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The Onus of Education, Part 2: Parents

For parents who have never worked in education, allow me to share some behind-the-scenes insights into the professional life of a typical teacher in a typical school in a typical district in Any-Town, USA. Imagine for a moment that you are this teacher.

Your class load of students may vary from 20-25+ students in an inclusive (all-subjects) elementary classroom to 150+ students with 1-3 prep subjects (all subjects, at both the elementary and secondary levels, require extensive preparations). Although some districts may require time-stamped mandated curriculums, teachers are still responsible for ensuring that the individual educational needs of students are being met. Teachers spend an enormous amount of time analyzing individual students’ data in order to monitor learning growth and create interventions for students who are struggling to make gains. There isn’t enough time in a typical school year to teach the exorbitant amount of standards required, let alone spiral individual learning gaps for every single child with that kind of class load, and the reality is most teachers will be compelled to shallow teach in lieu of deep dive simply to address the volume of requirements. In addition, in a typical school day, teachers spend their time either teaching or in meetings during their planning periods. Teachers need time to plan, analyze, grade, decipher, copy, laminate, reply to emails, call parents, and actively participate in meetings. For a typical school, most teachers have some kind of meeting daily.

There is not enough time in a typical school day for typical teachers to do the heavy lifting required to effectively do their jobs. For most teachers, they do this work before or after school or at home. In other words, most dedicated teachers devote hours upon hours of their personal time beyond their contracted workday to simply keep up with the demands of their district and to ensure that their students (your children) have what they need to be successful in the classroom.

My point is, even if you have a Brady Bunch house full of kids and bonus kids, your kid load is more than likely fewer than whatever roster your children’s teachers have. Yes, your children’s teachers are responsible for teaching them during that school year, but you, their parents, are responsible for teaching them, guiding them, and raising them for the entirety of their life, not just childhood. Regardless of the responsibilities you juggle in addition to parenting, you are ultimately responsible for ensuring that your children learn until they reach an age and maturity to take responsibility for their own learning.

Given this reality, if you were a teacher, how could your students’ parents best support them in the classroom?

I don’t expect every parent to know “pedagogy” (a fancy education term for “how to teach”), but even if you’re a busy parent, there are so many ways to help your child succeed in the classroom long before any trouble arises. Starting with the recognition of the workload that your children’s teacher has from the get-go is a good starting place. Recognizing that your children’s teachers are dedicated to helping your children learn and succeed is even more valuable. Yet it takes more than positive intent to educate children.

Parents and teachers need to recognize one another as partners in learning, not adversaries. This partnership requires all parties, including parents, to roll up their sleeves.

The following are some easy tips to support your children’s learning at home and help keep them accountable:

  • Talk to your children daily about what they are learning at school. This open communication reinforces learning because having a conversation about a topic “synthesizes” the knowledge (“synthesize” in education means putting parts together to make a whole with new meaning). This tip goes beyond listing topics. Ask probing questions. Ask them to explain in different ways. If their answers are the same, verbatim, then they are likely memorizing and rote memorization does not lead to retention (long-term learning). Even if your children push back initially with questions about their learning in school, keep at it. They will see that you will hold them accountable for paying attention and doing the work long before there’s a problem.

  • Give your children screen time, with a catch. Allow them to choose their favorite shows but mute them with closed captions. Your children will probably protest: “Mom, I can’t hear it!” Ask your kids to read the parts aloud. Make it fun and encourage them to use silly voices or whatever seems appropriate given their age and interests. Daily reading aloud will build “fluency” (the ability to read or speak aloud smoothly). You’ll have an easier time identifying reading issues if you make this a common practice (and an opportunity to bond with your kids).

  • Make reading for pleasure a family activity. There is absolutely no app, no game, no teacher, and no substitute for building reading skills than simply reading with abandon. What that means is allowing your children to find whatever they are interested in and letting go and letting them read. What builds reading skills, especially during the elementary years, is getting so interested and invested in the story that you simply forget that you are reading. It does not matter if they want to read dad jokes or fart jokes, astronomy or astrology, sports or art, history or herstory, fantasy or sci-fi, Bible stories or ancient myths, hair and makeup tutorials or computer coding tutorials, comic books or high-brow literature. If your children develop strong reading skills, they can teach themselves literally anything. Find out what they are interested in, then make those choices available to them.

