Can THAT student really learn?  Maybe . . .

I recently had dinner with a friend who teaches special education at the high school level.  She was telling me about the difficulties she is having with some of the students.  (Confidentiality was not broken.)  At some point she responded to something I said by saying “No!  They CAN’T learn!”

It got me to thinking.

I have worked my whole life with students who were classified as “can’t learn”.  I was the parent to a child who was labeled in the same way.  I know from experience that people can and do learn when given the chance.  They can even blossom in ways that exceed our wildest dreams.  I also know  there are certain conditions that make their ability to learn increase or decrease.  I know THAT student can be made better or worse by the things we do.

We cannot, however, do it all!

Educators can control the environment in which THAT student is schooled.  We can control, to some extent, THAT student’s interactions with others.  We can ensure that our interactions with THAT student are equitable.  We can set aside our negative thinking and look for the positive in THAT student.  We can examine our beliefs and our attitude about THAT student.

Yes, we can make great advances with parents.  We can show them we know they love their child.  We can show them we care about their child.  We can go into conferences with a positive attitude and stick to what is observable and measurable.  We can make “good news” phone calls and work together with them for the benefit of the child.

But there are somethings we cannot control.

Students spend more than 2/3 of their lives outside of school.  They spend it sleeping, with parents, with other young people, and in front of screens.  We educators have absolutely no control over what those experiences are like.

Take sleep for example.  Adolescents need between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep, but most get only 7 and many get much less.  Experts recommend that children aged 6 to 13 get nine to eleven hours of sleep and kindergarteners get 10-13 hours per night.  Few young people get this much sleep.  We know that a lack of sleep negatively affects a person’s ability to learn and to behave “appropriately” in school.

Educators can provide parents with information, but we cannot control how much sleep students get.

Continue reading Can THAT student really learn?  Maybe . . .

Winning Parents Over

In another post I talked about forming a positive relationship with parents and a sure-fire way to do that – letting parents know you like their child by telling them good things the child has done at school.  It can take some effort to both make the contact with the parent and to find that good thing to tell them about, but the rewards are huge.  Parents see you as someone who likes their child and who is not “out to get” him/her.  And we benefit because it forces us to look for the good in each and every student.

There are other ways to get parents on your side, too.

Help students know what they learned
Students rarely understand what they’ve learned, so when a parent or other adult asks, “What did you do in school today?” they do not know how to respond.  In fact, many kids interpret that question to be asking what happened that was different from any other day.

To top it all off, kids don’t always know how to put their learning experiences into words.

I realized this when I was teaching all day and later I would ask my son what he did in school.  I had the advantage of knowing more about what goes on during a school day so I was able to ask more probing questions, but many, if not most, parents do not know this.

I began by asking the students if their parents ever asked them what they did in school.  Most raised their hands.  Then I asked what they told their parents when they were asked this.  Sure enough, most said, “Nothing.”

I started by teaching the students a procedure.  “I’m going to help you look absolutely brilliant in front of your parents.  At the end of each day (or class period) we’re going to go over what you can tell your folks when they ask that question.”

What we did was reviewed aloud the learning targets for that day (or class).  Most teachers write these on the board so it is not difficult to go over them with the students.  It is important to have the students read the learning targets out loud, first in unison.  Then quickly say, “What did you do in school today . . . Jackson?”  And teach the students to respond, “I learned . . . “  Insert the learning target there.

In addition, if your school uses student agendas, those required assignment books, have the students write the learning target in the agenda.  Teach the students that they can refer to their agenda to answer the adult’s question.

A picture is worth a thousand words
Parents and grandparents love to show off pictures of their children.  Sadly they rarely are able to see what their child is doing at school.

Use technology to show parents you are on their child’s side.  Take photos of their child doing school work, laughing at a joke, cleaning up, or helping.  Send that photo to the parent using your preferred method.  These are not photos that should be put into a class newsletter.  That could be considered a violation of confidentiality.  Instead these are photos you take just of THAT student and are sent to just his/her parent(s).  You can even use photos like this as that monthly positive contact that I’ve discussed in previous posts.

It is difficult for parents to say that Lois hates school when they have a photo of her laughing while working in a small group.

Don’t forget that many families either choose not to use technology or cannot use it.  Reliable internet is difficult in rural areas, and costs money in all areas.  People who do not use technology as part of their job may be less likely to use it at home.  So we have to use the technology the parent is able to use.  If you know Lois’ parents do not have access or rarely check email, then print the photo out and drop it in the mail.

