Every year, when I drive to work on the first day of school, I cross paths with families on their way to new beginnings. Most are not heading to my classroom, but they could be. I see the emotion and expectation on their faces -- kids who are anxious about their new classes and parents, quietly hoping that that their child will be understood, nurtured and appreciated. It's humbling that they are trusting my colleagues and me to make that happen. Seeing them reminds me of the unspoken contract between teachers and our students' parents. I hope they know how seriously I take their trust -- and my job.
And, while we're at it, there are some other important things I want them to know.
1. This year is not going to be perfect, but that is OK. There are things you should not try to "fix." There is a solid chance that I am not the teacher that you were imagining for your child. Maybe you have reservations about my "job share," the large amount of reading and writing assigned in my class, or the small amount of homework (to make space for more reading). Maybe you are fine with me, but the class is loaded with "all the loud sporty boys" and your son is an introverted naturalist. Like any attentive parent, you are worried that he will have a horrible year.
It's hard to resist the impulse to "fix" problems for our children, but sometimes we need to. Challenges and problem-solving can help build resiliency, and there may be times when I push your child out of his comfort zone. Learning to deal with discomfort builds his coping skills. As your child continues his educational journey, not all of his teachers or classes will be perfect matches. No parent wants to raise a "hothouse flower." Therefore, it is critical that your child experience less than ideal situations -- mostly so he knows he can.
2. Sometimes teachers need you to help "fix" things. Sounds contradictory, I know, but there are times when parents need to get involved. Even the most experienced and well-intended teachers will not detect all the important issues. For many reasons, and in many ways, students cleverly hide their school struggles from their teachers. We need parents to be our "extra set of eyes and ears." If your daughter is melting down at home because of academic or social stresses, we rely on your reports so that we can figure out how to better support her. Maybe there is an upsetting and distracting social dynamic at play or secret bullying taking place at school. We need to strategize solutions with her and intervene if there is a bully.
Perhaps your child feels like she can't keep up with workload expectations. She is staying up late, not getting the chance to play or pursue outside interests. Sometimes there are undiagnosed learning issues at play, but if parents disguise the outside supports that are required to complete work at home, those issues might never get identified and addressed.
3. When your child makes mistakes (and he will), resist the urge to protect him from the consequences. Sometimes children make bad decisions: they do or say unkind things, they act impulsively, they shirk responsibilities, or they choose not to do their schoolwork or study for tests. When they do, they need to inhabit their choices, even when that might involve painful consequences like poor grades, disciplinary action or a loss of privileges. That is how children learn. Parents who blindly defend their child, based solely on their child's re-telling of the situation, run the risk of being misled. Even worse, they can inadvertently communicate to their child that being caught making a mistake is the problem -- rather than making the mistake itself. When children are allowed to own their failures, they usually become more competent and responsible as a result.
4. How you praise your child is very important. Carol Dweck initiated a growing body of research on the impact of different kinds of praise that confirms what teachers regularly observe: Tell your child she is "smart" and she will become risk-averse. Her main goal will be to maintain the "smart" label so she will become less interested in trying difficult things. But praise her for her effort and she will be more likely to embrace challenges and grapple with tough problems. Effort is within a child's control. Intelligence refers to something that seems fixed and innate and out of their control. Also, the more honest and specific the praise, the better. Praise that identifies what your child has done well offers a road map for continued success. Inflated compliments, aimed at building your child's self-esteem, often have the opposite effect, and they diminish your credibility.
5. If you have an issue with a teacher, tell the teacher. Most teachers can handle feedback, particularly if it is respectful and assumes good intentions. I hate to admit it, but I sometimes get things wrong. I want to know if I have unintentionally hurt your child's feelings, made an insensitive assumption or executed a flawed decision. Perhaps he reports that I don't like him. We need to talk. Ideally, if it is your child's issue, you should encourage him to speak directly with the teacher. But sometimes a complex issue requires an adult communicator. Every teacher has his or her preferred mode of communication, but if something is irritating or upsetting you, we want a chance to address the issue before you complain to other parents or our supervisors.
Teaching is obviously a messy, complicated business -- and one that most teachers take very seriously. You entrust us with your children for the school year and we are honored. But the relationship is not one-way. A generous, thoughtful and trusting collaboration between home and school is the best way to achieve the school year you are hoping for.