With experience ranging from zilch to more than three decades, four Virginia teachers share some of their innermost thoughts and best advice on how to work with your child’s teacher for a successful year in school.
First, there’s Bonnie. She taught for a dozen years, took a break, then spent nine more years teaching English in Henrico County elementary schools. Paula is a lifer, having spent 29-plus years teaching in Henrico County. She has two children of her own and is ready to retire. Liam, age 44, remains idealistic after nine years of teaching students with learning disabilities and emotional disabilities in a medium-size city in western Virginia. Caroline is brand new to the field. Fresh out of school and full of enthusiasm, she works at an inner-city school in Richmond, having probably the most challenging job of all, teaching children with serious emotional and behavioral problems.
Times have changed. Bonnie, eloquent about teaching, considers the profession “a real calling.” She started teaching in 1968, but stopped for twelve years to raise her children and then returned. “By the time I came back,” says Bonnie, “the classroom had become more complicated and nerve-racking. Class sizes had increased. I teach over a hundred children at a time now.” She added that while some administrators are wonderful, when she returned to teaching, it seemed that some had lost interest in providing a quality school experience and were more focused on their own careers in the office.
Another teacher, 30-year veteran Paula, pulls no punches when she says the responsibilities a teacher assumes have increased dramatically over the years. “Teachers now are expected to teach manners, social skills, communication skills, computer skills – everything and anything else in addition to their subject. Many of these things used to be the family’s responsibility and all of them eat into precious learning time.”
What’s the most important thing a parent can do for their kids? “Get involved!” Say all four teachers – with the child and with the school. Generally, teachers realize that this is harder today for parents, as in many cases both parents have jobs. The number of single-parent homes has also gone up.
Often, parents are very involved when their child is in elementary school but then back away as the child gets older. The teachers with upper-grade experience maintain it’s just as important for parents to stay involved and be aware of what is happening with their child in the difficult middle school and high school years as it is in elementary school. “Part of being involved is for the parent to be enthusiastic about the school experience,” says Paula, “…and teaching the child that school is a good place to be.”
Liam, who deals with special needs children, says it’s important for parents to help children view school and education in general through a wide-angle lens. “Remember that your child will be an adult in twelve years or less. Do you think that the nation’s economic situation will change enough for your child to have a real career? Your kids need to realize how important education is right now. Your involvement is crucial.”
Communication is vital. Caroline, just starting out in her career in a lower-income school district, says, “There is very little involvement at my school on the parent’s part. I can only share what I see going on with your child in the classroom if I can talk to you,” says Caroline. “You, as a parent, can give me insights into your child that can make a big difference in how I relate to him or her.”
Seasoned teacher Bonnie adds that it is important for parents to let the teacher know they can be contacted – for both good and bad news. Sometimes that line of communication is only available for the negatives. “I had 150 students last year and I tried my best to make contact with all of [their parents].”
Most teachers realize that there are unique situations. As an experienced science teacher, Paula says she has had many situations where a parent (or the child) approached her about a missed class or failed test or project not turned in. “On one occasion, a boy in my class failed a test. But his mother talked to me and shared that his grandmother, to whom he was very close, had passed away the day before. I allowed him to retake the test and he did fine.” Most teachers will accept a good excuse. But, she adds, “Staying up till midnight watching a football game does not count as a good reason.”
Patience is important – for parents and teachers. About pushy parents, Liam says, “I see every degree of involvement. I’ve seen parents expect the school, the teachers, guidance department, and administrators – to be the sole bearer of making sure the child gets the grade. I’ve had parents call me at home repeatedly. And then, on the other extreme, sometimes there’s no involvement.”
All the teachers agreed there are times when parents must question a teacher. Remember, many teachers are parents too. And as parents, they have to work with other teachers regularly.
“My son was in the seventh grade,” says Paula. “He had learning disabilities and an IEP [individual educational plan] in place. He had a project due and unbeknownst to me was having problems completing it.” According to Paula, when her son brought the project in a day late, the teacher refused to accept it and later gave him a zero on the assignment. Paula went to the school to talk with her. “She said that was her rule – no exceptions.” Paula says while some parents might have been inclined to go straight to the principal, she did not go that route. “I went instead to the guidance counselor who intervened on my son’s behalf. The teacher finally gave him a grade of 70, but still would not accept the project. But I was able to resolve the situation without it getting out of control.”
According to this group, the best course of action when there is an issue involving your child is to contact the teacher first, not the administration. “That is fair to the teacher,” says Paula. If, after that first meeting or contact, the issue isn’t resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the parent can explain to the teacher that contacting someone in administration will be the next step. No matter what, a parent should always attempt to speak to a teacher with respect and restraint. Teachers really do want your child to succeed and the best way to achieve that is to stay focused on your child and work in sync with his teachers.
Liam adds, “You are your child’s advocate. Call us. Email us. Visit us. Ask questions and work with us to figure out problems. We can teach a hundred children at once. Help us to help you and your child to get the best education he can from the school system.”
Tips from Teacher: Steps to Resolution
1) If your child’s teacher calls with a problem, don’t give in to emotion. Don’t get defensive; don’t attack the teacher or attack your child. Listen to what he or she is actually saying. If you are in control of your emotions, you will be able to ask very specific questions to define the problem. Is it homework? Is it attention? Is it behavior? Is it one subject or several? Does this represent a change over past performance? What specific thing is the problem?
2) Then you can question your child and really listen. What is the nature of the problem? Does she understand the material? Can he sit still and pay attention? Is there something else going on? Once you have the facts from both sides, you can formulate a plan of action. Ask your child what she thinks would help. Ask the teacher if he has suggestions: tutoring, placing the child closer to the front of the room, an extra session with the teacher. Explore the options.
3) Work this plan for a while, then check with your child and the teacher to see if there is progress. If not, look deeper and see if there is another route to a solution. Consider tutoring or outside testing.
Tips from Teacher: Keys to Success
What about helping with homework? Not too much, not too little. It may be easier sometimes, especially in the lower grades, to just do your child’s project yourself. Don’t do it. Your child needs the feeling of accomplishment he can get from doing the project himself. You may have to spend twice as long overseeing her, but in the long run, she will know how to do it, and more importantly that she can do it. Make sure assignments are actually completed.
With older kids, Paula says you can’t just tell your kids to go to their rooms to study. Lots of kids don’t even know how to study, and left alone they can stumble upon all kinds of distractions (computer, phone, texting, Facebook, iPod…) Find a place in the house with no distractions and make that place the study hall.
Keep track of what he is doing in school. Go ahead and ask the question, “What did you do in school today?” If you hear, “Nothing,” ask more specific questions. What did the teacher say today? When is your next test, book report? Where is your homework assignment book? Let’s see it. Where is your list of books for this year?
Liam suggests making each learning experience real. For example using money, airline schedules, or pricing goods in the store to teach math. Discover the lessons attached to the things that make up the day. Watching weather or tending a garden helps teach science. Writing letters, addressing envelopes, and use of language with multicultural friends teaches language arts.
If the teacher shares problems about your child with you, do not yell at the child or berate her. Bonnie says parents should have a conference with the child. “Try to get to the bottom of the issue, in a loving, respectful way. Even discipline for the problem – if needed – can be given without belittling the child.”
Liam adds: “Realize that children make mistakes. Failure is a part of life. Help them learn from mistakes and how to prevent making the same mistakes. Learn to accept when things do not work as planned.”
Diane York is a Richmond-based freelancer, mother, grandmother, and regular contributor to RFM. She last wrote about kids and career paths in May.