Make a teammate, not an adversary

Staying engaged with your child’s education – and implementing suggestions – lets teachers know that you’re interested in your child’s progress

OPT Columnist James Gordon.


The start of the school year brings with it a lot of excitement at the prospect of new challenges, new classrooms, new friends and new teachers.

It can also bring some fear and consternation, especially if your child has struggled in the classroom before.

For parents of energetic young boys transitioning from the play-heavy focus of junior and senior kindergarten to more desk learning in Grade 1 and up, these feelings can be particularly acute. Some kids are calm, focused and thus built for the rigidity of the public school system; to get the best possible learning and social outcomes for the kids who aren’t wired that way takes effort.

That’s why I think it’s critically important that parents advocate for advantageous classroom situations for their children, and to do so even before the school year begins. The earlier parents can develop a relationship with their child’s teachers, the better the odds are that said child will have a great year.

This is especially important when dealing with spirited kids who might struggle at times with interpersonal relationships, sitting still in class, and staying with one thing for long periods of time.

I recently wrote about Montessori schools for this magazine, and something one of the administrators said really stuck with me: they always try to leverage each individual child’s interests and buffer his or her weaknesses.

It would be great if all schools operated in this way, but it’s an unrealistic expectation for the public system. Teachers simply have too many kids to deal with to provide a ton of one-on-one time, and those teachers – as with practitioners of any profession – have varying degrees of skill.

By lobbying early and often for the best learning situation possible, parents send the message that they’re watching what’s going on and that they’re engaged in the learning process. And when teachers see that parents are willing to do the work to help their kids succeed, they’re more likely to want to join the team and invest in that success as well.

To accomplish this quest, parents have to be willing to take an objective look at their child’s strengths and weaknesses. Some hold the belief that their child is infallible, no matter how disruptive he or she is. Always finding fault with teachers while assuming your little angel would never do anything wrong is a great way to create an adversary at school, not a teammate.

However, I’ve found that most teachers are not only willing to listen to and work with parents, but that they greatly value any intel they can get. Think about how difficult their jobs are: every year, they get 20-25 new, unique kids, and they’re expected to figure out each one’s intricacies and eccentricities while jamming enough knowledge into their brains to set them up for the following year. Every little bit of information you can provide helps.

What does this look like in practice?

  1. The end of the previous school year: After a full year with your child, a teacher should have a really solid grasp of what makes little Jimmy or Sally tick – perhaps even more than you do. This is a great time to gather information that can be handed over to the new teacher in the fall and get some suggestions. If your child is in Grade 2, say, ask about the expected Grade 3 teachers and who might be a fit, personality-wise. Don’t be afraid to lobby for a good situation. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say.
  2. The start of the new school year: Again, touching base early gives the new teacher a solid foundation of info to help him or her figure out your child and sends the message that you are invested and paying attention. Inform the teacher of any challenges that emerged during the previous year and share successful strategies the previous teacher used.
  3. Check-ins throughout: Parent-teacher interviews are fairly infrequent, and many teachers now share their contact info at the beginning of the year and invite parents to touch base from time-to-time. Take advantage. Kids aren’t always willing to talk about what happens at school, and a quick email to the teacher just to say hi and ask how things are going can alert you to issues you may not have even been aware of.

Starting a new school year can be daunting but staying engaged throughout will give you the information and confidence you need to deal with any challenges that might pop up.