Money was not mentioned by any of the more than 30 educators who responded to a question I asked about the first month of school. Each of them described the most important things that families can do in September. Everything they suggested is free: helping youngsters set goals, establishing routines, learning something yourself, talking positively about schools and building or continuing a strong relationship with educators.
Wayzata superintendent Chace Anderson wrote: “A school year for a student is a little bit like a year in the stock market by an investor. Some days will be way up, some days will be way down, most days will be relatively routine, yet rewarding. Students and families should keep a steady hand on the wheel and their eye on the road and enjoy the journey. By the end of the year, we all hope that ‘learning’ will be up about 8 percent, comparable to the ‘earning’ targeted by investors!”
Helen Fisk, director of the “Beat the Odds” Global Academy charter in Columbia Heights, wrote: “I would encourage all parents to just ask their kids a simple question, ‘What did you learn about at school today?’ and then talk to them about it. Even immigrant parents who can’t help their children with homework due to language barriers can instill a love of learning by doing this.”
Lynn Nordgren, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president, has additional ideas about questions that families can ask. “Make daily routines and everyday things come to life through discussions and age-appropriate questions,” she suggested. “Things like ‘why do you think it snows?’(then watch the weather on TV together) or ‘where does (name a specific food) come from – how is it made?’ (while eating dinner) or ‘what do you think it is like to be president of the US?’ If you don’t know the answers, figure out how to find out. Do anything that will help with advancing learning, developing vocabulary, modeling inquiry and inspiring curiosity. Show an interest in learning more about the life.”
Nordgren also wrote: “Talk with your child/adolescent about the importance of learning, getting to and doing well in school, being respectful of others, following the rules, asking for help when needed and never giving up. Paint a positive future for them that is built on taking responsibility as a student for doing one’s best. And then be there to help and support.”
Stephen Jones, Little Falls superintendent explained: “My best advice to parents is to understand that school-aged children thrive when they are on a consistent, daily schedule. Please create uniform bedtimes, wake up times and homework times; for children to be successful, parents should understand their role in developing a ‘schedule for success.’”
Edina Superintendent Ric Dressen explained: “ Our focus remains on (being) hopeful and being happy. We are presenting info on this with our regular communications to staff and families. … This is a great conversation topic for all families to have as they start the year. Learners can benefit from hopefulness when they believe the future is better than the present and working together as a family with their teachers, their goals can come alive. Learners can benefit from happiness by exercising optimism and practicing gratitude. An occasional check-in on these topics throughout the year will promote a great year of learning for everyone.”
Tom Kearney, director of New Heights charter in Stillwater, recommends that parents “work with children (students) to establish a goal or two for the year; ideally before the first day or at least before the end of the first week. The goal could be centered on attendance or grades, or even behavior. Students have a better chance to reach goals if goals are actually established!”
Linda Rodgers, Anoka-Hennepin parent involvement coordinator, acknowledges that sometimes there are issues requiring discussion. She suggested: “Talk positively about schools, teachers and the importance of learning so it will rub off on your kids! (Take care of questions or disagreements with teachers in a one-to-one, problem-solving manner.)”
Steve Massey, Forest Lake High School principal, suggests that parents share this with youngsters:
“1. When you struggle in your classes, match the difficulty with an increased effort. Seek help from your teachers and don’t give up. Some of our best learning occurs when we struggle and persevere.
“2. Live a balanced high school life. Take rigorous and challenging courses that prepare you for college. At the same time, balance this academic load with getting involved in school activities.”
Hector Garcia, director of Minnesota’s Chicano Latino Affairs Council, recommends that families:
“1. Read entertaining stories to your children from time of birth or earlier (I heard of couple playing classical music so baby in womb could listen; baby grew up to be a famous musician).
“2. Be patient and understand children’s way of perceiving and responding to education (Dr. Maria Montessori’s books would help).”
2013 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year Megan Hall advises families to “normalize the transition with some outdoor play time (even for older kids) and family dinner. Talk about how school is going. Set aside a designated time for homework. And praise kids’ effort, especially with challenging assignments.”
Carlos Mariani, chair of the Minnesota House K-12 Education Policy Committee, suggested: “Tell your child everyday that you believe in them. Set aside time with him/her every day to talk about their school day, have her/him tell you what they are learning and what they think about that.”
Denise Rodriguez, St. Paul Federation of Teachers president, stressed the value of eating together. She urged: “Make every effort to eat dinner with your child and talk to them.”
Katherine Bassett, formerly New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year, who now directs an organization of educators who have won this honor around the country, offered a good summary: “When parents are engaged in their child’s education, they are sending the message that education matters; asking ‘What’s one thing that you learned today?’ for example, sends that message. So does making sure that your child is rested and has access to a nutritious breakfast before school. Be involved in your child’s education, and set the example that learning is important by being a lifelong learner.”
Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, has a clear message for active families, one I agree with: “Your actions will have a positive impact!”
None of these suggestions (except a healthy breakfast) costs a cent. So regardless of income, these recommendations are both desirable and doable.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.