Here’s an interesting article from Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, a local clinical psychologist and parenting expert, on the value of gathering information from teachers prior to the conclusion of the school year
Ask the Teachers
Now that school is winding down, many parents are assessing how successful this year has been–for example, how well their kids performed, what went smoothly, and what they hope will be better next year. When kids have struggled academically, socially, or behaviorally, mothers and fathers often have nagging questions: Should they be concerned, or are they just expecting too much? Do students have the skills they need for the next grade? Should kids work on improving their weaknesses during the summer? As you know, by the time students are in middle school and, especially, in high school, it is harder for parents to know what is really going on and to get answers to these sorts of questions.
If you have found yourself in this situation, you know that without definitive information you’re left to do a lot of speculating: “Maybe it was all the absences from the flu…,” “She just didn’t get along with her teachers this year,” “Not making varsity basketball killed his confidence…” In desperation, you may also turn to friends or relatives you think will be knowledgeable, only to become more confused by conflicting or unwise advice. In the past, maybe you decided to just wait and see how things went the following school year.
But I’m proposing an alternative. Before school empties for the summer, why not take advantage of an invaluable resource: The teachers and guidance counselors who have gotten to know your teen or tween best during the past school year? When I observe students in school or attend school meetings, I am continually impressed by teachers’ insights. By reaching out, you might tap into a wealth of information that can either reassure you or guide you in how best to help your child.
Why Ask Educators
In my experience, teachers and guidance counselors are the exact right people to whom you should turn with your questions and concerns because they are:
Objective. A close family friend, aunt, or grandparent is hardly able to offer an objective view. Chances are, they will jump at the chance to champion your teen and assure you that you’re worried for nothing (“she’ll outgrow it,” “many teens go through this,” “my own son was like that, and look how he turned out”). The problem with these comforting words is that they may be based solely on the fact that these people adore your child–and you–and therefore desperately hope that everything is okay. Teachers, on the other hand, can offer neutral, matter-of-fact answers to your questions.
Knowledgeable. Because teachers have spent part of every single school day with your teens, they have had ample opportunity to get to know them. Just because high school and middle school teachers spend less time with students compared to their elementary school counterparts, you should not discount their insights. Just recently, a high school sophomore told me that her teacher asked her why she suddenly started sitting in the back of the classroom and stopped participating. When Jasmine confessed that three girls were publicly humiliating and systematically ostracizing her from her social group, her teacher not only initiated an intervention with the teens, but also added lessons on bullying and bystanders to her curriculum.
Able to observe progress over time. Because they’ve seen your kids for a period of ten months or more, teachers are in the best position to say whether they improved over the year, held their own, or are demonstrating an ever-widening gap between their skills and those of their classmates. Teachers can describe your tween’s struggle to keep up with the pace of work or the content of the curriculum. They can suggest what your student can work on over the summer. Educators can also recommend placements for the upcoming year.
Able to offer broad perspectives. As you think about whether your teen’s issues are typical, you probably compare only to siblings, cousins, or family friends. Teachers, on the other hand, work with dozens of students every year of similar ages and educational backgrounds. Now multiply this number by the number of years they’ve been teaching and their reference group expands to the hundreds or thousands.
Educators also can see the bigger picture: how your child fits into the context of her entire class and the overall grade. Recently, a guidance counselor assured the anxious mother of a late blooming eighth grade boy that he would do fine in high school because he was not alone; there were many boys like James in this particular class. Knowing whether the school perceives your student’s struggles as typical or unusual can be the first step in figuring out whether there is an issue to be addressed and, if so, what you might do about it. If summer tutoring is needed, teachers may be available themselves or make referrals to their colleagues.
What to Ask
The most common questions parents have are about their kids’ academic progress. Report cards give some information about mastery of subjects, but they rarely tell the whole story. Did your child perform differently on the various components that made up her grade, such as tests and quizzes, homework completion, projects, and class participation? How were his work habits, level of organization, and preparedness for class?
Teachers can give you insight into your child’s behavior in the classroom, as well. What have they observed this year? Does your tween seem to know when he needs help? Can she ask questions and seek additional help appropriately? Does your teen respond well to criticism? How do kids work within groups and use unstructured time? It might give you additional clues if you learn that your child’s teachers see him as similarly as an engaged and conscientious learner–or if she blurts out answers impulsively in, say, Spanish but not in her other core subjects.
If you have concerns about how your teen is doing socially and emotionally, don’t hesitate to ask what she’s like at school. Many parents wonder whether their kids seem generally happy and comfortable with their friends at the lunch table. They would give anything to be the proverbial fly on the wall to see if the monosyllabic teen who lives in their home actually has fun and laughs in school. This is your chance to find out. Teachers can essentially be your eyes. Does your son sit only with his teammates in the cafeteria, or does he branch out? Is your daughter still walking with her head down in the hallway?
What you learn may be unexpectedly illuminating. For example, it was only when Marni’s mother found out from her guidance counselor that she often asked to go to the nurse during math, but not in other classes, that she became aware of an escalating conflict between her daughter and this particular teacher.
How to Get Information
Once kids are in middle school, they usually have teams of teachers. So it’s harder for parents to know who to ask. Most often, it is best to direct questions through your teen’s guidance counselor, who can email her team of teachers to gather information. Or, you can contact one or two teachers directly if circumstances warrant–for example, if your student has had difficulty in that subject, formed a strong relationship with the teacher or, conversely complained about anything throughout the year.
Because teachers are extremely busy, perhaps send an initial email and find out whether they prefer to email you back or to schedule a brief phone conversation. Make sure to convey to any teachers you contact that you welcome their honest feedback and will be open to their suggestions. Otherwise, I find that many educators are reluctant to speak candidly with parents; they are understandably hesitant about how their concerns will be received.
To get unbiased information, ask clear, open-ended questions. For example, how does the teacher describe your son’s strengths and weaknesses? Should any skill deficits be addressed over the summer or next year? If you want to know if your child has been affected by a stressful life event, ask his teachers if they have seen a change within a certain time frame. For example, to learn whether her daughter’s trial of new medication had been effective, the mother of a 7th grader asked the guidance counselor to survey her team of teachers to ask about her behavior during the previous two weeks.
Because the end of the school year is extremely busy for educators, be extra respectful of their time. Don’t wait until they are headed off for summer vacation to approach them, and make it easy for teachers or guidance counselors to respond to your questions. Of course, it is always thoughtful to express your appreciation not only for the teachers’ input about your teen or tween, but also for their efforts throughout the year.