Back to School Edition: Tip #3

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Did you miss the first part of this series?
Click here for Tip #1 and click here for Tip #2!

Back to School Tip of the Day #3

Don’t leave the teacher in the dark. Sometimes our instinct as parents is to withhold information that is painful to discuss. We do this with the best of intentions, to protect our kids from embarrassment, judgement, or ridicule. Maybe you have a child who has a history of disruptive behavior, and you are afraid that sharing this with the new teacher will cause her to see your child in a negative light. Maybe your child has had trouble concentrating in the past, but you don’t want the teacher to expect this because you are hoping that this year will be different. Maybe there are things going on at home like a divorce, the death of a grandparent, or a recent move, that are causing stress for your child, but you consider these to be private issues or just find them difficult to discuss. As a mom, I totally understand this desire to protect by withholding, but trust me when I say that YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER NEEDS TO KNOW. He wants to create a smooth transition for your child, and you can help him plan for your child’s success by sharing critical information, such as how your child learns best, how she typically behaves, when she feels most stressed, and what has helped her to be successful in other classrooms.

This information impacts everything from the seating chart in the classroom to the way that kids are grouped to the teaching methods that are chosen for each part of the material to the strategies that the teacher uses with your individual child. Sure, the teacher will eventually figure out that this child is painfully shy and that those two children should never be seated together and that another child feels anxious unless she is close to the teacher, while that child has a tummy ache every afternoon after lunch and another cries whenever she thinks about her old dog that probably will not live much longer. The teacher will eventually figure out the other fifteen students, too. But when the first nine weeks is like a giant riddle, then a lot of time is wasted just figuring everything out.

It is a common misconception that teachers just know things, that information that is given to one teacher one year automatically trickles to the next grade level, but that isn’t always true, especially in the higher grades. Unless your child has needs that have been documented on an IEP, for example, there is a good chance that your child’s new teachers will need you to start from scratch in explaining what might work best. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. Most schools have not perfected a way to update and transfer this kind of information from teacher to teacher, and I have yet to attend professional development on extrasensory perception, which is surprising since that could be more helpful than some of the PD I have attended throughout my career.

If you have a child in middle or high school, he probably does not want you to talk to the teacher much, if ever at all. He would really prefer that his parents didn’t even know that he has teachers and that his teachers didn’t even know that he has parents. This is totally normal and is a sign of healthy development, really; he should be gaining more independence as he matures. Unless you are planning to be his roommate in college, it is very important for him to start learning to handle some things on his own. This does not mean, however, that you should not communicate with his teachers at all anymore. It just means that you need to learn to operate like a secret agent, and, fortunately for you, e-mail makes that very easy for our generation.

Although older kids suddenly want to tackle everything independently, common sense says that they don’t go from “mom handles everything” to “I’ve got this all by myself” overnight. By the upper grades, your job is to guide your student in addressing her own problems and encourage her to talk to the teacher herself, but it is still your responsibility to inform the teacher of key information and to check in once in a while to see if your child is following through with her responsibilities. In many school districts, you can check your older child’s performance online at any time, which can help you to keep an eye on her academic progress, but that report may not indicate if she spends a lot of time alone, has a negative attitude, or has to be reminded often not to sleep in class. While you might think that those issues would warrant a call from the teacher, keep in mind that the high school teacher may see 150 students in a day, so unless you ask, you may not be notified of a behavior that does not stand out as unsafe, disruptive, or extreme. This is why conferencing with the teacher is still important, even when students are in the upper grades. A teenager who wants to sleep during math class may not trigger an alarm in the mind of the math teacher, but you may see it as a sign that something has changed with your son or daughter.

Here is another reason to communicate openly with your kid’s teacher. When you have limited information and you are trying to solve a riddle, you may make assumptions that are wildly incorrect. Think about this example. You are teaching a high school student who always sits in the back of the classroom. He rarely completes any of his work, doesn’t talk to many other kids, and refuses to explain his lack of effort when you try to talk to him. He appears to be extremely tired day after day and seems to have no support from home. It looks like he just doesn’t care.  You have tried to contact the parents because you are concerned, but you have gotten no response. The same thing is happening in his other classes. What might you conclude? Really, what would you assume?

Did you guess that his father has terminal cancer, that he is exhausted from caring for his father at night while his mom is at work, and that his mother is emotionally overwhelmed and has not had time to return your calls? This information might dramatically change your approach with this student. Every student has a story that impacts his learning, and I, as the teacher, can’t choose the best approach to help him without knowing what that story is. It might surprise you that the school wouldn’t be aware of a story this heartbreaking, but it happens all the time.

We like to think that fair means that all of our children are treated the same, but the truth is that treating everyone the same is not fair. However, your child’s teacher cannot meet your child’s individual needs if you aren’t up front about what is going on in your child’s life. You should know that when you share your private information, your child’s teacher has a responsibility not to share that information with other students or parents. Before you share, you should also know that teachers are mandated reporters, which means that they are legally bound to report if child abuse is suspected, even if that information was shared with them in confidence.

If you want your child to get off to a great start this year, consider sharing any information that might help the teacher meet your child’s needs right off the bat. You have control of the light switch.  Don’t leave the teacher in the dark.

