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• Getting the attention of overworked teachers without becoming the "problem" parent
• What to do if your child falls behind academically
• How to end chronic battles ...
• Getting the attention of overworked teachers without becoming the "problem" parent
• What to do if your child falls behind academically
• How to end chronic battles over homework
The Mom Book Goes to School is an indispensable handbook for all parents who want to help their children thrive in school.
Introduction: The Big Picture
Long gone are the days of the one-room schoolhouse in which a teacher had virtually autonomous control over curriculum. Over the last 200 years, the education of American children has changed drastically. The national school system has ballooned into a bureaucratic structure of gigantic proportions, entangling millions of kids in a web of often opposing interests, from teachers' unions to governmental agencies to parents who just want to ensure their children receive the highest-quality education available.
During his first term in office, President George W. Bush and his cabinet urged Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a sweeping educational plan with the goal that no child — regardless of ethnicity, gender, or family income — be disadvantaged in life due to the lack of a proper education. The program relies on strengthening public elementary and secondary schools across the nation by periodically assessing all students through standardized testing, and has been somewhat successful in developing better quality schools in neighborhoods with high concentrations of struggling, disabled, poor, and minority students. However, NCLB has yet to be adequately funded and primarily focuses on salvaging the students languishing at the very bottom. There are virtually no innovative strategies included in the act for improving the educational experience of the majority: kids who are just slightly behind where they should be, average kids, and exceptional kids.
Increasingly, teachers are turning to cookie-cutter curriculums in an effort to teach to the standardized tests that form the benchmark of NCLB reforms. All too often, this pressure means dropping fun and interactive activities because they prove too time-consuming to fit into an already packed day. Instead of raising children who love to learn and solve problems creatively, we are raising a generation of terrific test takers. The end result is bored children who are dispassionate about school and trained to believe that the most important reason to learn is to receive the highest marks on a standardized test or a report card. Discouraged teachers long for the ability to be creative and embellish their curriculum to meet the unique interests and needs of their classrooms, and frustrated parents find themselves dealing with stressed-out kids and overextended educators.
We are raising kids in an era filled with debate, but not much agreement, about what it takes to ensure they succeed in school. A critical part of the formula is the vital role of parents — often the missing component in sweeping educational reform plans.
In an era of school budget cuts, overcrowded classrooms, constant testing, and highly competitive admissions processes to private schools and colleges, parents need to be hands-on intermediaries and strategic problem solvers for their children when issues arise. To be an effective advocate for your child, you need to take a proactive and sophisticated approach in communicating with your child's teachers, specialists, and principal. You also need to be aware of how peer relationships impact your child's school performance, from bullies to cliques to problematic classroom behavior. It all boils down to a single concern: How can you make sure your child succeeds at school without becoming an overly involved parent?
At points during your child's educational experience, you will find yourself wondering what it will take to vault him out of a current educational snag and prevent a downward spiral for the rest of the academic year. How can you ensure that you serve as a coach instead of a homework partner, an enabler rather than a controller, a facilitator over a meddler? It's easy to feel discouraged and baffled when your child suddenly brings home nosediving grades, disconnects from a teacher, or starts acting out. I've listened to innumerable parents ruminate about how best to cultivate their children's academic gifts and help them find a niche in which they flourish. In the midst of this frenzy, like many parents, I have felt the tremendous burden of helping my children make thoughtful, strategic choices to prepare them for a future of academic success.
Recent studies show that effectively engaging parents in their children's education creates more change than any educational reform. Children with parents who are actively involved in their education achieve higher grades and standardized test scores, behave better in class, have more self-confidence, and tend to enjoy continuing success throughout their lives. Moreover, involved parents are better able to recognize subtle signs of problems and intervene before they become critical. This has been found to be true for all ages and ability ranges. Indeed, the extent to which parents are involved in their children's education is the single most important factor in each child's level of achievement; school quality, family income, race, and parents' education level are all of secondary importance.
The Mom Book Goes to School serves as a guide for parents who know they need to roll up their sleeves and help their children succeed in school, but are unsure about how to approach this most effectively. Hard pressed to determine what our exact roles should be vis-a-vis school, we find it difficult to strike the fine balance of advocating for our children in an informed, strategic manner without micromanaging details to the point where our children lack the confidence to tackle problems independently. The answer lies somewhere between building our children's science projects for them and throwing our hands up in frustration vowing to never, ever help them with homework again!
