Confessions of a Former High School Teacher: 10 Tips for Parents

In high schools across America, from small country farm towns to bustling cities, I have seen quite a bit of the high school landscape. In the turmoil of Common Core ideological wars and stories like this award-winning teacher jumping ship earlier this month, it can seem daunting to send our kids to public school. It’s daunting to work there, too. Teachers are riding out big swings in educational reform while moms and dads just want a happy, well-adjusted student.  During my ten years in, I did not have children of my own. I do now. And here are the notes I would want from the other side if I were a parent of a public high schooler today:

1. You are still in charge.

As a parent, you’ve chosen the vehicle to get your child to 12th grade, so you oversee the process along the way. And with free k-12 public school online and university model part-time high schools, you are not locked into any standard. (Here’s what I do.) No, Common Core has not taken over everything everywhere. Don’t let anyone boss you into a picture of what your kid’s education has to look like. You still have those keys.  (And this OHS “Online High School” attender will certainly broaden your definitions of high school through a few confessions of her own.)

2. Don’t be afraid of “paying extra” to customize what isn’t working.

Remember, teachers must aim at the middle, which means they are going too fast for the slower processors, and too slow for the fast processors. There’s nothing the teacher can do about that. But you can do a lot about that. And you should. The teacher will not have the time or emotional investment to initiate, but she is capable of tailoring more than she will ever admit. Yes, it is a little bit of legwork and back-and-forth communication, but this is not barbed wire you are getting through; it’s an email. You’re opening conversations that can lead to compromise.

3. Don’t misinterpret the pushback.

If a blank stare or a little resistance can get someone to solve their own problems and save them from more headache and heartache, then wow, what a skill to develop! Graciously bypass this defense mechanism (rudeness) and set up a meeting or ask for someone else to speak to you about it. They don’t know how serious you are, if you are just venting, or indeed impossible;  just as you don’t know what they are made of. Frankly, these adults are overrun with unique situations, and their brain and heart spaces are limited, so a little pushback of your own may be in order. (A little.)

4. Be the helicopter parent when needed.

By high school age, a hands-off approach may suit most of the time, so you may feel like you are poking through a mysterious membrane to dig through files and floorboards and defenses, but you are not invading your child’s space, embarrassing him, or being too overbearing. You are entering his very real world which is in need of very real adult supervision. Not because you have the power to force him to do something, but because you have the power to see things that he cannot see and give wisdom that he does not have. And when that teacher sees you humbly doing the unthinkable, she may pretend not to notice, but she will know you are literally saving your child in a system that cannot afford to customize swimming lessons for those still treading water in the deep.

5. Your words are more powerful than you know.

While leaning on standard phrases about department policies and school policies, teachers are closing the door, tweaking the details of assignments as they see fit. With no outside voices coming in, these dictatorships can get quite overgrown. Maybe you are the first to raise the flag on an issue, and maybe you won’t win the argument, but something will change. And at the very least, she’ll be on her toes when it comes to you.

6. Go face to face.

Your very presence injects the human element. She is dealing with a sterile name and grade on a list. And that’s the way she wants it. She may “call the shots” and be difficult to disarm, but she (like you) can’t see all sides of an issue. And she has to listen to you. (She can probably give insight about your child that you may not see for yourself.) And if you both want the same thing–to teach skills with responsibility for working toward mastery–then the discussion of how to go about it will be an interpretative dance that can’t be done via email. She’ll meet you with a compromise…. though she will have trouble admitting it. Unless it makes for a compelling selfie.

7. Know the laws (and your guidance counselor).

Extra days, extra time, you name it, somebody has an Individualized Education Plan for it. The rest of life will be lived by new laws, but while you’re there, there are plenty that protect the child and his needs for accommodation. How about that student who needed to come 30 minutes late every day due to morning anxiety? Just enough time for her Starbucks run which she proudly brought into class. IEP certified. Frankly, no one knows what’s going inside your child’s life and your house, and it’s no one’s right to know or judge. But a parent must lead the intervention if your details won’t fit on the EZ form.

8. Put your child over your reputation.

Yes, you will become known as the parent who complains. Yes, your child may become known as the one with problem parents. Yes, they will talk about you and the situation during lunch with their coworkers. But while they are on the battlefield trying to stamp out ignorance, you are on your child’s side, trying to stamp out unjust treatment. I have had many an awkward discussion with many an embarrassed parent, but teachers put their reputation on the line daily as they give what they can to a broken system they can’t fix.  So in coming to the table, a high five is more in order. Welcome to the club.

9. Don’t let the teacher fool you.

With as many learning styles as teaching styles as curriculum styles, who is to say why Junior is failing?  That teacher just isn’t 100% sure. In that pressured world of details and deadlines, some stacks and essays get thrown away. (Gasp!)  Meaning, sometimes peace trumps justice. So be sure of what you are asking for. It’s looking good already.

10. Don’t forget the wildcard.

Remember, in this deck, there are always surprises. Brace yourself for the moment you learn that teacher is privately going through a divorce. Or chemotherapy. Or hasn’t cared for yeaaaaaars. Or that the history teacher might have a crush on your daughter. And, similarly, don’t forget that sometimes the wildcard is you.

So get in the game and represent your family well, never apologizing for your CEO role in the education of your child. Though the communication burden is on you (no matter their promises), it’ll be worth any mess it may create. Our children are always going to be worth the strain of questioning and reinventing the path as we know it.

To read more on where I ended up, you can visit my education blog here.


image illustrations via shutterstock /