Conversation with a Kindergarten Teacher, Elisa Marcus
|Elisa Marcus teaches Kindergarten at the Solomon Schechter of Manhattan. In this conversation with Jewish Educational Leadership she describes the culture in her school and articulates a vision of parent involvement in education alongside the relationship between parent and school/teacher.|
JEL: While planning this journal issue, we thought it would be very important to hear from teachers. How do they see the parent role in their children’s education?
EM: I was “raised” as a teacher in an environment that strongly focused on parent partnership from the very beginning. The school has a culture of parent partnership that parents understand very quickly when they become part of the school, certainly when they start in kindergarten and which they continue to feel as their kids get older. It manifests in language that we use when we’re talking with parents, when we make it explicit that we’re partners with them. For example, on curriculum night, we always end by saying that: “You know your child best at home while we know your child best at school – we have to be partners to help your child grow. We need you and you need us.” We have mandatory check in phone calls four times a year. This is not to report on something specific that happened on that day, but a general check-in. Here’s what your child is doing very well, here is something amazing she did, here are some challenges we’re working on… On a structural level, between the parents’ association and the administration and the teachers, relationships are all based on the value of menchlichkeit; our founding Head of School, Steve Lorch, made that a priority. So, I think that parents feel that they are partners in their children’s education. It’s a cultural thing, and you need to build a culture in which parents feel part of the team, so that what happens in the classroom is part of regular communication.
JEL: That sounds extraordinary. What happened when COVID hit?
EM: What I’ve seen with COVID is eye opening, and I also mean eye opening on the part of the parents. Parents now see first-hand and can really appreciate the hard work that teachers do. They’ve learned how environment affects learning, whether they’re sitting at a table in their kitchen or if they have a nice quiet spot. I think parents didn’t really have a sense before COVID of how that could affect their children. I’ve personally felt a lot of appreciation from parents for the job that we do.
COVID also challenged us to ratchet up the communication piece. For example, usually on the first day of school there is a lot of informal schmoozing with the parents. The parents come in as the kids are playing, we schmooze a little bit, we get to know them a little. The next day we dismiss the children or go downstairs at dismissal, jot a little email home, send a picture. It has been very hard the first few days of school to do those things; there are physical limitations. The parents are lined up outside and we send the children one at a time, so there’s none of that informal schmoozing. The workload is also different. This year, my co-teacher and I aren’t in the same room because there’s not enough space for us both. As the only teacher in the classroom, I have to deal with the students who are there, the student who is on Zoom, deal with the technology, doing observations and taking notes on students and taking photographs – it is more difficult, but it’s a critical part of what we have to do because parents are feeling detached. This is especially true for the younger ones; the parents don’t get to come upstairs and see what’s on the bulletin boards, so we have to send that material home. Then for the distant learner we send home what we call our daily learning plan, which is basically an electronic schedule with the things that we’re doing and what she needs to print and the zoom links, the synchronous material and the asynchronous material – so we’re personalizing for them. After our first day we talked to the parents to see how it was going and how it was working with their schedule at home. We’ve been doing this daily (first week of school) and we reevaluate and make the necessary changes. This requires a constant and very intimate communication with the parent about what is working or not working. This goes way beyond differentiation, which is for groups; this is really personalizing the learning for this one student.
JEL: It sounds like the parent is like a co-teacher…
EM: Well, she steps away and leaves the room once her daughter is in class so she’s more like an assistant teacher – doing some prep work, printing things out, cutting things up, getting them ready. But I imagine she is supporting her daughter as a co-teacher in ways that we don’t necessarily see.
JEL: Last year, during the first lockdown, what was different when you had all of your students on Zoom?
EM: One thing that we noticed right away was that my co-teacher and I felt like we weren’t teaching; we were just delivering material. We’d have a morning meeting where we would do a greeting and share and then we’d send them off to check their DLP and see what to do asynchronously until our 10:00 o’clock meeting, which was half an hour dedicated to a different subject. Then they had asynchronous time until the end of the day at 2:45, by which time they had checked out. So, we decided to implement twice a week one-on-one time with each student and that transformed the learning. Sometimes the parents stayed to provide extra support but sometimes their involvement impeded the child’s way towards becoming more independent. I can think of one parent who was there but off-camera, and we could see the child look at the parent every time we asked a question. We had a conversation with the parent and suggested that he step away while his daughter was working.
