`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
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.
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.
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:
- Come prepared with questions and take notes. Always ask how you can support your child’s learning at home.
- Don’t be passive. If you have a particular question or concern, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Be specific.
- 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.
- 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.
- Schedule follow-up meetings or telephone calls to be sure the plan is working.
- Find out how the teacher communicates with parents, e.g., online, newsletters, agendas, etc.
- If you are not satisfied with the conference, you may ask to meet with an administrator.
Try This: The New Parent-Teacher Conference
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.
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.
At the time, I thought that I would always remember April 20, 1999, as the day then-First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the school district in which I was working.
I was one of the entourage who escorted her and her staff around the Village School in Syosset, L.I.
The school was packed with media because there were rumors Mrs. Clinton would soon announce she was running for the U.S. Senate from New York. When I got home from work, I settled in to watch what I expected would be wall-to-wall coverage of the visit.
But it was quickly pre-empted by the horrific news from Littleton, Colorado — the massacre of 12 students and one teacher by two student gunmen before they killed themselves at Columbine High School.
Ever since that day, our notions of school safety have changed. So this week when police sought four men in connection with a home invasion robbery in Bellmore, L.I., they ordered a lockdown of 27 schools in Bellmore, Merrick, Wantagh and Levittown as they pursued the men through residential neighborhoods. The lockdowns went on for hours before the suspects were all apprehended, but not before there was a shootout in front of the Lakeside Elementary School in Merrick.
Anxious parents were advised not to come to the schools and were assured that their children were safe. Although the specter of lockdowns evokes memories of Columbine and subsequent school shootings, it’s important to remember that schools are now required to have comprehensive safety plans.
I remember chairing a large Project SAVE Committee in 2000 when New York State first required districts to have very specific safety plans, which must be tweaked and improved each year. This week when the lockdowns occurred on Long Island’s South Shore, the affected districts used their Websites and automated phone messages to inform parents — tools that were not widely used or available 11 years ago.
But how do you know about your child’s safety? Here are some questions you can ask:
- How does your school communicate with parents in case of a lockdown or safety situation?
- Does your school conduct lockdown drills with its staff? (There is mixed opinion on whether students should participate because it might frighten them.) Is all staff familiar with safety plans, and what to do if there is a threat to safety?
- Do your district and school administrators have ongoing contact with their local police and fire departments?
- Do parents have access to reports that include information about the number of violent or other unsafe incidents at the school?
- Does your school have ways to prevent as well as to respond to crises?
- Are students taught conflict resolution skills?
- How is school safety promoted in your school?
- Are school facilities safe and free of hazards?
- Does your school or district have a Safety Committee?
- Does your child know how to protect his or her personal safety and what to do if he or she is threatened?
It really does “take a village” – to borrow a line from Hillary Clinton — to ensure that our children are safe. Although schools are doing a much better job than they used to, there is always room for improvement. Board of education members, school and district administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents must always be vigilant and act as partners with one another to protect our students and schools.
We know that research indicates that students whose parents are actively involved in their schools have better grades, attendance, behavior, and graduation rates. But PTA membership is a personal investment you make not only for your child, but for yourself too.
Many opportunities await you at your next PTA meeting. Advocating for a worthwhile mission, having a positive impact on your schools, and supporting amazing events for students are the obvious benefits of PTA involvement. But I have also witnessed more subtle perks that may come to active parents.
Here are five things that you might not know about today’s PTA:
1. Volunteer and get access.
Being an active PTA member gives you legitimate reasons to have input and to be in your children’s school during the school day. For example, do you want to have a say in booking a children’s author, a play or a music or science program for your children’s school? Then join your PTA’s cultural arts committee. You will work closely with your principal and teachers to plan enriching events that PTA fundraising supports. As a member of the committee, you will be able to attend programs to assess their success.
By becoming a known quantity to school staff, you will get a birds-eye view of what’s going on and principal, faculty and staff will know you by name. This will come in handy should you ever have a question or concern. Similarly, you may be asked for your perspective as a parent when issues occur. It’s sort of like the classic Peter Sellers movie, Being There. Because you are there, you may become a go-to parent.