A poignant example of the issues parents face surfaced in my own life when a good friend called with a school-success crisis of her own. Her ninth-grade daughter, usually a brilliant student, came to her with a midterm summary from her math teacher, indicating she had received C's on the past three quizzes. My friend suddenly learned that her child, who had formerly earned all A's and breezed through her classes, had become disheartened in math as the result of a teacher who had disparaged her math skills and refused to place her in the highest math track that spring, lumping her instead with the average class. This frustration turned into rebellion, and she let her math grades slide without telling her parents. My friend felt shocked, dismayed, and angry. How could she not have known her daughter was struggling academically? Why didn't her daughter seek help? How should she respond as a parent?
This incident captures the tough dilemmas all parents invariably face at some point during a child's school years and reinforces our need for vigilance in watching for surfacing problems. Because of the overwhelming number of students in many classrooms, we often need to fight for schools to meet the individual needs of our children — whether they are learning disabled, gifted, struggling with reading, or acting out in class. With the emergence of competing resources inside and outside of school, we face myriad decisions when our children encounter problems: should we test for learning disorders inside or outside of school, hire a tutor or try to finagle extra teacher attention for academic issues, send our children to in-school specialists or outside learning centers, or opt for private school over public school?
In my friend's case, she had a heartfelt discussion with her disillusioned daughter about the underlying reasons for her slide in academic performance, her neglect of the problem, and her parents' dismay at not having been informed. My friend arranged a meeting to talk directly with the teacher and created an achievement plan to facilitate her daughter's goal of getting into the accelerated math class. She challenged her daughter to prove herself to the teacher by raising her grade to a B by the semester's end or else taking a summer math class and engaging the help of a math tutor come fall. Back in synergy, mom and daughter formed a team focused on the same goals: getting past the hurdle of a recalcitrant teacher and rekindling her passion for math.
Also embedded in this story is how, in our society, average has become a pejorative. We ultimately want our children to be better than run-of-the-mill students, and secretly hope for them to emerge as A+ students with glowing recommendations from every teacher. We fear that otherwise they will be vulnerable, lacking skills essential to thrive in a highly educated, success-oriented culture. We don't want an average kid but an extraordinary one — so much for the bell curve! But we are utterly unsure about to how to invest our energy. Should we spend 90% of it helping with homework? Scramble to find tutoring? Move to a private school? Set up frequent meetings with teachers in hopes of getting more individualized attention for our children?
Navigating the sometimes hostile and always complex school environment has become so nuanced that we need to get up to speed on how best to assume our varying roles, from sophisticated advocate to intermediary, from disciplinarian to homework editor. When school issues arise, it's crucial to be as informed as possible with insights and advice on what methods prove most effective when stepping into this complicated fray to help our children.
A huge parental fear lurking in the background is that our children will fall behind academically if we don't push and stay on top of the details. In our more anxious moments, we worry that our children's untapped potential will be lost forever and a tidal wave of mediocrity will sweep them into adulthood. If our children are not top students by second grade, we fear they have already fallen behind the students against whom they will eventually compete for college admissions. Ultimately, we spend so much time preparing our children for the challenges they will face in their academic future that we lose sight of raising children who love to learn.
In response to parental fears and expectations, the academic curriculum in most schools has become more rigorous and the homework more difficult. Education reforms in recent years have lead to longer school days, more academic intensity, and homework starting as early as kindergarten. You may find yourself shaking your head in bewilderment as you compare your second grader's schedule and assignments to what you remember from your own elementary school experience.
Given this new educational paradigm, the best way to help your child become an impassioned student who thrives in school is to become closely involved in his education and remain steadfast in that commitment. The average child spends 180 days a year in school for approximately seven hours a day, totaling 1,260 hours a year. While this time is vital to student learning, consider the 7,500 hours a year your child does not spend in school. How he spends his time outside of the classroom deeply impacts his quality of learning. Your challenge is to make the most of your child's education away from school.
Not only have school hours increased for kids, but parents now face the new part-time job of ensuring that piles of homework get completed correctly and our children's particular academic, social, and behavioral issues are addressed quickly and effectively. While parents view global issues of school reform as important, at the end of the day we care most deeply about meeting the needs of our individual child and figuring out how to get him to perform in the uppermost echelon of his class. It used to be that only high school grades mattered, but academic tracking, high-stakes testing, and gifted programs have brought this competitive focus down to the elementary and middle school levels.
