Notes From the Classroom: Part I

Parents sometimes forget that the educational system is really theirs. Student academic achievement increases when concerned parents take the time to get involved. It’s the way our educational machine was meant to run. The school system can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all. As a parent, you run a dangerous risk if you blindly turn your kids over to public education. Remember, no one cares more about your student than you do!

Let’s take a closer look at working with your child’s teacher, and give you a few ideas about how you can make your child’s educational experience more productive.

When You Should Contact Your Child's Teacher

It’s been my experience that too many parents hesitate before contacting the school. As a result, small, correctable problems often escalate into something larger. My recommendation is to contact a teacher any time you have a serious concern (or even a semi-serious concern) which might keep your student from learning. Don’t take chances with your child’s education; remember, it’s your system—you’re paying for it!

Visiting the Teacher Will Speed up the Learning Process

Yes, the teacher is busy—but so are you! Meeting and working with parents is part of a teacher’s job and we’re happy to do it. Any clues or insights you can give to help us better educate your child will be welcomed. You can tell us in five-minute conversation what might take us nine, twelve, or eighteen weeks to discover.

Here are some examples. These situations may seem obvious, but I deal with each at least a dozen times in a given year. Thank goodness some parents take the time to let me know what’s up so I can head of a serious problem early.

“Suzi can’t hear well—it’s her left ear; can you sit her in the front row on the left?”

“Sally and Jane are best friends and talk too much; could you separate them or move one to a different period?”

“Joe has motor problems—his handwriting is nearly illegible. Please be patient; we can work with him at home, but his in-class written work will be very messy.”

“We’re going through a divorce and Jill isn’t coping with it very well. She’s seeing a doctor, but it’s affecting her work.”

These types of problems need to be brought to the attention of your student’s teacher immediately—they can’t wait.

A case in point was a painfully shy girl in my tenth grade English class named Jillian. When the first term was over, I told her she needed to start getting her homework turned in. Failure to do so had caused her to fail.

I’d finally got to know her well enough so she felt comfortable saying more than yes or no to my questions. I kept gently pushing her for an explanation, which caused her to blush scarlet. She finally told me she couldn’t see the board and had been afraid to say anything. She was too shy to come up and tell me I needed to change her seating arrangement.

She’d rather fail than intentionally draw any amount of attention to herself. By moving her twenty feet, her grade went from an F to a B+. I had to wait nine weeks, and Jillian had to fail a term of English before we got to the bottom of the problem. A simple seating change was all it took.

A few summers ago, an attentive stepmother stopped into my room to warn me that her tenth grader was about ready to drop out. He was on a sixth-grade reading level, and had a history of behavior problems. He’d been able to pass previous English classes, but by the slimmest margin. His folks were understandably concerned about the coming year.

As a result of her concern, we were able to do something right away. Thanks to this stepmom who brought the problem to light (and who worked with him every night thereafter), this boy was on a ninth-grade reading level by the end of the year. Interestingly enough, he was so busy reading, he never exhibited a behavior problem. He’s since graduated from BYU and is in dental school.

If Necessary, Talk to Every Teacher, Every Year

You can’t assume the school will let the teacher know a student has had past problems, even if you worked it out the year before. Teachers are not that connected. You’ll need to take the initiative each time your child gets a new teacher.

Even though it takes more time, I think a visit is more effective than a call. It gives the teacher a chance to get to know you and vice versa. It also gives the two educational partners an opportunity to formulate strategies. Last August, a nervous mom and dad stepped into my room to visit about their son Kyle who suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder and had never passed an English class.

After talking about Kyle’s individual circumstance, we determined to try a new strategy. Kyle seemed to do well in his electronics and computer classes, but he floundered in English and history. We decided to let him try taking notes and writing in-class essays on his laptop computer. After a semester, he was passing. He’s still struggling with the literature part of my class, but he’s passing tests and writing essays consistently. He’s passed each term this year with a B or higher.

Parent-Teacher Conference: The One Meeting You Should Never Miss

An excellent way to get a healthy parent-teacher alliance off to a good start is making use of your school’s regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences (open houses or back-to-school nights). It brings you up-to-speed on what’s going on in the classroom and helps you evaluate your child’s performance.

