It’s September. You are sitting, legs crossed, foot shaking, in one of the neatly aligned rows of high school desks. You look around the room at the other parents, some deflecting nerves into their phones, others lining up pens and notebooks to take notes and in walks the teacher. You wonder, how could she be in charge? She’s tiny and looks 12. And then she begins:
Hello! My name is Emily Genser and I have been teaching English for 14 years. I have taught every grade, 6-12 for at least one year, so I like to say I know where your child is coming from and I know where he’s going. I have taught every level from remedial to Advanced Placement. I promise this: I will make your child laugh. I will make your child work. I will introduce him to ideas that make him stretch and that challenge him. I will teach him.
Middle School is No Man’s Land
As high school teachers, we understand that your kids are coming from the no man’s land of middle school. In middle school, emotions rule, grades mean nothing, and the only thing that truly matters is persistence. Kids learn to balance their wants with their needs. They are beginning to see the world for what it can be (sometimes cruel, sometimes wonderful) and to figure out where they will stand. They will go through personality changes like clothing trends, and may find that each new attitude is more constricting than the last. As parents, we just try to survive this time, looking for glimpses of the child we knew and hoping that the personality they choose allows space for us. Sometimes parents look at school as a place where they can still be in control, and they will try to foist that control on the teacher. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
Freshman Year and The Brave New World
9th Grade: At the beginning of this year, you will get a chance to meet the teachers. TRUST THEM. You will be nervous, you will be worried about how big the classes are and you will worry that you child will get lost in the fray. You will think about your daughter’s anxiety, or your son’s reticence. You will worry about your 14-year-old being unfocused or lost and not asking for help. All of these worries are normal, and the teacher in front of you has seen everything and more before your son or daughter walks into her room. Remember that the teacher is a professional. Most states require that teachers have a Master’s Degree in teaching their subject. Every teacher wants your child to succeed and most will do whatever it takes to help them do just that. If you keep that in mind, you and the teacher will start off just fine.
MY SUGGESTION: Email the teacher. They might ask you to fill out a parent information form at the open house. Email them anyway. Most of those forms sit in a desk until they notice a problem. Don’t send a long email, but introduce yourself and your child. Include major concerns to look out for and provide any and all phone numbers. If your information is easy to access, the teacher will be more likely to get in touch. Stay up to date with your kid’s grades. Most schools use automated-web based grading programs now. Because of this, a lot of schools are not sending home progress reports and teachers will not update you until things are dire. If you see a trend in dropping grades across subjects, it is up to you to get in touch. We don’t know how your son/daughter is doing in other subjects, so what you see as an issue, we might not catch. Send an email. Check in at the midpoint of the year and again toward the end. These emails don’t go unnoticed. They keep your child on the radar. However, don’t over-email. Squeaky wheels get annoying, but don’t necessarily get results. No one wants to be hovered over.
DO NOT DO THEIR HOMEWORK. Check out Judith Newman’s column in the New York Times about helping with homework. It may come from a place of goodness in you, but it doesn’t ensure any sort of success for your child. If anything, when your child’s teacher notices it, and she will, it will upset her. It will make things harder for your child, not easier. When in doubt, email the teacher. Ask questions about how long an assignment is taking. Sometimes, one question could clear up the whole thing, and your child will be able to do the work. If he sees you asking questions and getting answers, perhaps he will model this behavior at school as well. Especially if he sees it working.
Sophomore Year and a Chance to Screw Up
10th Grade: Okay, year one is through and with each new year, we raise the bar for your child and lower it for you. Take a step back and breathe through it. It’s now time for your child to learn to advocate for himself. Go to open house. Meet the teachers. Feel free to email the teachers your information and some notes about your son or daughter. But only once, at the beginning of the year. Stay up to date with his grades, and ask him what projects are upcoming, but stand back and let him learn to plan his work, and to balance the load. He will hit potholes and sometimes fall in. Let him climb out. Let him fix what breaks. This is the year to screw up and work it out. This is the year to let him grow into himself. Only step in when there is no other choice.
Junior Year and Nine Tortuous Months
11th Grade: AAAAAH Junior year!!!! This is the year. There is so much stress on your child in his junior year that you will go gray, go without sleep and you will not understand how he seems able to sleep comfortably at night. Teenagers have an amazing ability to hide their anxiety. Whether or not he shows it, he will be feeling frantic this year. He may be taking A.P. courses, is probably involved with extracurriculars of some sort, and he’s getting lots of homework. His classes are all harder now, and he’s hearing almost daily from counselors about how his future depends on what he is doing right now. Let home be a refuge from this. Keep things much the same as they have always been and try not to apply more pressure. He needs a place to breathe and this year, it is not at school. If he can wait another year to get a job, that might be a good idea. If he can’t, then make sure he doesn’t work too many hours. School comes first and always this year. It is that important.
ONE BIG SUGGESTION: Talk to your child about his teachers. Help him to figure out to whom he can go for a strong, personal recommendation. I have the most difficulties writing rec’s for the quiet students. If I don’t know your child well, my recommendation will be bland and generic. Also, make sure your child asks the teacher IN PERSON for a recommendation. He is asking us to do something extra, that is not required and for which we can barely find the time. It is a favor. Act accordingly.
Senior Year and the Victory Lap
12th grade: Home stretch. Once applications are in, the whole family can breathe more easily. There will be less pressure in school this year, overall, so just make sure that you are on top of the application process. Go to guidance meeting, if your school has them and make sure your child is meeting deadlines. Other than that, give him a bit of room to enjoy his last year of high school. He will have less homework and more long-term projects. Check on grades periodically, but start treating him like an adult. He’ll need to feel responsible for himself if he is leaving the house in a year. You’ll both be better for it, if you start the process of letting go now. Most of all, through everything, remember that we all want the same things.
Teachers and parents want to create leaders. We want to feel that we are helping individuals to find themselves and to become good, strong-minded adults who can take on the world in an informed way. If we work together, and give them a supportive foundation, then they will be ready for anything.
Emily Genser is the mother of Abigail (4 1/2) and Josh (2) and a high school English teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut. She is passionate about both jobs and spends most of her time laughing. You can find her blogging away her few free moments of the day at Exhausted but Smiling.