School administrators often fear increased parental vigilance because it so often conflicts with the schools' overall needs. Many teachers would prefer to shut their classroom doors to keep parents away from school-related decisions rather than be overwhelmed by criticism, demands, incessant meddling, and complaints to the principal. Add to this the constant public scrutiny of test results, and teachers, principals, and administrators all feel the heat of microscopic attention focused on their performance — not just compared to other local schools, but schools across the nation as well. Moreover, with increased school violence and more media coverage of cliques and gangs of bullies, parents are demanding a military-type, zero tolerance shutdown of any problematic social behavior. The intense focus on these issues, while important, distracts energy and funding from academics.
Not having a dozen kids, most parents lack the experience with the system a repeat player would develop. The unique research platform of The Mom Book Goes to School draws on the collective wisdom of hundreds of teachers and specialists, as well as experienced parents, on how best to navigate the complexities of a child's elementary and middle school years. Because teachers who have spent years in the trenches are rarely asked to be candid about how parents can most effectively augment and support a child's classroom experience, they were thrilled to have a forum to share their opinions and insights. In turn, their advice provides you with a repeat player's framework with which to address your children's school and learning issues.
The teachers whose in-depth interviews augmented my research for this book come from diverse school backgrounds from Yakima, Washington, to Fort Myers, Florida. I spoke to first-year teachers, full of questions themselves but armed with fresh, bright perspectives on their profession, as well as truly seasoned veterans, retired after decades of classroom experience. Those interviewed come from inner-city schools with forty-five children in a classroom to rural towns with classrooms of only ten, from public schools and private, from preschools and high schools, and from schools valuing the oldest teaching traditions as well as those innovating and experimenting with modern approaches. These teachers guided me through the inner workings of a complicated, tangled education system so caught up in politics and red tape that its true purpose frequently gets overlooked: educating young minds and raising curious, engaged, successful learners. Their insider expertise has truly been the driving force in shaping this book, and has dramatically shifted how I view my own role in my children's education.
Throughout the interview process, I concentrated on teachers instead of principals or other members of the educational system. Teachers are the most actively engaged with your child while he is at school, and they are the individuals with whom you are most likely to interact. They serve as a powerful influence on your children in their classrooms and even within a standardized curriculum determine the tone, structure, and teaching methods. In contrast, principals are more involved with setting the overall school philosophy, managing the staff, and dealing with serious student behavioral and learning issues.
In Part I of The Mom Book Goes to School, I focus on classroom experiences and bolstering your child's relationship with his teacher, which can make or break the school year. Part II of the book concentrates on routines you can set up at home to create a nurturing academic environment, and ways to instill in your child the organizational, homework, studying, test-taking, and time-management skills so crucial to academic success.
Throughout this book, I have used parent to include any adults who have the primary responsibility of raising a child. Furthermore, I identify teachers as female and students as male simply for convenience, except in certain cases; for instance, cliques tend to involve mostly girls. By no means do I intend to promote gender stereotypes.
Extracurriculars now have a huge impact on a child's school experience and success. Lessons and practices get stacked upon each other in after-school hours, leaving kids tired, stressed out, and staying up late to finish homework. Because I address these issues in my last book, Sign Me Up! The Parents' Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars (Free Press, 2003), I have chosen not to focus on them here.
More important than pushing your child to receive good grades is helping him realize his own potential for success and encouraging him to come alive with intellectual curiosity and passion. Create realistic expectations with respect to your child's strengths and find a balance that encourages your child to strive for his best work without making him strain to succeed beyond reasonable goals. Rethink your own definition of academic success and embrace the philosophy that learning is a process of mastery, maturation, and the development of problem-solving skills, not just an end result of facts memorized or questions answered correctly. Enjoy The Mom Book Goes to School — use it to tackle difficult school-related issues and embrace your crucial role in enabling your child to not only thrive in school but also to become a passionate, lifelong learner. Your child's school will dramatically benefit from your increased support and willingness to help out with time and resources, and you will find yourself similarly gratified to realize how much of a difference you can make in your child's school experience.
Copyright © 2005 by Mom Central, Inc.
Chapter 1: Parent-Teacher Relationship
How Can I Establish an Ongoing Rapport with My Child's Teacher?
Forging a strong parent-teacher relationship early in the academic year will make it much easier for you if a problem arises later in the year. Frequent communication can stop small issues from growing into larger obstacles and provide new insights into your child's learning style and interpersonal dynamics. Limiting your involvement to troubleshooting when a problem arises diminishes the positive impact you have on your child's learning process and overall school experience.
