What it’s like to run a learning pod during Covid

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“I play ‘O Canada’ in the mornings, which helps with the regular school vibe”: What it’s like to run a learning pod during Covid

In Covid times, some parents are keeping their kids home from school, teaming up with other families and hiring teachers to run so-called learning pods. Katie Lancaster, who’s been teaching a learning pod for the past few weeks, describes how it all works.

As told to Liza Agrba

“I’m an Ontario certified teacher: I completed a concurrent education program at Laurier and Nipissing universities, which is basically a four-year teaching degree alongside a BA. I’ve worked in the education system for 13 years in various roles—as an elementary teacher in private schools, a private homeschool teacher, even a teacher on a sailboat, as well as teaching ESL for international students. I’ve been running my own private teaching business and website, UniqueTeacher, since 2014. True to the name, my teaching philosophy is all about my students’ individuality. I believe every child learns differently and benefits from being accountable for their own learning—like helping decorate their learning environment or having a choice in which book they read.

“Before the pandemic, I was working two jobs. One was at Eurocentres Language School teaching ESL to international students, many of them working professionals looking to get their Canadian citizenship. The second was as an education coordinator at SickKids, overseeing the educational quality of U of T graduate and fellowship programs. In April, when it became clear that international students may not come back for a few years, I was laid off from the job at Eurocentres. A couple of months later, I came across a few posts on Indeed looking for a micropod teacher, started applying to them, and got enthusiastic responses from parents who seemed excited about the fact that I have homeschooling experience. When it became clear that the demand for micropods was building, I felt confident that I would get a teaching job for the school year. I gave SickKids my notice.

“A micropod is a small group of parents who pool their resources and hire a teacher to meet their students’ needs. They were around before the pandemic, though they obviously weren’t as common. They might help students with physical mobility challenges, or child actors on film sets. Learning pods aren’t tightly regulated like public or even private schools—the most comparable situation would be homeschooling, which every parent in Canada is entitled to provide. A learning pod can be less expensive than a private school, and people also like the convenience factor, since the pod will typically run out of one of the students’ homes, though I’ve also seen them operate out of the floor of an office building or an empty storefront.

“Based on the conversations I’ve had, most parents opting for micropods are worried about their children potentially catching Covid and bringing it back to the family. They’re also concerned about quality and continuity of education, whether in person or online. The way schools are right now, the situation can change so quickly, and parents are looking for all the stability they can get. Say school suddenly moves online again—what do you do if both parents are working full-time? How do you monitor a child’s mental and physical health, not to mention Internet exposure, when their learning is unsupervised? With micropods, you have a better chance at continuity, and a guarantee that someone will oversee their child’s learning.

“I had a lot to consider while looking through job postings. Who would I be teaching, and would I be a good fit for them? What’s the parents’ educational philosophy? Would I be allowed to see my family? A lot of the postings were sparse on details but said something like, ‘You’ll have to roll with us. This is a unique time.’

“I applied to one micropod job in North York, but the family had a dog, and I have extreme allergies, so that wasn’t going to work. The commute was another issue—I would have had to take two subways and walk for 20 minutes to get there. You want to stay close: that’s part of the point of a micropod.

“I found another posting for teaching two boys in the east end, grades 3 and 6, with the possibility of adding a few more students in the future. When I sent my resumé, the mom emailed within 10 minutes saying she’d visited my website and thought I’d be a great fit. We set up a time to chat on Zoom, and I ended up really connecting with her about my educational philosophy. The boys’ mother was concerned about the quality of their education in Covid times, since they may not get the attention they need. And so she was really excited about chance to choose her children’s teacher.

“Soon we added a third child, a Grade 6 student who was in school with both of the other boys. He was initially signed up for TDSB online, which was a disaster. He didn’t have a teacher, and he was expected to sit in front of the computer alone for a full workday while his parents worked. They weren’t okay with that arrangement, so they opted for the micropod.

