It would be great if we could each design a school for our respective children — one that includes all their interests, works creatively on their weaknesses, improves upon their strengths, and teaches in the exact style that works best for them. The reality, though, is that most of us do or will send our children to public school.
As a public school teacher, I am the first to admit that there are flaws in the system, and that “offbeat kids” (and aren’t they all, really?) can get lost in the shuffle. No one wants their children to miss out on the opportunity to be themselves, and creativity and individuality can seem impossible in a large, standardized school environment. I have seen, though, that it can work.
At every school I’ve ever worked, there have been creative, open-minded, brilliant kids who thrive no matter what class they’re in. Since before I became a parent, I’ve been watching my students, trying to figure out what separates the kids who thrive from the kids who float along, and how to make sure my child is one of the thrivers. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or even most of them, but here are some tips I’ve picked up that may help your child reach their awesome, offbeat potential in the onbeat world of public school.
Raise a creative problem solver.
The biggest problem I see in public schools is an emphasis on content over process. With the standardization of education, there is just so much we’re required to fit into a school year. This focus on all the “stuff” leaves little room for teaching kids how to learn, how to solve problems, and to be curious and think creatively. I find myself standing in front of a group of kids daily, posing a problem and receiving blank stares in return. The kids in each class who are the most successful are always the ones who put their heads down and try to figure it out before simply asking for help. And in my experience, there are far too few of these kids left.
Teaching problem-solving starts early. Students who are encouraged to solve problems on their own at home learn that they’re capable of figuring things out independently, and they’re likely to carry that attitude over into school. Work through problems out-loud as you solve them at home, to demonstrate how the process works. Ask your child for their help with decision-making (even something as simple as choosing dinner) and then question them about why they made their choice. When kids are made aware of their thought process, they realize that they have the ability to systematically work through problems.
Also, make sure that your child is thinking about the problem they’re trying to solve. It’s easy to say “help me,” and doesn’t take any thought. In my classroom, my answer to the request, “Can you help me?” is always, “What’s your specific question?” Coming up with a direct question requires thinking about what the problem is, and analyzing what you don’t know. Usually, once they’ve come up with a specific question, the student realizes they actually know how to find the answer, too.
Keep the lines of communication open.
School is hard. Academics, socialization, time management, teachers — it’s a lot for a kid to handle. As the parent, it’s your job to support your child, and it’s difficult to support someone if you don’t know what’s going on. Talk to your kid — know their friends, their interests, their opinions about their teachers and classes. This is easier with a five-year-old who bounces through the door eager to tell you everything about their day than it is with a secretive teenager. But in my experience, teens actually do want to talk to you. They just don’t want you to know it! Ask direct questions about their day, questions that can’t be answered with a grunt or shrug. Encourage them to invite friends over, instead of always going to a friend’s house. Let them know that you’re available for homework help, even if you’re not totally comfortable with the subject — most of the “help” kids actually need on their work is of the encouraging, not instructional, variety.
When they do talk to you — LISTEN. I’m currently a high school teacher, working with at-risk teens, and I know firsthand how difficult it is sometimes to pay attention to what basically sounds like inane gossip. But when I find myself starting to drift off during the seventh repetition of “He said, and then she said, and then I was like oh no you did not!” I remind myself that it’s these conversations that make the more serious conversations possible — the ones about sex and friendship and the future. And it’s my willingness to listen to them that makes them willing to listen to me when I have something important to say.
Don’t forget to communicate with your child’s school, too. We all have very skewed perspectives about what’s happening in our lives, and it’s the same with kids. If you’re only getting one side of the story, you can assume it’s not the whole story. I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t appreciate the parents that stay in touch — and not just when there are problems. If you want to be heard, make sure that your voice isn’t always a negative one. Talk to teachers about what’s going well, fill them in when you have problems going on at home that might affect your child, be willing to hear what the teacher has to say without getting defensive. Then, when you have a concern and want something changed, you’ll have a great base of communication to work from.
Foster outside interests
School is not enough. I risk being blackballed from the teaching profession for saying this (no, not really — every teacher I’ve ever met agrees with me on this one), but it needs to be said. We’ve got too much to teach, too little time in which to teach it, too little money to teach it with, and too many kids to teach it to. There just aren’t the resources to provide for all of the non-academic interests of all our kids. But those interests need to be provided for. Even if your child loves school and excels, they need to have time to focus on other interests. If your child isn’t a natural academic, it is absolutely crucial that they be able to excel at something they love.
When school is your life things get stressful, and you end up with a very one-sided child who doesn’t have a lot of faith in their abilities.
Luckily, your community is a perfect place to turn when you want to get your child involved. Sign up for craft sessions at the library. Join the YMCA and take Zumba classes. Find a local musician willing to trade fiddle lesson for baked goods (I have a friend working this sweet deal right now!). It doesn’t even have to be a structured thing — one of my favorite students is currently directing and producing a musical with a group of his friends. They convinced the principal to let them use the school auditorium over the summer, and they’re doing everything from lighting to costumes to forming a multi-generational pit band. Even for families low on funds, there are tons of options for enrichment. The important thing is that your child doesn’t have all his eggs in the school basket; when school is your life things get stressful, and you end up with a very one-sided child who doesn’t have a lot of faith in their abilities.
Raise a Reader
I won’t go into too much detail about this one because I think it’s pretty obvious. Kids who read are also kids who write. They have better vocabularies and a more automatic grasp of grammar rules than non-recreational readers. Their classwork is easier because they don’t struggle through the reading tasks, so they’re able to focus on the content. They are more imaginative because they are exposed to experiences other than their own. The way to raise a reader? Read. Which brings me to …
Be their model
Whether they want you to know it or not, you are important to your child. Rarely do I meet a student’s parent without thinking, “Oh, now I see where he/she gets it.” We have more power than we think. When it comes to learning, I think the most important qualities that you can model for your kids are curiosity and diligence. Kids who are curious think about what they’re learning and go deeper. Kids who are diligent keep trying, even when it gets hard.
Curiosity is easy to model. Watch the History Channel and muse out loud about the show. Explore a new place when you go on vacation. Ask questions about things you’re unfamiliar with (“Hello sir. I see you have a peg leg and a parrot. Tell me, what’s it like to be a pirate?”). Ask your child questions. Try foods from another culture. I think humans are naturally curious, it just takes a little effort to get back to that place of open-mindedness.
Modeling diligence is hard work because it means, well, working hard. I do think, though, that this one comes naturally to a family that shares chores and jobs. Simply by doing what you need to do, and expecting your child to do the same, you’re demonstrating that we all have to work sometimes when we don’t want to.
All of this advice comes from my experiences — what I’ve learned working with elementary, middle, and high school students in a few different public school systems. Everyone’s school experience is different, and I am willing to bet that everyone who has sent a kid through school has some other advice to throw onto the table.