It’s back-to-school time again, that season of hope when legions of well-intentioned parents descend on discount outlets to invest in two-pouch folders and “devices.” Unfortunately, the best-laid plans of parents and students, and teachers, often go astray before the first leaves hit the playground. Poor Elijah once considered marketing an assignment pad with only enough pages for the first three weeks of school, since that’s about how long it takes most students to give up keeping track of homework.
He refuses, however, to surrender to cynicism. Here’s his list of suggestions for the coming year.
1. Always be suspicious of lists of suggestions. All students, parents and teachers are individuals, and learning and growing up are complicated processes. Some ideas make more sense than others, but at school, as in the rest of life, there is no magic formula that guarantees success.
2. Learn to tell the difference between school and a theme park. Sometimes learning can be fun, but anybody who makes fun of the point of school is missing the point. No, putting your 6-year-old on the bus shouldn’t be like sending him off to the salt mines. But learning is work, and like many worthwhile tasks, it often doesn’t feel good while you’re doing it. This is a lesson we need to teach our children. Of course, first we have to learn it ourselves.
3. The best way to keep track of what your child is learning is to talk to them. Portfolios, proficiencies, letter grades and standardized tests — every expert’s got a system for assessing what students know. But for you as parents, the best assessment tool comes home every day around 3 p.m. Sure, check their report card, their test scores and their classwork. Talk to their teacher if you have questions. But better still, talk to your child. Treat their academic growth as a contribution to your family.
4. Treat homework like a friend. Homework offers the single most constructive “child-centered” route for involving yourself in your child’s education, provided you keep in mind exactly who’s supposed to do the work. Don’t be like the mother who complained to Poor Elijah that he was “killing her with all these assignments.”
Homework helps students learn to work independently. It also lets them practice what they’re learning without making them stay an extra few hours at school. The next time your child complains about homework, remind him that the alternative is more school work.
5. Don’t make school too big or too small. Most children spend half their waking hours at school. They find ideas at school, and they find their friends there, too. Academic success is frequently tied to success later on, specifically when it comes to jobs and money. Since what happens in and around the classroom plays such a major role in shaping children into adults, it’s only reasonable that we take school seriously.
On the other hand, public education is a 12-year process, so no single event, bungled test or bad day with a teacher, or even a series of bungled tests or bad days, is likely to doom your child to a second-rate life.
Think about what happens when a toddler falls down. If you rush to their aid, they’re much more likely to conclude that a terrible thing has happened. On the other hand, if you’re able to remain in your parental seat and treat falling down as if it were an ordinary occurrence, which it is, then they’re much more likely to pick themselves up untraumatized and try again.
6. Help bring back the Respectable C. Back in the days before self-esteem, a C meant you’d done acceptable work. Unfortunately, in our misguided haste to guard our children and ourselves against a realistic appraisal of their work, we decided that acceptable grades were no longer acceptable. Old “acceptable” C work became “good” B work, which meant that old B work became “outstanding” A work, and old A work ... well, you get the idea.
Teachers certainly shouldn’t set quotas or deny students higher grades when their work deserves that level of recognition. But regardless of your school’s grading or proficiency system, unless we want to keep playing games with our standards — something we’ve been doing for the past 50 years — then somebody needs to bite the bullet and give an average student doing average work an average grade.
7. Avoid the words, “Not my kid.” Once we start handing out average grades to average students, don’t be surprised when your student winds up earning a few. Also, believe it or not, everybody’s children misbehave on occasion. Despite your offspring’s oath and sincere conviction that somebody’s out to get him, it doesn’t take a faculty vendetta to place most students at the scene of the crime from time to time.
School discipline works a lot like speeding tickets. Most drivers don’t get caught nearly as often as they deserve. This doesn’t keep some of us from protesting our innocence when we do get pulled over. “Gosh, officer. Was I speeding?” Keep this in mind the next time your son or daughter lands in hot water at school.
8. Parents and teachers need to work together. The problem is, lots of us aren’t sure what this is supposed to look like. Clearly there’s nothing wrong — in fact, there’s everything right — with parents taking an active role in their child’s education. After all, parents, not teachers, are the proper sovereigns when it comes to raising children.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that parents necessarily have the best handle on teaching fractions to a classroom of 10-year-olds. Barring glaring exceptions, parents and teachers need to respect each other’s expertise.
This will require trust and humility from all of us.
We’ve got the whole year to practice.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly.