Report card

A teacher gives some advice about helping children succeed in school—and life

I came to teaching late in life. A few years ago you would have found me at a desk in a posh office, translating German legal documents into English to enable rich men to become richer. The pay was great, the Christmas parties marvelous. My conscience, however, was troubled. This was not the “difference” I wished to make. And so, after much thought, I went into teaching.

I think we can all agree on one thing: public education is far from perfect. We know from research that the best way to learn is not, in fact, in a room stuffed with 37 students with a teacher whose job it is to keep all minds focused on the same task. Minds wander, and curiosity should, ideally, be allowed to go where it will. But the ideal is not always practicable on the street. Thus we have the system we have and we need to work within that system.

There are also, without doubt, some bad teachers out there. But there are many good ones who do the best they can. It is also good to remember that teachers alone are not responsible for a child’s education. Parents should play at least an equal if not more significant role in the shaping of their child’s mind and habits. And so, as 2013 begins, here are—according to my informal survey of teachers all over Washoe County—a few things we parents can do to help children succeed in school. Think of them, perhaps, as belated New Year’s resolutions.

Establish a connection with your child’s teacher. Check grades, e-mail or call your child’s teacher and introduce yourself. You have no idea how happy this makes us.

Don’t assume the worst of the teacher. We work very hard for your child. Think of us as teammates, not rivals. Or, as my colleague’s father used to tell him: “Son, whenever there is a disagreement between you and your teacher, you are wrong, every time.” While this may not be the case “every time,” it provides a basis of mutual respect between adults. This basis is far easier to work from when problems arise than a basis of distrust.

When education is important in the home, it becomes important to the child. Demonstrate learning for your children. Read at home—read to your child and in front of your child. Ask questions. Research answers to things that you don’t know. Show them how to solve problems by striving to solve your own problems yourself, and then allow your child to solve her own problems by herself. Children rarely listen to what we say, but they always watch what we do.

Teach your children to become self-advocates. Fighting their battles for them only teaches them to become dependent on you and does not prepare for life in the real world.

Do not give your child a cell phone. If you feel you must get him a cell phone, get him one without a texting plan. This will relieve him of the pressure to update his friends during class. It will also require him to have face-to-face conversations with other human beings. And, OMG, it might also just weed some text lingo out of his formal writing, u no?

Turn off the TV (and internet). Make watching it something fun because of its rarity, not the sole source of amusement in your house. You would be amazed how much better students do in school when they are not addicted to being spectacularly entertained.

Make certain your child gets at least eight hours of sleep and eats breakfast. They are much easier to teach when they are not starved and sleep deprived.

Require that your child be on time to school and everywhere else he or she goes, and be on time yourself as a good example.

Eat dinner together without the television or other distractions. If your schedule is too packed with sports or other events then cut something out—but don’t cut out dinner. The research is staggering regarding the benefits of the family meal: children in families who eat together are less likely to become overweight or get into drugs. They also tend to do better in school. And, if that’s not enough, psychologists have shown that it is at the family table where parents are more likely to hear of a serious problem before it’s too late.

Indulge your child’s flights of fancy—his or her natural spontaneity. It is this kind of play that leads to discovery. It has also been shown to curb impulse control issues later on in life.

Your older children are not the primary caregivers for your younger children. We understand that sometimes it’s hard to juggle multiple ages, but do not let this get in the way of your older child’s success in school. She didn’t have those babies, you did.

Talk to your child about birth control and educate them on sex. In this day and age, accidents shouldn’t happen, regardless of religious beliefs. We have a hard enough job teaching young people without children.

Show up to school functions, even if your child says he doesn’t care. Trust us, he does.

Talk to your child from the beginning. Show your 2-year-old how an egg looks cooked and uncooked; discuss with your fifteen-year-old the war in Syria. This not only demonstrates for them thought processes but also builds cultural literacy and vocabulary. They need to learn more than the formal knowledge of the classroom.

Compliment your child’s effort more than her talent. Research shows that children who are praised for their hard work tend to work harder, no matter the result, while children praised for their smarts tend to work less or not at all for fear of not meeting others’ expectations. The child praised for her hard work also demonstrates more delight in the task. Our society could use a lot more people who know simply how to put their noses to the grindstone until the epiphany comes, and enjoy the effort.