What can parents do to help their children be successful in school? I wrote a list of 32 things parents can do at home as part of raising their children in a previous post.
However, there are also ways parents can be proactive for their children within the school and instruments of change in their school districts. Here are my thoughts:
- Communication is key. Let teachers know about struggles or learning disabilities or special circumstances your child may have before a situation arises. The more we know about our students, the better we can help them. Years ago, I worked with a student who was earning an A+ in my class. She was getting 100% on her vocabulary and grammar tests; she contributed beautifully in our shared inquiry sessions. When it came time to write the first essay, I gave my students a writing packet I created and had students work in writing workshops with each other to peer edit and revise, using my packet as a guideline. I walked around the room and answered questions for students. I asked them to come see me after school or during their breaks to get one-on-one attention for any problems they were having. Some students took advantage of this extra help I offered, but this one A+ student never came to see me. After grading her paper, I was shocked. Her paper was riddled with the no-nos from my packet and the essay made no sense; it was as if she had not read the novel she was writing about (it would not have been the first time a student had not read a novel I assigned). The paper earned an F, and I followed up with her by asking if she had read the novel. Later that day her mother sent me a scathing email about me being unnecessarily cruel to her daughter. It was then that she told me her daughter had reading disabilities, and I had devastated her child. I felt horrible. If I would have known that this student struggled with reading, I would have set up time to work with her. My writing packet is technical and comprehensive; it is extremely difficult for students with lower reading levels. In general, my honors’ students can read it and follow its instructions, but students who are struggling readers like ESL students (English as a Second Language) need help with it. I actually worked one-on-one with an ESL student that year because she had a hard time understanding it; I would have done the same for this other student if I would have known. But everything she showed me made me believe she was fully capable of working with the material–that and she never once asked me for help. One email from her mother, at the beginning of the year, would have eliminated this conflict.
- Teachers are not your enemy; work with them, not against them. For whatever reason, teachers have become archenemy #1 in some parents’ perspectives. For that reason, many teachers are hesitant to communicate with parents, especially the combative ones. Most teachers are in this profession because they want to help your child and all children succeed in life. Please treat them as professionals and collaborators in the education of your child. Kindness and respect will go a long way in your communication. If you begin by criticizing a teacher, you might make an enemy of that teacher, instead of an ally. No one will benefit from this approach. However, if you begin with an honest appreciation for what that teacher offers your child, it will be so much easier to discuss an issue that is not going as well and discuss viable solutions. If the parents from my previous post’s example (Link) began with: “Thank you for challenging my son. How can we move forward to make sure he is getting the most out of his education?” We could have discussed a plan of action to help him get on track; instead, admittedly, I put up a wall of defense. Concurrently, because these parents were too busy attacking my character, they could not see that their son was not doing everything he could do to be successful.
- Before you react, think about the reasonableness of the story. I know as parents we can hear crazy stories about the behaviors of teachers from our children. But I also know as a teacher, I have heard crazy stories about parents from my students. I know to take these stories (in both roles) with a grain of salt. Listen to your children, but know that children don’t always tell the truth, especially if the truth will get them in trouble. Students love to tell me how ridiculous their parents are about unreasonable rules or broken-down computers or a death of a distant relative or dogs eating homework …. I don’t blindly believe them; nor should you believe them when they say the teacher is never around, she said she won’t help me, or she never explained the assignment to us. More often than not, these statements are not true. The one thing I do with my son is first ask myself, “Is this something a reasonable adult would do?” If the answer is no, then I ask the teacher for the real story. I let the teacher know there seems to be something missing from the story my son is giving me and ask, “Could you fill me in, please?” That way I’m treating the teacher with respect and getting answers on how to help my son. It’s a win-win situation.
- Pick your battles. Healthy discussions at home will decide what is a necessary phone call or email. If you present yourself as a complainer or a victim in every situation, you will develop a reputation as a complainer; no one will take you seriously. So make sure the battle you fight on behalf of your child is an essential one. An example of a non-essential battle comes from my experiences as a parent. When my older daughter was in high school, she had a teacher who had very strict rules about being tardy. If a student was late 3 times for class, even by 30 seconds, this teacher made the student stay with her for lunch. My daughter called me in tears one day: “I hate my teacher. She’s making me stay with her for lunch. She’s ridiculous. I was only a minute late!” Of course, I hated to hear my daughter cry. Secretly, I thought the teacher’s policy was slightly ridiculous as well, but the teacher made her expectations clear, and my daughter knew those expectations. I was not going to share my thoughts about that teacher’s rules with my daughter or the teacher because, without question, my daughter screwed up; this was her third time being late. It was a great lesson for her to learn. Throughout life we will encounter different personalities, and we have to learn how to function well, even with those people who don’t look at life the same way. It might not seem fair, but it is part of our education. The greatest lessons in life are the ones that teach us that life isn’t fair; it is these situations that teach us perseverance and strengthen us for the real life battles we all have to endure.