    • As a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I devoured books like Sweet Valley Twins (truly, all of them including the high school and university series), Goosebumps, Ramona Quimby books, The Babysitters Club, Choose Your Own Adventure, Little Critter Stories, The Magic School Bus, Harriet the Spy, Junie B. Jones, anything by Roald Dahl, Erik Carle, Judy Blume, Beverly Clearly, Shel Silverstein, Louis Sachar, and so many more. Go ahead and share your favorite reads from childhood, or better yet, let them discover their own.

  • Incredibles 2 is one of our family’s favorite movies, especially the scene where Mr. Incredible (the dad) is trying to help his son, Dash, with his math homework. If your child is struggling to understand math (or science or any specific topic outside of your ability to help teach), there are so many free and paid resources out there to fill in the gap. Most districts at this point provide technology for their students that they can take home. If your child does not have the technology to bring home, see if you can make arrangements at school to do so. If you do not have the Internet at home, then take your child to a local library. Although this is not the only resource available, I believe Khan Academy is the most comprehensive and the best resource available to help kids learn math. There are short videos that deep dive into just about every nuanced topic in math, from pre-k to collegiate levels. In addition, they offer practice quizzes to reinforce knowledge and they are building their catalog of educational resources to include science, computers, arts and humanities, test prep, history, entrepreneurship, economics, grammar, and so on. It is 100% free. All you need is technology and the Internet.

    • If your child is struggling academically, the sooner you know, the sooner you can help. Talk to your child’s teacher and find out what he or she recommends to supplement classroom materials. This way, your help doesn’t further confuse your child.

  • Recognize the developmental and social realities that your child is experiencing as you parent and support learning. Although there are many child development theories, Eric Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is one of the best and, in my professional experience, one of the most accurate across the board. During the preschool years, kids struggle with purpose, trying to determine through exploration whether it’s okay to take the initiative to move, do, and act or if they should feel guilt for simply being. During the elementary years, kids struggle with competence, which is why supporting their learning during these years is so important. If they feel inferior instead of industrious, this could create issues with future learning (think of people who believe that they can’t do math; this mindset comes from feeling inferior doing math or whichever subject during this developmental stage). During adolescence, kids are struggling with identity versus role confusion, which often causes them to push back against authority figures (parents and teachers) and their peers will be more important to them than they were when they were younger. As frustrating as it could be to teach or raise teenagers, this push for autonomy is a necessary developmental stage to prepare them for independence and adulthood.

Of course, there are countless ways you as a parent could try to help but inadvertently create more problems.

  • School is not free babysitting. There are expectations all around. Respect those expectations.

  • If you believe that your child is a precious, angelic, and unique snowflake that would never [fill-in-the-blank], think again. Given the right circumstances, given the right (or wrong) peer influences, and given your child’s personality outside of your presence, any kid is capable of anything. Kids often behave differently with their friends than they do with their parents.

  • Too many teachers are leaving the profession in droves because of the unrealistic pressure and workload. Do not add to it by being unreasonable. Asking for daily emails or phone calls is not reasonable when your children’s teachers have 150 other students to teach.

  • Supporting learning and enabling irresponsibility are completely different things. Helping your child with his or her homework or having conversations about learning is supportive. Doing their homework or taking forgotten assignments to school enables irresponsibility. If they don’t do it, they won’t learn. If they don’t accept the lateness penalty, they won’t experience a consequence for their actions. Sometimes, the best thing for our children is to let them experience the full consequence of their choices, even if it means failing an assignment. Do not pressure your children’s teacher to make exceptions for your child when the failure was caused by irresponsibility. It’s not fair to the other students and it is infuriating for the kids who do their work on time.

Above all, please remember that you as the parent are a partner with your children’s teachers. Do your best to be available for scheduled parent-teacher meetings, and when issues do arise, please don’t be defensive. Building a relationship with your children’s teachers and recognizing that everyone is committed to helping them learn will go a long way in supporting your children’s learning and success at school.



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