We spoke with Kristin Sherlock, a dedicated teacher at the Academy of American Studies who teaches algebra and geometry to 9th and 10th graders, to discuss parents’ role in their children’s learning and development, as well as their relationship with school.
Q: Experts agree that parents’ involvement positively impacts their children’s learning and development. From your experience, how can a high school student benefit from their parents’ engagement?
A: There are so many different ways that a parent’s involvement can help their student. First of all, it’s just been my experience that whenever a parent shows a genuine interest in the student’s involvement—whether it’s academics, sports or you would hope both—the kids just drive to do better. When I was a student athlete, my parents cared about my grades. I didn’t want to get a phone call home for anything bad. I always wanted to get the awards on the sports team. So it wasn’t even a show off for myself at that age but it was really a show off for my parents.
When a student is also held accountable to their parents, I think scores are just that much higher. For instance, we have an online grade book at my school, and I know Mike (Kristin’s husband who’s an Assistant Principal at an elementary school) has the same experience. Parents and students both have different portals of access. The second a grade is updated, whether it’s good or bad or even indifferent if a child’s score isn’t changed, I’d hear from the parents via email or phone, “oh I was wondering why he didn’t do his homework”, “can he make the homework up”, or “are you going to offer extra credit since his test score wasn’t as high”. It also gives parents the ability on the grade book to interact with teachers because they can email us straight from the grade book.
Again, I think it goes back to the accountable piece. I think if students are accountable not just to themselves but to somebody else like their parents—especially in high school—their achievement is going to be so much higher. Teachers have very high expectations. But if a student is surrounded by chaos in their life and they don’t have an adult figure in their life, I think it’s too much actually of us to ask him to just focus on school, when they can’t even sort out XY and Z at home.
Q: How should parents support their children on their education path while still allowing their child to remain fully accountable?
A: I think it’s really important that kids never get the “get out of jail free” card from their parents, like an excuse note that says “please excuse them from the test because they are not feeling good.” I mean that’s not life. Anytime that they’re given a “get out of jail free” card, and they don’t have to face a life situation of being held accountable, you’re not setting them up for being successful. Being a parent, I realize that. Being a teacher, I see that unfortunately happen. Sometimes there are ways that you can go back and explain to the parents. And most of the time, parents are pretty understanding. As soon as they see a zero for their child’s grade, they want to know why it’s there. Well, you wrote the note and said that they weren’t going to take the test today. They didn’t get what they needed to get done. And all of the sudden, their grade is failing now. So they ask what can we do to make this grade go higher. You always have to, even as the parent, the teacher, put it back on the kids. You can give them options and opportunities, but if they don’t follow through, they don’t get that extra reward and they don’t get the grade they wanted. Mike, would you agree with that? Anything you can think of to add to that?
[Mike:] The school that I’m working at has the gifted and talented, or the better students for the lack of a better word. The parent’s—if their kids are not getting the grade they want to see—first instinct is to question the school, the grading policy, the teachers themselves and so on. If a kid is maybe not doing as well as you would like, instead of just going immediately blame the school or the teacher, which is very very common now, ask what did you do. Did you speak to the teacher? Did you seek out some extra assistance? Or basically—it’s how the real world works—try to equip the student with the ability to overcome the challenges and have the success that they want.
[Kristin] Another thing to add on to what you just said is the fact that it’s a very weird position to be put in. As a teacher, when a parent asks you a question in front of the student about why something is, our first instinct as teachers is to look back at the student and say, “do you want to answer that or would you like me to?” We need to put it back on the kids because we know why that grade is the way it is. I guess we try to make sure it’s the student’s job to be accountable and to have their own voice.
Q: Should parents allow their children to make mistakes for instance when choosing a college or a career?
A: Should the parents be able to tell somebody where to go to college? I don’t know if I believe in that. I always get excited when my students say that they’re taking a weekend to go away with their family because they’re going to go visit a college. That’s always exciting to me because that student has a voice and option. If a student is making the decision to apply to and go to college and following through, then it’s OK if the student makes a mistake in a sense of maybe choosing the wrong environment, as long as college is not taken off the table.