Trust is one of the most important components of any parent-teacher relationship. When the teacher knows and trusts you as a parent who respects her skills in the classroom, she will be more likely to keep you informed because she can be honest with you without worrying about your reaction.
Take advantage of everything your child's school offers, including open houses and Back-to-School Nights. While there is little to no one-on-one time with the teacher at these larger events, you will still have the opportunity to introduce yourself warmly and make a good impression without monopolizing her time. Especially in elementary school, teachers spend a lot of time setting up the classroom to create an inviting and intellectually stimulating atmosphere for their students. Complimenting the room your child's teacher put together is a great way to start a conversation.
Besides attending the open house, contact your child's teacher and set up a one-on-one meeting early in the school year. Let her know about any special needs or learning problems your child has, his strengths, habits to watch out for, and skills she needs to work on.
Ask your child's teacher what you can do at home to emphasize material taught in class, how you can help in the classroom, and what you can do to help with projects or school events.
Let the teacher know you want to stay in touch with her throughout the year. Ask her to keep you informed when both good and bad situations arise.
Give her your home and work telephone numbers as well as any other contact information you might want her to have, such as a cell phone or fax number.
If you walk or drive your child to school in the morning, short and spontaneous visits to his classroom are best for a friendly hello with the teacher.
Send a thank-you note to your child's teacher after the first week of class. Say something like, "Thank you for making the transition from grade school to middle school such an easy one for Kyle. I really appreciate all of your efforts during one of the most difficult weeks of the year."
If you are willing to go out of your way for your child's teacher, she is more likely to do the same in return. If she is comfortable with you, she will be more apt to call you when she has general issues or concerns — such as when your child is hanging out with someone who seems to be a bad peer influence.
Touch base with your child's teaching specialists — from music teachers to art instructors to physical education coaches. Specialists often see a different attitude in your child than he exhibits in his regular classroom. For example, he might be more competitive or more standoffish in a physical education class. These specialists get fewer phone calls than regular classroom teachers, and may have special insights on your child because of the unique settings in which they see him.
Recognize the unique and often difficult job of teachers—they are expected to follow a complex curriculum that both enriches the lives of their students and addresses each child's individual needs, while also preparing them for the annual standardized tests. Providing children with a solid academic experience while at the same time accommodating learning disorders, keeping the class disciplined, providing emotional support for children with difficult family situations, and working on the academic development of those who lag behind requires a continual, delicate balancing act on the part of teachers.
If there's an ongoing relationship with the teacher, parents won't feel like they're being called onto the carpet when a problem comes up. Parents who constantly talk to us when things are going well make it feel like a problem is just part of the ongoing dialogue.
— Chris Grimm, 7th grade social studies teacher for 3 years, Ventura, California
Teachers really appreciate the insight parents can provide. With 20 kids in the classroom, it's hard for the teacher to get to know each kid's quirks. Give the teachers as much helpful information as possible and stay in touch with them throughout the year. Making the most of the partnership with the teachers is really important.
— Vinca LaFleur, mom of Jackson, 6, and Evan, 4, Washington, D.C.
Meet your child's teacher and have a conversation with her at the start of the year. First impressions matter for both the teacher and the parent. That way, if something comes up during the year, both you and the teacher will know to whom they are talking.
— Steve Shadle, middle school guidance counselor for 29 years, South Sioux City, Nebraska
I try to set up a meeting with the teachers within the first two weeks of school, because if you wait for the first official parent-teacher conferences, you've missed a quarter of the school year. I go in to discuss issues I want the teacher to keep an eye on. Lots of teachers want to figure out how to handle problems themselves, but I like to put the thought in the back of their minds.
— Jennifer O'Gorman, mom of Olivia, 11, Jake, 9, Sam, 7, Annabelle, 4, Luke, 2, and Eleanor, 1, Lebanon, Maine
Introduce yourself to the secretary and custodian, because those are the two people who can get you in to see anybody, get you anywhere you need to go, and have keys to absolutely everywhere.
— Kathleen Spinale, mom of Joey, 9, and Peter, 4, Ipswich, Massachusetts
You need a good working relationship with the teacher, established at the beginning of the school year, so you can bounce things back and forth and work together for your child's benefit. Parents want the same things as teachers do: good grades, success, and to be able to work together to help a child achieve to his maximum potential. Remember that we are in the same court.
— Martha Ann Chandler, 3rd to 6th grade teacher for 14 years, Florence, South Carolina
Let the teachers know at the start of the school year all about your child and his character traits. Is he sensitive, shy, aggressive, or talkative, or does he have poor self-esteem? Discuss expectations — what the teacher expects from your child and what you expect your child to achieve.
