teachers to set ground rules for onlooking parents: For example, parents are encouraged to stay nearby to make sure their kids are participating but shouldn’t butt in on the video feed unless there’s an emergency. “That’s the kind of thing that I think needs to happen really early on,” she said, “not in the context of a parent acting out in the middle of a Zoom class.”

Above all, however, she advises teachers and parents to remember that they share responsibilities for remote learning but each have different roles in promoting it: Parents make sure their kids are present, awake and paying attention, and teachers plan and provide the instruction.

Rocio Caballero-Gill, 40, a paleoceanographer and paleoclimatologist and a co-founder of the organization GeoLatinas, has a first-grader who has been distance-learning since spring. In the first few weeks of the 2020-2021 school year, Caballero-Gill, who has a background in academia herself, thought about how overwhelmed her son’s teacher must feel. Her son’s kindergarten teacher had gotten to know students and their parents in person before school went virtual last spring. But his first-grade teacher, who was starting a new school year remotely, would now be working with students and parents she might never get any in-person interaction with. “I knew she might need some support from a caring parent,” Caballero-Gill said.

Recently, Caballero-Gill and her son’s teacher had a virtual one-on-one meeting to discuss how they could work more collaboratively. The question at hand, she said, was how to keep her son busy and learning after he finished his classwork. Ultimately, they worked together to develop additional reading activities for him to do, to reduce the risk of his wandering away.

The check-in was useful, Caballero-Gill said. But the most important thing that conversation provided was an opportunity for the two to encourage each other, get on the same page and reduce stress. “She’s doing good,” Caballero-Gill said, “and we don’t want the teachers more stressed.”

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