I hope everyone had a wonderful break this summer. I disconnected from just about everything and it was wonderful! Now that school is back I hope to resume writing this newsletter a few times a month.
I want to give a special welcome my new subscribers. The folks at the Washington Post were kind enough to publish a piece I wrote recently about the difference between unkindness and bullying and why it matters. It appears to have resonated and has had more shares, re-tweets, and likes than anything else I've ever written, so I've had a lot of new people sign up for this newsletter. I'm glad to have you here and I hope it will be useful for you.
Many years ago, I was having some trouble with the management of my classes. I confided in an older teacher whose classes were perfectly behaved. She smiled and said, "It's very simple. When I started teaching, they told me, 'Be a witch from the time school starts until Thanksgiving.' After that, they'll do what you say and you can lighten up a bit." This was pretty standard advice back when she started teaching in the late 60s/early 70s. Looking back, I can certainly see how my own teachers practiced this.
For the record, I don't believe in being harsh or mean at any time. But beneath that, there is a kernel of very helpful wisdom for parents.
However they articulate it, veteran teachers know that the first few weeks of school are critical. School is new, there is some excitement, and everyone is ready to for a new start, so minds and hearts are flexible.
This time can be used to establish routines and get students in good habits. It can be tempting to want to ramp up slowly, but jumping in and getting everyone acclimated is probably going to be a better choice. It is so much easier to start from the beginning and then moderate things if needed than it is to try to change habits and patterns that are set.
As my more experienced colleague new, it is always easier to relax things than to tighten them up.
So if there are things you think your child needs to work on--more chores at home, earlier bedtime, better study habits, picking things up, being more respectful, sharing, new limits on screen time--this is probably a great time to do that. I realize it might seem overwhelming. But chances are that your child is in the mode of new beginnings and might have more emotional and mental elasticity. Once routines and patterns become habits, it's much more difficult to make changes.
So, if you haven't done so, you might give some thought to things you want to help your child address. Start right from the beginning. It truly is a very good place to start. The biggest caution I have is this: don't try to do too much. Better to do a few things well than many things halfway.
The other thing that is very new, and worth some effort, is your relationship to your child's teacher. I've written a lot about this subject before (for example, here) and I don't want to rehash too much. I do think it's worth reiterating a few key points.
1. Good teachers work well beyond (sometimes very far beyond) their contractual obligations. It's true they are paid for their work but they don't get overtime or bonus pay, and they are paid for very little. So almost any time they get in the zone where they are changing lives, you can be almost positive they are not being paid. In fact, the more they do, the less they make to some extent. This is one reason teachers burn out so quickly and easily.
2. Teachers don't go into teaching to make money. Chances are your child's teacher went into education because s/he wanted to make a difference, loved a particular subject, and/or loves kids. Most of what really motivates them is emotional in nature.
3. If a teacher feels that s/he is accomplishing those objectives--touching lives, instilling love for a subject, helping someone--that teacher will feel energized, and motivated.
4. Thus, anything you can do to help motivate and energize your child's teacher will likely yield dividends for your child.
There's more to explain here, some complicated dynamics that you can use to your child's benefit if you understand them--but I'll save that for later. Suffice it to say, the sooner you reach out, the better. Start creating emotional capital with your child's teacher now.
Happily, it does not take a lot of time or ingenuity to do this. Send a short note when your child's teacher does something thoughtful or that shows dedication. Handwritten is lovely, but email is fine. This truly can be the work of a few minutes! If you can honestly do so, tell your child's teacher you are so happy your child got assigned to their class (even better--if you can, add why you are happy). Is the teacher famous for having a great sense of humor? Good rapport with students? A love of literature? A knack for bringing writing skills out? Dedication? Years of service? Lovely penmanship? Try to find something. It just needs to be enough to start the relationship on a good foot.
I know you are busy. But if you can, please try to show up to parent's night events. This will help show that you are serious about education and that you don't see yourself as being above the rules. There is very little that will set a teacher's teeth on edge faster than someone who signals, I'm above all this.
We're all busy. Teachers understand. So if you can't make it, send a quick email, apologize, explain why (make sure it's a good reason) and say that you invite any guidance or suggestions the teacher has. The main thing is to avoid not showing up, never communicating, and then suddenly swooping in when you have a complaint.
IMPORTANT: With both teachers and administration, one of the most important ways to have influence is to never let your first communication be a complaint or concern.
Try to realize that your child's teacher has a huge wealth of experience that can be enormously beneficial. I was talking to a friend the other day. She's an experienced teacher, but is still younger than many of the parents of the students she teaches. Moreover she does not have her own children. She was telling me that she doesn't feel the parents of her students always take her very seriously.
Those parents are missing an opportunity. After only a few years of teaching, a teacher will have seen hundreds of students in that age bracket. After five kids, I might have more experience as a parent, but even a very young teacher will know far more than I do about the age group they teach.
They will have a very good idea of developmental milestones and challenges in that age group. They can tell you if something is a simple matter of letting time and maturity work their magic. They know what sort of things might require more intervention--parental or professional. If the former, they can give a good sense of what solutions have helped other families. If the latter, they might know good professionals to refer. They can always give reassurance, guidance, and be wonderful allies.
Letting a teacher know you are committed, that you are excited, that you are reasonable and that you are open to advice and candor will pay off. As I said, more detail on this later. For now, all it takes to start is a short note (or email) and attending parent's night.
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