`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
This week the news has been full of education stories of interest to parents. So many, that instead of giving my opinion on one topic, I’ve compiled a list for you of six of the most provocative issues. I’d love to hear your opinion on any or all of these. Please leave your comments on the bottom of the page or tweet me @DrMerylAin.
1. The Today Show reported that French schools have banned ketchup in an effort to promote healthy eating and combat childhood obesity. As anchor Savannah Guthrie pointed out, “First they give us French fries, and then they take away the ketchup!”
Q: How healthy is your child’s lunch program? Is there anything you would like to see banned?
2. For parents who are worried about their children’s whereabouts, there’s a new app that makes checking in a game. “Our view is that what makes kids safer is communication and being close to their folks,” said the new iPhone app’s co-creator Matthew Bromberg, “And I don’t want to know where my kid is on the map every single moment. I just want to know what’s going on.”
Q: Do you agree or is this too much control for parents to exert over their children? http://mashable.com/2011/10/19/imok/
3. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon repealed teacher-student Facebook restrictions. The controversial law had limited online chats between teachers and students and some alleged that it threatened free-speech rights.
Q: Do you think students and teachers should be Facebook friends?
Q: Do your kids have too much, too little, or the right amount of homework? http://nyti.ms/oWpCn1
5. Idaho schools will tie merit pay to factors such as parent involvement. In some south-central Idaho schools, teacher bonuses will be based on parent participation, including attendance at parent-teacher conferences.
Q: Will this promote or stifle parent-teacher relationships? http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/24/464180idteachersmeritpay_ap.html
6. Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned educator and creativity expert, discusses changing education paradigms in a must-see provocative video. He takes on the education establishment, arguing that today’s students are not being properly educated.
Q: Do you agree or disagree? Let’s discuss.
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.
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.
With the new school year in full swing, it’s a good time to emphasize the importance of parent involvement. This is the time to make a resolution to actively engage in your children’s education. One of the easiest and most accessible ways is to join and become active in the PTA.
Do you think PTA is synonymous with bake sales? Think again — today’s PTA is about a lot more than cupcakes
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.
As I read and watched the September 11thanniversary coverage, I was brought back to that terrible day which transformed all of us forever.
My initial reaction when I learned a plane had hit the first tower was that I would know people who were in the World Trade Center – and I was right. Among the casualties was Andrew Zucker, a 27-year-old lawyer our family had known since he was six-years-old. His mother told me later that after having led members of his law firm to safety, he was going back to help more when the second plane hit and he disappeared. He left behind grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews, friends – and a pregnant wife.
That child, now almost 10 years old, innocently joined thousands of young and unborn children who lost a parent on 9-11. Not only did that terrible day change the lives of countless children and their families, but it also changed our schools.
At the time, I was working in the central office of the Smithtown Central School District, about 30 miles from Manhattan. Minutes after the first attack, I and the five other members of the superintendent’s cabinet were summoned to the office of Dr. Charles A. Planz, the superintendent of schools, to watch the ghastly events unfolding on TV and to discuss how we should handle the catastrophe. Dr. Planz ordered a lockdown of all schools and each of us was assigned to visit two of the district’s 14 schools.
I found panic as I drove up to the first school. Parents who had rushed to the school to take their children home, had congregated in the lobby waiting for their children to be released to them. Many had come to the school because cell phone service had been knocked out and they wanted to be with their children at this time of national crisis. As I circulated among the parents, one mother was crying and visibly shaken.
“My husband is a New York City firefighter,” she told me.
Only later as events unfolded did I realize the true import of her words – that her husband and other brave first responders had rushed into the burning Twin Towers without a moment’s hesitation, ultimately sacrificing their lives to save others. Her husband was one of several first responders and employees in the towers from the Smithtown community who died saving others on September 11.
So many things changed in our country’s schools after 9-11. Schools became better at communicating with parents through websites and automated phone messaging systems. Character education blossomed. The events of September 11 were taught and commemorated. Security guards and security cameras became commonplace. Policies were written, post-Columbine codes of conduct were amended, and rules were established that were unforgiving of prejudice and threats of any kind.
Time and again as the Hearing Officer in Superintendent’s Disciplinary Hearings, I had to explain to a student and his parents that although he had made what he insisted was an idle threat or even a joke, since Sept. 11 the school district was obligated to take it seriously and impose consequences.
But some things will never change, such as the memory of disbelief and horror that day evokes, the families and friends who lost loved ones in such a horrific way, and the unborn children who are now almost 10 years old. All parents have a basic and enduring instinct to protect and shelter their children from harm. When they send their children to school each day, they have implicit faith that their schools are their trusted partners in that essential endeavor.