Wednesday, December 23, 2009

10 Ways to Promote Your Child’s Academic Success

1. Convey the value of education. Instilling the value of education in your child, starting at a young age, is the most important thing you can do to put him on the path toward academic success.

2. Get involved. Join the PTA, help out in the classroom, volunteer at a school event. When you set aside time in your busy schedule to get involved in your child’s education, she gets the message that school is important.

3. Make school a priority. Extracurricular activities are valuable and fun, but homework and studying should take precedence.

4. Promote school. Ask your child about his class work and homework, and respond with positive comments. “Talk school up. They (children) need to think this is the coolest thing on earth,” says one first grade teacher.

5. Watch what you say. Negative comments about your child’s teacher or about school influence your child’s perception and attitude.

6. Support school-related activities. Set aside a quiet place and time for your child to do her homework. Encourage activities that foster thinking and learning, such as reading, journal writing and practicing math skills.

7. Communicate. Ask your child if he studied for his test, completed his homework, or handed in his assignments. While most teachers will let you know if your child is falling behind, don’t wait for that phone call before you get involved.

8. Encourage personal responsibility. As your child gets older, allow her to assume more responsibility for resolving problems. Instead of contacting the teacher yourself if a problem arises, encourage your child to talk to the teacher. For example, if your child receives a poor grade on an assignment or test, suggest that she ask the teacher if she can do extra credit work to boost her grade.

9. Avoid pressure. Setting high expectations for your child is important. You want to encourage him to reach his potential. But avoid putting too much pressure on him, which can lead to anxiety.

10. Partner with the teacher. Develop a cooperative, positive relationship with your child’s teacher. Remember, your child’s teacher shares your goal—the academic success of your child. Children benefit the most when parents and teachers work together as partners.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Talk To The Student First

When a student is struggling with an academic, behavioral or social issue, it is important for the teacher to enlist the parent’s help in resolving the problem. But in the following guest blog entry, a middle school teacher explains why she approaches the student before making that phone call home.

Teachers and parents agree that communication between school and home is a key component to a successful academic year for the student. As a middle school teacher, I find that communicating with the student before making the phone call home leads to a more productive outcome for all parties.

In moments of frustration, whether it be an academic or discipline issue, a teacher may look for a quick fix by calling the parent immediately. Excluding emergency situations, my experience tells me to remove myself from the situation for a short period of time (a couple of hours or overnight) so I am calm and objective. After this time, discuss the situation with the student first. This arms you with valuable information (i.e. specifics and quotes!) to share with the parent during the phone call.

Having all pertinent information and details will eliminate back and forth communication and can clear up any incorrect information or confusion. Having all the facts and specifics prior to making the phone call arms the teacher with the confidence and ability to suggest a plan of action, thus moving in a positive direction to ensure success for the student—the common goal of all parties involved.

Ann Marie Torre

Ann Marie Torre is an English teacher and professional organizer in the New York tri-state area. She is a member of NAPO, the National Organization of Professional Organizers, and helps teens and adults set up organizational systems that last. Her company, The Organized Life, has been featured in The New York Times and the Spring 2009 edition of What To Do: Armonk, Bedford & Chappaqua. For more information: or (914) 242-1178

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Teacher’s World Is “Not All Flowers and Sausages”

We picture elementary school as a bastion of learning, teeming with the creativity and inspiration that flows from the collective energies of the dedicated faculty. But “It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages,” according to “Mrs. Mimi,” who depicts in her new book a reality where devoted teachers struggle to engage and enlighten their students amid a suffocating environment. The book is based on the popular blog by “Mrs. Mimi,” the pseudonym assumed by second grade teacher Jennifer Scoggin.

It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages: My Adventures in Second Grade (Kaplan Publishing) is highly amusing and thoroughly entertaining due to Ms. Scoggin’s breezy narrative style, sharp wit and biting sarcasm. Although she relates her story with humor and aplomb, the underlying message comes across loud and clear. Dedicated, talented teachers are constantly encumbered by administrative hassles, unnecessary distractions, and counterproductive colleagues.

While the book recounts the frustrating obstacles Ms. Scoggin faces daily, her passion for teaching and rapport with her students is palpable and touching.

In the book, Ms. Scoggin takes us inside her New York City classroom, where we meet her students (she calls them her friends), colleagues and administrators. She candidly discusses her interactions and observations. Time and again we see how her efforts to impart knowledge and skills to her students are hamstrung by a raft of assessment tests, mountains of paperwork, time-wasting policies, and intrusive meetings and assemblies.

And then there are the constant disruptions, such as inconsiderate visitors and irritating phone calls. Ms. Scoggin talks about the morning three plumbers barged into her classroom and started turning the faucets on and off while talking loudly, distracting the students. One engaged in a personal conversation on his cell phone. The men returned to the classroom in the afternoon to change a light bulb. One of them actually stood on a student’s desk while the child was working at the desk.

