Classroom confidential: Teachers’ tips for parents

Four fellow teachers tell Sarah Giddens how parents can help their kids do well at school.

As a high school teacher, I sometimes fantasize about giving a week of early-morning detentions—to my students’ parents. I’d sit them in tidy rows and encourage them to mull over their behaviour: not helping their kids develop good study habits, believing them when they claim they have no homework, not paying them the right kind of attention.

But, seriously, teachers don’t like handing out detentions; we’d much rather help you help your kids do the best they can at school, from kindergarten on up. After all, we all want the same thing—to see students succeed and grow to their potential. Many of us are parents ourselves and we understand the juggling act. With that in mind, I sat down for an electronic chat with some experienced and thoughtful fellow teachers to gather up their top tips for parents.

Read, read, read

Yes, yes, yes, you’ve heard it before, but for teachers, this is always number one. There’s no better way to build literacy, vocabulary and general knowledge. Get to the library monthly or more often, says Holland, and help your kids select books that expose them to different genres. No time to read with your child? Ask him about his book—what he likes or doesn’t like about the plot or characters, what he’s learning. Holland also urges parents to let kids see you reading too; it’s a bigger influence than you think.

No cheating

By all means help, but don’t do your child’s homework for her. Trust me, teachers can tell when parents lend a hand or when students have plagiarized. When working with your child, if you find a question or assignment confusing or even incorrect (we are human), contact the teacher. Holland sums up parents’ role in homework neatly: “Encourage independence, but support the learning.”

Speak the truth

Todd has heard his share of whoppers. “I’ve had parents make excuses about homework not getting done so that their child can duck a detention, rather than allow him to have a consequence that could reinforce better work habits.” Instead, Todd says, let your child take responsibility and accept appropriate consequences; you’ll be helping him in the long run.

You be the teacher

Many teachers wish they had more class time for general discussion. Talking to your children about your own interests and explaining how things work (electricity or social conventions) help them build their knowledge base and their confidence. Discuss current events, says Holland, and encourage your kids to offer up their opinions.

Behave yourself!

If you have questions, concerns or complaints, or need more information, we teachers want to help and we’ll make ourselves available outside class time. But, Todd cautions, “never question the teacher’s authority or put her down in front of your child. If he perceives that you don’t like or respect the teacher, it can shut down learning for the rest of that school year.” Of course you don’t have to love the teacher, but you’ll do your child a favour by keeping negative feelings to yourself. Badmouthing the teacher “may just be the greatest disservice that you have paid your child,” says Todd.

Partner up

Teachers often spot learning difficulties before parents do. “We have a context, lots of time together,” says Creek. “We see the bigger picture, we see them interact developmentally at each stage of their lives, and we have the ability to compare.” Teachers appreciate it when you ask whether your child should be present for parent-teacher meetings—sometimes there is difficult information to discuss and they prefer to talk with you alone first.

It can likewise be painful for a teacher to tell a parent that her child may need special attention or testing. Teachers feel awful when boards of education are slow to provide the necessary psychological or academic support required—but it’s worse when the parents can’t accept or even consider that their child might need extra help.

Creek finds nothing more satisfying than identifying a child’s learning difficulty, getting her parents on board, and working together on strategies to help her learn better.

Get with the program

When parents start a sentence with “When I was in school…” some of us have to control the urge to scream. Education has moved on; teachers have class blogs or wiki sites; students have rights. Teachers use a variety of new methods to teach and assess, says Holland. You can stay up to date by attending info evenings at your school or checking the curriculum online at your province’s education ministry website. And if you’re still thinking, “Yeah, but I knew the times tables backward by the time I was nine,” then roll up your sleeves and make your kid memorize them.

Think outside the box

Sometimes it might be difficult to see the value of a specific topic your child is learning at school. But whatever you think of a subject, remember it’s not just about the content—your child is also learning study habits and other important skills.

It was challenging for Dreger to motivate her students to use French beyond the classroom when it wasn’t part of their daily lives. Understandably, in her community, some First Nations parents questioned why their children had to take French while Ojibwa wasn’t even offered at the time. Dreger encouraged parents to read French books, watch French TV, take advantage of Canada’s official bilingualism, and talk about their own histories.

Be realistic

Forget Tiger Mothers and think Goldilocks instead: Aim not too low, not too high, but just right. I have seen more than one high school student in tears because they are unable to meet the expectations of their parents.

Offer yourself

Some parents have bad memories of school, especially if they had the same problems as their child, but weren’t helped in the way that they needed. Teachers are often surprised by parents’ insecurity about being able to support their kids’ learning. Rest assured that there are many ways you can help — by being interested in your child’s day, enforcing a set amount of quiet study time, or even admitting that you don’t understand a homework question. Simply being there helps your child.

If you think that you have something to offer in the classroom, contact your child’s teacher to see if there’s a fit. My teacher pals have had parents come in to explain Chinese New Year, the ritual use of sweetgrass, how to look at the stars, and more. If your kid feels shy about it, do your bit in another class. Just being at the school for a few hours can lead to interesting conversations with your child and her peers.

Want to stay on a teacher’s good side?

To keep communication open, here are a few things to avoid doing:

Lecture A parent once gave me a copy of The Watchtower (the Jehovah’s Witnesses publication), saying, “You need to use this information in your history class.”

Whine “Why can’t you give my kid…(more homework, less homework, higher marks, lower marks)?”

Stay away Don’t find the time to visit.

Wear blinders Accept your child’s version of a disagreement with the teacher without hearing the teacher’s point of view.

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