Teachers’ Holiday Gifts – What’s A Parent To Do?

`Tis the season and everywhere we look there are suggestions for gift giving.  No doubt on your list of recipients are your children’s teachers. Newspaper articles, TV spots, websites and blogs — not to mention catalogs — provide a potpourri of possibilities for teacher gifts. There’s a lot of pressure out there to give your children’s teachers the right gift. So what should that be?

You might want to start by examining your school’s policy on gifting. Some schools set a limit, e.g. $25, some don’t allow it at all, some specify one gift from the entire class, while others say nothing on the subject. Whatever your school’s policy, it’s likely to be ignored by at least some people. My experience has been that parents feel very pressured to give the teacher a gift she/he will appreciate, and worry that no gift could influence the teacher’s perception of their child.

Some parents go all out, while others begrudgingly do the minimum. I will never forget that when I was in first grade my teacher announced to us that Becky had given her the best gift in the class. She had been invited to Becky’s house for lunch and Becky’s father, a dress manufacturer, presented her with a beautiful dress. I remember that I and the other children felt powerless and unworthy as she opened our gifts. Throughout the year I understood implicitly why Becky was the teacher’s pet.

Those days may or may not be gone. There are still some parents who will lavish expensive gifts on teachers, causing others to be resentful. There are some parents who believe teachers don’t need “tips,” and others who simply can’t afford it in these difficult economic times.

Conversely, as a former teacher and administrator, I can safely say that most teachers don’t even want gifts. They truly appreciate a lovely note or card expressing appreciation, or perhaps even a homemade gift or gift card. But while receiving a truckload of extraneous gifts is flattering, they usually don’t know what to do with all the random stuff they get.

Case in point: one year I sent an email to all 1,000 teachers in our district asking for new items that we could use to put together gift baskets for the elderly in the community.  I was inundated with “stuff” — unwanted Christmas presents. We recycled the gifts, assembling beautiful baskets wrapped in cellophane and curling ribbon, and made a lot of people happy. It’s amazing how a potholder, dishtowel, and hand lotion can be made to look so good with the proper wrapping!

There are some schools that ask parents to refrain from giving teachers gifts and instead suggest they honor their teachers with a contribution to any number of worthwhile causes.  In this way, families can contribute what they are able to afford – or not at all if they are strapped – and the gift is from the entire class. Here are some ideas:

  • A gift card to a supermarket or department store for a needy family
  • A class collection of non-perishable food items for a local food pantry
  • Purchasing holiday gifts for a homeless family
  • Providing a holiday dinner for a needy family
  • A donation to a charity

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently suggested several humanitarian organizations, many of which would be appropriate as an educational exercise for students.

For example: donations to CARE can provide school uniforms; contributions to Heifer International provide gifts of livestock and training to help families improve their nutrition and generate income, and Helen Keller International’s ChildSight program screens children for vision problems and provides eyeglasses. 

Don’t forget your local charities; it’s meaningful for kids to know they are helping those close to home.

Even if it’s too late to change your school’s culture now, start a discussion now – and maybe things will change next year. Engaging parents and children in choosing the cause and bringing it to fruition will infuse both kids and adults with the true meaning of giving

Happy Holidays!

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/opinion/sunday/kristof-gifts-that-say-you-care.html?_r=2&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha212


Are Schools Getting Too Carried Away with Technology?

When my grandmother died in 1978 at almost 90, I thought the technological changes she had experienced in her lifetime would never be duplicated. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Technology is now changing at a dizzying pace, and parents and educators have to decide what’s best for our children. It’s a difficult conundrum with dueling points of view.

On one hand, most schools have embraced technology, spending huge amounts of money on upgrading electronic equipment that soon becomes obsolete. First it was the installation of computer labs, then the purchase of laptops, followed by i-Pads. I admit I drooled when Smart Boards were installed in a district in which I was working as a central office administrator. I secretly wished I could be a high school social studies teacher again, and with the touch of a finger take my students to sites that would propel great class discussions.

But technology should be taken just so far. What is the wisdom of turning cell phones into teaching tools in the classroom? Newsday reports that an Amityville social studies teacher recently asked his 11th graders to use their personal cell phones to text a response to a poll about a presidential speech they had just watched in the classroom. According to the article, this is part of a growing local and national trend.

Many other school districts, however, still bar students from bringing their cell phones and smart phones to school – and for good reason. They have been viewed as a distraction, even a dangerous one. Do we really want students checking their e-mail and texting during class? Do we want them using it to make dates during class, surf their favorite sites on the Web, cheat, or even engage in drug dealing? As much as schools will try to restrict its use in school, some students won’t be able to control themselves.

Even if you argue that most kids won’t engage in such nefarious behavior, whatever happened to raising your hand and having a discussion? Do our children have to be tethered to machines 24/7?

