I often gave a presentation to parents of children about to enter kindergarten that straddled the fine line between wanting them to be knowledgeable and informed so they could advocate for children and for good educational practice, and not wanting to panic them about having their children enter a “school system.” It was a delicate balancing act. I tried to tell them to “watch out” and “relax” at the same time.
Over the 25 years I gave these talks, the things to be wary of in public education varied from year to year, but I felt comfortable telling parents that, while not every year would be stellar, overall their children would be fine. Yes, some teachers were just adequate, but most children could learn from such a teacher (even if it was how to deal with disappointing teachers). Luckily, the majority of educators in every school were dedicated, skilled, and kind teachers.
In these talks, I used my own children, who were good students, as examples. If school did not challenge them, or teach them how to write a proper five-paragraph essay, or explain math well enough to complete the homework assignment, this was not a huge worry. I helped with reading and writing, leaving the math to my husband. After all, parents are their children’s first and best teachers. Since, at these particular schools, I was usually addressing middle-class families with two parents in the home, families who could afford to have one parent working part-time or staying home with children, I guess my perspective made some sense. With 20/20 hindsight, I now realize I was addressing a small slice of the pie.
Recently, my concerns have grown. Society has changed, the economy has deteriorated, and the issues that consumed the rest of the pie in the 1990’s are now affecting so-called middle-income families as well. Those parents (usually mothers) who were available to be their children’s "first and best teachers" now work full time because they have careers they love, because their families need their income, and/or because they are the sole wage earners. In addition, public schools have been under enormous pressure since politicians rather than educational experts are determining appropriate policy. Education is now standards-driven rather than developmentally appropriate, and the rights of children with special needs or exceptional abilities or different learning styles often fall prey to financial constraints and lack of appropriate personnel and training.
For these reasons, I now feel compelled to encourage all parents to be informed advocates for children, and to cry “watch out” more loudly than before.
- Watch out if your child is shy or anxious. She may not perform well on standardized tests and that will impact what educators think she can/should learn, beginning in kindergarten.
- Watch out if your child has special needs. You will be stepping into a minefield and have to become a strong advocate for your child’s right to be included and educated to reach his potential.
- Watch out if you can’t really help your child with homework due to the demands of your life situation or work schedule. Much of the homework does not reinforce concepts learned at school. It often introduces new concepts and usually takes far longer to complete than necessary.
- Watch out if you have a very active child. Most of school consists of sitting with limited recess and exercise.
- Watch out if you have a very creative child. It is often more important to complete the work like everyone else than to devote too much time to drawing illustrations or imaginative writing.
In their “race to the top,” public schools often leave the most vulnerable children behind. If you are fortunate, they are not your children, but regardless, they are the children of your friends, relatives, or neighbors. Which makes all of them your responsibility. Be informed, advocate for what is right, and watch out for all of the children. When you are part of a caring school community of parents, teachers, and administrators working together in the best interests of the children, you can begin to relax.
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