Welcome Back: A letter to parents from a teacher

Dear Parents

Welcome to the new school year! We are so excited to have your child in our school, and I am even more excited to have your child in my class. I get a chance to lead your child through a wonderful and fascinating experience over the next few months. I hope to share with your child my deep love and passion for this area with hopes that your child will learn to share in that passion.

I wanted to tell you a bit about class and school so you can best know how to help your child succeed. That success will be based on much more than the grade. My students will work really hard on everything we do. There will be bumps along the way. There will be some incredible victories and some efforts which do not go as well. Emotions will run high sometimes; there will be distractions; and there will even be some very low points. They may love and hate class all in the same sentence. And all of this is part of the learning experience. In fact, there is some research which suggests that emotions are critical to deep learning.

OK, get ready…I am about to suggest some things which may make you (and your child) a bit uncomfortable:

in order for your entire family to have the best experiences related to this class, your child must take an active part in his/her own education.

What does that mean?

Students won’t be able to stand on the sidelines and passively make their way through class. Your child will need to be on top of every project, assignment, activity, and effort that we do. There will always be something your child can be doing for this class, so if she tells you that she has nothing to do in here, she may be missing something. At those times, we do not want you to take over. We don’t want you to call the teacher to find out what the assignment is/was. We don’t want you to go on the webpage to write down all the assignments. We don’t want you to take away soccer or video games to get their attention. (In fact, there is research which suggests that games have tremendous value in our lives). We want you to support your child as she does what is necessary to figure out what is going on, what’s due, what the expectations are, and what’s on the horizon. You will not be able to solve this problem for your child. You will not be able to plan the next week for your child. But, you can certainly help them lead themselves through that, so they come to a good plan “on their own”. And of course we can help with that as well. So, stay involved but in a supportive role. If you do not, your kids are not prepared in college to take care of themselves. If you do not, your kids are not developing the skills they need to solve problems, learn to communicate, and figure out how they can best make progress. Give them some room to explore their own judgment, but knowing that they may fail.

FAIL?!! WHAT?! Let them fail.

Ask questions...not necessarily more...but better questions

Does that mean stand by quietly and let them get a 45 as the course grade and say I told you so? Of course not… of course not…it means you keep an eye on what they are doing. How? Ask lots of questions and ask better questions. Questions like “How was school?” are useless. If you ask those types of questions, you are going to get nothin’ back. Ask specific questions, “Hey Tom, I know you were a bit worried about that first History quiz, do you feel like you prepared well for that?”, “Good night buddy. Hey, don’t you have that Computer Science project due Friday. I know you were struggling to get the sort routine working, were you able to make progress on that? Are you on target to get that done like you hoped?”, “Ok, Suzanne, I’ll pick you up at 3:30 today. Are you sure you don’t want me to come at 4:00 to give you some extra time in the library for the math test you said was going to be so hard?”, “That project sounds pretty cool…you said it’s due in 3 weeks, right? I’ll tell you what, why don’t you finish that list you are working on for stuff needed and if you need me to, I am happy to go with you to Wal-Mart in an hour and get some supplies, ok?” So, what I am talking about is being fully aware about the academics of your child, but not doing everything for them.

Grades……ahh grades…hmmmmmm. Necessary evil, but potentially valuable if used appropriately…but they are not as accurate or thorough as you might think. Be careful dangling grade-related carrots–it might backfire for all the wrong reasons.

Grades are a dangerous slope to go down if that is all you focus on. While they are at least one way to measure performance of some aspects of a class, they are far from accurate for the total picture. As teachers, we always strive to have students fall in love with (and develop an intense curiosity about ) our subject area…whether it’s language, art, math, economics, or Computer Science. Some classes are hard for some students; other classes come easier. There are so many factors that go into how a student connects with a class: personality of the teacher, delivery of content, amount of and type of homework, style of evaluation, variation of evaluations, time of day of class, class as part of the entire schedule(i.e. a hard & time demanding class by itself might be something students can bite their teeth into, but with 2 or 3 other similar classes, students may not connect as much), number of and type of other students in the class, the life of the teacher at that time(are they going through any major issues in their own life that might detract their passion and attention) ,age of student(a certain maturity might be needed to connect with some material or delivery methods or methodologies), division principal administration turnover or policies,boyfriend and girlfriend problems, social issues, etc. Most likely the priorities you have for them are somewhat different than theirs. So, my point is that there are so many factors that go into how a class is perceived by a student. So, you as a parent simply demanding that they get an A is probably not your best way forward. What parent doesn’t want to have a student who is a life-long learner who studies because she loves it and dives into a class with all her body and mind? So, don’t interact with your student about that class in ways which go against that. He wants to tell you about why he loves that math class…and it is not because he got a 96 on the last quiz. For a student to be asked simply what grade he/she has in a class is like a tennis player going 7-6,6-7,7-6,6-7,22-20 in the finals of a tennis match and all you ask is “Did you win”. Ask better questions. And also realize that your child is not going to hit a home run on every test or project in every class. It may be that the 82 he got on the last quiz was 10 points more than he expected. She was so proud of the 89 on the group project (especially since she did all the work as part of a slacker group), so you asking why she didn’t get an A is a slap in the face. Some grades are not about measuring knowledge, so the definition of what an A is changes in each class and also depending on the type of assignment. (See my BLOG post on the meaning of GRADES)

...great discussions can take place in surprising places....