2. Contribute and make friends.
You will meet like-minded parents who have children of comparable ages, with whom you will share similar concerns, goals, and hopes for your children. You will form close friendships and you will help one another through the sharing of ideas. If you are new to an area or your first child is starting school, PTA is a good place to meet people.
3. Give and receive much more.
PTA provides you with a wonderful outlet and platform for your passions. For example, if you are passionate about healthy eating, you can join the PTA’s health and wellness committee, and exert influence not only on the school lunch program, but also on classroom practices, such as giving candy for rewards.
If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you are probably already a strong advocate for special education. It is essential that you join SEPTA, Special Education PTA. There you will meet like-minded parents and professionals who will provide you with a support network, cutting edge information and strategies to help your child succeed. You will have the benefit of attending presentations by outside experts. And you will be able to forge positive relationships with district special education administrators, who attend SEPTA meetings. This will give you easy access to these professionals, should you have questions or concerns.
4. Be a player and get the “skinny.”
You will reap enormous benefits if you rise to the highest levels of PTA leadership. If you are the PTA president of your school or a member of your District PTA Council, you will meet with your Superintendent of Schools on a regular basis. He or she will update you on news, issues and problems and ask for your support. If you are a person who likes to be in the know, you will be informed of everything from district accomplishments to drug busts. You will have the information first and will be the one to share it with your members. The superintendent will also solicit your opinion and may ask for you to poll your members on various issues, such as proposed budget cuts.
As a key stakeholder, you may also be asked to serve on interview committees, citizens’ advisory committees, and task forces. The superintendent may also recruit you to help plan district-wide events, and to request that PTA help sponsor them.
5. Hone your skills and show what you can do.
The more you give of yourself and the more you hone your skills, the more valuable you will become to your PTA, your school, your district and community. The seeds you plant may bear fruit in unexpected ways. Is your main job CEO of your household for the foreseeable future? Then why not put your accounting expertise to work as a treasurer? Or use your organizing skills to plan events? Utilizing your background and experience can help close gaps in your resume. Continue to dazzle everyone with your generous contribution of your talent, time and energy, and your volunteer experience could lead to paid employment!
I cannot emphasize enough how much it benefits your child for you to be actively involved in his or her school. Over the years, I have attended countless PTA and Board of Education meetings as a parent, teacher, and administrator, and I will tell you that the prescription for power is knowledge and participation. I have come to understand the crucial role parents play not only in their own children’s education, but in determining the quality of the schools they attend. Indeed, research indicates that the more involved parents are, the better the schools. Conversely, when parents are uninvolved, uninformed – or worse – apathetic, their children and their schools suffer.
The current bus situation in the Smithtown School Districtis a perfect case in point of why parents have to be informed and involved. On May 17, 2011, a transportation referendum to reduce busing limits was passed by voters inSmithtown. The minute it was passed there was an outcry from parents that the proposition was confusing: they didn’t know what they were voting for and, worst of all, that they were unaware that a vote on transportation had been scheduled. Parents were up in arms that their children’s safety was being jeopardized and that their lives would be in danger because they would now have to walk to school on streets without sidewalks and cross large thoroughfares where numerous pedestrians have been injured and killed.
Clearly, this debate should have taken place before the vote. But not enough parents were aware – until it was almost too late. After the vote, large numbers of parents began to systematically lobby the Board of Education for a revote. They circulated petitions, discussed the topic at PTA meetings, wrote letters to the board and to the newspapers, and came to board meetings en masse. This impassioned and organized effort had the desired results, and the board scheduled a new vote for September 19. Stay tuned for the results.
There is no question that parents are their children’s best advocates, but parents can’t be effective unless they are informed; they need to play with a full deck. They need the facts, and they need tools and tactics. My mission is to empower parents to better understand and navigate their children’s schools with the insider information, unvarnished truth, and useful strategies I have acquired in the trenches and at the top levels in public and nonpublic schools. I fully understand that each child has only one chance to experience a particular grade in a school. My passion is caring. I wish that all schools would operate from an ethic of caring – understanding and meeting each child’s needs with respect and sensitivity. My goal is to help parents make the schools more accountable for the benefit of their children.