Detractors who dismiss Ms. Scoggin as a complainer are missing the point. It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages offers administrators, taxpayers, parents and the governmental powers that be valuable insight into the real problems facing our school systems—problems that threaten to impede our teachers and hamper the success of their students.

Drowning in a Sea of Tests

Ms. Scoggin is currently taking some time off from teaching to pursue her doctorate in education. I had the opportunity to speak with her recently about the issues she raised in her book. She cited the crush of assessment tests as one of the biggest challenges she faced as a teacher.

“When they start mandating a prescriptive curriculum, and all the paperwork that comes with that, these are all things that eat away at a teacher’s time and creativity,” she says. “There’s so much pressure around it, you end up having to cater all your instruction to the tests rather than the students’ needs and interests.”

Every year she was required to add a new test to the schedule, and some duplicated existing tests.

“Elementary school is about having magical, creative experiences, and that’s just gone, and that’s a huge loss,” she says. “Those experiences are the most powerful ones, the ones people remember into adulthood. There’s so much learning happening.”

Administering the tests cuts into instruction time, as does preparing students to take the tests. They have to learn the tricky language on the tests and engage in practice drills.

“I believe if you have good teaching and non-scripted curriculum, and you teach really well and deeply, that’s your test prep,” Ms. Scoggin says. But that’s not enough at many schools, which are under pressure to deliver acceptable test scores. Teachers are often required to focus on test preparation, limiting the time they can spend on valuable lessons and activities. “Because that pressure is so high, I question whether or not the kids are prepared to do anything.”

Ms. Scoggin agrees with the many educators who warn that standardized tests are not a valid measure of a child’s aptitude.

“It’s a very narrow way of looking at intelligence and a very narrow way of looking at how we’re doing,” she says.

Schools often mandate the teacher’s curriculum, such as the reading program used in the class. “They don’t give you any control, and then they judge you on the results. That’s a scary scenario,” Scoggin says.

Shackled by Bureaucratic Red Tape

Ms. Scoggin was also stymied by a lack of support from some administrators, staff members and parents.

“When you’re working with people who are not as invested as you are, it makes it more difficult than it needs to be,” she says.

The unrealistic demands on her time, including paperwork and filing procedures, were also frustrating, she says.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Do an hour of math, an hour of this, an hour of that,’ and it adds up to 15 hours. They put things on you that are physically impossible, and then they say, ‘You work it out.’”

Reaching Out to Parents

Ms. Scoggin’s persistent efforts to involve parents eventually yielded positive results. Only a couple of parents would show up for parent-teacher conference night or volunteer to chaperone field trips when she first started. Later they were lined up outside her door for conferences, and she had to compile a waiting list for field trips.

To keep parents informed, she sent out a monthly newsletter recapping what the students learned in the previous month. She also provided advance notice of upcoming events, such as concerts, field trips and writing celebrations, and welcomed parents to attend.

She sent home packets that complemented her lessons, including games and activities parents could do with their children at home. She also sent home bags of school supplies to ensure parents and students had the necessary materials to work at home. She paid for a lot of the supplies herself, but she also accumulated them from a variety of sources, such as the website, donations from generous friends, and contributions from parents.

To involve parents in the class, she found out whether they had a special talent, such as art or cooking, and invited them in to share their expertise with the students. Parents who came into the class received a thank you note from her and from one of the children, who wrote the note on behalf of the class.

If she was unable to reach a parent to discuss an issue their child was facing, she kept detailed records reflecting every attempt to make contact.

Ms. Scoggin says parents may avoid their child’s teacher if they think the teacher communicates only when their child is struggling with a problem. To counter this perception, she sent positive notes home periodically.

In the beginning of the year, she and her students would write a positive note about each student together. The activity served as a shared-writing exercise and allowed the students to get to know one another. It also reinforced positive behavior because the students enjoyed the recognition from their peers.

Learning from “Mrs. Mimi”

When asked what teachers need to be successful, Ms. Scoggin cited the following:

* More freedom and control over their time. The interaction between the student and the teacher is the most important factor in determining a student’s success, based on Ms. Scoggin’s research for her doctoral degree. “The more demands they put on teachers, the less time we have to develop that interaction and become experts at that part of our job,” she says.

* Access to the proper supplies and materials. “It’s important that they ask us what we need,” she says. “I would get a handful of googley eyes and rubber bands. I need pencils.”

* Input into policy decisions. “Teachers need to feel more invested in the school as a whole,” she says. Federal and state governments should also gather input from teachers when formulating education policies. “Decisions are coming from the top, which doesn’t make sense when the most important interaction is happening at the bottom.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Low Marks for Obama’s Education Reform Plan

“A race to the top has begun in our schools,” President Obama declared in a speech about education reform at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, last week. The President acknowledged that the strength of our education system will “determine the quality of our future as a nation.” I agree with his assessment, and I applaud his efforts to invest in education.

However, the reform plan he outlined has the following basic flaws:

* Turns education into a political football.

* Advocates performance pay for teachers.

* Renews the inappropriate focus on testing.

* Neglects to incorporate parental involvement.

Playing Politics With Education

Since the Obama administration first announced the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund in July, state governments have been scrambling to position themselves as worthy recipients of grant money. It makes you wonder whether it will all come down to politics. The states that somehow demonstrate they’re the most committed to the Obama administration’s policies will be rewarded.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to give schools, teachers and students the resources they need to succeed before we question their abilities? We know that many schools, particularly those in low-income areas, lack basic instructional supplies and materials. I’ve heard too many stories about teachers purchasing their own classroom supplies, such as readers, textbooks and paper. They also buy school supplies for students who can’t afford them.

Many schools are also under-staffed. Let’s hire more teachers, teaching assistants, special education instructors and support staff so that we can reduce class size and give students the attention they deserve.

But before schools, teachers and students can receive the funds they need to operate effectively, state governments will have to prove they’re making an effort to reform based on the government’s criteria. This likely means teachers will have to devote more time to onerous, unnecessary and distracting bureaucratic red tape and less time to lesson preparation and instruction.

The Trouble With Performance Pay

To be eligible to apply for grant money, states have to repeal laws that prevent schools from evaluating teachers based on student performance. While linking student performance to teacher quality seems logical, it’s not that simple:

* Even the most dedicated and talented teachers may miss the mark if they are faced with unmotivated students, uncooperative parents or unsupportive administrators—all of which create obstacles to success.

* Many educators contend that standardized test scores are not a valid measure of student knowledge.

* A merit pay program launched in Texas in 2006 failed to generate the academic improvements anticipated, according to a recent study.

* The recent focus on testing, driven by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has led to significant growth in spending on materials used for test preparation and assessments. Spending on testing and assessment has increased faster than spending on basal or supplemental instructional materials for the last five years.

* Teachers are forced to devote too much time to test preparation.

NCLB Reincarnated

Basically, the President’s education reform plan consists of four goals that our school system is already striving to meet: setting high standards, hiring good teachers, tracking student performance, and improving low-performing schools. There’s really nothing new here. In fact, the plan seems to reflect the NCLB’s emphasis on testing. But the new plan goes a step farther: we won’t just be evaluating students based on standardized tests, we’ll be evaluating teachers as well.

Following are the four measures states will have to meet:

* Setting high standards and creating better assessments.

Although president Obama said, “This is not just about more tests” and he doesn’t want “young people being taught to the test,” this component of the reform plan rejuvenates the focus on testing.

* Hiring effective teachers and principals.

The president said this means doing a better job of recruiting and preparing new teachers, rewarding outstanding teachers, and removing bad teachers. But how are we going to distinguish the outstanding teachers from the bad teachers? Again, the Obama administration seems to value student test scores as a key measure.

* Tracking the progress of students and teachers.

This means collecting information about each student’s performance during the year and over the course of the student’s academic career, and providing it to teachers “so they can use it to improve the way they teach.” I was surprised at this component of the plan because I thought this effort was already taking place.

* Transforming low-performing schools.

For states to meet this requirement, they have to be willing to replace a school’s leadership and at least half its staff. But new administrators and teachers will likely face the same challenges and obstacles to success the previous staff faced, such as a lack of resources and parent support.

Parent Involvement Is Key

I wholeheartedly agree with one thing the President said toward the end of his speech: to improve America’s education system, parents need to get more involved in their child’s education.

I believe this is the key to success, not a focus on testing and assessments. We need to concentrate more on encouraging parents to communicate high expectations to their children and to support their children’s teachers. Teachers must also reach out to parents in an effective and positive way, and view parents as resources and partners.

Although the President acknowledged the importance of parent involvement, parent outreach is not officially part of the reform plan.

If we’re engaged in a “Race to the Top,” each student needs his or her own team, consisting of the child’s parent (or another supportive adult) and the child’s teacher or teachers. For any team to operate effectively, every member must make a commitment. But they need the proper equipment to truly succeed.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Sad State of Affairs

Is anyone happy with our education system?

* Teachers aren’t. A new study by Public Agenda and Learning Point Assoc. revealed 40% of teachers are “disheartened.”

* Students aren’t. When Highlights magazine asked kids, “What is your biggest problem right now,” more than 23% said schoolwork. Survey participants cited schoolwork most often, surpassing sibling issues (8.7%), parental issues (8.1%), friendship issues (7.3%), illness/physical problems (5.6%), and bullies (4.3%).

* President Obama isn’t. Education reform is high on the President’s agenda.

The Public Agenda study identified three groups of teachers: disheartened (40%), contented (37%), and idealists (23%). According to an article in Education Week, “The view that teaching is ‘so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out’ is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the disheartened, who are twice as likely as other teachers to agree strongly with that view.”

Interestingly, disheartened teachers expressed frustration with students (“disorder in the classroom”) and the bureaucracy (“an undue focus on testing”)—the two other groups that are dissatisfied.

The Obama administration seems to be dissatisfied with teachers. The administration’s “Race to the Top” plan promotes a merit pay system, which would hold teachers solely accountable for student achievement (see my July 29 blog post on this issue). And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently stated that the nation’s teacher colleges “are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom,” according to an Education Dept. press release.

Media outlets were quick to agree. An editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer stated that Duncan’s assessment “confirms what lackluster student performance on standardized tests has shown for years. Reforming public education and boosting student achievement must begin with better teacher training - mediocrity is unacceptable.” And an editorial in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram stated, “Most of the criticism I hear about teachers colleges — from education professors, student teachers and teachers in the classroom — centers on the idea that teachers are being shortchanged.”

So I guess the media is also unhappy.

In the Highlights study, “Respondents said they struggled with completing homework on time, finishing projects and/or studying for tests.” (This finding seems to support my Oct. 16 post, “The 9 to 5 School Day?”)

I haven’t seen any studies or reports recently on the attitude of parents, who are integral to the education process. I did read that the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District introduced a plan that would allow parents to initiate major reforms at low-performing schools. I’m all for parent involvement, but if schools are low-performing, shouldn’t the school board and district administrators be aware of the problem and take steps to address it? They’re the education experts.

But it’s not all gloom-and-doom in our nation’s schools. Most of the “contented” group of teachers strongly agree that “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do,” and the “idealists” believe “their students’ test scores have increased a lot because of their teaching,” according to Education Week.

Another positive revelation: a lot of kids like their teachers. When Highlights asked kids who they admire and respect, aside from family members, 17.2% said teachers, which ranked second to friends (28.4%).

There are a lot of successful teachers, motivated students and satisfied parents out there. Unfortunately, they’re rarely acknowledged.


“The State of the Kid,” Highlights, 2009.

“State of Mind,” Education Week, October 19, 2009.

“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Says Colleges of Education Must Improve for Reforms to Succeed,” U.S. Dept. of Education, Oct. 22, 2009. Department of Education.

“Editorial: Teaching the Teachers,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 30, 2009.

“An Apple for the Education Secretary,” Ft. Worth Star Telegram, Oct. 27, 2009.

“L.A. Unified to Allow Parents to Initiate School Reforms,” Los Angeles Times, Oct, 28, 2009.,0,1211739.story

Friday, October 16, 2009

The “9 to 5” School Day?

When I read the news recently that President Obama wants to extend the school day, my anxiety level crept up a notch. The school year had just begun, and I was already dragging my poor kids out of bed before dawn and struggling to squeeze in homework, dinner, showers, and reading before bedtime. Longer school days would mean even fewer hours at home.

The story that many news organizations carried in late September was based on comments the President made back in March 2009, during a speech about education reform. Following is an excerpt from the transcript, which can be found at

“Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. (Laughter.) Not with Malia and Sasha -- (laughter) -- not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.”

I’m a big proponent of education. I believe parents should instill the value of education in their children and make school a priority. Not only do children acquire important skills and knowledge in school, but also they learn vital life lessons, such as how to interact with peers and function independently.

However, I’m not in favor of longer school days or years because more time in school means less time engaged in other activities with educational, cultural and social value, such as extracurricular activities (music, sports, art), family time, reading and, perhaps most important, sleep.

It’s not even clear that longer school days would benefit children. The Associated Press reports the following (

“Children in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do those in the Asian countries that consistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests - Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) compared with the U.S. school year of 180 days.”

I think we’re already putting too much pressure on children today, from kindergarten through high school. Kindergarten is no longer an experience that eases kids into school with low-key activities such as coloring, singing, and show and tell. Now, it’s more like first grade used to be. And high school students are under a ridiculous amount of pressure due to the highly competitive college admissions environment. They’re stretched thin, sleep deprived and stressed out.

Meanwhile, an extended school year would impact segments of our economy that enjoy a boost during the summer, such as travel and tourism. And how are we—as a nation—going to pay for extended school hours.

Longer school days means more costs. And less time for kids to be kids.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Behavior Modification (for Parents, Teachers and Students)

I received the following two e-mails from teachers recently:

I'm a 16-year teaching veteran in the Los Angeles USD. The below essay I wrote for Huffington Post describes a recent classroom experience.

The results of this student's off-the-chart behavior was nothing. The administration took no action against a 14 year old who was seriously disturbed and potentially dangerous to himself and others. I spoke with the mom, I met with the mom, she didn't really accept that her son was troubled, though he earned all Fs and ditched almost all of his classes two to three times a week. Most of the time he was stoned and he didn't bathe often. It was apparent. Despite calls home and a conference, the parent never followed up; the student's actions never changed.


I'm a teacher in a wealthy area and we have some doozies for parents (and kids sometimes). In an atmosphere of entitlement and with an administration that is often intimidated by the clientele, our parents often get their way. They have learned that the louder they yell, the more likely it is for the situation to go their way. I have had some successes (and some failures) working with this population and getting them to work with the school/teachers/admin rather than against it.


These stories illustrate two common problems teachers face: (1) demanding parents and (2) uninvolved parents.

While teachers are often frustrated by the behavior of parents, parents are just as frequently distressed by the actions of teachers—which leads to more negative behavior.

Listening Is the Key to Resolving a Parent-Teacher Conflict

I recently spoke with Mary Ann Lowry, a parenting coach, school consultant, and former teacher for twenty-one years ( She advises parents who are displeased with a teacher’s actions to “listen; don’t rush to judgment.” It’s important to consider the teacher’s version of events and explanation.

Lowry advises teachers who are confronting an irate parent to avoid becoming defensive, listen to the parent’s concerns and ask questions. Asking questions prompts the parent to think about whether their demands are rational and to consider other perspectives.

When Lowry was acting as a consultant to a private school in California, she witnessed a child’s parents disparage a teacher and the school in front of the child. “That’s sending the message to the child that, basically, you don’t have to have respect for authority. I don’t think that’s the message parents want to send,” she says.

The parents were upset with the teacher and school administration for suspending their child for hitting a schoolmate and refusing to listen to their child’s explanation. The parents claimed the child was provoked, but the school has a zero tolerance policy for hitting.

Lowry invited the parents into her office to discuss the situation. They wanted to complain about the teacher, but she shifted the discussion to more productive territory by asking questions. She asked the parents if they were certain their perspective of the situation was accurate; they acknowledged they were not. She asked how they would want the school to handle the situation if their child was the one hurt. She asked what they want their child to learn from the experience.

“I always tell parents anytime there’s a discipline issue, we’re imposing a consequence because if there’s not a life lesson involved, we’re not doing our job,” she says. “I advise them to think about: what’s your goal for your child? Do you want them to get an education or learn a theme of anti-authority or authority figures are out to get them.”

The child’s parents understood, and began working with Lowry to develop a behavior management system for their child. The teacher later joined the discussion. “They were calmer and apologized to her,” Lowry said.

Lowry says if a parent continues to be hostile, the teacher should end the conversation. “I’ve had parents start cursing. When they start attacking me verbally, I say, 'Unfortunately, I’m going to have to end this meeting; we’re going to have to meet in front of an administrator because I don’t feel comfortable talking to you.'”

Ask Questions When a Child Misbehaves; Don’t Lecture

Asking questions is also an effective approach with children, Lowry says. “I tell parents to ask questions because the odds of kids processing everything you say in a lecture is pretty nil,” she says. “Every time you ask questions, it’s much more likely to take because by answering the child is actually forming new neural connections, and that’s how learning happens.” The key question that promotes learning is “What could you do differently next time?” she says.

Parents want to protect their children from negative experiences, but facing consequences prepares children for the outside world, Lowry says. Some children “walk away from childhood with the belief that anyone who challenges them is a real jerk.” They grow accustomed to having their parents bail them out of every problem. “Once a child hits a university setting, there’s very little the parent can do,” Lowry says. A child who learns to disrespect authority is also likely to face difficulty maintaining a job.

Lowry urges parents to read the school's student handbook at the beginning of the year and call the school if they have any questions or concerns. “Be acquainted with school’s discipline policy. They are there for the benefit of all children. If schools look the other way, they’re setting themselves up for liability,” she says. “Our first role is doing what’s in the best interest of their child and in the best interest of all the children in the school.”

Develop Innovative Solutions if Parental Support Is Lacking

On the other end of the spectrum, some parents fail to take an active role in their child’s education. Typically, they’re too overwhelmed with other responsibilities.

To encourage support from uninvolved parents, Lowry advises teachers to try to find some contribution the parent can make—however small. “I ask them 'What’s your schedule like? What would be the easiest thing to do at home,' even if it’s just to take a notebook out of the backpack.” She urges teachers to “try to understand rather than blame” parents.

If a student is struggling with a problem, and the parent is clearly unavailable to help, then the teacher has to find another way to handle it. “I’ve started telling teachers, I think we’re going to have to get off the bandwagon of saying it’s the parent’s fault.”

When Lowry was teaching, she struck a deal with a colleague: “If someone was being a clown in my class, they could go sit in her room,” she says. “I’ve had students beg me not to send them into the other class.”

She also offered her class five minutes of free time if they ignored a student who was engaging in distracting behavior. “There’s nothing worse than being in class when no one will engage with you. Pretty soon, the behavior goes away because it’s not working.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The View From Both Sides

It’s easy to relate to teachers—if you’ve been one. The following guest writer tells us how her experiences as a teacher influenced her attitude as a parent.

When I hear the phrase “parent-teacher partnerships,” I can’t help but think back on my first year as an educator. Fresh out of graduate school, I was very eager to meet my new students and their families. I had high hopes about the many relationships that would blossom as a result of my new position. I was fortunate enough to land a job in a large urban district in the very same city where I grew up. I knew that I would be teaching in a diverse neighborhood and that some of my students would be coming to me from low-income households. The school was not far from the building where I was raised and was directly across the street from a church I had spent a great deal of time in as a girl. I knew the area very well and wanted so much to become an integral part of my pupil’s lives.

Sadly, right from the start, I found myself facing situations and problems I could never have foreseen. I was only twenty-five and had no children of my own, and some of the parents I was working with were younger than I was. Some of them looked upon me as a glorified babysitter—nothing more, nothing less. In addition, I got the sense that some of the parents had preconceived notions about me. Each day was a challenge. I was dealing with both the typical first year jitters and some scenarios I was not yet prepared for. When I reached out to the parents, many of them were unresponsive or downright hostile. To say my experience was, at times, disheartening, would be an understatement.

On a more positive note, many of the storm clouds I encountered that year, and in subsequent years, definitely had a silver lining. I met some wonderful parents during that time. Some of the good relationships that developed were rewarding and inspirational. All I ever really wanted as a teacher was to be able to discuss problems and progress with the parents without being set upon. I was on their team and could not understand why so many of them did not choose to see it that way. The best parent-teacher relationships I experienced were the ones based upon mutual respect. I remember one very conscientious parent in particular who sent notes or called me regularly to discuss things or ask questions. I welcomed her inquiries because her approach was always lovely, and I knew how much she cared about her little boy’s growth. In addition to asking questions, this same parent never hesitated to express basic gratitude. I truly appreciated being given the opportunity to work with her and her son.

I left the classroom behind when I became a parent and now find myself on the flip side of the situation. Having been a teacher in the past does not prevent me from getting the butterflies each time I have to go to a parent-teacher conference. As human beings, it is in our nature to not want to hear anything negative about our little ones—even when it is constructive. I certainly do not think that teachers are always correct, and I do believe that we need to be strong advocates for our children. Gone are the days when our parents wouldn’t dare to question teachers at all, and thank goodness for that! Unfortunately, some of the most fundamental social graces and manners seem to have fallen by the wayside, as well. One can be proactive without constantly being on the offensive. I have had the chance to attend several “open house” functions since school began for my oldest child and have witnessed parents standing up and firing questions at teachers in a less-than-nice manner. I cringe when I see this, because I am well aware of the many responsibilities and pressures teachers already have piled upon them.

In the end, I think that good old-fashioned courtesy is one of the best ways to foster a healthy and productive parent-teacher partnership. Not only will this keep the lines of communication wide open, enabling parents and teachers to work together to monitor academic progress, but also we will be teaching children, by example, some invaluable life lessons.

Heather Baker
New York

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Bronx Teacher’s Tale

While a cooperative parent-teacher partnership can foster a child’s academic success, the student-teacher relationship is often the key to unleashing the student’s potential. The following guest blog entry, written by a retired middle school teacher, demonstrates the profound and lasting effects of a positive student-teacher relationship based on mutual respect. (Note: Students’ names have been changed.)

I worked in a Bronx intermediate school near Yankee Stadium (a shrine to this Bronx kid). I was a physical/health education teacher, a team leader, and an assistant principal over the course of thirty-three years.

In my second year of teaching (1969), I was asked to coach the school basketball team. Of the eleven players who made the team, seven were graduating seniors. It was the start of a forty-year saga that has profoundly enriched my life. I had never experienced anything like the chemistry our team had, and I haven’t since. It has transcended, race, time, distance, and the vagaries of life. I’ve been playing baseball for fifty-one years, and I’ve coached several youth sports teams, and I have not had a similar experience.

Six of the seventh and eighth graders on that team remain friends to this day. We are physically separated by hundreds of miles in some cases, but we are always together in spirit. In addition, each of them keeps in touch with many other friends in that graduating class. We were brought together twice within the last year under unfortunate circumstances. During that time, I also reconnected with another student who I taught about fifteen years after I coached that 1969-70 basketball team. The events that have unfolded over the past year have overwhelmed me, and I have not yet been able to fully grasp the profound meaning of it all.

Summer 2008

I got a call from Scotty. He told me his father had passed, and he would appreciate it if I would come to the funeral. He said Charles and Marcus would be there, and they were all looking forward to seeing each other and me.

It was a bittersweet reunion. We were early and had some time to look through the 1970 yearbook and do some catching up on family news.

Charles told me that his youngest daughter was playing competitive basketball and doing quite well. He went on to say that he worked with her when she was starting out, teaching her the game the same way that I had taught him.

We talked about particular games. It was amazing that the four of us could recount the highlights of several of those games. They reminded me of the few times when I raised my voice in the huddle during time-outs or on the sideline. They also reminded me of the times when I said nothing and just gave them “the look” (their term) that spoke volumes. I would have liked to remind them of some of their frailties but couldn’t think of any.

Karl was not able to attend the funeral because his job with the military involves a great deal of traveling. He spoke with Scotty and I as soon as he got back. Karl has never forgotten my opening statement at the first round of tryouts for the 1969-70 team: “I won’t ‘cut’ any of you; you will cut yourself.” I have always told students that teachers don’t give them grades; they give themselves the grades that they earn by doing their class work, handing in their homework on time, and studying for tests.

One event is mentioned during every phone call and any time we get together. I have always believed it was the official beginning of our history together:

We lost our first three games. One of the losses was to a junior high school that had ninth graders on their team. To this day, we can’t understand why we didn’t win those three games. The first practice after the third loss started with the team sitting in the bleachers (shoulder to shoulder in the same row) and me standing in front of them. My brief speech is a consensus version: “We have put in a lot of long and hard practice time. We’ve lost our first three games. As I see it, we have two choices. We can simply drop out of the district’s league. Not all of the intermediate schools participate. Or, we can work even harder at practices and…” The eighth graders stood up and walked toward the court. The seventh graders stood up and followed. They picked up a basketball and began their lay-up drill.

Fast forward to our last game of the season. We had just defeated the faculty team for the second time. Scotty remembered what he was thinking: “The buzzer went off. We had defeated grown men, in an empty gym, for a second time. The first time was in front of the entire school. We headed to the locker room, trying not to be too excited since they had our short-term future in their hands. This was not college or high school, but twelve and thirteen year olds, defeating our teachers by a lot in the annual student/faculty game. Our coach had never coached a basketball team before. Our record was fourteen and four. We won thirteen games in a row and fourteen out of fifteen of our remaining games. We won the District Championship. I realized two things: we were talented, and that something special would happen to all of us, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.”

To this day, the teachers can’t understand why they didn’t win those two games.

Winter 2008

During the thirty-two years that followed my first season coaching basketball, I taught thousands of students. But one in particular continues to stand out in my mind. It was a matter of days before I had a gut feeling that Rashaun was exceptional. He seemed more mature and confident than his classmates, without a trace of arrogance. His social skills came naturally, and he was well-liked by all of the other students.

His grades were typically in the 95 percent to 98 percent range. He was gifted academically and athletically. But he did not perform well on standardized tests.

In 1983, Rashaun’s graduation year, it was my school’s turn to have a few of our top students compete with students throughout New York City for admission to some of the best private high schools on the east coast. We received a visit from the director of a prestigious educational assistance program. He explained the program’s admission requirements, and the rigorous and comprehensive interview process that each student must undergo. One of the admissions requirements was high standardized test scores.

When the meeting ended and the teachers left the office, I asked the program director if he could stay to discuss one of our candidates. I told him that our top candidate, Rashaun, would not make the cut because of his standardized test scores. I asked him to speak with Rashaun for five minutes. If after that he decided to factor in the test scores, so be it.

Fast forward to the end of the selection process. The program director and I were again sitting in my office. He said Rashaun finished the interview process with one of the highest scores among all of the candidates in the City.

Rashaun was accepted to a prestigious private high school. He excelled in both academics and sports at the school. He played eleven of twelve semesters on three varsity sports teams. He was captain of the baseball team three times, basketball twice, and football once.

In the summer of 1987, I drove to the apartment where Rashaun lived with his grandparents, helped him pack his bags, and drove him to Yale University. We spent the day moving his belongings into his room, buying his books, and walking around the campus. I did the same things when I drove my daughter to Cornell that same summer.

When he graduated from Yale, Rashaun went back to the high school he attended. He went to Temple Law School at night while teaching and coaching at his former high school. He lived in the dorm and was the Director of Student Activities.

Today Rashaun is a prestigious business litigator at a large law firm. In 2007 he was the subject of an article in a prominent law magazine.

Every December I receive a holiday card or an e-mail from Rashaun. In December 2008, his e-mail began with the usual holiday greetings. But this time he wrote that he had been in a car accident some months before, and had undergone physical therapy. His physician told him not to run or play basketball. Even before the accident, he was annoyed that he had become out of shape. He wrote that he planned to call me in a couple of days to speak with me about eventually getting himself back on a basketball court.

I didn’t hear from him for a while, so I e-mailed him. We arranged a day and time to speak. That first phone call lasted more than two hours. Over the next several months, I’ll be giving him a private, individual version of the Wellness and Physical Fitness course I created and teach at a local university.

