For many parents across the state and globe (including yours truly and my 7-year-old son Brynn) the switch from in-class to at-home learning in the wake of Coronavirus school shutdowns was drastic and fast. I met up online with the head of my son's school, Elizabeth Hofreuter, for some extra insight into that transition. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Hofreuter has been leading Wheeling Country Day School, a private school in the Northern Panhandle, for 11 years.
Glynis Board: We’re now four weeks into learning at home. What have good and bad reactions been from staff, students and parents?
Elizabeth Hofreuter: I feel like I better knock on wood — I have heard only positive reactions from what I can see when I walk through Zoom meetings. Kids are learning and kids are engaged. They love being with their friends, they love being challenged. We have very, very few parents reporting that they're having a hard time with their kids. We have a lot of parents reporting from fourth grade up that they're seeing a new level of independence from their kids that we as parents might have forgotten to give them had this not happened.
Board: Has this changed the pace or pace of learning?
Hofreuter: The pace of life has slowed, period. When I get up in the morning, I have a to-do list and I can't accomplish nearly as much as I could on any other day. And it's not just because I have two kids at home — there is a level of unknown and anxiety in all of us. And when that happens, you can't process the same cognitive load that you could otherwise, and we're all experiencing it. And we're realizing that sometimes you just have to stop and go for a walk. But you know, that's what we need to do all the time.
And the other piece is I know when this is all said and done, we're going to understand better what people with mental health issues really are going through, because we're all going through mental health issues right now.
Board: As a perpetual student of all things learning, you’ve incorporated many cutting-edge, evidence-based practices into the culture of learning at your school—things like a center for multisensory learning, applying mindfulness curriculum, and outdoor learning. I wonder how this new online/screen dominant paradigm fits into that culture.
Hofreuter: So it's definitely going to shift the culture of learning. And we're starting to have some conversations about how we keep it in addition to the face-to-face success we have with all the other pieces.
The best example I can give you is I've been teaching English since 1989. And one of the things I always tried to do in the classroom was have a small meeting with two or three kids and go over the fine points of their paper. The problem was there were always 16 or 17 other kids in the room. This remote learning allows me to only meet with the three kids or the two kids that I want to work with and dive in deeply to what their needs are and not have to worry about the other 16 because they're not in the meeting. And that has been one of the things that our teachers have talked about. That's been a real benefit.
So while I think there's a hybrid coming, I think we will keep the best of this and keep the best of the other, which will make education change.
The status quo has to be ruined by this. To me, that's the best thing that's gonna come out of it.
Board: I asked my son Brynn if he had any questions.
Brynn Kleine: How will school be different when we come back?
Hofreuter: That's a great question, Brynn. So one of the things that I'm hearing is that some families are doing much better with a little later start and a little slower pace and we're going to have to think about what that looks like. It also means that we're going to tap into the benefits of technology without losing all the great stuff we love about playing in the mud and getting to know our friends and listening to their stories and seeing the really cool socks they wear and all the things that make walking into the classroom fantastic.
Board: Brynn has been enjoying learning from home. He was explaining why the other night that he feels like he’s learning a lot and enjoying himself and that he likes that he doesn’t get into trouble at home because he can’t fight with his friends… so that spawned this next question:
Brynn Kleine: Will learning at home ever be a regular option offered?
Hofreuter: Brynn, I know this is hard for you to understand. But right now in the world we're living in, sometimes it's best to take one decision at a time. And right now is not the time for me to make that big of a decision because there are still so many unknowns.
The idea that our children are home alone and not fighting with their friends is something they actually need to do. Because we learn a lot about edges and boundaries and that sick feeling in our stomach when we have a fight with our friends that we don't want to have anymore, and I don't want that to be lost either.
Board: Internet access is clearly an issue throughout West Virginia. What advice do you have for educators and families who don’t have that access?
Hofreuter: I am coming from a very blessed position that most of our families can afford and have access to good WiFi, which makes what we're doing possible. But not all of them do. And we got nervous at one point and said, what are we going to do if we all lose WiFi?
And we said the message would be:
Read. Read whatever you can. Read to your kids, whether your kid is 16 or 10. And you don't have to read a book, you can read the sports page, not that there's any sports to be reporting on right now. You can read whatever's on the back of the cereal box. Read, have them read — that in and of itself is such an amazing learning experience.
Go outside and suddenly notice things that you don't normally have time to notice. And you may not know the answer why that bug looks like that. But asking the question is an amazing learning feat in and of itself.
But to teachers around the state, we chose school and we chose education because we wanted to be part of learning, but also because we love working with children. But part of the way we draw our energy is in their presence and being present for them. And I think teachers are being present for their students by what they're doing with remote learning or what they're doing packaging materials, but they're not getting the same thing back.
And I know this is emotionally depleting for a lot of teachers and the only thing I would say is: This is also an opportunity for the world to see your worth, which I think we lost somewhere along the way. And I really hope when we come out of the other end of this, we take some time to realize just how special the field of education is in this country.
Elizabeth Hofreuter is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She joined Wheeling Country Day School as Head of School in 2009. Prior to WCDS, Liz served 18 years in independent education, during which she served as an adjunct professor in Education for Bethany College and in English for Wheeling Jesuit University. She was awarded the Klingenstein Center Fellowship in 2015 where she co-wrote the paper, 21st Century Education.