A Year Like No Other is an SBS News collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney. It features stories written by journalism students.
Six years ago, while working in international development in Myanmar – the country his parents had emigrated from in the late 1980s – Alex Oo’s life changed.
A change in circumstances for a family member meant Alex became a carer for his two nephews, aged two-and-a-half and seven months, essentially overnight. He was only 25.
“I gave up my whole career and I gave up living overseas in order to be able to come back and make sure that these kids in my family were gonna be able to make it through, and be able to grow and prosper and just try to grow up to be healthy individuals,” he says.
His mother also sacrificed a career in New York so she and Alex’s father could to return to Sydney and support him and the children.
The boys had some early traumatic experiences and didn’t always find school an easy place to be.
“People think that school is a really easy thing, and everybody just does it,” says Alex, 31, who lives on Sydney’s North Shore.
“[But] even just the social experience of being in school can be really difficult, especially for kids who may not have come from the easiest of backgrounds.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, the boys, now aged six and eight, and Alex, who works as a researcher for the Department of Education, were all forced to stay at home.
It proved to be the positive change they needed.
Homeschooling was a chance for them to reset, take some time out from the “chaos of being around so many kids” and spend time learning one-on-one, Alex says.
And while for many parents, the lockdowns brought increased stress for them and their children, away from a physical school environment, Alex noticed the boys’ anxiety levels drop.
“Being able to slow everything else down and just focus on supporting our kids was a really, really good experience,” he says.
Alex was also able to switch to flexible working, and with no daily rush to the school gate, lunches to pack or notes to sign, he found it benefitted the whole family.
He spent the majority of the school day helping the boys and would catch up on his own work in the evenings and at the weekend.
“I’ve been wanting to do something like it for years but was too busy with work,” he says.
I’ve been wanting to do something like it for years but was too busy with work.
– Alex Oo
For Alex, it was also a rare opportunity to bring together the focus of his work, which involves visiting schools and observing classrooms, with his kids’ learning.
“That allowed me to just have that time to really see, how are my kids growing? How are they learning?
“How do they concentrate on the work? How do they approach it? Do they feel anxious … confident … what does school really look like for them?
“All those things that when you’ve got the rest of life around you, you just don’t really notice.”
Reflecting on 2020, Alex says there are a few things that will forever stick with him.
The first is recognising “we need to value our essential workers more, we need to pay them more … We rely on them so much,” he says.
When it comes to school teachers, Alex says homeschooling showed him “how much they give a damn about our kids”.
“To see every day what they’re putting into it … the collaboration, the great work activities that they’re designing for our kids, all that kind of stuff … just how amazing teachers are.”
And while it’s been a tough year for so many, Alex is also grateful for how it helped his family reset, with the boys now in a much better place.
“They just seem so happy, they seem so settled, they’re learning better than they ever have. They’re able to focus and independently work without so much constant support from their teachers.”
“Really, this is probably the best year we’ve had.”
Bianca Healey is from Sydney. She began her Master of Journalism in 2020 and took up tennis during the pandemic. She hopes to see more of her work published and perfect her serve in 2021.
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