I once asked my middle school colleagues for the advice they had just shared with parents in parent-teacher conferences. Their list has influenced me as a teacher, principal and parent over many years. I think they are guidelines for students and parents of any age, at any stage in the school year, but especially in laying foundations at the start of a new year.
Consider the following ten pieces of advice for shared goals of teaching and parenting.
1. Whose learning is it? The majority of kids can take charge of their own learning — if we let them. Don’t over teach or over parent. Give kids time and space to take charge. This motivates resiliency and competence.
2. Rewards. Children should feel rewarded by learning itself. External rewards to stimulate good grades thwart feeling long-term joy and power from hard work and accomplishment.
3. The eye of the beholder. Kids see things from a kid’s point of view. Parents and teachers should act like journalists: get several sources for objectivity and accuracy when kids report on their school day. “The story” keeps evolving long after “publication.” Get updates.
4. The mother of invention. Focusing on good grades alone loses sight of the positive potential in a low grade. Deciphering failure can be more instructive than success. In fact, deep learning takes place beyond what a grade can measure.
5. Collaboration. Crucial life skills come from the struggle implicit in working with others and wrestling with unfamiliar challenges. Adults want to spare kids discomfort. Better to welcome discomfort and help guide kids out of their discomfort zone!
6. “Little by little the bird makes his nest,” as the saying goes. Today’s lesson builds toward future lessons and accomplishments. Wise, steady, incremental daily challenges are the golden thread of learning.
7. Character. There are no assurances about the exact skills necessary for life in the future. To be forward-looking, teachers must prioritize concepts guaranteed to be at the heart of unforeseeable futures: improvisation, comfort with chaos, skilled questioning, integrity, and ethical character.
8. Balance. Kids need help balancing priorities. Piano lessons getting in the way of homework, or homework getting in the way of piano lessons? Both might be reasonable conclusions. It depends on the child.
9. Coach, don’t cushion, during homework time. Bring problems and questions back to school. Don’t deny the teacher the chance to understand how a student experiences their homework — especially if they hit the wall and can’t do the work.
10. Don’t miss school. Work can be made up, but not the contacts, textures and experiences of the school day.
This is also a list of the deeper equations for learning, fulfillment, happiness, hopeful lives and resiliency. The problems on Friday’s math quiz or the predictions about term grades are vital, but so is the more intuitive concept of proportion, which will support the architecture unit in history — or fraught friendship triangles.
At the start of the school year, kids face new teachers, new studies, new friends, and unfamiliar challenges. As do their parents. By the middle of the year, students fully inhabit their current grade and begin turning their gaze to the one ahead. Finally, parents and teachers share the vision and guardianship of long-term learning as well as the pesky daily tasks. It’s the fundamental partnership in raising effective and resilient kids.
Todd R. Nelson is a retired teacher and school principal. He lives in Penobscot.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s September 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.