Helping Your Child in School
Over the course of their growing up, our two children have attended private Christian schools, public schools, and have been home schooled. To some, this personal experience makes us experts and is far more valuable than the twelve years I was a teacher and principal in public schools. To others my wife and I were merely confused and couldn’t make up our minds. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
I do know that nothing can be more exciting or frustrating than watching your child engage in the learning process and ultimately move towards mature independent adulthood.
Looking back at our twenty years of parenting, I would encourage all new parents to take the long view regarding the mental and moral development of their children. There are times when our little ones amaze us with their insight and precocious behavior. At other times we become desperate for any sign of intelligent life. Fortunately, most of our children will grow up to be capable adults. If we are patient and compassionate, not exasperating our sons and daughters with unreasonable demands (Eph. 6:4), we can not only enjoy a good relationship with them, but often they will follow our steps of faith.
A second axiom is that you are your child’s first and most important teacher. This point cannot be emphasized enough. In most cases, no one cares about your child as much as you care nor do they know your child like you do. This means that you must be engaged in the educational process of your child at every step regardless of the setting. Part of this responsibility includes deciding what goals should be accomplished by your children’s education. The answer to this question might seem obvious. However, quite a variety of goals have been suggested. Some believe that learning to live in a democracy is the ultimate educational concern. Others emphasize vocation training. Still others seek character development or becoming a global citizen. It would be time well spent to think about the kind of person that should emerge from twelve or sixteen years of schooling.
Next, I would argue that there is no such thing as a perfect school, but there are some really bad ones. Unfortunately, this is true about private schools and home schools, as well as public schools. Just because a school has chosen to call itself Christian, it does not automatically follow that the school offers a sound curriculum or that its teachers are capable and motivated. In fact, private schools can fall victim to many of the ills found in public schools.
Finally I would argue that, as parents, we are called to use discernment when making important educational choices. This demands that we take very little for granted when it comes to our children’s education. And one of the important aspects of our children’s education is the parent-school connection.
The Parent-School Connection
There is much more freedom today for parents to chose a school that fits their educational philosophy and goals. Rather than being the end of a parent’s responsibilities, selecting between a public or private school is really just the beginning. Once a child is placed in a school, the parent’s job as chief advocate begins.
Although teachers, counselors, and administrators are usually well intentioned, students slip through the cracks in even the best schools. Students can sometimes find themselves at odds with a teacher or administrator because of an oversight or immature behavior, or they fail to get important information regarding their course selection and requirements for graduation.
Under ideal circumstances, a parent would want to get to know, and be known by school administrators and other personnel before a problem occurs. Volunteering at the school–in the library, on committees, or in the classroom–is not only a positive civic service, but is also a good way to ensure a sympathetic hearing if a problem occurs later.
In order to be an effective advocate, a parent needs to be aware of the school’s authority structure and rules. Every school should publish a handbook with all the important rules and regulations, as well as graduation requirements. Students are notorious for not reading or taking these documents seriously. It is often parents who must guide their children through course selection and run-ins with school personnel. Another important source of information is the school’s open house. Schools usually host an open house each semester for the purpose of allowing parents the opportunity to meet their child’s teachers and see the rooms they are assigned to.
Though most parents are hesitant to interfere with their child’s schooling, my experience says that if something feels amiss, it is better to get involved rather than simply hope things will just work out. Teachers and administrators are public servants. Parents who are courteous, yet assertive, often get results when problems occur. Unfortunately, waiting and hoping for a positive resolution to a problem can result in long term difficulties for your child.
One obvious place for parental involvement is in your child’s placement. In grade school this might mean tracking or special education classes. In high school, it might be the choice between vocational college prep, and honors programs. Such decisions should never be considered final. Unfortunately, once a student is placed in one program there is a tendency for school personnel to stick to that decision. But children change. Sometimes an honors class proves too demanding, or a vocational curriculum is not challenging enough. The parent is usually the best person to make these assessments.
The Parent-Teacher Connection
Teachers are often hard working, dedicated, and sacrificial in the amount of time they devote to their profession. However, like most other workplaces, schools also employ many mediocre and some highly incompetent staff. No matter how good a school’s reputation might be, your son’s or daughter’s learning experience will be directly dependent upon the teacher standing in front of him or her. It is often left to the parent to determine the capability of their child’s teachers and then decide whether or not to leave them in the care of a particular teacher. If signs point to an abusive or merely incompetent teacher, do not wait for the administration to act. The impact on your child’s education and well being can be substantial.
Elementary level teachers who demand too much or too little of students, or who do not understand or manage classroom behavior well, are widespread. High school teachers who are asked to teach outside their area of expertise or who fail to do the work necessary to become minimally competent are also common. Unfortunately, new teachers are sometimes thrown into a classroom with very little support and that can result in problems over discipline or grading policies. Remember faculty difficulties occur in even the highest-rated schools.
