Heather Wolpert-Gawron

What Kind of Relationship Will I Have With My Child’s School?

By on November 15, 2009

This year is unlike any other in that for the first time, I am on the other side of the desk. My 3 year-old started pre-school this year and it has become a lesson in parenting and teaching like no other.

Ms. E is my son’s appropriately bubbly teacher. She has smiles in her eyes and hugs for all. But you can also tell she’s no push over and seems to know each kid for who they are. The classroom environment reflects the learning going on, and quotes from each kid pepper the walls in response to critical-thinking questions, predictions, and emotional temperature taking.

When I pick him up at the end of my day, I get my daily reports about how he said something funny or something thoughtful, and it lights a pride in me that I never knew a person could feel. Occasionally, there’s the bummer update of how he tried to incite a naptime riot; but overall, the reports I get are positive, generally never needing anything more then a talk on the way home from me and a bedside follow up from my husband when he gets home.

screaming kidAs a teacher I know realistically that this will not always be the case. I also know that when my son brings home stories of the “villains in the yard” I’m sure that he isn’t always the innocent victim, despite his claims. It’s just clear in his head that he’s the protagonist of this own story. I try to follow up the occasional tales of shoving with questions like, “Well, what did you do that made him want to push you?” or “How did you handle it? Did you go to Ms. E, use your words, or push back?” Unfortunately, the answers differ from incident to incident, and thus, I realize, that while my child is wonderful, he’s also learning. And sometimes he’s learning by making the right decisions, and sometimes he’s learning by making the wrong ones. But these are lessons every kid must learn once they enter school and realize that they aren’t the only child in the universe.

As a teacher I’ve met great parents with some really annoying kids. I’ve also met great kids with some really annoying parents, and I wonder if this hasn’t helped educate me a little in my own relationship with my child’s school. The fact is, my child is sometimes at fault, and I know there are times when his behavior would make me wince. I also know that even though he’s a great kid, he’s surely had times of being less than so. On occasion, he’s even tested the boundaries of just how much I’ll buy in the way of exaggeration and outright fantasy. Hopefully my awareness as a teacher that all kids are capable of slinging BS helps me as a parent of my own child. “Hopefully” being the key word here.

But sometimes I have to remind myself that not every parent feels as I do. I know this as a teacher (“She never told me!”) But I got first hand knowledge of this as a parent just the other day.

It was pretty early when I dropped my son off at pre-school, and as we helped one of the teachers take down the little colored chairs off of a table, another parent walked in. She came up to me as our sons ran off to play together. I greeted her with a smile and a howdy, at which point she told me in one breath that my son had kicked her son in the back the other day, and she thought I should know about it, because wouldn’t any parent want to know about something that maybe there should be a consequence for at home?

I felt a little blindsided. After all, Ms. E would have of course told me if my son had developed some violent ninja moves, wouldn’t she?  And while it felt a little weird for another parent to be hinting at holes in my discipline policies,  if my son actually was limbering up for a violent pre-school take-over, I really did need to do something about it.

I remember an incident when my own dad chased after the local park bully. He ran, swinging his satin disco jacket over his head like a lasso to chase the kid off when the little bugger kept running his Big Wheel into my Holly Hobby bicycle. Maybe, in her story, this moment was this mom’s big chase scene too?

Despite the weirdness, I thanked the mom for the information and promised her I’d talk to Ms. E. I told her how sorry I was it had happened, and pointed out that, look, aren’t our kids cute over there playing together?

She followed my gaze with a suspicious sneer and we parted our ways.

I spoke to Ms. E later that day who apologized profusely. After all, she said, parents shouldn’t be approaching each other with such concerns, much less advice on how to discipline at home.  But I disagreed. Indeed, I said, if this lady really felt the school was not protecting her little boy and my kid was this uber-threat to her son’s well-being, then she was right to take things into her own hands by approaching who she felt was the real cause of the problem: the mean kid’s mom.

I talked to Ms. E honestly.  I had a real concern that somehow my son might have indeed done something terrible that had slipped under the radar. I mean, was my kid some crazy bullying contortionist? I want to know. Let me have it. If I needed to redefine my impression of my own kid and start working on my Time-Out skills, I wanted to know sooner rather than later.

She assured me, however, that my kid was not the bully on the yard. She also said that not only was there no altercation between the boys brought to her attention by tears, accusations, or otherwise, she gave me the impression that this mom was told many horrid tales of school at home which went unquestioned.   In fact, the boys played together all day long, and she went on, apologetic still about the morning’s confrontation.