- The next step when talking to the teacher doesn’t work. Even though the education of your child is such a personal thing, remember that teachers are professionals and there is a protocol to dealing with problems. These are the steps to follow: 1) Student talks to teacher first. 2) If teacher does not respond in an acceptable manner, parents talk to teacher using the first four elements of this list. 3) If the teacher doesn’t respond to a reasonable request, ask for a meeting with the teacher and the supervising principal. Remember, the ultimate goal is to create a healthy learning environment for your child. If you go to the principal or the superintendent before talking to the teacher, you have attacked the teacher. All this action is showing is that you want to hurt the teacher, instead of creating a solution for the problem. Think about how you would feel if someone did that to you–talked to your boss without talking to you first. Teachers are no different from any other human beings; we want to be respected and treated fairly. If you feel the teacher isn’t understanding your concerns, that teacher’s supervising principal can be a great mediator. Sometimes teachers will only see the immediate in a situation; principals have training in seeing the big picture. Besides, any healthy school system, as well as productive discussions, will begin with addressing the issue in order to find a solution, rather than looking for a consequence first. If a principal or superintendent hands out a consequence before a parent talks to the teacher, it’s a sure sign of a dysfunctional system. By not following proper protocol, you have contributed to the dysfunction, rather than helping your child, teacher, and school create a healthy environment.
- Find out what things the child is learning. This step is the most crucial and probably the most uncomfortable for parents. Unless parents are in-the-loop with the newest trends in education, they may not feel they are the best judge of curriculum. Each level will have slight differences, but in general, here are some things to look for, regardless of trends: Is your child doing a lot of worksheets? Is she writing? Is he watching a lot of movies? Don’t look at your child’s grade for evidence of learning; look at what your child is actually learning. Is he excited about what they are doing in class? Does she talk about how the world is opening up to her? Worksheets and movies have their place, but it shouldn’t be the only things that students are doing. Writing is one of the best ways for children to learn, and I’m not just talking about learning effective communication skills, which is essential as well. I’m saying that writing helps children understand what they think and why they think it. If students are not writing in every subject, they are not connected to their learning. This is an essential learning tool that parents need to talk to their children’s teachers about. If you are not seeing evidence of writing, talk to the teacher and ask that more writing be included in the curriculum. At the very minimum, students should write weekly in a journal in every class. However, I would suggest that parents request some type of formal writing assessment at least once a month in all classes as well. If a teacher says that writing does not have a place in that teacher’s curriculum, this would be an essential battle that parents need to fight. No teacher should ever say that about his or her classroom.
- Make sure your child’s writing is being evaluated. Besides asking teachers to assign more writing, find out how your child is being evaluated in that writing. Rubrics (a tool used to assess writing with boxes to check off common writing skills) have their benefits, but there should also be some attempt at correcting mistakes in written communication. Are revisions encouraged? Are thoughts being evaluated? What kind of help is the teacher giving students on writing assignments? And remember, this is for all subject matters, not just English courses. Journal writing is wonderful, but students occasionally need feedback to become better communicators. Once again, this is an essential part of your children’s education that needs to be addressed with your children’s teachers. Many ineffective teachers hide behind the A‘s they freely give to their students so they are not confronted on their lack of teaching skills. This should be a nonnegotiable for parents and a battle that needs to be fought and won for our children’s sakes.
- Volunteer at school if possible, get involved with parent-teacher organizations. I know many parents are busy, or they only get involved in PTO’s to feel connected in their communities, but this one step could make or break our education system. There is strength in numbers. The more parents who get involved to make changes at their schools, the more likely it will happen. As a teacher, I see so many things that are wrong with education, but I could also lose my job–my livelihood–if I stand up too strongly to oppose the direction of education. Parents have a stronger voice when it comes to the things that need to be addressed at the district and state levels. For instance, parents can oppose state tests, class sizes, ineffective teachers, and budget cuts. Together, parent groups can write letters and start petitions to make these changes a reality.
What are your thoughts? What questions or concerns do you have about being a change-agent in your child’s education?