Sunday, February 19, 2012

How Teaching Made Me a Better Parent

    When my daughter Meredith was born in 1987, I had been teaching high school since 1971 and had been married since 1974.  (You can do the math!)  Our youngest daughter Catherine was born in 1990.  

   When Meredith entered kindergarten, like most parents, I was anxious.  Many of my concerns were about me!  As a long-time teacher, wasn’t I supposed to know about schools?  But how in the world would I know how to parent during her elementary years, when I had spent my entire professional life in a high school?

     With the advantage of hindsight, I realize that being a high school teacher helped me be a better parent during my daughters’ education.  Of course, any child’s education goes on a zigzag track.  Just think how our lives and society would be so much easier if parents dropped off their children in the kindergarten classroom and then picked them up 13 years later, knowing that their children were well-adjusted, well-educated, and ready for anything the world will throw at them.  Actually, that system sounds too much like the novel Brave New World for me.   So back to some ways my life in the high school world helped me parent.     

      My primary advantage was that I always knew where they were headed.  I had a pretty good idea what the academic world of their high school would be like, and I had a pretty good idea of the social life of teenagers.  I didn't have all the answers, but I felt comfortable thinking about what was ahead for them.  My husband likes to remind me that when our oldest daughter entered high school, I said to him, "now they are on my turf."

      We are fortunate to live in a community with excellent schools. Our school district offers two elementary curriculum choices:  contemporary and informal.  Our first decision was to choose the best program for our daughter.  Like the other parents, I dutifully visited each program.  I had fun visiting kindergarten and first grade classes, but  I didn’t feel competent to make a good decision.  Then I had an “ah-ha” moment.  I needed to visit fifth grade classes to see the students before they headed to middle school. I thought I had an understanding of how the middle school curriculum would differ from the elementary curriculum. Did these students seem to have the skills and demeanor to be successful in the next level of their education? After all of these visits, I believed the contemporary program was best for our girls. My daughters had a wonderful elementary experience, and we were always pleased that we had chosen the contemporary curriculum.

     Students who do not write down assignments have always frustrated me.  A student’s success is often based on his or her organization, which begins with knowing what the assignments are. Consequently, throughout their school years, I encouraged my girls to use plan books. In the early grades and middle school years, teachers often had specific ways for students to write in a plan book.  Because my daughters understood the value of plan books, purchasing a plan book became a priority, even before the school year started.  Plan books can be very pricey, but I let them choose their own—I could cut corners on the school supplies’ budget somewhere else.  I know they still use plan books, and I’m sure they are more organized than I am.

    We made it clear to our daughters that we expected them to always do their work.  Perfection was not the goal. However, they needed to do their best.  As a teacher, I had seen the results of students’ best efforts.  I also know that students stumble at times, but learning to deal with those stumbles is a valuable experience.

   I tried to find the right balance when helping the girls with their homework.  When should we help, and when should we step away? Parent involvement at home can be tricky. One skill I tried to teach them at home was how to break down projects and other work into smaller tasks.   I helped them work one step at a time.  When one of them had a project, we sat down with her plan book to figure out what needed to be done each day.   Even when teachers gave interim due dates for projects, I helped them break down the work.

   Taking the initiative to talk to a teacher can be difficult for students.  Asking for a teacher’s help is sometimes easier said than done.  I wanted the girls to know that the first step for help was always talking to their teachers. Also, always take advantage of any extra help opportunities offered.  This is a lesson they have learned well--when my daughters went to college, I know they took advantage of any professor’s office hours and went to many extra study sessions.

    We attended the parent-teacher conferences and school open houses.  I was happy to be on the parent-side of the conference table. I had questions, but mainly I was there to listen.  The teachers knew best about the girls’ classroom experiences. 

   When I talk to my young teacher friends, I like to give them confidence that they are better parents because they teach high school.  Parenting is hard work, and parenting while having a career is really hard work!   As I look back on our girls’ school years, I wonder how our family juggled everything. (Of course, my husband and I were younger then!)

  I have no illusions that we were perfect parents, and I expect no special accolades.  We were always fortunate to have healthy children, secure jobs, and good schools. We know that many parents have much more challenging situations.  Dean and I tried our best, and today we are very proud of how our daughters “turned out”. 



Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Want to Go to High School Today!

Many of us like to compare today to the “good ole’ days”, noting that everything was better during our idyllic high school days.   Wait a minute!  Maybe there are things in the lives of teenagers today that we would have loved to have experienced “way back when”.

Here are my thoughts about what aspects of high school are better today.

  • Enrollment in classes is open to boys and to girls.For example, in my high school, girls were not allowed to take Physics. This rule was made by the teacher. He didn’t think girls would ever use Physics, so he wouldn’t allow girls in his class.  No one challenged his idea—this was way before Title IX addressed such unfair rules. 

  • Similarly, today there are no “girl” classes and “boy” classes.  Girls were required to take home economics; boys were required to take shop.  A girl  could not enroll in a shop class.  I think I would have loved shop!  My husband, who loves to cook, probably would have loved home economics. 

  • Students have amazing choices for their class offerings:  psychology, Mandarin Chinese, digital photography, classic film studies, jazz music, statistics, world cultures, java programming.  Sometimes educators talk about today's high school being like a shopping mall.  I know I would have a hard time deciding on some of the courses to "buy" from today's academic "mall".

  • The 1970’s landmark legislation, known as Title IX, opened up athletics to girls.I think I would enjoy volleyball, tennis, and cross country.  I might even be tempted to try “modern” basketball— the game where all the girls could run the full court, not just the anointed “roving forward”.  I love seeing boys cheer for girls' teams and vice versa.  Athletes respect athletes, no matter what gender.

  • Social media has a place for most people today. I remember sharing the phone with my family.  How could they not understand that I needed to talk for hours to my friends?  I have to confess that  today I would probably be the girl you would see texting in the mall getting very close to falling into that decorative fountain!  Because of Facebook and Twitter, my daughters have more contact with their former high school classmates than I ever could imagine.  Fortunately, my graduating class is making tremendous strides in finding over 650 people via the Internet.

  •  Diversity has become so natural in some areas of a teenager’s world that the term diversity holds a somewhat hollow meaning.  Students can easily interact with young people who come from different backgrounds or practice different religions. Paradoxically, students find more similarities with the students who  first appear so different.

  • Classes for students with physical and mental disabilities are no longer in the basement!  My grade school had a class for students with disabilities, which was tucked in a corner.  We rarely saw these students, and,sadly, those students had little chance to interact with any other students.   Finally, we understand that all students deserve respect.  Our lives are enriched as we get to know one another.

  • Today's world really is smaller! Seeing videos and listening to music from all over the world allow today's students to have a connection to other places.  Students often have the chance to travel to foreign countries for education or just for fun.  My most international trip was over the Rainbow Bridge to see the Canadian side of Niagara Falls!

I want to assure you that my name is not Pollyanna.  I know that each benefit for students today holds potential  and/or real problems.   Why focus on the negative?  Let's celebrate the parts of our teenage society which have changed for the better.
A song from "Wicked" comes to mind, as I challenge young people and young teachers:

"You can do all I couldn't do, . . .
So now it's up to you
For both of us - now it's up to you..."