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Schooled in the Love of Learning

While waiting to see the dermatologist with my 8-year-old, I picked up Working Mother magazine. In it I found a very official looking School Visit Checklist. Hmmmm.

Here’s what to look for in your elementary school, the intro paragraph said.

In theory, the list had some great suggestions. Watch the principal. He or she should address kids by name and engage with parents. Talk to the teachers. Assess their enthusiasm for their work and the kids. Zero in on innovations. Notice if group and hands-on activities are encouraged.

The next one got me. Check out the walls and halls. The artwork, the writing and math assignments can give you a sense of what type of work the children do, whether it’s challenging enough for your child, and whether creativity is valued.

I pictured our campus-style elementary school, built in the early sixties – when Richmond’s weather was more like Florida’s apparently. Our school doesn’t have any halls, and not many walls on which student assignments might be hung. Covered open-air walkways connect the teaching buildings, and our PTA’s latest innovative project is a completely wall-free outdoor classroom. Go figure. So much for the artwork, writing, and math assignments. There goes my plan to slink through the hallways evaluating the competition. I suppose if I really wanted to I could hide behind a bush and stalk – I mean, “watch” the principal.

When we moved to our current neighborhood over ten years ago, our oldest daughter was almost two, and her sequel was in the works. As I scrambled for child care conveniently located somewhere between my office and our new house, I don’t remember even looking over my shoulder for the elementary school, much less visiting it with a checklist in hand. I do remember asking Linda the Realtor about the local schools. My husband probably said something like, “All the County schools are wonderful – this is Virginia.” Later, my friend across the street told me her realtor accidentally listed a different elementary school on their new home’s spec sheet. (Thankfully, the dining room dimensions were correct!). She didn’t discover the mistake until she went to register her daughter for kindergarten two years later — at the wrong school.

So I guess I was surprised when I heard from a realtor that a family passed on a great house in our neighborhood, presumably because they weren’t impressed with the elementary school. Naturally I wondered, What’s not to like? We have a motivated principal, an inspired group of new and veteran teachers, an active PTA. During flu season, you can even put a positive spin on that campus-style design: With fewer enclosed spaces and more open doors, even germs can get out of the classrooms easily.

But then it occurred to me, and it was especially poignant as another summer drew to a close and it was time for my daughters to head back to school: In this family, education isn’t as much about schools or curriculums or teachers, as it is about an inherent love of learning.

The truth is, my daughters are going to thrive wherever they go to school, whether it’s a Montessori, a private school, or a campus-style public elementary school. But it won’t be because of the school itself – with or without walls and halls. It won’t even be because of the inspirational teachers who can actually spend two weeks reviewing for one test and still keep things interesting. It will be because of the lessons they have learned at home and the tools we’ve given them to succeed in the classroom and in life.

Hmmmm. So what would a Love-of-Learning Checklist look like? “Here’s how to inspire your children from the beginning,” the intro paragraph might read. “Here’s how to do your job at home, so schools and teachers can do theirs.”

Let your child make mistakes and correct them. Creative problem-solving builds brain cells and communication skills. Let your child be bored. Exploring the world and finding ways to entertain himself are important steps in self discovery. Limit monitor time. Even in middle school kids should ask if it’s okay to watch TV or veg out in front of a screen of any type; there is almost always something better to do. And remember, screen time is not the same thing as relaxation.  Read to your child. Do whatever you can to help your child fall in love with reading. Take school and academics seriously. Let your child know that learning comes first. In essence, school is a job and performance on the job is important. Know what your child is capable of and always expect his or her best. Teach your child to respect adults. Period.

And finally, connect with your child’s teachers and schools. Chaperone field trips; read in the classroom; offer tutoring services; jump into your child’s science fair project with both feet, if you dare. Go to all of the parent/teacher conferences, and principal’s coffees, and school visits you can, and by all means, take a checklist.

But be assured of this: The love of learning starts at home — and no school in the world can change that.


Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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