It's been more than a decade since my youngest child finished elementary school. My oldest grandchildren are grade school students now. However, the start of every school year remains a big deal in our family because my wife teaches second grade.
Over the past two decades, she also worked as an assistant principal, a reading recovery specialist, a science specialist, and as a mentor to university students pursuing their teaching credentials. Yet, being a classroom teacher has always been her primary passion.
Through those years, we've often discussed things we wished we had known when our own children were starting school. Of course, we also discuss current students and ways parents could improve their school experience. Here are some suggestions:
Parent involvement is key to children's success
Parents need to actively participate in their children's education. Read with your child every day. Make sure you have books in the home that are the appropriate reading level. If you aren't sure, ask the teacher.
PBS Parents offers a grade-by-grade guide for parents so they can be familiar with the yearly learning principles and goals for their children. http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/going-to-school/grade-by-grade/
Review your child's homework and assignments. Emphasize the importance of education. Direct parental participation is likely the most crucial factor in a child's educational success and progress. Frequent attendance at school activities is a signal that your family places a high value on education.
The National Science Teachers Association cites numerous research studies showing that early and frequent parental involvement improves children's learning abilities and interest. http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/parents.aspx
Early grades are critical
If your child is struggling in Kindergarten, first or second grades, don't assume he or she will be able to catch up in later years. Pay close attention to the work your children bring home and follow up on any areas where you have concerns. If a teacher takes time to send home a personal note about an area of concern, please respond. Send the teacher an email or leave a detailed phone message since most teachers are busy during the school day.
Be a participant
Attend parent-teacher conferences and join the PTA. Volunteer to help out with classroom activities, filing papers, or helping struggling readers. Make sure the teacher knows you view education as a priority. Contact your child's teachers, school counselor or principal immediately if you have questions or concerns.
Don't be a thorn
Some parents seem to believe that the best way to get attention for their child is to be demanding. Through the years, a handful of parents have requested that my wife provide detailed written daily reports about their child's behavior. One parent asked for an individualized math curriculum for her gifted child. One mother regularly showed up at the start of class wanting to spend 15 or 20 minutes discussing her child's progress. A dad asked my wife to handle a 30-minute daily medical treatment for his child.
Responding to such requests simply isn't feasible for most teachers who frequently have no time during working hours to prep for the next day's class.
Keep children in class
My wife had a student whose parents checked him out of school three times in one year for family vacations. Each lasted more than a week. Not surprisingly, the student was behind in every subject. In a 2008 study, the National Center for Children in Poverty found that children who missed 18 or more days of school in Kindergarten scored significantly lower in reading, math and general knowledge tests at the end of first grade than those who missed six or fewer days.
Take advantage of available assistance
Some parents are hesitant to have their children participate in resource programs. They worry that specialized help can result in teasing or stigmas from their peers. Most of the time the assistance is highly valuable. Any teasing pales in comparison to the problems they will have in later years if they struggle to read or to do math.
Most teachers work much harder than you can imagine. Twelve-hour work days are far more common than eight-hour days. Teachers at my wife's school get 30 minutes for lunch and part of that time involves taking their students to and from the lunch room. Bathroom breaks are infrequent and rushed because they usually require leaving an unattended class.
It is trendy in some circles to criticize and question public education. All the teachers I know do it because they love helping children. They gladly sacrifice personal time and resources for a child that needs assistance. Debating the national education model with them is not a good strategy.
Recognize your role
School-aged children spend 70 percent of their time away from the classroom. Any individual teacher normally has a maximum of 180 days to interact with a child. That time is typically divided among 20 to 30 other children. There is a limit to how much a teacher can do in that brief, finite period.
The most important thing that I wish I had realized before my children started school is the importance of my example. The primary responsibility for educating a child resides with the parent. Teachers and schools are merely resources.