The Lesson I’ve Never Forgotten From a Parent’s Gentle Rebuke

Opening the door wide open for parent communication can sometimes be a scary thing — fear of the unknown, previous negative experiences, and limitations on time can all add up to create some understandable hesitation.

But each time I have chosen to lay aside these fears, I have always gained — not only in the way of building bridges with parents, but in learning how to improve my practices.

Here’s one example that has stuck with me:

A month into the school year, I started sending emails to all my students’ parents to touch bases, provide encouragement, and to build rapport.

To one of my student’s parents, I sent praise of her willingness to “be an example,” to “stay on task and participate,” and to “step out of her comfort zone to offer ideas” (as she was one of my quieter students).

I hit send and didn’t think twice — until I read her dad’s response:

“This is very helpful. Thank you for taking time with her. She really is a bright young lady. As an extra note, she has some real strength in analyzing math, science and comprehension. It seems that your approach will really reenergize her confidence in these learning skills.”

I never will know for sure whether her dad even intended this as any kind of rebuke, but that was certainly how it translated for me, and rightly so. For I had been so content with how compliant and agreeable his daughter was, I had overlooked her much more powerful strengths.

This father’s gracious response has stayed with me ever since. It stands as a reminder that we owe it to our students to dig deeper to help them uncover their passion, their power, their potential.

While we’re grateful for our students that don’t feel the need to violently rock the boat day in and day out, sometimes, their very lack of any boat-rocking can be cause for concern. We should dedicate time toward finding out why they are content to hide in the shadows, just as we dedicate time toward working with our regular boat-rockers on how to funnel their efforts more appropriately.

So keep sending those emails to parents. Keep searching out feedback. After all, the ones who benefit most from our doing so are our students.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

If Only Parents Would…

My initiation to the parent side of the school table was abrupt and rather unpleasant. It was the first of many moments over the last two years that would expand my perspective and empathy as an educator. I have been reflecting lately on my old list of things I wished parents would do:

If only parents would

  • Practice spelling with their students for just a couple minutes each night.
  • Check their child’s backpack every day.
  • Sign the reading log.
  • Help their child practice math facts at home.

Interestingly enough, now that I have a first grader myself, my wish list for her teachers have very little to do with the list above:

If only teachers would

  • See my child as a person–not a benchmark result–first.
  • Help her con-construct meaning for herself rather than rely on worksheets.
  • Focus less on compliance and control and more on student voice/choice and ownership.

When I examine these two lists carefully, I have a few important takeaways:

  • My old “if only parents” list was more focused on grades and standards.
  • My new “if only teachers” list is more about student autonomy and powerful learning.
  • When I return to the classroom, my new “if only parents” list will undergo at least 2 important changes:
    • It will be transparent and more collaborative in nature (I hope it will become less of an “if only” list and more of an ongoing dialogue with parents).
    • It will stop assuming that parents who don’t worry about grades aren’t concerned about learning (because they are most certainly not one and the same).
  • Getting on the same page as teachers and parents is easier when we stop making assumptions and start finding better communication channels (not just #StudentVoice, but #ParentVoice, too).
  • I need to make it a point to find out my future students’ parents’ “If only teachers would” lists (ie, while I would personally be inclined to do away with homework altogether, I will be sure to work with parents to find out their thoughts and needs for their individual children).

Do you spot any other tips for me? How have you improved parent/teacher communication?

featured image: clogsilk

Current Events, a Controversial Read Aloud, & Changes I Can Make to Better Promote Peace

Nearly five years ago, I selected One Crazy Summer for my fifth graders’ end-of-day read aloud. In it, three young sisters are sent to spend a summer with their mother in Oakland, California in 1968, amidst intense developments in the civil rights movement. While the themes of the book are many, race is a prominent issue, mostly presented through the girls’ involvement with a Black Panthers day camp.

As I taught in a mostly middle-class white suburban area, I viewed the book as a great opportunity to discuss civil rights. Still in the naivety of second-year teaching, I was surprised when one student started to be picked up about 15 minutes early every day–to avoid read aloud time. When I asked about it, my student explained the family’s viewpoint that “Lil Bobby” Hutton (whose death the girls were to protest in a march with their day camp) was “a thug” that provoked the police.

At first I was shocked. Then disappointed. After all, didn’t the parents trust that we were having open-ended and lively discussions with every issue raised? Didn’t they see the benefit of considering multiple opinions? Didn’t they know that I would never try to indoctrinate my students with my personal opinions on sensitive issues?

Over time, those emotions faded into the swirl of the years, but I never quite forgot the incident. But in light of the tragic recent events in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and more, this memory has resurfaced, and with it, reflections turning inward. How could I have handled the read aloud differently to help this family feel more comfortable with difficult subjects? How can I better use my role as a teacher to promote peace in the future? 3 ideas have come to mind:

  1. I can avoid assumptions. Everyone has a story, and I can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of every family’s background experience in shaping their current perspectives. But it is unacceptable for me to assume a reason for their sensitivity to or withdrawal from something we do in the classroom.

