Homework is Yours and Yours Alone

When did “parental homework support” become an essential element of a child’s education? From an empathetic standpoint, I can think of endless scenarios wherein expecting home support would be completely unreasonable. From illiterate parents, to those who work 12 hour days just to put a roof over their heads and food in the fridge, expecting parents to have the skills and time required to help their child with their school work can be a totally unfair expectation and can actually set a child up for failure.


It is not uncommon to hear exasperated parents expressing their frustrations. “When I was a kid, I did my homework by myself. Nowadays we’re expected to sit with our child every night. Half the time I don’t even know how to help! It’s so different from when we were in school.”


On the flip side, I doubt if I could find a single teacher who has never lived through the frustration of giving an assignment, only to wind up chasing after the student to get it done, or worse, realizing that it was done by the parent. When something is broken we either fix it or we throw it out. Some schools have been doing away with homework in light of all the problems it can create. That solution is deeply flawed. It is paramount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to change how and what we do by holding on to the essential and trimming away the superfluous. Less is more.


Am I saying therefore that we need to stop expecting parents to help their kids with their homework, you ask? Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. Stop expecting it. Set your students up for success by only giving them work that they ought to be able to complete on their own at home. Essentially, this means that homework should be about practicing skills that have already been appropriately taught in school or studying material that has already been properly introduced. Resources must be provided that supply support and explicit explanations. (Ideally, these would be web-based, but a hard copy must be provided to all students who do not have Internet access.) If students unwittingly go home practicing the wrong thing, there is more damage than good being done. And teachers, please realize that if the majority of your students need a tutor in order to understand their homework, there is definitely a problem, and it isn’t the students. You can give work that requires support if you know a child has the support available to her, but otherwise, you need to be the one offering alternative resources. Again, if most of the kids need help, then it probably shouldn’t be homework.

Teachers, we must focus and insist on quality over quantity. We do not serve our students when we send them home feeling stressed about the work they need to get done for school the next day. And please do not tell me that your hands are tied because of curriculum demands. It’s time that policy makers start seeing real test results, not the results of what we have managed to jam down the throats of our students. Let’s get back to being teachers. The power of our unity will speak volumes when together we start putting the child first. Positive social change begins with us, the real people on the front lines. I can guarantee you this: kids who have time to consolidate their knowledge come back to school the next day ready to give it their all.


Does this mean parents should just throw in the towel on assisting their kids, even if they are struggling? Not at all. Parents have every right to set their own expectations for their children. They get to establish after-school routines that suit their family, and by all means, they can be as involved in the homework process as they would like to be. (Teachers, if you do not want parents doing your students’ projects, than don’t send projects home. Have them done in class. If there is no time to complete them in class, maybe they are not an essential element of the curriculum to begin with, or maybe something else needs to be done away with.)


Ideally, every parent would check in with their kids regularly to see how they are doing and if they can offer any assistance to their child. It may sound like I am contradicting myself, but I assure you, I am not. Listen carefully: parents ought to be free to set their own expectations for their children (this may even include additional homework of their choosing); as a teacher, I cannot, and should not, be trying to control what goes on outside of my classroom. I am happy to make suggestions and provide support, but it is not up to me to to be trying to monitor what goes on in each student’s home. That is an unfair expectation, and ultimately can result in stress and frustration for the students, parents and teachers alike.


Here’s the thing. The phrase “lack of at home support” is actually a form of pity and therefore it serves no one. It tells a child, “Maybe if your parents did a better job at caring for you, you wouldn’t be having such a hard time.” That kind of message, no matter how hidden it may be, does not go unheard, and it can only cause damage.


My approach to homework acknowledges the various realities with which children are faced (which is what empathy truly looks like), and empowers them. They learn from me that, “Your homework is yours and yours alone. You are responsible for it. How much time you spend studying and practicing your skills will be obvious in how you perform in class. You do not get to blame your parents if you did not take time for your homework. You know how to think for yourself. Nobody knows better than you exactly what you need to get done, and you are old enough to choose to do your work.”


By the way, none of the homework I give is ever graded, not directly anyways. Of course, I collect stencils, do spot-checks, and verify the websites that I use with them which track each student’s progress (guaranteeing that they are only ever reinforcing the right behaviors). No two kids need to study or practice anything the exact same way for the exact same period of time. I know whether or not my students are working hard enough at home based on their contributions to class discussions, and their performance on quizzes and tests. That is more than enough to hold them accountable.


Independence and responsibility are two things that seem to be lacking in children today. Well, who’s fault is that? If we keep robbing children of opportunities to develop these skills, how can we fault them when they fail to meet to our expectations? We need to recognize the role we have been playing and make the necessary adjustments.


Here’s the bottom line: Teachers, stop worrying about home support and stop expecting it. Instead, let’s focus on fostering a sense of pride and independence within each student. Children are so much more resilient than we give them credit for. As researcher Brené Brown said, “We are wired for struggle”. Those who (seem to) lack support at home do not need our pity, they need to be shown their own strength. Only part of their journey has been chosen for them by the parents to whom they were born, the rest is up to them.


No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from. Fill your lives with love and bravery. And you shall lead a life uncommon.  – Jewel


postscript: Many schools have introduced the flipped classroom approach which is pure brilliance if all your students have access to the Internet either at home in an after-school program. Essentially, their homework is to view a video of the next day’s lesson. The video is either prerecorded by the teacher or provided by various excellent websites who have committed themselves to this endeavor. There are numerous benefits to this approach such as: students can pause, rewind, and view the video as often as necessary, children have the opportunity to discuss the material with their peers before bringing their questions to the teacher, the teacher no longer needs to ‘lecture’ and can focus his attention on supporting his students’ comprehension, and the work is done in class where the teacher is present to offer support. It’s genius. Understandably, there are socioeconomic factors which can prevent schools from going this route for now, but the future holds infinite possibilities for finding solutions to this aspect of the dilemma.

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