When a problem does arise, meet with the teacher as soon as possible. Although one wants to hope for the best, look for signs that the teacher is disorganized or preoccupied with problems outside of the school environment. Talk with other parents to find out if the concern is a new one or if a pattern exists. If a serious problem exists, go to a guidance counselor and request a classroom or schedule change for your child. If this is not allowed, get the principal involved. Often, what appears to be an impossibility from the school’s position becomes a reality if a parent is patient and does not give in to the first “No.”
Let’s hope incompetence is not an issue. Even so, meeting your child’s teacher or teachers and letting them know that you are engaged in your son’s or daughter’s education is important. If a teacher already knows you, he or she will be more likely to contact you if need be. They will also be more inclined to engage your help in motivating your child before more serious problems occur. Most teachers really want students to succeed; if they feel that you are on their side, you will become an important ally in their work.
We should also to remember to pray for our child’s instructors. The group “Moms in Touch” does a great job of this. Most of all remember to be gracious; teachers have a remarkably difficult job and will appreciate anyone who supports them and acknowledges the importance of their work. We are ambassadors for Christ, even in our interactions with school personnel.
The Parent-Student Connection
It never seems to fail that you will hear how great all of your friends’ children are doing in school just when your son or daughter is experiencing their most severe classroom difficulties. The pain parents can feel when their child is struggling in school can be profound. Problems can range from relationships with other students to cases of severe underachievement or rebellion. Unsolved, these problems can destroy an academic career and worse, destroy the self-confidence necessary for a child’s success in life.
A strong parent-student connection is fundamental to avoiding major school problems. Contrary to popular belief, the need for this connection grows rather than diminishes as kids get older. High school students still need help in making critical decisions about class selection and extra-curricular activities, as well as occasional help in navigating the maze of modern high school life, and growth into adulthood.
Throughout a child’s education one of the most important parental role is to be a good listener. Fortunately, most young children want to talk about school. Make it a practice to have a daily debriefing time. As children get older, particularly during the high school years, parents may need to be more patient and creative in order to stay informed.
Teenagers are much more likely to choose their own time to let you into their life. The most important thing for parents is to be available when that time hits (often very late at night when you are exhausted). Teens, especially boys, seem to enjoy making provocative statements just to shock parents. Don’t react to the first words that come out of their mouths; eventually they will learn to trust you and realize that you really do want to listen, not just preach a sermon they already have memorized.
Parents should be constant encouragers. This doesn’t mean giving praise when it is not deserved, but rather praising real effort and pointing out signs of growing maturity and discipline. Parents should also offer personal support like helping a child to memorize a list of historical events or think through a geometry problem. Let your struggling student know that you are with him for the long haul, that together you can accomplish whatever school requires. If a student will not let you help, find an outside tutor who is acceptable. The money will be well spent.
In the rush for academic excellence, parents and guidance counselors can pile on advanced classes that crush even hard working students. Watch for signs of depression and irritability, and be ready to help your son or daughter out of a workload that may have become overwhelming.
Maintaining an honest and positive relationship with our children is essential if we are going to have much influence on their schoolwork. Compassion, humor, and loving guidance will go a long way towards keeping the door open to their mind and heart.
We have considered how parents can further their children’s education by developing connections to their school and with their teacher or teachers, by taking the time to know their children’s needs, and by being available to share their educational burdens.
In closing, I would like to spend some time putting academic success into perspective. Parents sometimes blindly accept the notion that academic success is the answer to every problem. Historically, this has been the position of Enlightenment thinkers from Rousseau to John Dewey. If God is out of the picture, human reason–enhanced by education¾is of paramount importance.
Christianity has always valued education because of the foundational nature of the Bible. Only a literate people could directly benefit from God’s revelation. However, the Bible never teaches that education is the solution to humanity’s problems. It is evidence of misplaced priorities if Christian parents stress academic achievements over all others. Ephesians 6:4 tells fathers to bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord. This is the only mandated education the Bible speaks about. If we push our children academically to the point where our relationship with them is in danger, we might just miss the opportunity to accomplish the Ephesians mandate successfully.
One extreme is to push talented students to achieve more and more, earlier and earlier. Often, these students find themselves academically burned out by college. I recently met a gifted student who took part in a program that placed her in a nearby college as a high school junior. From there she went on to study engineering at UC-Berkeley. Now as a college senior, she realizes that she doesn’t even like engineering and is worn out by the rush to finish. I have met other students who worked very hard in high school only to lose interest in college.
At the other end of the spectrum are those students who are underachievers from elementary school on and seem to need constant attention and encouragement. If we communicate that education is the only thing that is really important, failure in this area of their life can be catastrophic for both the child and the parent. Teenage suicide is one of the main causes of death among high school students and it becomes an option when a student feels trapped by rigid high expectations and sees no way out.
Our children need to know that God cares about school and their daily trials, and we need to pray with them about their schoolwork and the hard choices that they face everyday. However, He is even more concerned about the condition of their heart. As parents, our first priority is to teach our children to love the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their mind.
©2000 Probe Ministries