Thursday, April 7, 2011

A View from the Back of the Room

This article originally published a few years ago on a parent organization website

As a father of two children, ages six and five, it often seems like my life began little more than six years ago. My wife and I, like many parents, have decided to put our children first in our lives. Devoting ourselves, as our parents did, to ensuring that our kids are ready for life outside the nest, when that time comes. This involves many areas, some easy to manage, some more difficult, but tantamount through it all is our focus on the education our kids receive.

Homework comes before TV or computer games. Strengths are celebrated vigorously and weaknesses are treated as challenges to be overcome.  Our home is full of learning tools, educational games and books, books, books. We have, hopefully, created an environment that promotes a love of learning.

And then, we put them on the bus.

Not content to simply hope for the best, we have sought out the opportunities available to us to be involved in the school life of our kids. Granted, my children are in kindergarten and first grade, where parental involvement is encouraged as a necessary part of the transition from sheltered home life to social interaction with new authority figures. This happy fact has provided our family the good fortune of getting to know many of the educators in this school, and I can honestly say that we are confident in their abilities to expand the young minds in their care every day. The teachers our children have make sure we feel welcome, and acknowledge the role that we play in their hearts and minds.  I have never had a question sidestepped, nor have I experienced anything but an open and honest assessment of any situation that I have felt important enough to discuss. The teachers and staff are truly professionals, and have put to rest the natural worries and insecurities that we, as parents of young children, harbored that first time the bus stopped at the corner of our street.

On those occasions when I have the opportunity to be in the classroom, I am afforded a sense of how much my kids have grown, as they demonstrate a capability that I hadn't known they yet possessed, or achieve some mastery of a task they hadn't learned from me. It fills me with pride to see it, because I know that, in their minds, this new skill belongs solely to them. It's theirs, because they learned it in school. My role in their lives is not diminished by this, but simply changed to suit the surroundings. I go from omnipotent caregiver to JJ's Dad, videotaping the painting of paper plates. Underneath it, though, is the understanding that my involvement brings value to the students, and that comes only from a teacher confident in their own abilities. The kids can sense it, and, in my experiences, it seems to be a natural occurrence.

But, just as at home, boundaries are important.  When they are in the classroom, it is important for kids to know that, even though Mom or Dad is there for the party, the teacher is still in charge, and when he or she delivers an instruction, it is to be followed.  To circumvent that authority would serve only a parent's ego, and is, at best, a point of confusion for a child. A teacher strong in their ability to be in charge makes light work of such situations by assigning tasks to parents that contribute to the success of the event. Quality educators handle this with aplomb, making it clear that to be a value-add means allowing them to do that which they have been trained to do...teach your children.

It can be difficult to see my children learn something that I couldn't have taught them, or to see them look up to someone other than me, but to try to restrain them from those growth experiences by riding shotgun with them every day does no more than delay the inevitable. We are supposed to be preparing them for life without us, as hard as that seems. I often have to step back and ask myself if what I am doing is for them, or simply to protect me from the feeling that they will someday be out on their own without needing me there every minute.

As my children progress to higher grades, what is expected of them in terms of workload and knowledge retained will grow, but the day doesn't get any longer.  They must absorb more and more during the course of a school day. Their teachers will have more to teach them in order to prepare them for middle school. So, as their life changes, we, as parents must change, too. Teachers have to teach, and the way to help them may not always include passing out paper cups or stuffing backpacks. Committees and parent/teacher groups involved in projects that contribute to the student body as a whole become the way to stay connected and "in the loop" when it comes to my kids' education. Involvement in these groups also provides the necessary benefit of allowing school administrators the opportunity to know who is coming and going in the hallways.
Again, the staff and administrators have welcomed my inclusion into these groups, encouraging me to make suggestions, voice opinions and lend a hand when it's needed. Even though it's been a few years since I sat at a desk facing a blackboard, I still get the same feeling when a teacher takes the time to tell me that what I have done is appreciated, and has contributed in a valuable way to what they are doing every day.

So, if you happen to be at my kids’ school and you see some guy standing behind a video camera, drawing washable tattoos on kids during an event or hauling watermelons outside for Field Day, you can be sure that there is a place for parents in our school. There are quite a few of us around.  Feel free to stop and say, "Hi". And maybe carry a few watermelons...these things are heavy.