“We decided that we would do four hours of learning a day, and that the pod would run out of the original boys’ home. I chose to use the standard Ontario public school curriculum. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. And as for safety, everybody is keeping their bubbles as small as possible and closely monitoring their family’s health. We decided the maximum pod size would be five students, and I’d get a flat rate of $30,000 for the school year, to be split among the parents.

“It’s a great fit for me. I have experience in a private homeschool setting, and I don’t want to teach online. I hate sitting in front of the computer all day—I want to be face-to-face with students. Right now, we’re on the top floor of the brothers’ house. There’s a long rectangular table that serves as a desk, a couch, a washroom and a TV on the wall, where I project visual aids from my laptop. I’m trying to develop their independent learning skills, which can be a challenge in a pod, since I’m always right there. I have them raise a question-mark card when they need help, and give them a little time to work through problems themselves before I step in. The parents purchased a pre-construction condo long before the pandemic that will be finished in late October, and we’re planning on moving the pod there when it’s ready. In the condo, I’ll be introducing a food and nutrition component where we plan, discuss and make our own healthy plant-based lunches a few days a week.

“The schedule looks different than a regular school day. We’re doing four hours a day, five days a week, with three subjects. First is language arts, followed by a snack break, which we take on the main level. Then we do STEM, where we rotate between science, technology, engineering and math. And finally we do an elective, toggling between music, art, physical fitness and social science. We start the day with a 10-minute warm up, which will typically include some stretching, math card games and so on. Basically, the aim is to get the yawns out and get the students’ brains ready for the day.

“Every other day I play O Canada, which helps with the regular school vibe. I keep the day in check with alarms on my phone, using sounds we picked together—the first one at 9:30 is a school bell sound, and then we play the Jaws theme song for one period, the Mission: Impossible theme for another. We go outside a lot, using the picnic tables so they can do their work in the fresh air. It’s bee season, so the bugs can be a little distracting, but we make do.

“Given the size of the pod, it’s easy to tailor lessons for the different grade levels. It also helps that the older boys are friends, and that the younger boy loves learning alongside his brother. It’s much easier to give them individual attention than in a normal classroom situation, where you might have 30 students and eight independent education plans. The students seem to be taking to the learning environment incredibly well—since everything is so close and collaborative, it’s really building their confidence. For instance, the boys’ mother says that her younger son was always too shy and soft-spoken to speak to adults. In just a few weeks, he’s having full-blown conversations with adults in situations where he’d normally be hiding behind his mother’s leg. He’s really coming out of his shell. I think a big part of it is that he’s developing confidence talking around older kids, since I’m able to nip any bullying behaviour in the bud as it happens.

“I typically introduce new material with a brainstorming session to figure out their baseline knowledge. I introduce the material at the Grade 6 level and then have the older boys do some independent reading while the younger child and I read together. The Grade 3 student may not absorb all the content, but the important takeaway is that he’ll work on his reading and writing within that theme, which is the main learning focus for his grade. I’ll also tailor exercises and activities to their levels, and do a lot of checking in with the younger student to make sure he’s keeping up. We’ve decided not to assign homework at this point, but that may change in the future, and I’ll still be providing a report card as per Ontario guidelines. All the close contact we have means I can leave detailed, meaningful comments and track their learning closely.

“As far as social distancing and bubbling, everyone is being very cautious, and Zoom and Google Classroom are always the backup plan if anyone shows Covid symptoms. Everyone, myself included, is being very selective about their interactions—the boys only see a couple of friends, and the parents are really focused on indoor activities, like board games and movie nights. Part of the benefit of this micropod situation is that we’ve set up a system, which means there won’t be interruptions even if we have to move to Zoom. We can keep it going no matter what lies ahead. It’s good for them to have that stability in a time where there isn’t much to come by.

“I understand that people criticize these micropods on the basis of access, but the fact is, not everyone going this route is affluent. A lot of parents are dipping into savings or borrowing money to invest in their children’s education, and I think there’s a lot of value in that. Private education is a huge industry, and it’s not just for the rich and wealthy. Ultimately, this is a solution for some parents who are just happy to see their kids engaged physically and actually enjoying learning. I’m not sure the public system is doing a great job providing that right now.”