For parents across the country, the end of summer marks much more than cooler weather and light jackets. As you begin to trade long summer days for cool fall mornings, the biggest thing on your mind is the new school year. As you make this transition, you are being bombarded by everything from news stories and television commercials to flyers and shopping circulars with advice on how to make the upcoming school year one that guarantees the success of your children.
In addition to the general advice that the average parent receives, experts in education on various media outlets consistently tell parents how important it is for them to be more involved in their children's education. Somewhere between being told to spend more time completing homework with children and being advised to be more visible in the school by attending events you are overwhelmed before the school year even starts. If you had the time to spend hours on homework, show up to school weekly, drive your children to after school programs on their schedule, you certainly would. Unfortunately, you just aren't afforded these luxuries.
The reality is that many parents, particularly those from urban settings, do not have the luxury of time or money to provide their children with everything that the experts suggest. In fact, if parents work to buy all the suggestions on book-bags, sneakers, and new gadgets, they will end up spending an inordinate amount of time working to buy these suggested items that further limits their ability to meet the almost impossible task of a working parent to spend 4-6 hours a night on homework, and still spend quality time with children.
For today's parent, particularly the single Black and Latino parent who is juggling jobs or going back to school themselves, it is more challenging than ever to have real tools that can improve your child's chances to do well in school. In response to the average urban parents needs, I have compiled 5 simple tools to help you to be engaged with your children's academics, without having to go through the guilt and frustration of not following the experts' advice on what you should be doing, but that everyday circumstances inhibit you from doing.
- Schedule a day that is convenient for you to visit the school. Usually parents show up on the first day of school, or on the open school day (if the work schedule permits). If you can make it to the school on one of these recommended days, do so. However, if you cannot, remember that your presence is more felt on a day that is not already over-loaded with parents. Find one day that is convenient for you during the semester and make a plan to meet the teacher. You are more likely to be remembered when you come on an "off day." Ask for a hard copy syllabus of what your child will be studying in classes. Requesting a paper (hard copy) version shows that you are serious, and will help you keep up with what is going on when you have the time. For the single parent, make an effort to show up with a family member who is of a different gender when you go to the school. Invite an uncle/aunt, grandfather/mother, or brother/sister (not a boyfriend or girlfriend). The school staff responds better to a united family front, and will remember you and your child.
- Offer alternative methods of communication with the teacher/school (i.e., text messaging). Teachers and parents are often stuck in the telephone era. Teachers will call the parent, and if they cant get through, or get a voice mail, will most likely not call again. This is not because they don't care, but because, they get very busy with all their other responsibilities. Offer to be text messaged with any information regarding your child, and ask if it is okay if you have the teacher's number to send a message as well. Tell the teacher you will text for a general check-in once bi weekly, and stick to that. The last thing you want to do is alienate the teacher =- who is really your ally. You would be surprised about how much communication between the school and parent gets improved via text message (even better than email).
- Create an amazing school-work spot. Usually, the most comfortable place in our home is right in front of the television. To get your children to spend more time doing school work, move a chair next to a window, throw a few comfortable pillows on it, get a table or crate where a child can rest his or her feet, and call that the reading spot. Do not make this the punishment or time-out spot. Rather, make it a treat to sit there. Make that the one place that you will bring your child a snack when they are working. This is a simple and cost-effective way to motivate your child to move away from T.V. and video games, and towards reading and studying.
- Reference the schoolwork in everyday language. As we already established, it is virtually impossible to sit with your children to complete all of the homework assignments every single night. However, it is easy to use the syllabus that you received from the teacher and mention the topic the child is discussing. Simple questions like, "I heard you were reading Mark Twain, how do you like it?" or, "My energy level is on zero, aren't you guys studying energy in science class?" go a long way. You may not have the time to spend going through all of the homework assignments, but you've let your child know that you are aware of what's going on in school.
- Never function in isolation. Find a partner. One of the advantages that the suburban parent has over the typical urban parent is that they work together as an army. When a large group of parents converge on a school, teachers and administrators listen. While you may not have this luxury, all you need is one other parent to partner with you. If you don't know someone, ask the teacher or principal to suggest a parent. Once you have this partner, you may take turns text messaging about both of your children, or you may speak to each other about what is happening in the school. This is also an opportunity to use social media to connect with this other parent, or start a parents group on Facebook that you can invite other parents to. If you cannot make it to the school, you can still have your presence felt.
As the school year begins, try out these tips, and continue to be an amazing parent. Do not rest on your negative experiences in the urban schools you attended, and do not be intimidated by not being able to follow the advice of experts. Most importantly, have a great school year.
Christopher Emdin is an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also author of the book, Urban Science Education for the Hip-hop Generation.