Apparently, some people in the computer industry don’t think so. A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that some of Silicon Valley’s technology leaders send their children to schools without computers! They think it’s easy enough to pick up computer skills, and that what’s really important is great teaching that actively engages kids in learning. Engagement is really the issue. Does technology foster engagement or inhibit it?

In addition, public schools have to consider the cost. Computers in education are here to stay but they need to be used judiciously — always with the goal of fostering student engagement and enabling critical and creative thinking.

If cell phones are now becoming the teaching tool du jour, then what do public schools do with the millions of dollars in computer equipment they bought? With built-in obsolescence, it’s critically important that schools don’t spend mindlessly on the latest cool gadget, only to abandon it for a better one a few years later.

Who is watching the technology store in our public school districts? Every year, superintendents and chief technology officers present a computer budget to the board of education and the public. As we go forward in this difficult economy, there needs to be accountability, research, evidence, and a rationale for future spending on electronic devices. Most of all, schools require a clear vision for how they plan on engaging students in learning – both with and without computers. 

http://www.newsday.com/long-island/educators-eye-cellphones-as-teaching-tools-1.3249660 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1


Parent-Teacher Conferences – Do You Need A Bribe?

It’s the season for parent-teacher conferences and I urge every parent to embrace this opportunity to sit down with your children’s teachers, no matter if your kids are in kindergarten or high school. 

This is your opportunity to find out specifically how your children are doing, and generally what’s going on in their classrooms and in their schools. I have to admit I was a bit disheartened when I recently came across a NEA (National Education Association) article advising teachers of tactics that they might want to use to “lure” parents into attending parent-teacher conferences. I’d be interested in knowing whether you think the parents in your school need to be cajoled into meeting with their children’s teachers, or whether they understand communicating with them is one of the best things they can do to help their kids succeed.  

Among the strategies recommended in the article are student-led conferences, in which students actually prepare and participate in the conference. The article said that feedback on this type of conference was “overwhelmingly positive,” and that there is a growing trend to encourage parents to bring their children to conferences. Other teachers had students prepare and present Power Point presentations to show their parents what they were learning. This tactic reportedly ensured record attendance. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with involving students and giving them a chance to be present, but I’m not sure that quite fits the definition of a parent-teacher conference. It seems to me the parent-teacher conference is one of the few chances you get to sit down with your kid’s teacher — adult to adult — and discuss what’s best for your child. 

Then there were the “bribes” to entice parents to meet with the teachers. These included: extra credit for students whose parents showed up, personal invitations, raffle tickets, a dessert bar, and goody bags. Finally, it was reported that some teachers go on home visits to meet parents who cannot get to the school. 

It’s commendable that some teachers go to such lengths to accommodate parents, but I would think parents would prefer to see the teachers’ creative energies going instead to inspiring the students. 

The article didn’t mention adjusted hours for working parents, which should be pro forma nowadays in all schools and something that parents should insist upon. Similarly, if your work schedule does not allow you to get to school on a particular day, request an alternate date or a phone conference.  

Here are 7 tips for a successful parent-teacher conference:

  1. Come prepared with questions and take notes. Always ask how you can support your child’s learning at home.
  2. Don’t be passive. If you have a particular question or concern, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Be specific. 
  3. Discuss your child’s social and emotional development as well as academic performance. Be sure to let the teacher know if there is anything going on at home that may impact your child’s behavior and performance in school, such as divorce, illness in the family, or a new baby.
  4. If there is a problem, describe how it makes you or your child feel without being defensive or negative. Actively listen to what the teacher says. Come to an agreement about what is best for your child.
  5. Schedule follow-up meetings or telephone calls to be sure the plan is working.
  6. Find out how the teacher communicates with parents, e.g., online, newsletters, agendas, etc.
  7. If you are not satisfied with the conference, you may ask to meet with an administrator.  

Try This: The New Parent-Teacher Conference  

http://www.nea.org/home/40927.htm#.Tpiih8U_Alo.twitter


The Week That Was: From SAT to Steve Jobs

There is a gaping chasm between the values of the high school students involved in the SAT cheating scandal in Great Neck, L.I., and those of Steve Jobs, the genius inventor who died last week at 56. 

What messages and what kind of pressure did these young people get that made them abandon common sense, ethics, and the law in the pursuit of stellar SAT scores they believed they were incapable of getting on their own? What beliefs did Jobs have that gave him the confidence to drop out of college and invent products that truly transformed the way that we live, learn, communicate and work?

I suspect the Great Neck teenagers felt pressure to achieve – from their peers and from their parents.  They are certainly not alone in succumbing to that pressure. You have only to watch Toddlers and Tiaras to know that parental pressure has no age or geographical boundaries. Does anyone really believe that three-year-olds aspire to be beauty queens and actually enjoy having false eyelashes glued onto their faces?