JEL: You started by talking about the culture of the school which sees parents as partners. Could you flesh that out a little more?
EM: I can give you some examples. In the beginning of the year in particular, we try to share many positive observations. But, as soon as we see issues arise, we don’t sit on them; we share. “I notice that so and so is having trouble …” It can be something simple, like, “he is holding his pencil like this … If you see it, you can gently …” Sometimes parents ask if they should be correcting their child’s reading, and usually we say no, just enjoy reading and have your child enjoy the experience while we will do the business of correcting and teaching at school. Sometimes parents like to be involved in projects, like this mom who loved to bake hallah, so she came in and did it with us. Mostly, though, it’s about being transparent, talking to the parents, listening to them, and problem solving together. When we go into a meeting with a parent about a challenge, we usually have thoughts about what might be causing the challenge and we have thoughts about how we might support that challenge, but it’s not like we’re telling the parents here’s what we should do. We are sitting down with the parents to hear their side, understand their impressions, and then to brainstorm together so that we come up with ideas of what might work.
JEL: Earlier in your career you taught second, third, fourth, or fifth grade. Is it different with older students?
EM: As the kids get older the parents begin to get more anxious about things like standardized tests and academic stress, but the principles of the conversation are the same whether it’s kindergarten or fourth grade. “Here’s what we’re seeing, what do you see at home? What do you think it’s about? What can we try? Let’s try this and touch base in another week.” The Essential Conversation, by Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, was a transformative book for me; it really helped me understand that everybody – teachers, parents, etc. – brings their own baggage to schooling, and understanding that idea makes room for empathy. Dealing with parents with empathy is a hugely important piece because teaching is hard and parents are not always kind. While we should not accept abusive behavior, I think we should pause and try to understand what might be motivating challenging behavior from a parent. We had a parent who was concerned about her son’s reading, in kindergarten. We kept pushing back, saying that he’s really fine and if he were not then we would tell her. When she kept pushing, we expressed that it felt like she didn’t really trust us, and could she try to explain what’s happening. She explained that she was not sure that they would be able to afford to keep him in the school and that they might need to put him into a public school. If that was the case, they wanted him to get into a track for gifted and talented students, and she wanted to know if her son was on track for that. We had the impression that this parent was something of a “helicopter” parent who needed her son to read by kindergarten because otherwise, he would somehow not be set up to a smooth path to an Ivy League university, but the pushing was really coming from a place of real anxiety about the child’s education. The only reason my co-teacher and I were able to discover this was because we gently pushed back on her resistance. There are things that come out in those conversations that allow you to see the challenging parents as human.
JEL: It sounds like what you’re describing is that the culture in your school probably comes close to what you might describe as an ideal culture of parents’ involvement in in their kids’ education.
EM: It really works when parents get trained in the culture, especially beginning with the younger grades. If once in a while someone acts inappropriately, they will learn, especially if the teacher responds in an appropriate way, that we value the parent’s opinion and experience with their child and that we’re trying to understand together what the child needs.
JEL: You earlier spoke about life before COVID and life during COVID. Do you see anything changing in the parents’ roles after COVID?
EM: I have an interesting perspective in that I am both a teacher and a parent. I have an insider view. I would imagine for parent who’s never had the inside view that the experience with COVID could soften them to the teachers’ experience. As teachers we try to empathize with parents and I would hope that COVID would open up a level of empathy with parents that maybe they weren’t able to reach before they really got a glimpse of what it is that teachers do every day and that that will stick with them even when we go back. The flipside could also be true. It’s not just that parents got a glimpse into the hard work that teachers do, but the teachers got a glimpse into the hard work that parents do (even if they are parents themselves). This is particularly important for teachers who do not have children of their own. It’s a window into the world of the child that can nurture empathy for parents just like the window that was opened to parents can nurture empathy for teachers. The greater opportunities to see other people’s perspectives will only help to increase the empathy and build trust between parents and teachers. That’s how we build real partnerships.
Many people say that at the core of teaching is relationships and I believe this to be true. We need to make sure that we apply this lens not just to relationships with students, but with their families as well. Building strong and respectful relationships helps a child learn and grow.