CNN Online had an interesting article written by multi-awarded Ron Clark, discussing some of the things teachers really want to tell parents but don’t feel they can. As a parent and someone who sits on a school district committee with teachers, I’m in a fairly good position to see both sides of the issue.  Moreover, as an attorney, I like to think of myself as a decent mediator, and someone who can see both sides of the story, balancing what we hear from kids, parents and teachers about what goes on in school.  And like most things, the “truth” and your version of “facts” largely depends on your perspective.

First Things First: The Entitlement Problem

There are many people all across our culture who feel privileged and entitled. They look at anyone providing them with a service as being somehow less than themselves. Caitlin Kelly’s book “Malled” and numerous other pieces across the web show how poorly most people treat each other. I’d even note the way Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out at the President in 2009 an example of how we treat each other with a lack of respect, even those in high office. It’s disgraceful.  I have seen and heard parents talk about teachers in a less than respectful way.

I’ve also heard teachers complain that there are parents who treat them like “the help” and insist that their child would be more successful if the teacher would just do their job, whatever that is supposed to mean.   I’ve heard parents complain about grades. I’ve heard teachers talk to kinds in ways I would never talk to my own as well, and I’ve seen parents overstep the bounds on many occasions.  But how should parents, kids and teachers interact regarding school issues?

In our book, The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists, Jenifer Fox and I talk about the role of parents in education.   We list the following ten things parents should do to help support teachers and help their children get the most out of their education:

1. Allow kids to do their own work. Helping your child means pointing them in the right direction for research.  Having supplies on hand for posters and projects.  being there to answer questions or clarify something your child does not understand.  Going much beyond asking your child questions to get them to think deeper about a subject, ar giving them study advice and assistance, and you risk making the project yours and not your child’s.  This may improve a child’s grade on the final project, but you’re doing more harm than good, because what you are really telegraphing to the kid is that they are not competent to do their own work, and you don’t trust them to handle their own work-not a good thing at all.

2. Practice skills when you can. Helping your kids review things like spelling words or math facts helps to reinforce the learning they did during the day.  This is great help and you can actually turn this into a game, or practice in the car, while getting dinner ready- otherwise down times.

3. Ask for Help when you Need It.  I know it’s been a long time since I was an eighth grader, so if my kid is having problems with an assignment and can’t grasp what the teacher wants, or I’m not sure what they are supposed to be learning, ask.  A simple email or note to the teacher can be all it takes to clear up any confusion.

4.  Be a Mindful Communicator. Sometimes kids or families have bad days or are going through stressful situations.  Take the time to let your child’s teacher(s) know, as appropriate, what’s going on so they, too, can be a bit more understanding and try to work with your child rather than exacerbate issues with school pressure.  Most teachers I know appreciate the openness and will try to make deadlines more flexible given extenuating circumstances.

5. Respect Teachers and the Academic Hierarchy. If someone didn’t like the job you did at work, I think you’d want them to tell you first before ratting you out to the boss.  Likewise, try to solve any problems, conflicts or communication issues with teachers first before going to the head of the Department, Division or Principal. You’re not keeping secrets, but you are working the situation out directly, and teachers will respond better than if you go straight to the principal with every little complaint or issue.

6. Give Compliments when Appropriate. Teachers don’t hear things like “John was really excited about the project you’re doing in class” or “My child is really enjoying your class” as often as they need to.  Positive feedback goes a long way to helping teachers feel appreciated, and makes their job easier, and hence makes your child’s experience in their class a bit better as well.

7. Do your part as well- Send your kids to school prepared. Every kid forgets homework from time to time, but do your best to check in with your child, review grades online periodically, make sure homework is being done, and the like so you know your child is on track, and head off problems before they escalate.  No one wants the calls on the last three days of the marking period asking if the student can do extra credit to make up for poor grades, or to hear complaints about bombed tests when there’s not much that can be done.  Making sure your kid shows up to school well rested, fed and ready to go every day makes each teacher’s job a little easier.

8. Make sure your students view school as not only their job, but an opportunity. Some kids view school as their 8-3pm job, when in reality, it’s an opportunity to learn, grow and build a foundation for the rest of their lives.  They need to learn how to learn as well as master facts, and be intellectually curious about things.  Help your kids see school as a privilege and an opportunity rather than a chore they have to endure.

9. Encourage Exploration outside of the Classroom. At home, on the internet, at local museums, parks and the like, there are opportunities to enrich your child’s learning and tie things together with what they are earning in school.  If a child is learning about physics in science, talk about things like momentum, gravity and the like at the playground; take them to a science museum; talk about nature while walking through a park.  Practice math and fractions while baking cookies- try doubling the recipe or halve a recipe and let your child do the math required.  Have them write letters or emails to relatives, and cards on holidays.  Any way you can help your child see connections between what they are learning in school and what they do in “real life” will help them stay engaged in school.  educators call this “enrichment”, I call it teaching life skills and putting school in context.

And lastly-

10. Don’t be a helicopter. A child’s success in school is not a proxy for the job you are doing as a parent.  It’s their success or failure, not yours, and they have to own what they have (or have not) done and achieved.  Micromanaging your kids will lead to resentment and some real problems with rebellion come the teenage years, as well as keeping your child dependent and feeling incompetent.  the more you gradually assist your child in solving their own problems before intervening, and standing on their own, the more  independent they will become over time.  And I know I want my kids to eventually leave and live their own lives, but it happens gradually over time, not magically when they turn 18.

Later this week, I’ll include some pointers for teachers and administrators as well.  But in the meantime, remember that you have a great responsibility to be a positive force in the lives of not only your children, but in their school and community.  Use your powers wisely and for good.