My job is not to help students to “see the light” in favor of my opinions. Rather, it is to encourage them to ask their own questions and to analyze information as independent and confident learners. Some families may misunderstand even this simple motive if their child appears to start coming home questioning their opinions or family values. Which is why the next two steps are so important.

  1. I can preface potentially controversial topics with reassurances. No matter how much I’ve worked to build mutual trust with parents throughout the year, at no point am I “done” in that endeavor–especially when we are about to ford hazardous waters. No parent is ever going to respond well to what is even perceived as a “teacher knows best” mindset, even more so when the issue might be emotionally charged.

In the future, I will be sure to dedicate a post on our class blog with not just background on the book or activity, but more importantly, with information on differing perspectives and the respect with which we will be treating that diversity.

  1. I can share student conversations. Once we get going, I can continue to promote transparency by documenting and sharing the discourse. A SoundCloud snippet, a YouTube video, photos of visible thinking routines–the options are abundant for giving parents a window to see for themselves the impact of open dialogue.

Of course, some of those discussions might be more spontaneous; if that’s the case, this sharing would be even more essential for parents to gain insight on the quality of the dialogue happening in our classroom. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be worthwhile to replace my inspirational quote of the day component with a student dialogue of the day section…).

I know this is just a start to changes I can make. But any step toward promoting greater mutual understanding, trust, and compassion for students and their families to engage in a safe environment is one step closer to a more peaceful future.

I would love to learn from your experiences or recommendations. Please share in the comments below!

Featured image: Lisa Ouellette

10 Tips for Tough Conversations between Home & School

I was devastated. It was my first email from a parent expressing unhappiness, and I struggled to take it in stride. After all, I was devoting all my intellectual, emotional, and even physical capacity toward my students’ success and well-being. Yet the parent reported that her daughter had been spending longer and longer evenings frustrated over homework, culminating in one tearful 2½-hour evening of math.

What I hadn’t yet recognized was just how difficult it can be for parents to send such emails to begin with. Despite the fact that they entrust their children to our care for 7+ hours a day, parents often face debilitating intimidation to reach out.

So this is a post for those parents, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, their children go unseen at school. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their children seem to struggle for belonging in vain.  

But this is also a post for teachers like me, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, they have overlooked a student’s needs. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their students seem to struggle for belonging in vain.

This is a post for us all. Because no matter how fleeting, these moments are real–and raw, and messy, and dark. And no one, not parents, not teachers, and especially not our students, should have to face them alone.

#1

Parents: Just click send. Have courage to speak. You can spend the rest of the year worrying and hoping for things to improve, or you can open the channels now for clarity and support.

Teachers: Recognize and validate that courage. Look at every email from parents as an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

#2

Parents: Don’t underestimate your voice. Yes, teachers and administrators are professionals, but they are also human beings. And most are striving for positive change and growth every day. You have an opportunity to be part of that change if you only let your voice be heard.

Teachers: If you make sure you daily revisit your priority to find better ways to reach your students, the rest will follow, including recognizing the value of parent voices in that pursuit.

#3

Parents: Recognize that criticism doesn’t equal disrespect. Even while facing serious concerns for their children, I’ve heard parents express, “Well, they’re the professionals, right? So I should trust what they’re doing.” Again, even the most phenomenal teachers and administrators can and do make mistakes. You can absolutely convey concerns without being disrespectful.

Teachers: As hard as it can be, take it in stride. Even if some parents seem undiplomatic in their communication, remember that you are united in the common goal of promoting their child’s welfare.

#4

Parents: Remember that they “cannot solve problems that [they] don’t know exist.” (George Couros) Depending on the issue, it may be better for parents to encourage their older children have these conversations with teachers themselves, but especially for your younger children, if you don’t communicate the problem, who will?

Teachers: Except for the rare occasions of absolutely wild and unfounded accusations (we’re talking extremes here that are an entirely different blog post), each of these emails are an opportunity for you to reflect. Remember to seek support from your administrators, particularly when problems stem from a more complex source.  

#5

Parents: Acknowledge the big picture. To minimize an accusatory tone, include what is going well, and, if applicable, acknowledge possible extenuating circumstances you’ve observed that may be contributing to the problem. However, be sure to remain clear on what you have observed to be an issue.

Teachers: Try to be proactive in communicating with parents to begin with, giving them abundant opportunities for interaction, as well as a window into what’s really happening in their child’s classroom. Problems sometimes stem from differing or even misguided notions of pedagogy, but if you give parents a chance to thoroughly see the why behind what you do, you are more likely to bridge those gaps.

