Sunday, August 3, 2008

When Parents Ask Teachers

School starts tomorrow in Prescott (AZ) public school District 1. To all, we wish an academically successful year, including for my grand daughter as she enters high school.

My thoughts about new school years grow out of both reflection on contemporary education, shared by many, and a specific kind of reasoning, shared by fewer, especially implications that Tablet and other mobile PCs have for parent-learner-teacher interactions.

About 18 years ago at the start of another school year in California, I drafted a tip sheet for parents to consider when talking with teachers. A few years later, a school in South Chicago distributed it (without attribution) to all parents of students attending that school; I understand it was also circulated by other educators in the Chicago public school system.

In short, I suggested that the only question parents need ask educators is, "When will (parent inserts whatever you want to see your child do in school)?"

For example, When will my child sit still in your classroom? When will Sandra read a chapter book? When will Horace (OK, you may not know someone with that name, so pick another name and child's face to go with it) learn (fill in the academic skill of interest at the moment, such as fractions, Latin, standard English speech, diagramming sentences, when the civil war started, to recite Dr. Martin Luther Kings opening paragraph speech, 'I have a Dream' ... )?

This one questions, When will ... , captures in a few words everything about schooling that parents want to know, but haven't received direct, clear information.

It also provides teachers with a chance to demonstrate the extent to which they manage learning efficiently (not teaching, acting out student behavior patterns, receiving certificates or awards, attending meetings and conferences, new school administrators, rules, and curricula, etc.) in their classroom.

Five Star Teachers (that means the instructors who arrange the most efficient student learning)will offer clear, concise responses, such as "We will start learning fractions on (insert a date). I will let you know if that date changes for (insert learner's name) for any reason." That's one together teacher! They do exist. I hope your child attends a Five Start teacher's classroom.(Wish I could have responded consistently so concisely.)

A Three Star Teacher will say something about needing to let you know (insert a time, such as next Monday, in two weeks). That's fair, especially at the start of a school year when the teacher's firming up schedules that reflect new information and requirements give to all teachers just before students arrive on campus. Anytime more remote is a put-off (however worded and well intended) reflecting a lower star rating teacher.

One Star Teachers will miss the parent's point by offering reasons why no one can answer that question, such as "It depends ... ", "I can't say because ... ", (insert whatever reason you remember hearing; we've all heard ourselves and other teachers give such reasons, hopefully infrequently). That teacher works from ideas about learning other than principles of learning (vs. teaching, curricula, lesson plans, etc.; that's teachers talk that parents need not understand in order to expect clear, concise statements about When ... )

The tip still seems relevant, so I offer it again, this time in fewer words. I hope it helps you plan how you will talk with your child's teacher.

Suggestion: Make that first conversation with the teacher earlier in the academic year than later. The first week will be memorable for the teacher. Write your name and telephone number on a piece of paper, and leave it with the teacher when you meet, so the teacher can contact you if schedules change.

You need not accept any "excuses" (you have a right to label any response other than the one you want to hear as an excuse) about anything other than an estimated date your child will learn (insert the skill).

It is possible for teachers to estimate these dates. Teachers know how, if they have drafted their academic year student learning schedule (not just lesson plans, curricula guides, and other teacher talk).

Yet, it may take several such questions over weeks or months by more than one parent for some educators to accept that you are informed, serious, and expect a reasoned response.

Last, be kind and considerate in your conversations. Teachers, even the Five Star Teachers, have their hands full in school every day, sometimes more than others. Request an appointment, don't ambush the teacher. We all try our best. Some of us expect such questions as When will ..., but most have not heard anyone ask it, so you may have to walk us through the process of offering a response you want.

Please let me know how this works for you, and what adjustments you would make.