Thursday, August 22, 2013

School Struggles

While my girls are loving their teachers, our neighbor is struggling with his.  His poor mom was in tears this morning saying she doesn't know what to do, and people are making her feel like a bad mom because she lives in this town.  No!  We are not bad moms for living where we can afford to have a house in a safe neighborhood.  And, for pete’s sake, get realistic people.  Our school is not perfect, but it is not the worst out there either.  When we were preparing to move, my husband and I researched all the school report cards and talked to as many parent educators as we could to get the real scoop on the schools around here.  When we balanced what we could afford with the best schools, this is where we ended up.  I don’t think that makes anyone a bad parent.  Plus even in the best schools, a kid can have a negative experience.  Teachers are human, and their personalities might not mesh with every parents’ or students’.  Maybe my girls have gotten lucky with their teacher assignments or maybe he has just been unlucky, but either way saying his bad experience is the fault of the parents for choosing to live in the house they have is wrong and not at all productive.

So what can parents do if their students are not getting on well with their teachers?  A lot!  There are very few hopeless situations in parenting.  We can do plenty.

  1. First, set up a face to face meeting with the teacher.  Don’t just go straight to the principal based solely on the information from your kid.  This isn't calling your kid a liar, but it is acknowledging that he is a kid and is giving you his point of view.  You need both sides if you are going to find a solution.
  2. Stay calm and be mature.  This is hard because as moms, we do turn into grizzly bears when our kids are hurt.  We need to swallow our animal instincts and remember that we are mature adults, professionals in our fields, normally rational and capable of speaking without swearing.  Once we start attacking the teacher or name calling or acting like a spaz, our ability to work with the teacher goes out the window.  The goal isn't to put the teacher in her place; it is to find a way to get the teacher and our child on the same page so our child can succeed.
  3. Stay away from toxic people who will get you wound up.  People love gossip, especially negative gossip.  People love to pass the blame, and teachers are easy targets.  You will have no problem finding parents who will happily jump on the “that school/teacher/district is terrible” bandwagon.  There are parents who Facebook stalk teachers from their children’s schools and spend hours ranting about them (because teachers are super human saints who aren't allowed to have social lives?).  That time could be better spent building strategies for your child’s education.  Toxic haters will sabotage your child’s success, so just walk away.
  4. Be honest.  Yeah, admitting our kids can be naughty isn't something we want to do, but it is something we have to do sometimes.  It is possible that problems with teachers are not solely the problem of the teacher, so be honest about what kinds of bad behaviors your child is capable of.  Also be honest about where your child is coming from. Be honest about how your child feels so the teacher knows.  Be honest about your child’s needs, especially if they are special needs (ie: kinetic learners need to be in motion, etc.).  Hopefully the teacher will be honest as well, and together, given all the information, you can make a plan.
  5. Stick to the plan.  Once you and the teacher have put together a plan, stick to it!  Whatever you do, do not bad mouth the plan to your kid.  That is sabotaging the whole thing.  Changes take time, so be patient. Be encouraging.  Hide any frustration.
  6. Don’t turn dinner time into teacher bashing time.  Whatever you do, no matter how frustrated you get, no matter how much you think taking your child’s side means attacking the teacher, don’t do it.  If children will succeed in school, they need to have at least some level of respect for authority.  Sure, articles about rebels making awesome adults are interesting, but realistically it is a minority of rebels who become Bill Gates.  Your child needs to respect and trust his teacher if he is going really put his full effort into working with her.  Rolling his eyes at her suggestions for improvement won’t get him anywhere closer to a good school experience.  Be the grown up and dig deep to find positives.
  7. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.  You can keep meeting with your child’s teacher.  Really.  Unless the teacher is a truly horrible teacher, he or she will want your child to succeed and will be willing to continue working with your family.
  8. If that doesn't work, go up the ladder.  If you are getting no where with the teacher and half the year has passed, then contact the principal to request a face to face meeting.  Like I said, teachers are human.  If you do get one who really won’t work with you or your child, you can speak up.  Be sure to not jump to the principal until you have made several attempts with the teacher however.  If you just go in ranting, they will send you back to the teacher and you will lose credibility.  If you go in calmly, list all the details of what has happened, all the efforts you and your child have made without success, then you will be more likely to get the principal’s ear and be able to bring about significant change.  Again, though, you must be sure to act like the mature adult and not the spazzing monster mom biting everyone’s heads off (which is so tempting).
  9. If THAT doesn't work, keep climbing the ladder.  Sadly, sometimes principals can be hard to work with.  In that case, keep going up and bring the issues to the superintendent's attention.  Again, be calm and specific listing all your attempts with the teacher and principal.  You will be taken much more seriously if you are calm.