The high school students who paid someone to take their SATs for them had swallowed a bill of goods that led them to believe that to be successful, they needed to attend a top tier college. Likely, they thought they would forever be defined by the college they attended and their prospects for future success would be set in stone their freshman year. They did not have confidence in their own skills or abilities, believing instead that the top tier schools they attended defined success.

It never occurred to them that they could distinguish themselves at a third tier school, or even that they could transfer from Nassau Community College after two years.  Ironically, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, about 775 U.S. colleges and universities – including some first rate schools — are now test optional. Some schools exempt students who meet grade-point average or class rank criteria, while others require SAT scores only for placement purposes.

Contrast the mind-set of these young people with the advice Steve Jobs gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

“You’ve got to find what you love.”

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

What can parents learn from these words?

Stop pressuring your children to live up to some ideal standard. If they get a 93% on a test, don’t ask them what happened to the other seven points. If they want to and can get into an Ivy League school on their own power and desire, that’s great. But don’t keep telling them they have to go to Harvard or Yale. And please, don’t make them think they have failed if they can’t reach that goal – just because you want it. There are tens of thousands of high schools in the U.S. and each has one valedictorian and one salutatorian — and all are trying for the same nine top tier schools.

Encourage your children to live their own lives. Don’t pressure them to live out your dreams; let them have their own. Enable them to become the best they are capable of being, not the best your neighbor’s child is capable of being.

Help them find their passion and to pursue it. If they follow their interests, they will not only distinguish themselves but also be true to themselves.

Most of all, children of all ages need unconditional love, ethics and values from their parents. As hard as schools may try, they can’t teach character education without parental agreement and support.

Steve Jobs never finished college.  And most successful people didn’t have perfect SAT scores. Without character, commitment, and emotional intelligence it really doesn’t matter where your kids go to school.


Would You Bully Chris Christie?

Concerned that he was being perceived as a bully, TV Host David Letterman recently volunteered to stop his persistent fat jokes about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Letterman’s biting humor is nothing new, but when the charge of bullying was raised he backed off.

To be fair, Letterman has not been alone in targeting Christie. Other comedians, political pundits, and average Americans have also derided Christie’s size.  

Chris Christie, New Jersey Governor

Politicians are accustomed to being the butt of jokes – Christie even mentioned it when he announced Tuesday his decision not to run for president — but did the Christie fat bashing cross the line?

The criticism has nothing to do with whether you are or are not a supporter of Gov. Christie. And let’s be real, Chris Christie is a tough, centered guy, who can withstand whatever is dished out. But what do these fat jokes say about us – about our tastes, our values, our society?

As we observe National Bullying Awareness Month, and we ask our children and our schools to prevent bullying, we ought to take a hard look at ourselves too.  Are we promoting bullying by repeating and laughing at fat jokes?  Are we encouraging bullying by scornful and sarcastic remarks that we make about gays and others? Are we a party to bullying when we don’t step in and say something when we observe it?  Are we allowing bullying to fester when we don’t report it to the school?

We know that youngsters learn what they live, and that children, even at a very young age, hear much more than we think they do. They are also very adept at picking up non-verbal cues. What messages are we sending our children? Are we tacitly encouraging them to be bullies?

Most children who are bullied are not as resilient as Chris Christie. When asked about his weight, his standard answer is: “I eat too much.”  And few doubt that he is fully capable of destroying the bullies – if he wanted to. Youngsters who are bullied may develop anxiety about seeing the perpetrators at school and elsewhere. Their school performance may be affected and they may shun other activities. They may become depressed, and sadly some even take their own lives as 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer recently did.

Parents, teachers, and school administrators need to be vigilant about bullying. We need to talk to children about both being bullied and about being bullies. But first and foremost, we should be role models for kindness, caring, and understanding.

Current and prospective laws against bullying may be too simplistic to solve the problem. Aren’t we as adults essentially responsible for bullying? The prevention of bullying begins with all of us examining our words and our behavior.


The Hidden Costs of Public Education

About 15 percent of American households were living in poverty last year and that number is increasing as the median household income drops, according to newly released statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That means the official poverty rate has reached its highest level since 1993. That translates to a total of 46.2 million people – the largest number since the government began tracking poverty in the 1950s. And because the poverty level for a family of four begins with an annual income of less than $22,314, many experts believe that a family of four needs to make twice that to feel secure.

Unemployment is predicted to remain above 9 percent for the foreseeable future, and parents are increasingly concerned about expenses and inflation. In last May’s school budget vote, most districts mindful of taxpayers’ pocketbooks scaled back programs and cut staff to keep tax increases low.

