Questions Teachers Hate
From the time I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to become a teacher. There were, however, hurdles along the way. I was the first person from my family to go to college so my parents couldn’t help me much with advice. But an even bigger challenge loomed. I didn’t have much money. In fact I had only enough money to attend college for two years and a teaching degree required four years of study. Even that money had to be borrowed from the credit union. I was terrified that I would have to drop out of college without finishing; so I formulated a plan. My plan was to get a four year degree in two years. That was a pretty ambitious goal at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Miami has a reputation for academic excellence and colleges don’t make classes easy to schedule. However, without any options and possessing quite a bit of personal drive, that is the path that I chose.
I had just turned twenty when I began teaching in my own classroom. Some people believed I looked younger than twenty. You be the judge. This is a photo taken of me the year I began teaching. I had worked hard for my degree and I was as passionate and committed as a young teacher could possibly be. I remember those days well. I was so excited about my new role, I even recall missing my third graders when they went outside for a ten minute recess. More mature teachers learn to look forward to those brief interludes. But I adored wearing this new role that I had dreamed about for so long.
Parent Teacher Conferences
On conference days I was enthusiastic about sharing all that I knew with parents. I couldn’t wait to tell them cute stories about their children and give them advice on how to help their children at home with school work. But soon I started hearing those two dreaded questions. I grew to hate these annoying questions.
How old are you? (They would challenge me).
And even more insulting I believed: Do you have children of your own?
How dare they ask me those questions?!
It felt rude and, frankly, condescending.
Why would they pose such undiplomatic questions?
Then Came the Birth of Understanding
After seven years of teaching, I had a child of my own. POW! (As Emeril would say). The realization began to dawn. My first-born was a swift and dynamic teacher. What? Parents don’t have total control over their children? Sometimes parents, no matter how honorable their intentions, have close to no control. The wisdom of my degrees and college professors began to be tested, disputed and sometimes even decimated by my own children.
My perspective did a complete about-face. I slowly began to be embarrassed about all that unequivocal advice I had doled out to experienced parents. This blog post is my written apology to all the parents I advised before I became a parent myself. Forgive me. My intentions were good, but I was viewing a three D movie without the benefit of special glasses.
Make Parents Your Allies
This is what I have learned-the hard way- from becoming a parent. If you want to double or even triple your effectiveness with your students, enlist the help of their parents. Listen to them. Give them opportunities to share what they have already learned about their children. It took me time and experience to learn ways to do this, but it tripled my effectiveness as a teacher. Here are strategies that worked for me.
1. When I taught very young children, preschool, kindergarten or first grade, I tried to schedule a conference at the very beginning of the school year. Some years those were home visits. I called this the “You Tell Me” conference. I asked questions about their children and I listened. I wrote down their advice and consulted it frequently. I found out what was on their minds before I began working with their child. They told me their concerns and strategies that worked with their children. This information was invaluable.
One time a mom told me that her 3-year-old twins had escaped from more than one child care situtation…actually run out the door to the outside… even into the street. I thought smugly that would never happen in my environment. Know what? It DID happen when their parents were in the room and in charge of their twins on my Orientation Day. I had to have a staff member posted at the door every day for the remainder of the school year to make sure it didn’t happen again. Oh how those twins maneuvered and tried to escape! Houdini himself would have been impressed at their antics. Imagine what might have transpired had I not listened to their parents’ advice first?
2. At parent teacher conferences, get the parent to talk first. Too often these time slots are short and the teacher rushes through the test scores, grades, behavior issues and upcoming events and assignments filling all of the time that was supposed to include two-way conversations. Ask questions first. “What is Courtney saying about my class?” is a good starting point. “Do you have any concerns and questions for me?” Start with the parent. If the parent comes into the conference with a burning concern and the teacher talks through the entire allotted time, the “conference” is a failure. Sometimes when I ask parents what is on their mind, they stare at me. If I say, “Describe your child’s strengths and weaknesses,” they’ll begin to speak.
3. In upper elementary grades all the way through high school we teachers host evenings we call curriculum nights or grade level meetings. The parents come to school and travel to all their child’s classrooms following their schedule for the day. Teachers repeat the requirements of their class, distribute a syllabus, and often list consequences for late assignments, failure to bring materials and other infractions. Teachers hate when parents try to ask how Johnny is doing on a night like this when other parents are standing around listening to what should be confidential conversations.
Here’s what I learned to do. I had parents pick up index cards as they entered the room. On those cards I asked them to write answers to 3 questions I had already written on the screen in front of the class. Those 3 questions were
- What is your child (or teen) saying about my class?
- Do you have any concern about your child that you would like to share with me?
- What can I do that will most help your teen this year?
When I finished my quick presentation about my class, I’d ask anyone if they wanted to share one of the comments on their cards. Almost always I would get a humorous comment or a comment about how my class was their child’s favorite class. But the parents with concerns now had an avenue to share those concerns with me without doing so in front of others. Parents left those cards with me. I read them immediately (always that night) and called parents who had concerns the very next day. Almost always they were astonished to hear from me. But what a message it conveyed. “I care about the parents’ opinions and concerns. I respect the parents’ input. We are a team working in the best interest of their child. I recognize the value and insight a parent can contribute to the learning process.”
Teachers don’t do their best teaching in a vacuum.
Great teachers use all the resources available to them.
Parents should be at the top of that list.
TEACH…To Change Lives
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