Equally important, it provides an opportunity for you to get to know your child’s teacher—and for the teacher to get to know you. Your visit signals that you are one of the parents who care, and you are a willing partner in the educational process. Because you took the time to come in, a teacher is far more likely to let you know if your kid is starting to slip or if there’s any sort of problem.

What To Do Before You Go: Interview Your Child First

Before a parent teacher conference, you should do some fact-finding. Talking with a teacher is only half the task. Take the time to interview your student. After listing your student’s subjects, solicit a frank reaction where your child thinks he or she stands.

By the way, this is not the time to be judgmental! In order to get your child to share useful information, you need to create an atmosphere of trust where a child can express an opinion without censure. (Your first impulse may be to ground your child for life, but don’t. You can drop that bomb later.) Ask what grade he thinks will be earned, along with any ideas he has on how he can improve.

Once You’re There: Find Out the Teacher’s Concerns

Take your notes to the conference. Remember, you are still primarily interested in gathering information. You’ve already learned what your child’s feelings are, right or wrong. Sometimes her perceptions might be way off: “Yes, I’ve turned in all my work.”

Now is the time to let the teacher explain his or her perspectives. Write notes as needed so you can share them with your student later. Keep calm; remember, you’re gathering information.

The following questions might be helpful:

Has my student turned in his or her work? What’s missing? What is the approximate grade?

Do you allow your students to do any make-up work? If so, may I have a list so we can start on it tonight?

What can I do at home to help my student with his or her lessons? May I check out a book, get a vocabulary sheet, etc., so I can quiz my child?

What supplemental activities can I do to complement your teaching?

Is my student engaging in any behavior which prevents him or her from performing to his or her best ability?

Asking these questions will give you an accurate update or uncover the obstacles that can be fixed with a little parental elbow grease. It will also give you the information you need to augment your child’s education. As an added plus, most teachers will be more alert to your student’s needs if they know you’re helping at home.

Making a One-on-One Appointment

Parent-teacher conference settings are not the right place for long discussions or a time to work through serious problems. If a concern will take more time than you bargained for, ask the teacher for an appointment so that you can talk in greater detail.

The first year I taught, a desperate, emotional single mother who felt she had lost control of her sixteen-year-old boy needed more time to talk. “I want to strangle him,” she said. I suggested she drop in on her lunch hour for a chat. Her child was a monster, to say the least (I wanted to throttle him, too).

The next day, this poor woman explained her son in detail. She’d lost control and needed to do something before he was expelled for good. She said she’d like to take his driver’s license away but knew she’d buckle later when he threw a temper tantrum. I volunteered to take it and suggested I would only give it back after I thought he’d done enough to earn it.

His mom got his attention. I got his driver’s license. In fact, I had it more than he did that year. Gradually, he started to take some responsibility and the monster eventually became a decent human being. He served a mission and currently owns a small business. We laugh at it now; every time I see him, he hands me his driver’s license.

Parental Follow Through

My best advice is monitor your student. Some kids are self-starters. Others need a push (some might require something akin to a swift kick). All kids, however, need periodic monitoring—some more than others.

Keep in mind there’s a big difference between a child who’s having trouble understanding a certain unit and the child who struggles with fundamental “building block” skills like reading, writing, or math, or all of the above. There’s no quick fix for a fundamental skill deficiency. It might take years. It did for me.

As a child, I was not a careful reader. I could say the words, but I wasn’t comprehending. My teacher decided I needed to practice every night and say in my own words what I’d just read. Ror years my mother worked with me and by the time I was half way through fifth grade, I was reading at my age level.

I must have been quite a bother, with three younger sisters, but she never gave up. She also did something all parents must do if they’re going to successfully help their children with their lessons: She kept a positive attitude day-in and day-out and made the experience fun.

While I’m sure it must have gotten old for her, she always made me feel like it was her treat to work with me. There was always a pat on the back when I was done, and frequently a treat as a reward. Even when I was finally reading well, Mother didn’t let me drift. She still had me read aloud and checked my comprehension several times a week. Her consistent effort paid off.

Remember, this educational system is yours, and no one knows your student better than you. Take an active role in their education and be persistent—you’ll enjoy the results and your student will enjoy success.

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