I do hear often from other parents their complaints about schools, and they say, “yeah, but you are from a family of teachers, so you never have problems with them.”  Yes, I am from a family of teachers.  Yes, my background is in education.  Yes, my friends are teachers.  That just means I understand that teachers are working hard.  Teachers are not always perfect (trust me, I wouldn't want my kids in the classes of some of the people I studied education with in college).  But I also know parents can work with teachers.  I know treating teachers as professionals and partners in this whole child raising thing goes a lot further than treating them as sub-level human servants trying to take all our tax money while all they do is give our perfect angels demerits.  So talk to your children and talk to their teachers and be a team.  Amazing things can happen when parents and teachers combine forces instead of fighting against each other.

Returning at the end of a rough day, shouting, "I had an awesome day at school. After I got there, I stopped crying and did all my work. I love school!"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

“Mom, I am glad I am one of a kind. I am unique.”

first day smiles

This week my girls headed back to school.  After all the drama and tears of the past couple years, I was prepared to be putting my older daughter on the bus with a lump in my throat, worrying about all the “what ifs” that came true in the past – kids teasing her for playing hockey or liking science, girls refusing to sit with her at lunch because she wasn’t girly enough, boys refusing to play with her because she is a girl, and on and on.  Imagine the relief I felt then when, the day before school started up again, she told me she was excited about the new year and said, “Mom, I am glad I am one of a kind.  I am unique.”

Where had this newfound strength come from?  This is the same girl who just a couple months ago was shyly snuggled next to me on a park bench saying she was afraid to approach the other kids because they might not accept her.  This is the same girl who cried after school on a regular basis because of how the other kids were treating her.  Somehow, seemingly overnight, she had changed.  After putting her on the bus and watching her eagerly wave good-bye to me, I had time to sit alone and think about it all.  Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle started to drift together.  She gained confidence in herself and an appreciation for her uniqueness because of the strength of others, because people spoke up when they saw her being her. 

At the start of the summer, she was still feeling very down about herself and hesitant to try to form relationships with other kids.  When we went to Ukraine, she stayed glued to my side at first.  We would sit at the playground and watch the other kids running around.  I would urge her to introduce herself, but she would bury her head under my arm and say, “what if they are mean to me?  What if they don’t like me? What if they are like the kids at school?”  

Thankfully, there was another person there.  My husband’s cousin quietly praised her.  She invited her to go places and then bragged about her to others.  That little nudge was enough to get my daughter off the park bench.  If a cool medical school student thought she was not all bad, maybe the kids at the park might be ok with her.  They were.  Of course, not all of them clicked with her, but a group did, and the ones who didn’t just left her alone.  The ones who did, the boys who bucked tradition and ran around playing with the little blond girl, gave her the next nudge of confidence.
This is what support looks like.

The adults we have been lucky enough to surround our daughters with are incredible.  Instead of calling her weird or ignoring her, they have been very vocal cheerleaders for her.  That is critically important because praise coming just from me, her mom, doesn’t mean as much as praise from other people.  My praise is important and necessary, but not the same.  I can rave about the virtues of being a geek and cover the fridge with Simon Pegg quotes until I am blue in the face, but that is just laying a foundation.  The powerful building up comes from others.  When someone else says she is amazing BECAUSE she loves science or BECAUSE she plays hockey, that is powerful.  When someone invites her to their wedding and praises her crazy dance skills, that is powerful. When someone sends her a video like this one and tells her she should stay true to herself because that is what will make her happy as an adult, that is powerful. 