Again, I stressed that I wasn’t that upset by it. I just wanted to make sure she and the school were being honest with me about my son’s behavior during his office hours. After all, I’ve been at the teacher desk for parent-teacher conferences for years now, and I’ll be honest with you: fellow teachers are the worst conferences ever. Well, teachers and child psychologists. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because we all tend to be experts at all kids except our own. Anyway, I’d like to avoid that fate, if possible.

But it got me thinking about my own relationship as a parent with my child’s school. Bottom line is, I choose to trust my instincts. I looked long and hard for a pre-school with teachers I could trust. So I feel that I have to trust that the teachers will let me know when my son does something that requires follow-through at home. I have to trust that they will tell me when or if they are concerned about something. I have to trust that they will protect him during his day, learning about people and relationships. I have to trust them just as other parents trust me.

Every Mom and Dad is learning what kind of parent they are going to be. And this includes what kind of relationship that they will have not only with their child, but also with their child’s school.

The way I see it, my child is going to have many authorities and fellow co-workers in his life. He won’t get along with everyone he works with.  But how he handles those he doesn’t get along with, will speak more about the man he will be then how he handles those he does.

For children, this is a lot of what school is all about. But it really all starts with us as parents modeling how we handle ourselves as members of a school community.

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  1. Nancy Flanagan
    November 20, 2009

    Great post, Heather. And how incredibly fortunate that your first formal schooling experience has been guided by a smart-cookie teacher (invisible plaudits to her for her perception and her calm). I also agree that teacher-parents can be a dicey proposition in conferences–but not always. Sometimes, teachers are just jaded enough to see their own child’s failings clearly, asking only for a little patience and understanding at school.

  2. David B. Cohen
    November 20, 2009

    Very interesting reading! I definitely can relate, as I have a son who’s been responsible for some of what other parents worry about on the playground. I have a lot more sympathy now for the parents in those situations – at least at the elementary level. There’s this weirdness about it, that my wonderful sweet boy who plays so nicely in most situations, teaches his little brother to read, helps out with chores and does all his homework… could also be the kid other kids are scared of. If they could only see him all the time! But of course, I’ve seen everything – the good and the bad – and I know the problem is real and needs to be addressed. So I talk with the teacher, the after-school center director and staff, the Hebrew school teacher, always trying to get a feel for how things went today, yesterday, what’s working or not working.

    Being a teacher definitely affects the way I approach these situations, and for the better. I have thought about these issues in many different ways for many years. I have a sense of what I think are appropriate responsibilities and expectations for students, parents, teachers and schools, and I am able to analyze a situation with an eye towards establishing some consistency and putting all of the appropriate pieces in play. I’ve been fortunate to work with people whose judgment I trusted and who have always been reasonable in their expectations of me and my son. So, when we had a conference months ago and the teacher asked if I would back him up if he suggested consequences at home for problems at school, that was an issue I was quite comfortable with and where I knew my boundaries. I said I would absolutely back up consequences at home for any misbehavior relating to getting along with others, but I said I would not want to impose home consequences for academic matters (certainly not in 3rd grade). The teacher had exactly the same opinion.

    One other little story from a few years ago, where my parenting in a school situation came from my teacher-brain… I arrived at the after-school care and found my son (in kindergarten or first grade at the time) sitting alone and kind of upset. He didn’t want to tell me exactly what had happened. What to do? Option #1 – I can become that parent who wants to know every detail and manage every problem. I can demand of the staff to know why he’s sitting alone, why he’s upset, what happened, what they’ve done about it, what they’ll do in the future. Option #2 – I can make him responsible for dealing with it. I don’t have to tell you I chose option #2. I suggested there were a couple choices in this situation – we can try to leave the bad experience behind, just go home and try to feel better, or, go to the teacher and ask for help. He thought about it a moment and said he’d like to talk to the teacher. Again, I have options – should I go along, or stay back. I told him, “Well, there she is. Go talk to her.” I stayed 40-50 feet away on the playground. He dealt with it. I was very self-aware of my choices and don’t mind telling you I was proud of resisting the impulse to make his problem my problem. I think it also showed respect for the teacher. (I should only add that if there had been a pattern of problems or any reason at all to suspect injury, abuse, or serious distress, I wouldn’t have let a six-year-old handle it alone).

  3. Tiny
    December 17, 2009

    I have a very involved relationship with my child’s school and I’m lucky that that leaves them responsive to my requests. Most recently I’ve convinced the school to switch to Green cleaning for H1N1 disinfection and general cleaning as well. Many don’t realize that cleaning supplies are often more hazardous than the H1N1virus itself. Even bleach, because it has to be diluted properly (and usually isn’t) can be dangerous when incorrectly used. Here are some resources to help parents determine what their schools are using, and what they should be using: H1N1 in Schools and Environmental Working Group Report on Schools

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