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What I wish parents knew about school: Advice from a teacher

Christina Mckeeby
July 23, 2018

As summer draws to a close, the excitement and nervousness about a new school year comes creeping in. Throughout my 10 years of teaching in public school classrooms, I’ve come across hundreds of children and parents — and their anxiety around learning and development.

Don’t worry, it’s natural to worry about your child’s success in school. But here’s what you should know: Drawing from my own experiences as both a teacher and parent — and with the help of some other talented educators — I’ve put together a list of my favorite tips for parents that will ensure back-to-school success.

1. Avoid asking “How was your day?”

If you ask a generic question, you are likely to receive a generic answer. “How was your day?” will almost always result in the standard “fine” response. Challenge yourself to differentiate your questioning to get your child to open up about their day. Unique questions encourage us to think deeply, and as a result, I often hear parts of my children’s day they would normally never think to share. This open communication allows you to be involved in many aspects of their lives.

Some examples of these types of questions may include:

  • Did you make a new friend today?
  • Was there anything that seemed difficult that you were eventually able to figure out?
  • What was the best or worst part of your day?
  • Did anything interesting happen at lunch, PE, math class, etc.?

2. Keep reading and writing enjoyable.

It’s a truth all teachers know: Kids who love to read, love to learn. Reading is a requirement in all subject areas.

As adults, we choose to read the genre that piques our interest, and we should give our kids the same opportunity. Over time, introduce new books and genres. By allowing kids to read books they enjoy, they will gain stamina and confidence, which leads to improvement in reading ability. “Captain Underpants” may not be your pick, but those late nights spent laughing over potty humor will develop your child’s love of literature.

Writing is just as critical for a child’s success in school, says Margaret F. Quinn, a graduate research assistant in the Urban Child Study Center at Georgia State University.

“The best thing parents can do, likely, is model writing,” says Quinn. For instance, showcase daily writing by jotting down the grocery list or sending texts to family.

For older children who have a foundation in writing, encourage them to find joy in writing through storytelling or letter-writing. In my home, we encourage our children to write for fun by having “Mail It Monday.” We’ve filled a drawer with pretty notecards, art supplies and stickers. On Monday, everyone has to write a card to anyone about anything.

“Literacy and learning to read and write is really complex and challenging,” Quinn says. “Motivation helps promote and further this learning.”

3. Show up and stay involved.

You don’t have to be a stay-at-home parent or PTA president to be involved. Attend your school’s “meet the teacher” night, volunteer a couple hours at a school event, donate supplies, sit and talk about homework, read with your kids or volunteer to prep materials for the teacher at home. The teacher will love your donation of time, and your child will see you value their education.

But make sure to also stay involved at home. It may sound counterintuitive, but kindergarten teacher Caitlin Edwards says she encourages parents to be involved by teaching their kids to be accountable while they’re at school.

“Don’t rescue your child every time he/she forgets something,” Edwards says. “Your child will survive one day with a school lunch [instead of their packed one] or not having homework on time.”

As the years pass and our children become more independent, we think they need us less. The truth is: They don’t need us less, they just need us differently.

"I wish the parents of my teenage students knew that their input and involvement still matter,” says Jen Stephens, a high school social studies teacher. “They might moan and groan when you ask about their private lives, but they like knowing you take an interest in their lives."

4. Know that success is more than just a test score.

In a college-ready nation, we are putting more and more emphasis on success as defined by test scores. While it’s easy to become wrapped up in the world of standardized testing, we must remember that standardized kids produce standardized results. Instead, we need a generation of children who can do more than recite information; we need problem-solvers and creative minds.

So encourage your child to learn beyond a test. Have them learn another language, sports, art and writing. At home, limit technology. This applies to parents and children. If we want children to look at us when they speak, we must also put our phones down when we address them. Use this time to talk to your child about the world around them, play board games, do art projects, cook together and engage in real-world projects. These activities all require us to use reading and math skills, and will encourage a love of learning rather than mere proficiency.

5. Help provide school supplies.

Back-to-school shopping can be an unbearable burden to our time and wallet. As a mother of three, I know the pain of hunting for a specific brand or color item. But as a teacher, I recognize the importance of using high-quality supplies to create an organized and efficiently run classroom.  

Apryl Cooke is an elementary school teacher who specializes in exceptional student education and works with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She explains how teachers often enter a bare classroom of only desks, chairs and textbooks — devoid of all other necessary supplies.

“We depend on parent donations and our own wallets to supply the rest,” Cooke says. “While grateful for all donations, we’d love if parents purchased the exact items we’ve asked for. Sharpened pencils may cost more, but the price difference is negligible when you consider their convenience”

According to the Educational Market Association, the average teacher spent $500 of their own money on classroom resources in 2016. So as a parent, while the lists may seem taxing on my wallet, I strive to be grateful for the opportunity to spend a relatively small amount of money on supplies. I know full well that my child’s teachers will spend so much more of their money, time and energy.

6. Communicate with the teacher.

No matter how amazing the school, there are bound to be issues that arise — whether with the teacher, the assignments or maybe another child. Although you may be upset, avoid negative talk and remember that there are three sides to every story: your child’s, the teacher’s and the truth.

Send an email asking for clarification on the situation or requesting a face-to-face conference with the parents, teachers and the student or students involved. Working together as a team is the best way to support your child.

Your child will learn how to advocate for themselves by watching you. Model the respect you want to see and teach them how to communicate effectively with peers and adults.

“Their attitude and the way they speak and act toward others affects their success academically and socially,” says dance teacher Natalie Kushner.

7. Create a positive mindset for learning.

In my first few years of teaching, I read an article discussing the likeliness of suicide among high-achieving, affluent students. It was a surprise to many because those are the kids who seem to “have it all.” The article focused on how we communicate with our children. A child who is praised for being beautiful or smart has little control over those attributes. This can result in a loss of identity if that child experiences acne during puberty or struggles academically.

On the other hand, if we compliment a child on their effort rather than their attributes, they are always in control. They must learn that failure is not the end, but rather a step in the process that challenges us to create something greater. Developing a strong work ethic will take them to greater heights than resting on their intelligence ever will.

“Our children need to understand that bad grades are OK,” says middle school science teacher Kara F. “Use those moments as a learning experience. Have your child study again to gain mastery of the material and ask the teacher for tutoring when available. Teach your child that retake-opportunities are a gift and should be taken advantage of.”

Read next: Surviving the 1st day of school

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