Homeschooling During Lockdown: What If You Don’t Speak English?

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 11 minutes

If you were a parent during last year’s lockdown, you’ll probably recall the stress of suddenly having to homeschool your children while also trying to work remotely.

Now, imagine trying to follow a lesson plan without being able to understand the language it was written in.

That was the case for many of New Zealand’s Indonesian migrant mothers, as AUT scholar Dr Nelly Martin-Anatias has discovered.

Dr Nelly Martin-Anatias is a research fellow of AUT’s School of Social Sciences and Public Policy. Born in Indonesia, she completed her master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and a doctorate in Second Language Acquisition in the US before she and her husband moved to New Zealand. Much of Dr Martin-Anatias’ academic career has revolved

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 11 minutes

If you were a parent during last year’s lockdown, you’ll probably recall the stress of suddenly having to homeschool your children while also trying to work remotely.

Now, imagine trying to follow a lesson plan without being able to understand the language it was written in.

That was the case for many of New Zealand’s Indonesian migrant mothers, as AUT scholar Dr Nelly Martin-Anatias has discovered.

Dr Nelly Martin-Anatias

Dr Nelly Martin-Anatias is a research fellow of AUT’s School of Social Sciences and Public Policy. Born in Indonesia, she completed her master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and a doctorate in Second Language Acquisition in the US before she and her husband moved to New Zealand. Much of Dr Martin-Anatias’ academic career has revolved around language and identity, sociolinguistics, and Indonesian studies.

So, when lockdown hit last year, she wondered how New Zealand’s Indonesian migrants were coping.

“I know life during lockdown was hard for everyone. It was hard just to navigate daily life on top of professional life,” she says. “Although I’m not a mother myself, I began thinking about migrant mothers who had to tend to both their husband’s needs and also their children’s needs and education.”

Traditionally, she explains, Indonesian wives and mothers are expected to run the household and take full responsibility as caregivers for their husband and children. This gender role ideology has been handed down through the generations, and persists even after families migrate to New Zealand.

After the first national lockdown ended, Dr Martin-Anatias joined the research group CARUL (Care And Responsibility Under Lockdown) and was given the opportunity to confirm her predictions. Led by Associate Professor Nick Long (from the London School of Economics and Political Science) and Associate Professor Sharyn Graham Davies (from Monash University, Australia), along with members from several other universities in New Zealand and the UK, CARUL was formed to examine the social effects of the COVID lockdown in New Zealand.

After meeting with some local Indonesian mothers, Dr Marin-Anatias learned they had indeed struggled – perhaps more than any other mums in New Zealand.

The problem, it turned out, was their English – or lack thereof.

While most migrants’ husbands are likely to have a high degree of English proficiency – as required by New Zealand immigration rules – this requirement does not extend to their wives and other family members. As a result, many Indonesian women arrive in New Zealand with little to no English. They naturally take on the role of main caregiver at home, while their husbands are the sole income earner. Unsurprisingly, this only serves to limit their English even further.

However, it was to the mothers that the task of homeschooling fell during lockdown.

During the national lockdown, the Government launched an $87 million package to provide educational material and devices to students. The packs included a parent guidance sheet on how to support their child’s learning, along with suggestions for activities to accompany the material – all in English.

For mothers with limited proficiency, this meant many were beside themselves trying to learn and prepare lessons at home, usually after long hours of housework and caregiving duties. Lessons that required high English capabilities – particularly maths and written tasks – were almost impossible. To make matters worse, they also feared letting their children down.

“These mothers were worried that if their children didn’t receive the same education as other Kiwi children, their future would be impaired,” Dr Martin-Anatias says. She also sensed that the women felt if they hadn’t fulfilled their expectations, they would have religiously sinned.

Understandably, the stress left many of the mums mentally and physically exhausted.

“For some of them, it was really tiring,” she says. “They didn’t have any time for themselves. There were times when they forgot to eat, or forgot to take a shower. They were just focused on being there for the children between 9am and 3pm to make sure they got their education.”

Despite their difficulties, the mothers were reluctant to complain. Having seen the situation back home in Indonesia, many of them felt lucky to be in New Zealand, and assumed their new roles as part of their responsibility.

They are also in awe of [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern. “They idolise her. They think her situation is kind of relatable because she’s also a mother and a very important figure, but she still takes care of her child,” comments Dr Martin-Anatias.

Unsurprisingly, they failed to notice that Jacinda’s partner Clarke Gayford shares in the couple’s childcare responsibilities.

There was one small positive outcome, she says: the women’s husbands were finally able to see how many hours the women spent running the household. It was the first time many showed their appreciation.

Although she feels this gratitude came too late, Dr Martin-Anatias says it is not her place to judge. “For me to criticize their way of life or their way of thinking is just wrong. If something needs to change, it’s that their husbands need to appreciate them more.”

The perception of gendered roles is deeply entrenched within the Indonesian psyche, she says, and change will be difficult. So far, her own attempts to challenge men’s views in her writings or during her lectures have been met with laughter, and in some cases, men walking out of the room.

However, she has hope for future generations, whom she has found to be surprisingly progressive in their thinking. “Most of the children I’ve talked to were born here and have grown up in New Zealand, so they’re experiencing a new set of values. At home they see the traditional gender roles in their family, but at school and in New Zealand society at large they see that it’s different.”

For now, she is focused on alerting the government to the needs of migrant mothers during lockdown situations. She says although the government did well in providing learning resources during lockdown – such as an internet connection, laptop, and lesson plans – the plans were not easy for parents with limited English to follow.

“Let’s say the moms can speak the language well, but how about the concepts of the lessons themselves? There is a reason why parents send their children to school, right? Moreover, it seems that the linguistic barrier of those who speak English as a second language has been oversighted.”

If a lockdown should happen again, Dr Martin-Anatias says she would urge the government to pay less attention to the logistics and focus instead on how much of a struggle it is for some minority groups to homeschool their children. “Perhaps providing a professional tutor that can teach these migrant children during the lockdown is a good idea to implement. That way, these mothers do not need to shoulder more responsibilities than what they already have.”

She says that tutors could teach small groups of students during school hours via Zoom or other digital platforms. Supervision is especially important for primary school students, who need more help in maintaining focus.

She adds that these tutors could also explain the concepts of the lessons to the parents, so that they too could be involved in their children’s learning. Alternatively, they could provide instructions for lessons in the parents’ native language, in addition to English.

These simple measures would provide enormous peace of mind for the migrant families, she says, and mothers wouldn’t have to worry that their children’s education would be interrupted.

At the very least, she wants to see the government create a language policy that caters to migrant groups who speak English as a second language. “These groups do exist, and we should do something to help them avoid this structural linguistic discrimination,” she says. “It’s not only the language itself, it’s the concept and the materials; these parents just aren’t educated in that field. Schools and teachers need to pay more attention to parents who are second-language speakers of English. They need to give them more support and more options. These parents get very worried if they feel their children cannot catch up.”

Dr Martin-Anatias emphasizes that the mothers she interviewed were very strong, capable women. If they wanted to complain, they had plenty to complain about – but they didn’t. “These migrant parents are already thankful for what the New Zealand government has done during the pandemic, so I couldn’t imagine they would ask for more. They have been telling me that they felt so blessed to be in New Zealand during the global pandemic, as their home country has been a mess in handling it.”

Now, more than ever, she feels it is important to acknowledge and highlight these women’s roles and devotion. “To these women, being a mom is their number one priority. They don’t always take time to care for themselves because they’re always putting their children first. They’re amazing.”

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