Is the relationship between you and your child one that can be used to help them work their way through the rough spots? For example, do you have the courage to let your child fail on his own? And don’t forget, the definition of failure in this case is simply not getting what they are used to or expecting. And if they do fail, how do you handle it? Do you take the cell phone away? No going to the movie Saturday night? Instead or in addition to, have you considered having a discussion with your child about the entire experience, letting them work their way through what happened, places where they might have acted/reacted differently, and even how they themselves handled the low grade. Perhaps it was not a failure in their eyes and they would love the chance to explain what that means. In years past (in my classes) I’ve had students fail a quiz just to spite me. I’ve had students fail a project because they were so focused on another part of their life that my project just was not on the radar screen. I’ve had students not prepare for a test just to get under the skin of an overbearing parent. So, especially when the motivations of your child are not necessarily obvious, if all you do is focus on that low grade, you may be missing the entire message. Your desire for them to go to your alma mater Ivy League may or may not be their goal at this point in their life. And considering how little your high schooler lets you into their life, you’ve got to listen better. While they may have earned an F on that evaluation, your child may have earned an A+ on getting someone’s attention. What you have been focusing on may not be what they are focusing on. One last note in this area: there may be a time where your child studies or works really hard on an assignment, and does put in enough time, energy, and mental energy to earn an awesome grade, but simply just had a bad day, or worse, the teacher had a bad day–meaning your child misread the question on the test, or perhaps the teacher focused the test on an area he did not really focus so much this year (but in years past had). And there are times where the project or test was just one of the hardest things your child has experienced so far, and so whatever grade they earned is accurate. And that is where grades are best–giving a non-biased, accurate, precise, and helpful reflection of what was done or what was learned compared with what was expected. It may be that your child’s understanding of and ability to demonstrate some material was about 79% of what was expected, so the 79 he got on the test may very well have been exactly what he should have gotten. And do you as a parent have the courage to celebrate that? Lose the battle to win the war. Lose the round to win the whole fight. Let the emotions associated with the experience sink in naturally. You may be surprised that your teen, because you HAVE BEEN DOING A GOOD JOB RAISING HIM/HER, will learn from this experience in the ways you value.

And if there are other questions to be asked, or conversations to be had that do involve the teacher, encourage your child to initiate and have those discussions. Don’t rob your child the experience of thinking about, planning and following through on that critical part of active learning. Don’t do that FOR THEM. You might be surprised to find that your teacher has been looking forward to that interaction to happen. I am on your side; I want your child to succeed, but in ways that are in addition to the ways you might solely be focusing on. I see your child every day. I see the good days and the bad days. I see the successes and the failures. And as a professional educator, I also see different aspects of the whole child that all interact together to give us what we see. I see the light bulb turn on, and I learn the facial expressions and body mannerisms that your child uses to communicate when in a class full of peers. And those expressions, mannerism, and even way-of-talking are probably different than what you experience at home. It may be that while this minor quiz grade was not up to par, perhaps something else we’ve been working on was more successful. And it may be that even your child was not aware of that because he was only focusing on the grade as well, because that is what you were focusing on.

The expectation you have set for your child may not be the the same as the expectations they have set for themselves. That does not mean they have a lower standard, it may mean they have a different standard. Your expectations may reflect your own experience, not their experience. It is crucial that your child be given the support to develop their own expectations and motivations. And that is hard and it takes time. And I think you’ll find that if you put your faith in your child, give them your support, and spend the time developing a relationship like I’ve discussed here, that your child will far exceed your expectations—and even better than that—they will exceed the expectations they set for themselves.

Let me end with a story that brings all this together. A student of mine I’ll call “Sachiko” really wanted to be in my senior level AP class(Oh God, I cannot believe I am using an AP class as an example to prove my point. I hate AP. I am sure I’ve written a BLOG post about that) She probably did not really qualify to be in there if I based it on previous grades and performance alone, but she really wanted to challenge herself and was so genuinely interested to being part of class that it made complete sense for me to let her into the class. All semester she worked hard, turned in all projects, and was an active part of class. She consistently submitted work at a mid B grade level. The final exam in that class was a really hard exam that would push them far out of their comfort zone, but if they relied on what they knew and could do, they should be able to figure out the challenges on the exam. (Ok, for those of you who know that I have very serious opinions of EXAMS, this was before I saw the light)

Our school policy is that we are not allowed to share exam grades with students during exam week for fear that a great or poor performance on one exam will have dramatic impact on other exam performances (whether good or bad). But, I was so excited for “Sachiko”. I graded her exam and she got a B+. Wow! Nice! Awesome! I could not wait to see her face when she found that out. She thought she had done really poorly. I ran into her that afternoon in the parking lot and yelled across for her to come to my car. She ran over, with a very concerned look on her face. “Sachiko, I am so proud of you! You got a B+! Congratulations!” What happened next to this day I will never forget. She burst into tears and said, “My mother is going to kill me ‘cause I didn’t get an A.”

That experience went from incredible success to incredible failure…but I ask….whose failure was it?

I am truly looking forward to getting you know your child this semester. I look forward to the challenge of figuring out what makes him tick, and also what it will take for your child to deeply connect with my class and my subject area.

-Sincerely

Your child’s teacher

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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