As adults and as parents, we often want to heap praise on our own kids.  Of course we do.  They are our perfect babies.  It is important to also recognize the value of praise from other people, though, too.  We must be those other people.  We must remember to recognize the good in other children in addition our own.  Just by simply saying, “I like the way you do that,” we might be the person nudging them a little out of self doubt and onto the playground.

To all the people nudging my daughter, thank you.  Really.  Truly.  Sincerely.  Please stay in her life and watch her grow as a result.

Friday, August 9, 2013

“Mama, you have to do whatever God says. But I don’t. I can make my own decisions.”

We are Catholics.  I grew up Catholic, worked as a Catholic retreat leader for three years after college, and now volunteer with youth ministry (religious education for middle school and high school) plus the parish council at our church.  My daughters have both been in religious education since they were three in addition to annual Vacation Bible School at our church.  But it doesn’t seem to be sticking in my six year old’s mind quite the same way as her older sister. 

For example, the other day in the car, my younger daughter Yasya was worried about her blintzes surviving.  After checking and seeing they were ok, she sighed, “Thank God!”  Her older sister was shocked and appalled.  “You can’t say that! You can only say ‘God’ if you are praying!”  To which Yasya replied, “it’s ok.  I wasn’t talking about your God.  I was thanking a different God.”  Hmm…

Another time she referred to God as the alien in her bedroom who tells her she must eat cookies to survive.  At Vacation Bible School when all the kids were supposed to yell, "Trust God!" she yelled, "Trust Kirk!" In preschool, she would talk about God as her religion teacher’s imaginary friend.

Because I know her religion teachers, and I have seen first hand how they teach and what they teach, I know her personal theology is not a result of them.  For one thing, she and her older sister both had the same teacher for two years – just with very different results.  And I know that neither my husband nor I refer to God as an alien in our bedroom, so she didn’t get that from us (honestly!).  At the end of the day, this is 100% Yasya.

With my older daughter in front of the church we named her after - St Sofia's
Yasya’s theology may worry her sister (who was named after a church, accompanied me on many retreats as a newborn, took her first steps in a church, and who we refer to as our little theologian), but – truly – I am not concerned.  I am kind of amused, but not at all worried about the future state of her soul.  I am more concerned about the people who ask me about her as if I should be worried.  Do they really think her ideas at six will define her ideas as an adult?

Here is what I have learned about theology and spirituality from talking to literally thousands of people about their spiritual journeys over the years and from working with dozens of Catholic parishes and schools.  Our faith at six is not the same as our faith at sixty-six.  Everything evolves.  Right now, whether she knows it or not, all her religious education classes, mealtime prayers, little conversations, masses, etc. are seeds being planted in her brain.  As she grows up and experiences life more, those seeds will be fertilized in different ways.  They will grow and develop in a personal way for her.  She will come to know God in a way which is meaningful for her (even if it makes no sense to her sister).  As her mother, I will continue to try to surround her with people who set good examples for her, and I will continue to take her with me to church and be open about my faith with her. But I will not expect her to be me. 

At the retreat center where I worked, we had shag carpeting everywhere.  Really.  It was on the floors, up the walls, even covering the end tables.  One of the things we would tell the students was that God was like that carpeting.  As individual humans, our understanding was like one strand of that carpet.  As we talked to others with open hearts and minds, our understanding could grow to be a square inch.  But that didn’t mean we were seeing the whole picture or that our understanding was the only truth.  I look forward to continuing the discussion with my daughters, hearing their experiences and their beliefs, and letting mine grow.

My older daughter happily, eagerly, reverently made her First Communion this year.