If you do use the mail, don’t use an envelope with a school logo or printed return address on it.  Too often, those envelopes disappear, either because the child gets the mail before the parent does, or because the parents are too alienated or frustrated by the school to open it.  In their experience, mail from school is usually bad news.  Instead make the letter look more personal.  I’ve even used the more square envelopes you’d expect to find a greeting card.  Jot a quick note (Hi, I thought I’d share this photo of Lois with you.  Ms. Roe) on a sticky note on the photo and pop it in the mail.

Be careful to not take sides
The majority of marriages end in divorce, and divorce can get really messy.  It is easy to fall into the trap of taking sides.  As a professional, you are required to work with both parents unless there is a court order to the contrary.  This may mean making two phone calls about one child.  This may mean sending two copies of the class newsletter instead of one.
Sadly, many parents who are going through a divorce try to get the teacher to side with this one against that one.  Don’t do it.  This doesn’t mean you cannot listen sympathetically to a parent vent about the other.  It does mean that you make sure both parents know you are on the side of the child, and you are willing to work with both of them to benefit the child.

Recognize parental love and concern
There are parents whose parenting style is light years away from ideal, but the motivation behind their parenting is the same.  Nine times out of ten, they want what is best for their child.  Their understanding of “what’s best” and your ideas may differ, but wanting what is best for the child is a motivating factor both the parent and the teacher has in common.  Use it!

When having that difficult conversation with the parent, start by saying something like, “Ms. Jones, I know you love your daughter.”  Stop there.  Don’t give in to the temptation of adding a “but”.  You do not want to say anything that could be interpreted as “but you’re doing it all wrong.”  Instead, continue with something like, “I want Lois to be successful just like you do.  Let’s work together to help her.”

In my experience, this method gets hostile parents to do a double-take.  They’ve probably only had teachers who phrased things to the effect of “your child is broken; fix her!”   Those dreaded tiger parents or helicopter parents, as well, have difficulty blaming the teacher for this or that when she puts this slant on it.

This approach puts the conversation with the parent on a completely different foot.  Suddenly it is not about the teacher telling the parent that it is the parent’s responsibility to “fix” their child.  Instead it is saying that the teacher wants to work in collaboration.

Be sure to reinforce this by ending a conference with something like, “I am confident that by working together, we can get Lois back on track.”

Think “solutions” not “problems”
It is common for teachers to inform parents of problems with the idea that if a parent knows there is a problem, the parent will find a way to fix it.  However, parents do not always know what to do.  They do not always see the same problem in their interactions with the child.  If the child has a history of problems at school, the parent may have begun to think of the school being out to “get” their child.

Labeling a behavior doesn’t help.  Saying Jackson is lazy might be true, but it doesn’t offer any way to change the behavior.  Telling parents what has happened in a neutral,, business-like way can put us on the way to finding a solution, while just naming the problem just names the problem.

A way to tackle this is to plan out what you are going to tell the parent when you are going to have a face-to-face meeting or if you are making a phone call to them.  Try this:

  1. Tell the parent what the child has done in observable and measurable terms.  Saying, “Jackson did not turn in his homework on Monday and Tuesday” is neutral.  There isn’t room for arguing about it.  However, saying, “Jackson doesn’t want to turn in his homework” leaves a lot of room for argument.  And when you get right down to it, do you really know what Jackson does or doesn’t want?
  2. Tell the parent what you’ve done to try to solve the problem. Again, do this using observable and measurable terms and do it in a neutral voice:  “I talked to Jackson privately just before recess on Monday.  He said he’d been too busy to do his homework.  When he didn’t turn in work on Tuesday, I talked to him again.  He told me that he did do his work, but his mother threw it away by mistake.”
    Doing this is less likely to make a parent defensive than saying something to the effect that Jackson was sassy or lying.
  3. Ask the parent for their input. Yes, we are professionals and have a great many ideas on what to do to solve problems, but parents have expertise, too.  The parent may answer your question by saying they don’t know or they may tell you things that make you see the underlying causes of the problem behavior.
    Be sure to phrase this question in a way that there is no hint of parent-blaming.  Saying, “What is going on at home that Jackson is doing this” will make most parents more defensive and hostile.  Saying, “Can you help me understand what’s going on with Jackson” is much more neutral and more likely to help the parent see the teacher as wanting to collaborate.
  4. Tell the parent what you will or can do at school to try to solve the problem, and what you’d like them to do at home. Plan out ahead of time what you’d like the parent to do at home in case s/he doesn’t have any ideas about what to do. If you can, incorporate any ideas the parent may have had into these solutions.  Tell the parent, this is what you said you will do at home.

