student success

Listen to Parents, Even When You Don't Feel Like It

At the end of a long day, the last thing I'm looking for is a long and detailed email from a parent. Not that I don’t value good communication with parents, but usually I feel exhausted and am still looking at lessons and field trips to plan and professional learning to dig into. “One more thing. Sigh.” Still, as the district’s gifted and talented specialist, I am both a teacher and instructional coach. I know it’s my job to learn as much as I can about our students’ interests to increase their engagement. I’ve learned that parents are great partners in this work because they share their children’s’ challenges and talents in compelling ways. My students are their children.

Anna and the Obvious

So when I got that email from Anna’s mom, I checked my emotions, opened the email and read it down to the bottom. I learned that, despite her teachers’ best efforts, Anna, a bright third-grade student, was not enjoying school. In fact, her mom shared that Anna had to be dragged out of bed to go to school, even though her teacher greeted her every day with a smile. Mom confirmed and appreciated that, but said that despite the great things happening in Anna's classroom, Anna sulked at breakfast every day. Anna’s mom, in fact, was feeling overwhelmed and her email clearly outlined her concerns. I also wondered what was going on with Anna. I knew that this was not the first email Mom had sent. We, her teachers, had already tried to make things right. But this message from Mom let me know that we needed to do more. The school needed to work with Mom as our partner. So, I sat down with Anna to do what we call an "interest survey" and learn what she cared about. “Who do you admire?” I asked. “Martin Luther King,” she said. “He knew the obvious.” “The obvious?” “Yes, that we are all the same,” she said. “Nobody is better than anybody else.” Soon, the conversation took off as I took notes furiously, drawing arrows and circles to connect Anna’s ideas into a picture she could see. Her eyes lit up as she spoke and began to see the connections. In the end, she had decided to create a graphic novel to show how people living in different countries and times made difficult decisions. After our meeting, I shared our plan with Anna’s classroom teacher who would then help to supervise the work and make a place in the classroom for Anna’s project materials. “Not my desk,” Anna said. “It will be confusing to me.” The teacher nodded and suggested a better spot. The next day, Mom’s email came to the team. “What a difference a day makes! Anna asked if she could get up early to do research. Thank you, All!”

The Difference a Parent Makes

Anna’s mother brought crucial information to the team so that her child could be supported, learn more and grow. In addition to my conversation with Anna, the classroom teacher began to provide more challenging math assignments and the school counselor listened to the student’s heartfelt concerns. Perhaps this intervention happened at a critical time in the child’s life, one that could later be seen as the moment when the student realized that people in schools listen. Because Anna was an excellent student, it would be easy to overlook her urgent needs, but luckily her mother was able to communicate well with the school. Helping our children to succeed, however, must not fall on the shoulders of the parents who are the best communicators. We need to find ways to systematically include parents’ observations and concerns into school life. And, we need to listen to parents, even when we don’t feel like it. By encouraging families to share what they know about their children, we can all do a better job and maybe we won’t let any child go unnoticed when they seem to be achieving, but actually are in desperate need of our help.
Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Gifted and Talented specialist in New Jersey and has been teaching for 38 years. She is also the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, the winner of the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Award, a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, an America Achieves Fellow (2011-2015), a member of both the Board of Directors of the National Education Association ...

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