Friday, December 18, 2015

Homework from a Parent's Perspective

I assigned a lot of bad homework over the years.

Looking back to the beginning of my teaching career, I'm embarrassed about the kind of work I assigned. As I shared in my last post, I never really learned how to write "good" homework, and I just sort of emulated my own teachers, and gave my own students the kinds of work I remembered being assigned.

And so it was that I assigned ridiculously lengthy math assignments. I gave my middle school math students problem sets like, "Do p. 188 1-51 odds" (because the answers to the even numbered problems were in the back of the book. Can't have them peeking, and just copying down the answers!) And usually they would have some time to get started in class, and usually what they didn't get done would become "homework."

Sound familiar?

But let's look at this a moment...

The kids who "got it" would go screaming through the problem set, and might even get finished in class time. Maybe they would have two or three problems left, and perhaps might take their math book along into social studies next period, just to get it done a minute so they wouldn't have to haul that 10 pound math textbook home with them. They would get the work done fast, and probably have most of the problems right too. (My thinking at that time: "They should do the same work as everyone else, and it won't be any problem for them anyway.")

The kids in the middle might get 10 or 12 problems done in class. They were practicing, they were getting it. They might have to haul that textbook home, and spend 20 or 30 minutes knocking out the other 12 or 15 problems. (My thinking at that time: "That sounds about right, and that gives them time to work on their other assignments too, because they'll probably have some reading for history, and an essay to write for English, and a few chapters to read for Literature...that shouldn't be unreasonable.")

Ah, and then the kids for whom math was a struggle; how was this assignment for them? They might get three or five problems done in class. They might have to wait with a hand raised in the air during class while I worked my way around the room, answering other students' questions. They would certainly have homework, and probably a lot of it. They might spend an hour or more working on these problems, perhaps with Mom or Dad at their side (doing the re/teaching this child needed?) but perhaps struggling on their own. (My thinking at that time: "They need the practice! They don't understand this stuff, so they definitely should work on it at home.")

And now, if you are a teacher, you might be nodding along, because you too have had these same thoughts. Maybe I'm describing your practices here as well?

But let's try to step into the parents' shoes a moment.

I'll just confess it: I thought I was a pretty good teacher before I had kids. (And I probably was doing all right.) But I know I became a much more thoughtful teacher after having kids of my own. Can you be an effective teacher without kids of your own? Absolutely! But I think--for me at least--having kids helped me to empathize much, much more with the families, the kids, and the parents themselves.

Let's look at these same three groups of kids and the math homework I assigned, but this time, let's try to think of it from the parents' perspective.

Those first kids, the ones who "got it"...what do the parents think? They rarely--and perhaps never--saw the math book at home. The kids did well, got good grades on their report cards. Honestly, I communicated fairly little with parents like these. I'm sure that parent-teacher conferences were a bit boring for these parents. Not much to talk about. Were their kids even being challenged? They were able to play the game of school so well, they never had to think much about it. Homework is rarely considered, because there isn't much of it.

Those ones in the second group...what do the parents think? Kids in this group regularly--almost daily--had homework to do. The kids were mostly able to complete it on their own with minimal supervision from Mom and Dad; maybe a question here or there to jog their memory about what we had done in class, maybe a quick look over the paper to check their work after the assignment was completed? But probably not a lot of contact, not a lot of questions, not a lot of concerns. Homework is, while perhaps not pleasant, a manageable part of life.

And...the third group...what do the parents think? With this workload from one subject alone, homework is a daily curse. Homework is the bane of your existence. Homework is a consuming vampire of time, attention, and joy from the life of the child, and of the parents too in all likelihood, assuming they are present and able to help out. (Which was simply not the case for some of my students--in which case they were...left to struggle on their own?) And even for the most patient of parents doing the re/teaching across the kitchen table--how must that have been? Tears as the norm. Yelling likely. Homework becomes the battleground for daily war being waged at home...because of what happens at school. Because of the instructional decisions I made, this child's, this family's life was upended. Perhaps it's no wonder that the homework sometimes didn't get done? Perhaps it was in the interest of a little peace, and a little joy instead of one more struggle, instead of one more fight?

Thanks to made this one...

I have been thinking a lot about homework lately, especially my own journey as a middle school teacher from assigning a lot of homework, to much less homework, to almost none at all, to beginning to assign homework selectively. As I've been reflecting on this, I realize that my reduction in the amount of homework I assigned began after I had kids of my own. Now, this is probably correlation, and not causation...but I think there may very well have been some subtle psychology coming in to play here for me. What I intuited after becoming a parent was to reduce the "crappy homework" I had been assigning, but that meant I stopped assigning so much homework in general.

Can homework be a benefit? I think that homework can play a role in student achievement, but this will require teachers really thinking about the quality of the work they are assigning to the students. And not just the quality, but also the quantity of work being assigned. Different kids might need different things. Consider:
  • For my high-flying math students...did they really need to do the work I assigned if they already knew it? Why are they being assigned homework--is this valuable for them?
  • For the kids in the middle...they needed some practice, but how much practice? Can they do this work independently? Or do they need a little supervision and coaching at home?
  • For the strugglers...well, they clearly needed the practice, but perhaps what they really needed was the help, support, and encouragement of a teacher working with them? Perhaps better to let their parents simply be parents, and not take on the role of re/teacher as well?
  • All of this so far assumes that the kids have parents ready and willing to help out with homework. What about those kids--no matter which of these groups they fit into--who don't have parents available to help and support at well does the homework I assign work for them? Is it something that can be completed in a reasonable amount of time independently? Am I setting them up to fail?
Teachers, I hope that thinking through the homework you assign from the family's perspective helps you to begin to assign better homework. This is something we need to keep talking about!


  1. Thanks, Dave. What great thoughts about this topic. I appreciate that you're raising this subject and helping teachers think about the purpose homework servers, and how it can affect families.

    1. Glad you took the time to read and comment! I think it's so important that teachers take this into consideration; I truly regret that I did not think enough about the work I assigned to my students, particularly early in my career.

      Schools and families *have* to work together! And homework seems to be one place where they are often at odds. I think it's incumbent on the teachers to be the ones to make the first step in bridging this gap.

  2. When I shared this post on Facebook earlier, this is what I included with the link:

    Dear parents of my former middle school students,
    I am sorry for the crappy homework I assigned to your kids, and for the way it may have screwed up your family dynamics. Parenting is hard enough without having to fight with your kid about homework. I regret that I wasn't thinking enough about the quality of the work that I assigned, and I hope you can forgive me.

    I mean that so truly. And I hope other teachers who might read this will think deeply about the kind of work they assign, how they assign it, and how it might affect families.

    Even better? Start having conversations with colleagues about the kind of work you are all assigning.

    And even better? Start having conversations with parents to bridge that gap between home and school!