#6

Parents: Be specific. Give details, examples, and anecdotes of what you are observing. It’s easier for teachers and administrators to address what’s going on if you can give them a clear picture. If possible, try to volunteer in the classroom at least once before sending the email–chances are, either you’ll find it unnecessary after all, or else you may find additional details you may want to include in your communication.

Teachers: Remember that there’s a difference between just saying you welcome volunteers and facilitating an easy way for parents to volunteer. Create a Google Spreadsheet outlining what you could use help with and with slots to volunteer (see an example I designed for our entire 5th grade team here).

#7

Parents: Express your genuine willingness to help the situation. In the words of Tina Fey, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” Offer to meet for an in-person discussion, or to come in and volunteer. To further make it clear that you would like to be part of the solution, you may also find it helpful to use phrases such as, “I have a question I was hoping you could help me solve,” or “I was wondering what I can do to help address an issue I’ve noticed.”

Teachers: Take advantage of any offer parents make to contribute to the solution. Warmly acknowledge that offer, and be flexible in arranging meeting times.

#8

Parents: Don’t just accept the status quo. “It’s always been that way” should not command blanket approval. It’s not just ok to ask for the supporting research–it’s essential if we hope to move beyond outdated practices within our educational system.

Teachers: Make sure that you refuse to accept the status quo, too! The burden of asking why lies on everyone involved in education.

#9

Parents: Don’t assume. Remember that as you express your concern, do so as objectively as possible. Simply share what you have observed, and allow your teacher/administrator the opportunity to investigate and share the the cause.  

Teachers: Ditto. Resist the temptation to assign motive or labels to the parent.

#10

Parents: Recognize appropriate channels. It can be difficult to determine whether to direct your issue to the teacher or an administrator. Generally, if it is related to happenings within the classroom, it’s better to email the teacher; if it seems to be a more widespread or policy-based issue, it may be better suited for an administrator. When in doubt, email teachers first, because they can always pass it along to the administration if it is out of their hands–and you can always follow-up with the administration later if you are unable to reach a resolution with the teacher.

Teachers: Don’t assume that a parent is trying to go over your head if they email your principal first–they may simply be unsure how much power you have to address their concern.

Returning to my above-mentioned email, in the end, I was simply grateful. That parent’s email gave me the chance to reinforce what a priority my students’ well-being was to me. During our next class meeting, we revisited that priority, we listened to others’ experiences on homework, and we reminded everyone that sincere effort, balance of time, and best judgement are valued over simple completion of assignments. And all because one parent had the courage to share.

featured image: deathtothestockphoto

10 Signs Your Child Might Be at a 20th Century School…and What to Do About It

Your child might be attending a 20th century school if:

  1. Silent seat work is more common than collaboration with peers
  2. The teacher asks all the questions (and most speaking in general…)
  3. Students wait on the teacher for most everything
  4. Basal reading programs and other delivery/content-based programs are heavily depended upon
  5. Technology is only used to consume–never to create, connect, and explore
  6. Seats are in rows facing the teacher
  7. Worksheets are the go-to in almost every lesson.
  8. Signs of extrinsic motivation through charts, cards, tokens, etc. for behavior control are more prominent than cultivation of intrinsic motivation through student voice, choice, and ownership
  9. The day is portioned into individual activities without interconnection between subjects or overarching concepts
  10. Questions like “Can I go to the bathroom” are frequently asked

***Bonus flipped sign: Play is a rarity. (***We call this flipped because just a couple of decades ago, practices tended to favor more play, especially for younger grades; today, even kindergartners are often laden with paperwork).

So what happens if you are devoted to exploring the edges of 21st century best practices, but your child’s school seems to match the above description?

  1. Send positive and supportive communication to the teacher. Odds are, she is drowning in all the meetings and paperwork that are often mandated at such schools, and can use all the support she can get.
  2. Frequently discuss with your child his/her motivations and passions. When she comes home with a sticker for cooperation, discuss whether stickers are the bottom-line for her choices. Would she cooperate without stickers? Why or why not?  
  3. Share those kinds of above conversations with your child’s teacher. During conferences and other opportunities, share your child’s thoughts on personal motivation (or better yet, encourage the child to do so). Get the conversations going that may help broaden perspectives and initiate reflection.
  4. Implement 21st century practices at home. MakerSpaces, coding, SOLE’s, blogging–the list goes on. Whatever you do, the point is to allow your child to drive the learning.
  5. Make play a high priority at home. As tempting as it may be to push your 6 year-old to prepare for next year…and the year after that…and the year after that, we must remember that “in play, children develop a lasting disposition to learn.”

Mr Rogers Play Quote

As parents and teachers, we can take action to cultivate our children’s pursuit of genuine learning, despite conflicting policies or practices. Please share some strategies that you have found effective below in the comments!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto