In the weeks before school, I often overhear parents talking about the teachers their children have been assigned to for the coming year. It is interesting to listen to the spectrum of comments.
As a parent, I can understand the faith that we have as we offer up our kids to a teacher — or teachers — for the next 10 months with high hopes of instilling all great things. As a teacher, I also understand the expectations that we have for parents when the students become part of our classroom.
Let’s examine what a parent should look for in an effective teacher, and what a teacher needs from an effective parent.
A great teacher can directly affect the desire for learning, pique curiosity, add depth and breadth to a body of knowledge and, of course, impact the almighty test score.
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If you have seen the films To Sir, With Love, Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers, you have seen great teachers. William Bennett in his CNN article The Lasting Impact of Good Teachers, shares the results of a 20-year Harvard/Columbia University study, which showed that a good teacher has the power to enhance a student’s chances of going to college, earning a higher income and avoiding teen pregnancy. It also showed that a good teacher is second only to an effective parent in directing a child’s education.
What is it that makes those teachers and parents different?
Dana Goldstein, of the Marshall Project and author of The Teacher Wars, shares four things that parents and administrators can look for in a great teacher when visiting a classroom, meeting an educator or reviewing a child’s homework:
▪ Great teachers have intellectual lives outside their classroom. These teachers typically have larger vocabularies, are well-read, have fascinating hobbies and speak passionately about their travels or experiences. This is evident in their classrooms and in their conversations.
▪ Great teachers believe that “intelligence is achievable, not inborn.” They believe all children have capabilities and “expect all children to perform at high levels, even those who are unruly, challenged and struggling.” To measure the teacher’s expectations, ask your child about the class, and if he/she learned anything new.
▪ Great teachers are data driven. They want to know what their students know before they begin and seek to understand the concepts they have after the lesson. These teachers do not teach to the test but rather utilize their tools to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each student at the beginning of a unit and quiz them at the end to determine the effectiveness of the lesson.
▪ Great teachers ask great questions of their students. When teachers focus lessons on concepts that are broader than the required objective, scores on higher level assessments seem to be higher. It is one thing to ask, “When was the Great Depression?” but it is another thing to ask “What economic, social and political factors led to the Great Depression?” Homework assignments of a great teacher will reflect this practice.
There are thousands of books on what makes a good parent. A 2010 article from Scientific American reports that 10 competencies predict good parenting outcomes. At the top of the list are parents who support and accept their child, demonstrate affection and spend quality one-on-one time with their child and model and promote learning and knowledge. Of course, as parents we cannot do all of this all the time, but we can sure try.
As a teacher, I have taught students of both very effective parents and very ineffective parents. In general, the children of effective parents know what is expected of them and in knowing so, they tend to be more grounded, confident and successful in school. How parents interact with their child — from the moment of birth to the first day of school — creates huge differences in the way a child performs in school. Here are some characteristics I have seen:
▪ Effective parents are vigilant, but not helicoptering. They are keenly aware of how and what their child is doing by interacting and conversing with him/her on a daily basis. These parents ask their children not “what did you learn in class” but rather “what question did you ask in class today?” They review the homework assignments, they utilize available resources such as the parent portal and teacher email to keep informed. In doing so, these parents know what and how their child is doing in school. At the same time, these parents support their child’s independence to make their own decisions and allow them to learn from their mistakes.
▪ Effective parents know that building a good parent-teacher relationship is important to creating a good relationship between student and teacher. They are responsive when teachers reach out to them and they feel comfortable initiating a parent-teacher conference. Periodic conferences are great tools for the teacher-parent team. The teacher provides parents with insights into what is going on in the classroom, and parents can offer helpful insights into the student’s life at home. Conferences are a great forum during which problems can be identified and solutions can be constructed.
▪ Effective parents are involved in the school — either by volunteering, being active in the PTSA, presenting their area of expertise with students or simply helping out in the classroom.
An effective parent should not be confused with an overbearing or a micromanaging parent. These parents think they are helping their children by making decisions for them and by doing their work to help their grade. Note to parents: teachers are aware when a parent has done a student’s work.
Ineffective parents tend to be unavailable physically or emotionally. Sadly, it is often the students most in need of support that have absent or ineffective parents. Teachers know that family dynamics play a pivotal role in a child’s academic success. Many of our students go home to empty houses or are cared for by friends or relatives until a working parent comes home. Some children are torn between warring parents and are shuttled between different residences during the week. And some students are children of parents who themselves were not parented well. Children who lack those vital components that effective parents provide come to school without homework or projects and fall behind.
So when you finish reading this, get your child and go to the beach or the park. Throw a football. Have some ice cream. And during all of this, make sure to have a great conversation with your child — about anything. Then email your child’s teacher to thank him or her for inspiring your child and to find out how you can become involved.
Laurie Futterman, ARNP, is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.