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.
Sarah says: Do you ever wish you had some kind of crystal ball that could transport you into your child’s classroom? Maybe you’re fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with your child at school, but inevitably, as they get older, what goes on at school seems more elusive from the point of view on the front porch. If you’re curious about the things teachers wish parents knew about school, click through the gallery for a primer.
1. The difference between learning and grades
Think back to your own experiences in school. Have you ever received an A on an assignment or in a class, only to know that you learned very little? Perhaps the opposite is also true for you. Have you ever received a C on an assignment or in a class, but have learned a tremendous amount? This is the funny thing about grades. In the end, they’re pretty arbitrary and don’t always reflect what students have learned.
So when you are talking to your child or to your child’s teacher, be sure that the focus of your conversations is on learning. Ask your child questions like: “What did you learn today?” “Does this connect to something you learned yesterday?” “What do you want to learn about next?”
If you find yourself in conversation with a teacher about your child’s performance, keep the questions focused on the learning: “What was the learning goal for this assignment?” “What is she struggling with in meeting this goal?” “What is he doing well?” “How can we support this learning at home?”
I think teachers want parents to remember that grades are earned. They aren’t something teachers bestow upon students; rather, they should be measures of how well a student is demonstrating his or her learning.
(Photo: Erik Isakson)
2. Cell phones require responsibility
I’m the first to admit that I’m a technology geek. I love to constantly find ways to bring technology into the classroom. I’m not even opposed to cell phones in school or in class. In fact, I’ve found many appropriate uses for them to support our learning. But in order for our technology to be productive, we must also have clear expectations about what we don’t use technology for in class (i.e. texting). So, I’m always surprised when a student is texting and I ask him/her to stop, but am met with a surprised, “But it’s my mom. She’s telling me what to do after school.” When you need to communicate with your children at school, just make sure you both realize that instant replies can’t get in the way of class time. They’ll have to wait until in between classes or during lunch.
Some schools don’t allow cell phones at all, so make sure you have an alternate form of communication if necessary. And if you have younger children, be sure that their technology stays at home. Nothing but distraction can come from having gadgets at school.
Teachers understand that students will continue to have more technology at school (and we welcome it), but I think teachers want parents to know that we all have to model how to use it responsibly.
(Photo: Katrina Wittkamp)
3. Create the right environment for homework
At school, we work very hard to create routines that best support student learning. One of the greatest ways you can support your learner at home is to offer the same kind of space or structure that creates productive homework routines. Here are a few considerations:
Establish a quiet zone. This is the place where you designate as undisturbed thinking and working time.
Make sure there’s a comfortable working space. This doesn’t mean your children need their own bedrooms or desks, but find a place in your home (or even outside of it, like a library) when he or she can spread out and work comfortably.
Require some non-plugged-in time. Of course, a lot of students will tell you that they work better when they’re multitasking. But they’re wrong. Each time a student responds to a Facebook ping or text, it can take up to 15 minutes to get back into a critical thinking “zone.” Students have to learn how to be fully present and engaged in whatever they’re thinking about.
Try not to save it until the last minute. I know this can be tough, especially as kids get busier and busier. Yet, I know that when my kids are tired, it’s a lot more difficult to make progress on homework than when they still have some after-school energy.
When it comes to homework, I think teachers want parents to know that your home routines will speak loudly to what you value about your student’s learning.
(Photo: @Michi B)
4. Absences matter
We know there are times when students will need to get pulled out of school. There’s a family event, a unique opportunity for a student to participate in, or even a family vacation. While all of these reasons for absence are worthy, please remember that you’re still pulling your children out of school, and while they’ll be able to complete an assignment or read a chapter, they won’t have access to the same kind of experience they would have had being in class. Often, parents try hard to be strategic and miss the days that are least consequential. A comment I frequently hear from parents is, “I don’t want to miss any test days.” For me, these are actually some of the best days to miss. What I want students in class for are the days of practice, of revision, of direct instruction or feedback because these are the days more difficult to replicate. A testing scenario: I can easily replicate that.
I think teachers want parents to know that we understand these absences, but when they occur, there may be limitations in how we can re-create the process of learning that was missed.
5. Teachers make mistakes too
Believe me, there’s nothing that makes a teacher feel worse than making a mistake when it comes to a student’s learning. Whether it’s putting her in the wrong group, giving him the wrong homework, or recording the wrong grade, we feel badly. So, just remember, we’re human too, and when you catch one of those mistakes, think about how you approach us. Will you ask a fair question or criticize and ridicule? Remember, communication is key and we’re here to work together.
I think teachers want parents to know that in the same way you’re sending your very best child to us each day, we’re sending home the very best child we can.
Sarah Brown Wessling is an English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. In 2010 she was selected as the National Teacher of the Year and spent the year traveling the world as an ambassador for education. She is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel and a mother of three. She continues to write, speak, and teach throughout the country, but always relishes her role as “mom.”