Keep in close touch with your child's teacher. Not only do you need to know when your child's academic work needs improvement, but you should also be aware when your child's attitude or behavior changes, which can be an indication of emotional problems. Also, ask the teacher to let you know when your child does something exceptionally well, such as when he improves in a certain subject area, or accomplishes something he has been working toward.
— Beverly Hammond, kindergarten to 4th grade teacher for 31 years, West Point, Virginia
Teacher-parent communication is vital to the school year. It's important to get to know the teacher — the better you know her, the better the year will be.
— Nickey Langford, 2nd and 3rd grade teacher for 3 years, Birmingham, Alabama
Parents who assume all is well if they don't hear from the teacher are making a mistake. Stay on top of communication with the teacher at all times. Otherwise, parents come to an Open House or get a call with different information. Don't assume everything is okay unless you are told otherwise.
— Paul O'Brien, 7th to 12th grade math and science teacher for 27 years, Sheffield, Massachusetts
Email is a great way to maintain open communication with your child's teacher. It is much easier for her to respond to a slew of emails on her own time than to contact parents with a dozen follow-up phone calls.
Ask your child's teacher whether she prefers online communication and if she does, exchange email addresses. Call your child's teacher or send short email messages to catch up between conferences. Either form of communication is a great way to stay informed about classroom issues.
If there is a specific issue you feel strongly about and want to discuss with your child's teacher via email, avoid confrontational and brutally honest statements you would not make if you were speaking on the phone or in person.
Find out if it's okay for your child to email his teacher directly. If it is, your child has a great opportunity for supplemental learning, as he can ask questions about homework and class material.
School websites are great resources and provide a broad range of useful information: faculty and staff contact information, school rules and general policies, student activities, and parent committees.
Faxing is another great communication option. Zipping a quick fax over to the appropriate school office can save you a trip to school if your child forgets an important document, such as a permission slip or homework assignment.
The most convenient type of conference for me has become an e-conference. For parents who might not have time to hold a conference with the teacher, email can get problems settled in a few minutes — it's one of the most efficient uses of time I can think of. Email also gives you much better control when you're angry, and that can really make a big difference! Plus with email, you often get a quicker response than you would if you left a message on the teacher's answering machine.
— Angela McNutt, 6th to 12th grade Spanish teacher for 1 year, Glade Spring, Virginia
Email is so much easier than playing phone tag. I hate leaving phone messages; some middle schoolers will simply delete my message right off the answering machine! It makes communication more convenient given most families have two working parents who aren't available for a lengthy phone call or a visit to the school during traditional school hours.
— Amy Watson, 7th to 12th grade teacher for 5 years, Oyster Bay, New York
Email makes it much easier for teachers and parents to contact one another. In the state of Maine, we now have a laptop initiative, so every student in the 7th and 8th grades has a laptop and has access to his teachers' web pages and email addresses. Parents also have access to notes on projects, homework links, and an email section with an additional parent email address, so they can easily let the appropriate teacher know of concerns. It's hard for teachers to call or meet with parents, but email facilitates communication and lets the kid know his parents have access to his teachers.
— Laurie Olmstead, 7th and 8th grade math and science teacher for 4 years, Union, Maine
At the beginning of the school year, I asked my son's teacher, "For future reference, do you prefer email or voicemail?" This year, his teacher tended to return phone calls at 9:30 at night, so I made sure to respect that and be home then if I needed to talk to her. You have to make the effort and gesture because if you don't, the teacher won't either.
— Kathleen Spinale, mom of Joey, 9, and Peter, 4, Ipswich, Massachusetts
I love faxing documents to my children's school. I fax in a note instead of trying to call the teacher I want to contact. On my note I'll include my schedule, the best times to reach me, and the issues I need to talk to the teacher about. I also fax the school if someone other than the kids' grandmother will be picking my children up at the end of the day. This way I know the secretary of the school has the last-minute change in her hand, and that will ensure my message reaches my kids and their respective teachers.
— Shannon McDermott, mom of Catherine, 13, Matthew, 11, and Joshua, 7, Lemont, Illinois
Email makes keeping an open dialog throughout the year with my kids' teachers so easy. Almost all the teachers have email and check it daily. This way they can answer questions I have as we go along.
— Whitney Caudill, mom of Caitlyn, 9, and Parker, 8, Louisville, Kentucky
Copyright © 2005 by Mom Central, Inc.