Teacher of the Year Tells All: 5 Secrets to a Strong School Year

Sarah Brown Wessling, a National Teacher of the Year, shares her essential back-to-school tips for parents.
Helpful tips for parents as you prepare for the new school year. (Photograph By Abi Bell)
Aug 20, 2012
Sarah Brown Wessling is an English teacher in Iowa. She was the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.

Navigating the school system can be difficult, but don't fret: Sarah Brown Wessling is here to help. Each month Sarah will offer insight into the classroom and share tips on how to help your child flourish in school.

Our experience was like that of so many parents. My kids were checking the mailbox every day, waiting for the coveted return address that read “Johnston Community School District.” In it would be a letter from their principal, accompanied by a letter from one of the most important people in their lives for the next year: their teachers. Also, like so many of you, we knew this was the first moment we would glimpse the potential success for the upcoming year. But, perhaps unlike many of you, I live on both sides of this coin: as a teacher and as a parent.

My husband and I are parents to three young children: Evan, eight; Lauren, six; and Zach, two. We make our home just outside of Des Moines, Iowa, in Johnston, within 100 miles of where we each grew up. As a teacher, my home is at Johnston High School, where I am starting my 15th year of teaching high school English. Simply put, I’m incredibly passionate about this work. In fact, I never feel like I’m going to a job; rather, each day I think how lucky I am to be able to spend it with these amazing young people who are teaching me so much every day. But in 2010, my classroom quite suddenly became much bigger. 

As I stood next to President Obama and he named me the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, the crystal apple he handed me felt heavy in my hands. Heavier, though, was the weight of responsibility. See, being named the National Teacher of the Year is certainly an honor, but it also launched me into a year of service. Over the course of the following 12 months, I made it to 39 states, three countries, and became a voice for teaching and learning in over 240 different speaking engagements. Upon my return to the classroom last year, I also started spending half of my day as the Teacher Laureate for the Teaching Channel, where I’ve continued to think, write, speak, and learn on behalf of teachers and learners.

More: A California Teacher’s Secret to Raising Grades and Morale

But what so often goes unsaid in all of this is the way that I’m growing as a teacher and parent simultaneously. It’s that I’m, at once, the parent at the book fair and this larger voice for education. It’s that I’m constantly thinking about how to get my high school students to let go of playing the game of school while I’m raising elementary-aged children who are being indoctrinated into it. So bringing this dual voice to TakePart is a gift. It’s a gift to merge these inextricably bound parts of my life. Just like waiting for that letter to arrive in the mail a couple of weeks ago, I see it always as a parent and from the 30,000-foot view of having traversed the country learning about education. It’s those dual perspectives that I hope to bring to this space, starting with five ways to help your children start the year off strong!

1. Meet your child’s teacher. Whether it’s by attending a back-to-school function, checking out his or her webpage, or introducing yourself by email, it’s important to learn what structures will be in place for the year. What will your child be responsible for? How do you best contact the teacher? What does the teacher value about how students learn that you’ll be looking for in the materials that come home?

2. Get excited at home. I remember overhearing my mom scold my dad once for scoffing at a new food she served at dinner: “How will the kids ever try anything new if you turn up your nose before you even try? Think about what you’re teaching them.” My wise mother (a 29-year teaching veteran of a fourth-grade classroom) was right about trying new foods, and she’s right about attitudes towards school. How will our kids ever be excited for school if we aren’t excited at home? Ask kids what they love about school or the highlights from last year they’d like to build upon this year. Recall a favorite teacher or a favorite memory of yourself as a learner. Start creating the culture at home.

3. Find a way to have a presence at school. There are so many ways to create a presence in your child’s school life. Whether it’s volunteering, offering to chip in a few extra school supplies, or committing to come to parent-teacher conferences, the more you feel connected to the school, the more your kids will too.

4. Think about new routines. At our house, we love to let our routines give way to summer. But a week before school starts, we begin shifting those routines. Clear (and earlier) bedtimes, more quiet time in the evening, and no screens until after homework or talk time in the afternoons. Our brains have to be rested and our kids need to feel loved in order to maximize that learning power.

5. Help your kids get involved, but not overwhelmed. As the school year begins, so does the parade of flyers about activities in which kids can get involved. Helping our children develop passions by trying new things and teaching them tenacity by returning to favorites is a crucial step to self-fulfillment. The trick is balance. It’s the Three Bears approach: not too few, not too many, but just right. And only you will know what is just right for your child. Frankly, what’s just right for one youngster in your home may not be what’s right for another. But paying attention to their reactions and interest rather than our own is always a crucial step towards finding that sweet spot.

As a teacher-parent-advocate-resource, I’m so thrilled to be joining this important space for taking part in the education of our children. It’s our collective voices that will help our children and schools to flourish.

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