I spent nearly five years at a nonprofit focused on getting students in and through college. Many of the students who entered our program were not on track to graduate high school and required working closely with counselors, parents and principals to ensure they would graduate high school and hopefully continue on to college.
Our goal was not only to ensure students graduate, but also to equip parents with the skill set to continue helping their children in our absence. Like me, many of the children I’ve worked with over the years have parents that have never attended college or did not graduate. Advocating for your kid can be tough when you’re insecure because of your level of education, in addition to coming from a culture of distrust due to an unequal education system.
So here are some questions we encouraged parents to ask teachers and schools to help our students succeed. Keep in mind these are a general set of questions that work regardless of the age and grade. It is also for any governance model of school, meaning it works across traditional public schools, charters schools and private schools. I know the education systems need to improve but I also believe parents should have a full toolkit. Add this to it.
- 1. What’s my child’s reading level? This is a critical question because many parents think that school grades correspond with reading levels. They often times do not. Personally, I go a bit harder on reading because so many of our kids can’t read. Many are multiple years behind reading level yet are getting A’s and B’s in the subject. So asking this question is important. Apply this question to math as well. Know your child’s status, go beyond the letter grade.
- Can we set up a regular time to check-in? This question does something special to everyone involved. For the parent, it empowers you and sets implicit deadlines around student performance. For the teacher, it signifies to them they have an active partner in working with your child. For the child, he or she may act a bit differently knowing pops will be having a conversation with Ms. Johnson on Friday. I would suggest pushing to meet with counselors/principals as well at about a 1:3 ratio (i.e. if you meet with a teacher monthly, try to meet with the principal quarterly). If the teacher refuses to meet with you, then I’d strongly suggest a conversation with the principal ASAP.
- What do you see in my child? First off, your kid is a human deserving of love and respect. How can someone truly love and respect your child if they know nothing about your baby? How can someone truly serve your child from a place of love if he or she doesn’t see his or her potential? This question opens up a conversation about your child’s humanity. It ensures we start from a place of picturing the best for our children that are often seen as much older and dangerous in the eyes of the world—boys and our girls.
- What’s the goal for this month (or section, quarter, marking period, etc.)? This question was critical when I was advocating for students on behalf of their parents. One, for many teachers I teamed up with, they were juiced that someone saw and respected the complexity of their work enough to attempt to speak the language. Two, it allowed them to expound on the hopes and goals they have for their students. What it does for you as a parent is allow you to internalize the goals and discuss them at home.
- What is your discipline policy? The numbers are clear that Black boys and girls get suspended at crazy rates. It’s! Crazy! Son! However, broaching the conversation early and often is important so kids acting like kids doesn’t become a liability. Implicit bias can send your baby down a tough road that many of our babies don’t recover from. So listen to the policy. Ask questions about the policy. Make yourself available to the teacher and ask the teacher to be available to you because here’s the deal, sometimes, teachers are quick on the draw as they are trying to hold a space not just for your child but for every child in the class. Sometimes your child gets targeted unfairly for a variety of reasons. Sometimes your child may just be off the hook in the moment.
All of these things may be true, I don’t know and am not claiming to know. However, what I do know is that when a parent and a teacher are working as a team, things can be mitigated much better. There are conversations about what is happening and why.
When there is a relationship, you’re shooting the teacher a text when your son had a rough weekend for reason X. When there is a relationship, the teacher is letting you know when your child has been acting out of character. It’s a way to create harmony when things are rocky and for most people, there will be rocky times.
When I was working with my students, I got a host of text messages and emails from teachers and parents about these things, and we were able to work with them at a level 2 rather than a level 10. Relationships matter.
This isn’t a political piece. What I’m not here for is to discuss charter versus traditional public. I’m not here to discuss testing. I’m here as an advocate that rolled up those sleeves and helped teachers, kids and their families get the education and support they needed.