We have had students in the past whose parents have said to them, “if you don’t go here, I’m not paying for this school”. Sometimes because of that threat the students would go to that school that’s not their first choice. The parents might not see it on their end, but as the teachers, you see these kids get so nervous when their acceptance letters and sometimes the denial letters start coming in mail. If they don’t get into the school they wanted to, and they’re forced to go to the one that mom or dad wanted them to go to, that’s not always the best situation. Yes, it’s great that they’re going to go to school and it’s great that college opportunities exist and it’s there for them. But ultimately, I think they need to be given the right tools to make those decisions themselves. We still have a lot of parents who have never been to college. In their head, sometimes it seems more glamorous. I think sometimes they’re afraid of the kids making the same mistakes they made. So mistakes are fine if they are learned from. But I don’t know if I think a mistake would be going to the wrong school, if it was the child figuring that out for themselves.
Q: What do schools expect from parents? How does this change when children go to college?
A: I think you’d get a different answer from what schools expect from parents if you asked a teacher versus if you asked an administrator. I think they’d kind of blend and go together. I think schools expect parents to be involved and there’s nothing more uncomfortable then when you make a phone call home and the parents say, “well, what do you want me to do about that” or “yes, you know so-and-so is out of control, I can’t really reign them back in.” That’s very unfortunate call to make because the parent doesn’t give you insight. It would be possible to loop their child back into being interested in your class. But you as a teacher know that the parent isn’t supportive and have to find a different way in to get to the kids.
So I think ultimately, as a teacher, you want parents to be engaged, and you want them to ask questions. My classroom door is always open for instance. So if parents ever want to come in and interact with their kids during the school day, they are more than welcome to. I want them to go see their kids play sports. I want them to ask their kids questions. I want them to check up and make sure they’re doing their homework. I want them to look at the grade book and ask their children questions. If they don’t get the answers they want, I want them to feel comfortable to come to me as their teacher and say: “I asked my child this question, this is the answer they gave me. I need more details about it.” I want to have an ongoing dialogue. I want them to be open and affirming to who their kids are and accepting of what they’re doing, even when it’s difficult. I don’t want them to ever lower their expectations because I as their teacher will never do that. So if they’re at home and their expectations are continually lowered, it’s going to be a battle that I’m going to continuously fight. I want them to always be engaged in every aspect of their child’s life. And I’d want them to ask questions when the questions are most difficult to ask.
Q: What is your advice as regards parents interacting with school? When should parents get involved and when should they not? What are the best ways of their involvement?
A: I think if a parent is truly going to be in support of their child, they’re paying attention to every aspect of their academic life. I don’t think you just get involved when it’s a bad situation. I think you have to applaud the successes as well. Involvement doesn’t mean you’re hands-free until it’s a do or die time and your child is sinking.
I don’t know if there’s a time I would ever say a parent shouldn’t be involved. Schools should have an open door policy to parents. I think parents need to ask their children questions. I think they need to ask the school questions. I think PTAs or PTOs, are great places for parents to be involved. Unfortunately, those have also become very political at many schools. So it’s not always as easy to be involved in those. I’m having a very difficult time being involved in my daughters PTA or PTO because of when they hold meetings and the things that they’re doing. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible and that I’ll stop trying. If there’s an invitation to an open school night, every parent should make themselves available to go. If you can’t, send them an email so that you’re corresponding with your child’s teachers.
Make sure you know the principal and the assistant principal by name because you’re modeling that for your child as well. So the more comfortable as a parent you are at your child’s school, you’re just setting your child up for more success. Definitely don’t get involved if you’re going to have a combative relationship. You don’t want your child to be in an environment where they’re always fighting against their teachers, their peers or the administration. But I think if you can foster healthy relationships, that’s just another relationship, another model to set for your kids that will pay off in spades.
When they get to college, they’ll see the way that they have been able to interact with their teachers in high school and they can take that responsibility and set appointments with office hours with their college instructors. That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do in my English lit class from my freshman year of college. But I knew what was expected of me because I knew that failure wasn’t an option for me. But I knew that because those were the expectations communicated to me all the way through school. So if I was going to get a not-good grade, I needed to make sure I could explain why in high school and in college. So I made those office hour appointments and I guess I still felt accountable to my parents as well when I was in college. I was doing that for myself but also for my family.
