Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How Teachers Teach Us about Our Kids

Today, Valerie Strauss' fabulous Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet, features a guest post from Daniel Willingham--professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and excellent education advice-giver--that is worth sharing and discussing. Willingham's post, "When Teachers Speak Unwelcome Truths about Your Child," describes a situation that, if you have had kids in school for any length of time, you've likely already faced yourself--and if you haven't, you will soon enough.

Willingham makes three excellent points. First, he notes that as parents, we're passionate about our own kids. Teachers are more likely to be more neutral and therefore more objective about what's going on with them.

Second, kids often behave differently at school than at home. This rang true for me. I often feel that I don't know my kids' school selves very well. That's as it should be, to some extent. School is a place for kids to develop secure identities, grounded in but distinct from the ways they are at home. Usually, I find that my kids tend to be more together and with it at school than they are at home, which makes sense. Home is the place where they come to relax and chill out, and where they will always be loved and accepted. I don't necessarily always love what they do or say, but I always love them, and they know it, and that allows them to let their guard down a bit. At school, they're front-and-center in the role of student, and given the relentless nature of the school day, their sense that they are being evaluated at nearly every minute is completely accurate. We expect a lot at home, but the atmosphere here is different both by happenstance and design.

That said, earlier this year, we experienced the reverse when we heard from a teacher that one of our kids was exhibiting significant anxiety in class. This was a shocker, because I've always seen my child as confident and secure. A meeting with the teacher with the kid in question present in which we thought out loud together about what was going on in class, and what we could do to decrease his anxiety and the interruptions that were resulting, was fairly successful. But it wasn't easy to hear that my kid wasn't his best self in class. It happens, of course, and I'm grateful to his teacher for calling me when she noticed what was going on and for the years she'd spent teaching so many kids. She'd seen this before--she's seen everything before and was able to take the long view that I, in the grip of worry for my kid's happiness, could not.

This connects to Willingham's third point, which is that as parents, most of us have a small data set from which to draw when we're understanding typical behavior, abilities, temperament, and other characteristics. We tend to think that what is normal for us--our own kids--is the norm. But of course it's not. When you're able to draw on the experience and expertise of a teacher who has seen a much wider range of kids, you are able to know something about your kid you might never otherwise know, especially if you're able to accept the possibility of validity in the teacher's comments. When I heard my son described as anxious and, in fact, causing a fair amount of disruption as a result, I was perplexed. This just did not seem like typical behavior for my son, and it wasn't. His teacher agreed, and was able to convey to me that anxiety like that wasn't typical behavior for any kid that age, in her experience--but it was behavior she'd seen before, and rather than labeling my son as disruptive, she was able to see some of the triggers that were causing his distress in ways that I just could not, due to my lack of context, experience, and professional judgment.

Communication between family members and educators can be easy, and it can be painfully difficult. For us to be able to hear feedback about our kids, unwelcome or otherwise, requires appropriate systems and structures for home-school communication. Due to a wide variety of factors that affect teachers and family members, those systems and structures don't exist in all situations. We need to change policies and conditions so that all families get regular, clear, and appropriate opportunities for communication, and so that all teachers feel supported and acknowledged as professionals when they take the time to reach out to families as often as necessary. And there are times when for whatever set of reasons, teachers do not characterize our kids fairly, and we do what we need to do as parents to advocate for them.

That said, thus far, I've been thankful for the insights I've gained about my children from their teachers. What I've learned hasn't always been easy to hear at first, but it has allowed me to see struggles and challenges more clearly and, most of the time, allowed us to benefit from teachers' expertise and understanding.

I'll be featuring more on Willingham soon; his book, Why Don't Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answer Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom is on deck on my read-and-blog-about book pile. Anne T. Henderson, et al's Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships is at bat, post to go up this week. 

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