Be motivating by offering hope
Unless you are a preschool teacher, odds are the parent(s) of THAT student have heard over and over again about things s/he has done wrong at school.  The parents are likely to be frustrated, defensive, overwhelmed or bewildered about what to do to turn things around for their child.  They need to work with a teacher who projects confidence and the belief that by working together, things can be different for the child.  The parents need to know that the teacher does not think their child is beyond help, or that s/he is so deeply flawed that s/he will always be or have a problem.

In my experience, ending a problem-solving conference with a parent by saying, “I am confident that by working together we can get a handle on this and help Jackson get back on track” works far better than simply telling parents what you want them to do.  Saying that, offers parents a glimmer of hope.

Don’t we all need hope to keep on keeping on?

Remember, our language has the power to shape what others think, and it also shapes our beliefs about things.  We need to see light at the end of the tunnel when working with THAT student as much as THAT student’s parents need to see the teacher as sincerely wanting to help.  Changing the way we talk about things helps.  Notice that I called the conference with parents a “problem-solving conference” rather than a “negative phone call” or just a conference.  Thinking “problem-solving” shapes the way we think about it.  It helps us think about working together with the parent, rather than just naming the problem.

 

Try these ideas on how to build a more positive relationship with parents, and especially the patents of THAT student.

Do let me know how these ideas are working for you!

The OTHER Relationship to Nurture

I usually post on Sundays, but I just read an essay by a parent that triggers this response:

We all know relationships are a very important part of being a teacher.  Who hasn’t heard the saying that kids won’t care about learning unless they know you care about them?  In the last two posts, I’ve encouraged you to try to find something THAT student does that is positive.  Looking for the positives in a student can change our whole perspective!

There is another person (or persons) with whom we need to establish a positive relationship:  the parent.  If you are like many teachers, you read that line and rolled your eyes.  After all, if THAT student had parents who cared, would s/he be such a challenge?

Let me share a little story about me.  I have a son.  When he was a child, he was very challenging, both at home and at school.  From what I head from teachers, A was rude, defiant, lazy, distracted, and he did not turn in homework.  I used to feel sick when it was time for parent-teacher conferences.  I wouldn’t sleep the night before.  I knew I would hear a litany of negative things about the little boy I loved.

To make matters worse, I was an educator, for goodness sake!  I knew what was expected of a child in school.  I knew how to get 30+ kids in a single room to behave and how to instill a sense of self-discipline.  What A’s teachers did not seem to know was that every day I did all of the things that I knew were supposed to work, all of the things I had suggested to parents during a parent-teacher conference myself.  I never found a particularly good way to tell the teachers that A had an assigned homework time, that if he didn’t bring his homework home, he would be assigned homework by me.  He had a bedtime that was enforced.  He was encouraged to read and explore his interests.  He was forced to practice his saxophone daily.  We played chess.  He did chores.  He was disciplined when he make a poor behavior choice.  Screen time was limited.  We did things together.  In short, we did all of the things one would expect a parent of a “good” kid to do.  And if I did manage to tell the teacher these things, it was always clear that s/he didn’t believe me.

As I would listen to teachers tell me things like, “He’s smart but . . .”, I would cringe inside.  As the teacher began to speak in a more and more patronizing tones, I would take a firm grip on my anger with both hands.  I would feel furious and guilty at the same time.  At school functions I felt like teachers were whispering among themselves, “You see her over there?  That’s A’s mom.  Did you know . . .”  After all, I had heard teachers say such things in the school where I taught, so why wouldn’t the same be true at A’s school?  I felt judged and belittled.

(Yes, A is smart.  He earned the second highest ACT score in the state the year he took that exam, but he graduated from high school with a 1.0 grade point average.  He managed to raise his GPA that high the day before graduation by showing the English teacher the novel he was allegedly writing; he’d managed to knock off the first three chapters the night before.)

This repeated for every parent-teacher conference for every year A was in school.  I figure that is about 26 conferences, and that does not count telephone contacts or letters or “mid-term reports” that would usually arrive just about in time for report cards to come out and it does not count the times I was asked to come to the school for a “special” conference.  Is it any wonder that I felt stressed and angry and fearful at the thought of going to conferences or attending school functions?

