When my daughter started school, a wise person advised me that I needed to be an advocate for her education, that if I wasn’t, then no one would be. Merriam Webster aptly defines advocate as champion, upholder, supporter, promoter, spokesperson, campaigner, fighter, and crusader.
Sonya Carson understood what it meant to be an advocate for her children’s education. She put her life into making sure her sons excelled in school. She knew that it was her job as a parent to do all she could to make sure her sons succeeded. As a single mother, with only a 3rd grade education, working 2-3 jobs in inner-city Detroit, she replaced their television with library cards and required her sons to write 2 book reports a week to turn into her after discovering her younger son was doing poorly in school. And even though, she couldn’t read the reports they wrote (the boys didn’t know that), her sons would find their reports in the mornings marked with red checks to show her approval. Her efforts changed her children’s lives forever, particularly her younger son’s. Ben Carson, who had been nicknamed “dummy” became one of the most gifted neurosurgeons of our time. All because his mother took action.
Sonya’s story inspires me. She proves that every parent can make a difference if they truly want to. Even though not everyone has the same challenges as Sonya Carson, we all have the same parental responsibility to be in tune with whether or not our children are learning and to take action if they aren’t. There are parents who tell me they would like to be more involved in what their child is actually learning, but they are frustrated and don’t know how. I can understand that; sometimes the system seems large and forbidding, and we are conditioned to expect negative results from our schools. Some of the most common causes for parent frustrations are children not being allowed to bring textbooks home, the ever-changing methods of teaching, and feeling unqualified to help. But these obstacles are not insurmountable. Here are some tips for working around these barriers to become an advocate for your child’s success.
Don’t Let Textbooks, Methods, or Feeling Unqualified Keep You from Being Involved
Schools exist to provide a service, and most really want to provide a good one. But parents have to be proactive in their child’s education as opposed to waiting for the school to provide them with what they need.
If you need your child to bring home his reading, grammar, or any book, then let your teacher know. While each child may not be assigned his own personal textbook for the year anymore, teachers can often let students “check out” textbooks overnight to take home. But only if you ask. Send an email, write a note, make a visit, just ask.
If the teacher is unable to send the book home, ask to have the necessary pages copied and sent home in your child’s folder. (Can I have the pages for this week’s lessons photocopied and sent home? I would really like to work with Johnny on his fractions.)
You may find that your teacher has limits placed on the number of copies she can make. It is not unusual for these limits to barely allow her to copy enough individual tests for her students, let alone extra copies for you. Don’t give up. Call the office. Let them know what you want and that you understand Johnny can’t check out his textbook and that Mrs. Johnson is unable to copy the pages of the lesson, but could the office make those copies for you; you are very interested in helping Johnny become a better math student.
We would be hard-pressed to find a school that would not find some way to accommodate a parent who is sincerely interested in assisting her child. Additionally, you might find that the school has a tutoring program or that the teacher is willing to work with Johnny before or after school or during her planning time. But you have to be willing to find solutions and not take no for an answer. Most parents are too quick to give up with the first no.
If we get right down to it though, we don’t really need the school’s textbooks to help our children with fractions, gerunds, the water cycle, or whatever. Book stores, online stores, and teacher supply stores are replete with workbooks that can be purchased for $5-$16 that you can use to help your child. The internet is flush with free tutorials that you can watch with your child and free worksheets/printables that you can print out. If your child is stumped by subtraction, find an age appropriate workbook or some worksheets to work on together. Tutors and tutoring services are available. If you are not sure exactly what your child is struggling with, ask the teacher. Set up a conference. Take a pen and paper, make a list, let the teacher know that you would like to be proactive in helping Johnny improve and learn as much as he can. As parents, it is our responsibility to supplement and reinforce our child’s education if that is what is needed.
Methods and Processes
Methods and Processes for teaching material change all the time. Sometimes, it can be difficult for us to help a child when the classroom requires certain steps for solving a math problem. We try to help him at home using the steps we are familiar with, but it causes confusion. Both your steps and the teacher’s method lead to the same answer, but the teacher may be using a particular method as a building block to prepare students for the next topic. If you are not familiar with the way a topic is being taught, then make an appointment with the teacher. She will be glad to explain it to you and “tutor” you in the process she is using.
There are things to consider here, though. 1) Your teacher may seem on the defensive. Remember, she is painted as a villain in the media and receives more complaints than praise. So don’t be critical, abrasive, or accusatory in your request. There is a big difference between “I can’t help Johnny because neither one of us has any idea what you are doing” and “I would really like to practice with Johnny at home, can you give me some pointers so that I can reinforce your lessons.” 2) She also might find herself burdened by a system that makes her job harder than it has to be. So again, using the approach of “I have no complaints; I am just wanting to help” will probably get you the best results. To be honest, she will probably want to hug your neck if you show her that you want to work with her, not against her.
Expect that you will probably have to rearrange your schedule and be inconvenienced by the meeting time for your tutorial. Most likely it will be during the teacher’s planning period or before or after school. However, this is to be expected, not begrudged. These are her business hours, and she is volunteering to help you. You would only meet with your clients during your business hours, right? But most importantly, this meeting is not about what is convenient for you; it’s about helping your child. So do what’s necessary to get it done.
Before we leave this topic, it is only prudent to mention again the power of the internet. A little time spent googling and watching tutorials on “how to teach ____ ” might get you a lot farther than you think.
Don’t Let What You Don’t Know or Remember Hold You Back
Just this week, my son asked me what I knew about imaginary numbers. I’ve spent 17 years teaching Dickens and Shakespeare and thesis sentences. Imaginary numbers really weren’t a part of the picture. On other hand, it only took about 15 minutes on the internet to refresh my memory. It hasn’t always been that simple, though. Sometimes it has taken more work to get up to speed on topics my kids have asked about. But you know, my “learner” isn’t broken, and neither is yours. If we will stop and take the time needed, we can learn or relearn whatever is necessary to help our kids do their best.
Nobody ever said this parenting gig was easy. The temptation to just let someone else handle it when we drop our kids at the school door is a culturally accepted one. I mean, after all, why are we sending them to school if we are still going to have to do all of this teaching and learning and helping anyway? Because we are the parents, that’s why. And the responsibility of our children’s growth and development lies with us, not with the school system. Are we willing as “school parents” to accept the responsibility that at the end of the day the education buck stops with us? Are we willing to stay tuned in and take charge of the school experience when our children aren’t getting what they need? Are we willing to be a Sonya Carson?
If we aren’t an advocate for our child’s education, then no one will be.
Related Links and Info:
Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (Be informed about what this is. This act protects your child’s school records and information from 3rd parties. It does not prohibit your access to your child’s records, scores, materials, books, tests, etc.)
Photo Credits (in order): Dotmatchbox, Wesley Fryer, Brandi Jordan, Steven DePolo, TutorVista 2011, Nick Amoscato, Archives New Zealand