Spring 2009

Nearly a year after the first reunion of the 1969-70 basketball team, I got a call from Scotty. He said that Walt’s mother was critically ill, and he was driving up to New York. Walt was not able to attend Scotty’s father’s funeral last summer and asked if we could get together. Walt’s mother passed the day before we planned to meet for lunch. He insisted on getting together because he needed to be with us, especially now.

When I arrived at the diner, Walt told me that it meant a lot to him that I had come. He handed me a large plastic bag. The others at the table suddenly got quiet. I reached into the bag and removed a large two-foot by four-foot poster board with a collage of pictures from the 1970 yearbook. I brought that yearbook with me to the funeral last summer, and I had it with me again so that Walt could look through it as the others had done. However, he got a copy of the yearbook from a friend and carefully removed our team picture and all of the candid shots taken during games. The team picture appeared in the middle of the poster, surrounded by the candid shots. I began to well up, but the team didn’t notice as they started pointing to different pictures and saying things like, “This was the game against…” I joined in. I told them I was going to put the picture in my car. I just needed to get outside and get it together. I was moved by the thoughtfulness of Walt’s unexpected gift. As I was trying to speak coherently, Walt quietly said to me, “I’m just glad you like it.

We were there for three and a half hours. Walt was calling mutual friends and telling them he was with Scotty, Charles, Marcus and Dr. Schwartz. We all had a chance to chat with each of them. But it was Desiree who brought tears to my eyes. What she said not only encapsulated our story, but also emphasized the power of mutual respect and the dangers of stereotyping: “Do you know it’s been forty years. We were saying, ‘What’s this skinny white man doing in our neighborhood?’ But you’ve been and still are such a big and important part of our lives for practically all our life.”

I later called Walt to find out the time and place of the funeral. We somehow got into a discussion about the team concept. He said that one of the most rewarding things about our team was that we played as a team and nobody thought of himself as a star. He remembered a time when a graduate of the school who used to play on the basketball team asked him, “Are you ‘the man’ this year?” Walt replied, “We’re all ‘the man.’”

We talked about my coaching philosophy. He told me that when he works with his boys, he starts every practice session with the “shuffle” drill and does other drills without using a ball. We often walked and ran through offensive plays without the ball.

I spoke with Karl a few days after Walt’s mother’s funeral. He was hoping we could all get together this summer under more pleasant circumstances, and the conversation again shifted to the team. He told me, “We enjoyed you. Imagine enjoying a teacher.”

Marcus calls me from time to time, and we also talk about the team, coaching basketball (he coaches basketball in his school district’s recreation program), and about how education in general relates to the world we live in.

In one of our recent phone conversations he referred to the point in history when we started our journey together. The country was trying to cope with a tumultuous and perilous time. There was Kent State, race riots, the Vietnam War, and a great divide in America. Everything was changing. The world was changing. But we were immune to it all.

During another recent phone call, Charles spoke about the term “role model.” It wasn’t a part of our language yet. When it did become part of our vocabulary, sports stars were considered role models because they appeared in the newspapers, on TV and on billboards. Kids looked up to them, idolized them. Teachers could also be role models, but the thinking was that teachers should live in the districts where they taught so they were visible 24-7.

Charles said, “You didn’t live here, yet you knew my mother and my brothers and sisters. That’s what breaks down barriers.”

Each of us agrees that playing team sports can teach life skills and positively influence the values we internalize. Charles said, “If all you’ve gotten out of playing a game is that you played a game, you cheated yourself”.

Karl believes that the glue of all relationships is “caring.” When people care about one another, it creates a bond that cannot be broken. He said, “One of the reasons why we played so hard was that we never wanted to let you down.”

Nobody ever complained about not getting enough game-play time, Karl told me. Everyone on the bench cheered for the five who were on the court. “It was just the way it was. Whenever you made a substitution, every player that went in played his heart out.”

To me, it meant that these seventh and eighth graders understood the concept of “team.” They personify one of my favorite sports slogans: “Losers quit when they’re losing. Winners quit when they’ve won”.

Karl told me, “If you were anybody else, it wouldn’t have worked.”

No magic formula exists that confers upon individuals the readiness to trust and respect others, the ability to understand and learn from one another, and the capacity for compassion instead of indifference. It’s all about the choices we make.

As Scotty thoughtfully, but succinctly, puts it: “All of this started with a basketball.”

Irwin Schwartz

Dr. Irwin Schwartz, Ed.D. is a health and fitness professional with more than 35 years of experience in the field. He created the curriculum for the Wellness and Physical Fitness course at Pace University in 2000, and has been teaching the course since then. Before joining the faculty at Pace, Dr. Schwartz had worked at a junior high school in the Bronx since 1968. He served as an assistant principal, health and physical education instructor, team leader, health coordinator, and coach. He’s currently writing a book based on his philosophy and approach to health and fitness.