My son was diagnosed with ADD when he was very young, back when it was called “minimal brain dysfunction.”  I did all of the things the doctors recommended:  medication, changing his diet, using behavior modification strategies.  I would try to talk to teachers each school year about what that kind of diagnosis meant and how I wanted to work with them so that we would be a united team to help A reach his potential.  Each year the teachers would demonstrate that they did not really understand ADD (“He pays attention to the computer well enough!”) and they began to assign the “challenging” label to him, and would talk about his “bad behavior.”

Although I lobbied for my son, and even though I repeatedly requested 504 plans, I was consistently told that he did not qualify.  I heard this even when I was working on my masters and studying education law.  I knew he qualified for many things, but the schools told me he did not and that if I would just do this or that, he would “straighten out.”

I can honestly say that in A’s whole school career I only heard one positive thing about him and that was from the school principal when I was called in to discuss some other infraction.

Why do I tell you all this?  To show that I have a prejudice?  To gain some sympathy?  No.  I tell you this because I have a unique perspective:  I’ve seen students’ behavior from both sides of the desk – from the perspective of a teacher, from the perspective of a parent, and, later, from the perspective of a school principal.

Because of this unique perspective, I learned something:  parents who care deeply about their child’s school success can be alienated from the whole school system.

If you’ve taught for any time at all, you know what it is like to deal with parents who are alienated from the schools.  These are the parents who do not answer emails, who do not return phone calls, and who do not come to school functions.  They are the parents who are hostile when we do catch up to them or who seem to dismiss our suggestions and requests.  They can be the parents we dread to contact because we know they will yell or blame us for whatever the student is doing.  Eventually we start to shake our heads and talk about how so-and-so’s parents let him or her get away with murder and who just don’t care.

Raising A taught me many things.  One thing is that parents do care.  They may not care in the way you would like them to care, but they do care.  They are doing the best they can, and while we educators may not agree with how they deal with school issues, they are trying to raise their child well.

Don’t get me wrong!  It only takes a single trip to WalMart or the grocery store to see parenting styles that any teacher would classify in the fail column!  Nonetheless, parents do care.

So why do so many parents act like they don’t care?  Because of their previous experiences with the school, and their perception of what the “school” thinks of their child.

I tried an experiment when I was still in the classroom.  I was reading on my never ending quest to know more about classroom management and discipline, and I found a suggestion that I contact every student’s parent(s) with something positive about him or her at least once a month.  I was teaching middle school at the time and saw more than 100 students per day.  I wasn’t sure I had enough time to do it, but I gave it a try.  I was overwhelmed by the response.  I heard parents sob on the other end of the phone and tell me they had never once heard anything good about their child from the school.  I had parents tell me that they were surprised that anyone at the school liked their child.  Suddenly I had parents describing me as one of the “good” teachers even though I was strict.  In fact, they would praise my being strict with their child.  The principal called me into her office to tell me that she’d received phone calls about me, positive phone calls.

Why did they react this way?  I think the parents defined it best:  they believed those positive phone calls meant that I liked their child.  Later, if I had occasion to make a call about something negative the student did, they were much more willing to listen and to discuss what we, together, could do about it.

I tried the same tactic when I became a principal.  I could not contact every student’s family every month, but I picked out the kids who had a reputation for being chronic troublemakers.  I watched those kids and made calls about the positive things they did.  The response again was positive.

(You can read a short essay I wrote about this in ASCD Express:  http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol9/905-roe.aspx )

So besides your relationship with the students, there is another relationship for you to nurture:  your relationship with parents.  Yes, there are parents with whom it is very easy to establish that positive relationship.  It is more challenging to contact the “helicopter” parents and still more challenging to work on the relationship with those parents who have a reputation for not caring or for hating the school system  It can be done, and the rewards are enormous.  Every positive contact a teacher makes is like putting money into the bank.  When that day arrives when the teacher has to make that contact about the student’s negative behavior, that “bank account” pays huge dividends!

Don’t forget that not every household has internet access.  It costs money that many families do not have, and it is hard to come by in rural areas.  Email is convenient, but it is not the only way to contact parents.  I learned to love voice mail.  I could make a call, leave a quick message – “Hi, this is Ms. Roe from school.  I just wanted to let you know that . . .”  I came to believe that there was something more personal about using the phone anyway.

Give it a try!  Hopefully, you are already looking for positive things about each of the students, especially THAT student, as suggested in previous posts.  You know some of the reasons we form negative opinions about students and are, hopefully, working on ways to overcome the self-fulfilling prophesy.  Take the next step and start to let parents know about the positive things you’ve noticed about their child.  It is well worth the effort!