But is public education really free? Just because parents pay taxes doesn’t mean they do not have to contribute to their children’s education. Here are some of the extras parents are typically paying for:

  • School Supplies: The average parent spent $600 this year equipping their children with back to school clothing and supplies. Most schools prepared lists of essential school supplies that parents were required to furnish. Depending on the grade of the student, these ranged from notebooks to laptops.
  • Tissues: To save district funds, many elementary schools ask parents to send in boxes of tissues and other supplies for use by the entire class.
  • School Spirit garments: T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, etc., are popular items at all levels.  Students may be asked to wear these for special events at school.
  • Musical instruments: purchase or rental
  • Sports equipment and uniforms
  • Field Trips
  • Fundraising: School, PTA, Special Interest, e.g. sports, music, theater.
  • Celebrations: birthdays, holidays, special events

What Can Parents Do?

  • For back to school, PTAs can contract to provide boxed sets of school supplies by grade at a cost less than shopping for supplies on your own. The school will supply a list of school supplies by grade. For example, Staples does this through http://www.schoolkidz.com. Ask your PTA to investigate this money-saving option.
  • Parents can lobby the principal or superintendent of schools and request that fundraising activities be reduced and consolidated. Parents may prefer to write one check for a set amount instead of being compelled into participating in a perpetual round of sales and fundraisers.
  • If parents believe that the cost and incidence of field trips are excessive, parents have the right to question school’s field trip practices and ask that guidelines be established to limit frequency, distance, and cost per field trip, e.g. two per grade with a limit of $25. Also, parents should request that they be informed at the beginning of the school year of what their expenses will be for field trips.
  • Request that your school limit expectations for children’s birthdays at school.
  • Lobby to scale back spirit wear and unnecessary sports paraphernalia, such as sweatshirts and sweat pants. It’s hard to say no when everyone else is buying it and your child wants it too.
  • Volunteer with your presence and skills at school and at special events and fundraisers instead of with your pocketbook.
  • Parents should know that all schools provide help to families who cannot afford school-associated expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask your principal if you need financial assistance.

The Scourge of Bullying –What’s a Parent to Do?

There was national outrage last week over the suicide of Buffalo, N.Y., teen Jamey Rodemeyer, who took his life after more than a year of relentless anti-gay cyber-bullying. Even Lady Gaga weighed in by initiating a campaign, Make A Law for Jamey, that would make bullying a hate crime. 

Police have opened a criminal investigation into the case, even though there are no anti-bullying laws in New York State. That may change with the announcement this week by State Senator Jeffrey Klein that he plans to introduce legislation to make cyber-bullying a crime. Recently, New Jersey joined several other states in enacting an anti-bullying law.  . 

Coincidentally, last week the U.S. Department of Education hosted a two-day Second Annual Bullying Prevention Summit to Stop Bullying, demonstrating that bullying is a widespread concern throughout the country. 

As an educator and a parent, my heart goes out to the Rodemeyer family and to all who are bullied. It’s a fact that for students to succeed in school, they must feel safe and supported.  But bullying happens, even though school officials certainly do not sanction it. 

When I dealt with bullying incidents, I remember how painful and frightening it was for the victims. Their main fear was retaliation if they reported that they were bullied. 

There are school district policies, administrative regulations and guidelines that spell out the consequences for bullying.  But because bullying often takes place during less structured times of the school day – lunch, recess, going to and from class, and on the bus – it is incumbent upon students to report it.  Principals, teachers and other school personnel typically take bullying reports very seriously. 

Not so long ago, schools took the position that they were only responsible for what happened at school. If a fight took place on Friday night at the mall, school districts used to say it was not their concern. Now if the impact spills over into the school day and affects students, school districts will take action.  

Another game changer has been cyber-bullying. In the last several years, social media has created and enabled a new platform for bullying, and cases are proliferating.  As a result, schools must now investigate and impose consequences for cyber-bullying, in addition to face-to-face bullying. 

According to cyber-bullying statistics from the i-SAFE Foundation, more than one in three young people have experienced cyber-bullying. Unfortunately, more than half of these students do not tell their parents. Thus, it is crucial for students who are bullied or cyber-bullied to immediately report it to an adult – parent, teacher, administrator or guidance counselor. When bullying is reported, the school will act on it. 

Parents should speak with their children about bullying and cyber-bullying to make sure they are not engaging in it. Discuss how hurtful it is, and emphasize that what is online stays online forever. Emphasize that online misbehavior could affect your child’s future.  It’s equally important to encourage your children to tell you if they are bullied off or online.  Reassure your child and make sure to remind school personnel that retaliation cannot be condoned. Be sure to discuss Internet safety with your children, and monitor what they are doing online. 

By all means, parents should inform schools if there is bullying, and join with schools to promote bullying awareness and prevention programs. Remember October is National Bullying Awareness Month.

Here are some resources on bullying from the Learning First Alliance: 

 


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