If your child is having a tough day at school, how can you brighten the gloom?
Check out Tip #4 tomorrow!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/64111606@N00/3424750103″>Create Your Own Light…</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Some Moments Cling To You

*I wanted to write something in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, and here’s what happened.  I dedicate it to my student, and to all of the teachers who carry their work – the seen and the unseen –  home with them at night.*

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When I was teaching in brick-and-mortar classrooms, I lugged a heavy bag of books, lesson plans, and ungraded essays to my car every afternoon after school. And people noticed that bag. They couldn’t miss it, really. They would sigh or smile or shake their heads when they saw it, the evidence that my job was important, that my school day did not end at 3:00.

The books, the plans, the papers – those were conspicuous. Everyone saw them. But the invisible burden that I carried home as a teacher often weighed much more. The questions that haunted my quiet moments. The concerns that intruded when I lay down at night. The moments that replayed over and over again on the video reel in my mind. Had I done enough? Could I have done better? Were all of my students safe and warm and well-fed at night? Had I left any children behind that week? How could I be more and do more for my class in the future?

I remember one typical morning, now so many years ago. My classroom was abuzz with students, chirping greetings to one another, trading stories with loud voices and dramatic gestures before the first school bell rang. Teenagers surrounded my podium at the front of the room, sharing anecdotes with me while I mentally reviewed my plans for the day ahead.

“Mrs. Ware, I actually heard something about Edgar Allen Poe on The Simpsons last night! I’m not even kidding!”

“Mrs. Ware, I didn’t finish my homework, but, I swear, you will NEVER believe what happened!”

“Mrs. Ware, did you hear about the track meet yesterday? We did awesome!”

“Mrs. Ware, my mom is going to kill me if I don’t pass English! You have to help me!”

One by one, I addressed their concerns, and, one by one, they shuffled back to their seats, still chatting, organizing their papers before our day officially began.

And then the last girl, a quiet girl, a girl who normally avoided drawing attention to herself, was the only one left at the front of the room while her classmates talked and giggled in the background. I smiled warmly, wondering what had lured her from the safety of the periphery.

“How can I help you?” I asked her, but she seemed reluctant to answer, maybe a bit regretful, as if she had moved her pawn too quickly and now wished she could change course.

After a pause, finally, she spoke. “I . . . Mrs. Ware, I was going to tell you . . .”

And just before the words could overflow, she hesitated again. Her sweet face, staunchly loyal, kept her secrets – but her eyes betrayed her. There, pain twisted and danced in oily swirls. It was brazen, whirling, flashing, taunting, while her words took shape.

She summoned her courage and, softly but firmly, spoke the words that I did not expect: “Mrs. Ware, I have the same problem you do.

I looked at her, and I thought about it, and I had absolutely no idea what she meant.

The front of the room was suddenly a bit less comfortable, the air a little harder to breath, because I could not respond to her until I understood what our problem was. She could tell that I was struggling to answer, and she was uncomfortable, too, so she rescued me, or maybe rescued us, by offering a lifeline. Words were not her favorite, but her eyes were still talking, and I needed help, so I followed them. I watched attentively as they descended slowly from my face – to my neck – to my shoulders – to my big, round orb of a belly, firm and heavy and eight months.

“I have the same problem you do,” she said.

And those words that had been hanging, suspended in the air, now smashed to the floor and shattered like glass. And my heart fell, bruised and broken, with them.

Because I had been caught off guard, at this time and in this place, with a classroom full of students and first period about to begin and a bachelor’s degree in English that did not prepare me for this moment. Because her pain stabbed me, and it hurt, and I felt for just that moment the fear coursing through her veins. Because I wanted to fix things for her, for all my students, that I knew I could not fix. Because I imagined that Hardship had been her companion for a while now – and that he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

And because my baby, the tiny acrobat inside me, had been a prayer, a dream, and a plan, but never “a problem.” Those words stung. And I thought about how both of us had sobbed over a pregnancy test, but our tears had sprung from very different wells.

And because I was reminded that academics only matter to humans if we first meet their most urgent needs – and that is daunting – because every day in every classroom there are students whose needs are great, and only some of them will share.

At school and in life, most moments pass, one by one, with little notice or consequence. At the end of the day, you know that seconds, minutes, and hours elapsed, but in the whirlwind of planning the seconds, minutes, and hours to come, what is over is often quickly brushed aside. But, like the fine threads of a spider’s web, certain moments entangle you. They cling to your skin, and you cannot easily shake them off. They will not leave you.

That one moment, when a student and I shared all of the joy and the sadness and the fears of being human, will never leave me. It remains crisp and vivid on the video reel in my mind and still visits me when I am quiet. What followed that moment, however, is cloudy. I remember that she talked. I remember that I listened. Time passed quickly. My family grew. The school year ended.

And I never saw her again.

I don’t know if she remembers that moment when our lives collided in such a personal way, but I hope that she understands, now that she is all grown up, how deeply I cared. I hope that she knows, whatever I may have said, that she mattered more to me than commas and semicolons and sentence fragments. I hope that she knows how much I appreciate that she invited me in, that she allowed me to view the world, and my own experiences, through a different lens; it was a defining moment for me, a moment that shaped me as a person and as a teacher.

Most of all, I hope that she is well, that she is loved, that she is happy – but I accept that I will never know. Over a thousand faces have passed through my classrooms across different schools and different states, and it is impossible to follow them all. I often think of those faces and wonder about the adults they have become. I wonder how they remember our years together, whether certain moments cling to them, too.

So many of my memories are a blur, but some moments refuse to leave me. And for those ones, the ones that cling, I am grateful.

photo credit: common classroom via photopin (license)