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Teen Talk: Back to School...

Updated on July 26, 2011

Teen Talk - Live

Chris is taking “Teen Talk” on the road. If you are a member of a parent group or responsible for finding engaging speakers for student or youth groups, please contact Chris at

Chris Lincoln MEd
Chris Lincoln MEd

Back To School

The start of a new school year is stressful for everyone involved. I've been a student, a teacher, a principal and a parent, and to be honest, I never have slept well the night before school.

As a parent, you worry about the new people who will be entering your child’s life. The relationship between the teacher and your child is critical. Here is an adult or group of adults, who may see your child for more hours a day than you do, and a part of their remit is judging your child’s performance, (and thus by paranoid inference, your parenting.) It is actually very simple to create a positive relationship with your child’s teacher, more of which, later.

Your child also worries about their teacher or teachers. In the younger grades the primary concern is whether the teacher will like them. After twenty-two years in the teaching biz I can say, hand on heart, that it is very, very, likely that the teacher will like them. There are rare occasions when personalities don't jive, but I can recall less than five such incidences out of many thousands.

In the older grades, roughly grade seven and up, it is much more important that the teacher is seen as fair. Being even-handed and clear means a great deal to this age range, and is the quickest way to earning mutual respect. This group reserves like for two scenarios. If the teacher is seen as malleable or easy, they will earn an instant like. It is not a good thing. It will not last, and happens too often with younger teachers, who still feel the need to relate more on a peer-to-peer level.

If the students reserve judgment until nearer the end of the year, and in hindsight say they liked their teacher, this is praise indeed. They do actually like being held to higher standards, and discovering that you can meet a meaningful challenge is incredibly empowering.

Teachers do sweat the small stuff, and spend an inordinate amount of time (and money) in preparing for the school year. I have never met a teacher who didn't think they could have done a better job last year. They want to reach their students, and provide meaning and purpose in their interactions. They will be highly concerned about the incoming class, and will be looking to make their year successful - whatever comes their way. The night before is fraught with worries over preparation and the new individuals in their care.

As a principal, your worries are more holistic and yet imminently practical. Schedules, seating and staff are your big concerns. Getting the atmosphere in the institution right as soon as possible is important, but not as important as getting to know the students. Getting to know the parents is a close second, but realistically principals know the 90/10 rule will apply. (90% of your time will be spent with just 10% of the parents)

It is interesting that common to all parties is the idea of preparation. The efforts in this area are what I believe make the end of day one a huge sigh of relief for most.

I usually feel a tangible sense of relief sometime during the first day, as everyone involved quickly slips into the groove, and worrying about potential issues is replaced with real issues that can actually be addressed. For the children a quick level of normality is found. They find friends and the level of anxiety reduces dramatically. The teacher is not as scary as anticipated, now that he or she is a real person. Parents get the sense of relief as they reconnect with their children and they are a mix of tired and excited. Teachers now have faces to go with the list of names they started the day with, and thus begins the personal side of the education equation.

It is important, as in any equation, that a balance is found. This shared custody arrangement is a little fraught; your child will talk about another important adult, perhaps a little more than you would like. In the younger grades this can be hurtful as your child gushes over another. In the middle school years you are more likely to hear the teacher’s faults, as perceived by the child. One of our sons would declare on returning home from his first day in a new grade in middle school, that a particular teacher was stupid. Interestingly those were the teachers each year that by the end he had the most respect for. We learned to translate “stupid” into challenging. It was an important learning curve as we translated other key phrases. “The teacher yelled at me” (a very rare occurrence in the real world) to: “The teacher asked me to do something I didn’t really want to do, (like, stop talking, or homework!)

Establishing a balanced, positive, relationship with the teacher or teachers is important. In an era of “helicopter parenting” or over controlling parenting, it is a huge relief for the teacher to work with calm and reasonable parents. Communications that assume best intentions on both sides work the best. Do not take your child’s version of things as gospel; too often they present a very me-centric view of things. Trust but verify is an essential mantra. Ask the teacher before blasting them! It can be very embarrassing to discover that what your child told you was a very edited version of what may have happened. Let reason trump emotion and you are well on your way to having a great home school connection.

I would also suggest that you let the teacher discover the children in their own time. It can be counterproductive to overload the teacher with information. I have seen multi-page letters and emails that chronicle the child’s development, over full with what they cannot do. Teachers want to discover what the children can do, and frankly they tend to have a more positive attitude than the concerned parent. Students rise to the challenge very quickly if they can, but can self defeat. I have experience with a first grade boy who would not try to write as he declared that he was dysgraphic. Anyone with experience of first grade boys knows that neat handwriting is the exception not the rule, and dysgraphia, though a serious matter, is relatively rare. It turned out this was a parental diagnosis that simply had no basis in fact, he just thought that his son’s handwriting should be far better that it was. The poor boy believed that his writing was ‘broken’ and could not be fixed.

Disconnecting or denials are also problematical. Trusting that everything is OK if you don’t hear anything is a recipe for disaster, especially in grades six and up. Denial is not a river in Egypt, and telling your child’s teacher that nothing like this has ever happened before, when it has, is very short sighted. FYI teachers read the student files and talk to each other! Be honest, be frank, and you will have build an important alliance.

If, or more realistically, when, issues arise in school, you really want to utilize the skill and experience of the teacher as guidance. It is important to remember that the teacher has a unique view of your child with respect to his or her peers. The ability to compare within a peer group, and with peers over time is the way in which most issues come to light. Students are, first and foremost, children, and understanding their developmental path is very important. Individuals develop at their own particular pace, normally within certain windows, but if the development is an outlier, meaning very early, or very late, it will have an effect on every part of the learning process.

A very wise master teacher told me on day one of my teaching career; School is a journey not a race. Pushing forward rarely helps. The trick is to find the developmentally appropriate academic balance.

So as the first few days of the school year get underway I hope that for the majority of you, parent, teacher, child or principal, this is the start of another positive year of growth. Everyone should be engaged and encouraging, and if I may be allowed one wish; look to the student’s effort more than their grades.



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