Q: What are the most common pitfalls of parent involvement? What are the watch-outs?
A: As a teacher, I would say one of the most common pitfalls is a parent who’s not actively involved in their student’s life. One of the saddest and most difficult things is to try to work with kids in high school, whose parents are not involved in their life. They are either too busy or they have things going on and they’re not willing to come in for a meeting with you.
We as teachers, my husband and I, when we worked with a team of people, have sat in meetings with the children whose parents don’t show up. That’s a very hard situation and that’s when you become not so much a teacher anymore, but more like a parent figure to that child because you’re consoling them and you’re helping them understand. Often times they get angry or they get sad and you become that person they come to.
Another pitfall? Probably when parents are too involved. It goes back to the part of parents not holding their children accountable. Parents holding the teachers first accountable as opposed to asking their kids “what should you have done?”. By all means ask the teacher too if they don’t get an acceptable answer. If you are even the least bit organized of an educator, when a parent asks a question about their child, you’re going to be able to give them an answer. Maybe it’s not what they want to hear, but often times they could’ve already gotten an answer from their child. So I think those are that the unfortunate ways I could say that parents can be involved or not involved in the right ways.
Q: What is your advice for parents who don’t have college education with regard to supporting their children on their way to college?
A: Like I mentioned earlier, we’re still teaching a large group of children whose parents have never been to college, and some have never even graduated high school. As the kids matriculated credits and passed regents exams and got closer to graduation of high school, college became more of a reality for their parents. And the genuine excitement that they had, the involvement and the weekend trips visit schools paid off because we had so many of the kids go to college.
We had a student whose parents immigrated to the United States. His brother before him had gone to college and he was going to be the second person in this family to graduate high school and then go to college. His parents worked so hard so that he’d be able to go to a private school in Massachusetts. One of the things that I remember, that really got Frankie so excited about the whole process was it wasn’t just a school thing for him. His parents asked questions and his parents filled out the paperwork. His parents met the deadlines that needed to be met. His parents were interested in all of the FAFSA information. They came to all the college meetings with the students at the school. And that’s another thing that schools can do. Schools can hold college meetings. The more information that you can put in a child and a parent’s fingertips, the more exciting the process is.
You know, prior to myKlovr, you really only had collegeboard.org to go on and research colleges. It would kind of tell you from PSAT scores, and what colleges they think you might do well at. It’s not that it wasn’t personalized, but it wasn’t personalized enough. Anytime that you can personalize something for children, even when they’re still in high school and make it feel like a genuine, true, new, exciting experience, it’s just an amazing. All of the kids at my school are going to have all of their college applications in around December 1st of this year. That’s a week from Friday. And some of them are applying for rolling admissions and they might find out around Christmas or New Year if they get into some of the schools. And then some of them won’t get the letters they’ve been waiting for until maybe March.
But what an exciting time and I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through that process alone without your parents by your side. There are kids that go through that regularly, without their parents support. I just remember watching the kid in the Bronx whose parents would get more excited on every little level. When they get their financial letters, or their SAT scores, even for the third time in the mail, they celebrated it. Celebrations go far, college is something to be celebrated.
You can’t do much in life without a college degree anymore. You can’t even get a job at McDonald’s that’s worthwhile if you don’t have your high school diploma now. I think we as parents and as educators always want our kids and our students to do better than we did. I think of that when I look at my math classes everyday. I’m trying to give these kids knowledge that they can take and apply in a real world. Some of the knowledge that I have to be in part on them is not applicable. Some of them will never use it again except to take and pass a test at the end of the year. But my job is to make it exciting and get them engaged, even if it is something as trivial as a translation. They have to be able to just take an object and move it. But if I seem excited about it, about math, and it works with the kids. If a parent got excited about their school, and if a parent got excited about the college application process, and even got excited about taking them to school, imagine the future that they’ll have.
You know, I look at my girls and I think about it all the time. The hardest thing ever will be dropping them off to college. The best thing ever will be dropping them off to college.