Getting involved in the Classroom: Find out what’s happening in your kid’s school

For me, Labor Day always means a trip to the teacher’s supply store to buy brightly colored ‘Welcome’ signs, posters outlining classroom rules, bulletin board paper, and other teaching aides for a fresh start to the new school year. For parents of elementary school children, it means stepping into the unknown again, either with a new teacher, new classmates, or both.

As a parent and teacher of students in grades K-8, you could say I understand what it’s like to be on both sides of the desk. When the school year begins in September, everything is bright and shiny. Everyone has been on vacation and is ready to get back to regular schedules.

But once the newness has worn off, how does your child get along with the teacher and all the other children, and how does the class work as a whole? Here are some pointers for how to get a clearer idea of the personalities and routines in your child’s classroom.

  • Get involved. When you pick your child up from school and ask the traditional question, “How did everything go today, honey?” you may either get the perfunctory response of “fine,” or, if you’re lucky you could get a peek into the day with an offhand comment like, “It was great. Mrs. X screamed when a tiny mouse walked out of the supply closet.” Unfortunately, that will only tell you that the school needs an exterminator. If you really want to know about what goes on inside your child’s school, get involved and volunteer.
  • Look for signs of stress. Check notes or emails from the teacher or school to look for signs of how stressed out the teacher is in her tone. Also check during both the morning drop off and afternoon pick up. But remember stress comes from their personal lives as well as the classroom. You could also ask to observe the class on a given day, the teacher may be a little uncomfortable, but it is a request you can make.
  • Volunteer for crafts days. Teachers love to have extra adults in the classroom on days when they are doing a hands-on project like making applesauce, decorating cupcakes, or crafting anything with mixed media. You’ll get to see the teacher’s classroom management skills in action. In just a few minutes you can glean how organized the classroom is, whether the students are learning how to work cooperatively in groups, and which kids stand out for negative or positive reasons. The teacher will be more relaxed than during official visits, and she or he will really appreciate another set of grown-up hands.
  • Volunteer to go on trips. The dynamic on a field trip is a little different because all the kids are excited about going somewhere, but the personalities basically remain the same. See if other parents are also on the trip. Some may be there just to help, but others may be there by special invitation – in other words, they were asked by the teacher to accompany their child because he needs a little extra attention. I’ve told some parents that the only way I can let their child come on the trip is if a parent attends, which is code for, “your kid is absolutely too uncontrollable for me to take out of the school building with a large group.” Trip days are when teachers have visions of accidents and lost children dancing in their heads, so they really appreciate extra parents coming along.
  • Speak on Career Day. Of course, the students have been prepped to be polite, raise their hands when asking questions, and honor their guests, but if you’re there long enough, you’ll get a sense of their personalities. They’re not yet old enough to ‘fake it’ for long periods of time.
  • Participate in school-wide programs. Helping out with activities like spring festivals, science fairs, and theatrical productions is a great way to see the big picture. This type of volunteering will allow you to see how the school administrator interacts with teachers and how the units of the school function together. Remember that a pecking order exists in all schools, public or private. Even in schools where all classes are supposed to be heterogeneous, teachers who are on the principal’s ‘favorite’ list often get better functioning classes with fewer kids with behavioral, social, or learning difficulties.
  • Observe how your child’s teacher is treated by school administrators. Some principals hand-pick certain students for certain teachers with the belief that if a teacher can pull it together with a particularly challenging class during one term, they will become a stronger teacher. There are other situations, however, in which principals are trying to get teachers to leave and will give them a really tough class in hopes that they’ll transfer to another school.
  • Speak up. As parents you might say, “Well, if the principal wants that teacher out, she must be a bad teacher, so good riddance.” That’s not always the case. If you think your child’s teacher is being dumped on with a particularly difficult group of students and your rather mild-mannered child is getting the short end of the stick, complain to the principal or assistant principal. Class rosters can be rearranged so that one teacher does not have the lion’s share of the most difficult and disruptive students. It’s not fair to the teacher or other students in the class when most of the energy has to be used just to keep the room stable and out of chaos.
  • Do your own research. Elementary schools can have a host of positive and negative elements under one roof. Each teacher and student is an individual. If a fellow parent is speaking negatively about a teacher or an entire school, conduct some of your own research before coming to a conclusion. Room 223 could be lacking organization or routines, while Room 225 might have kids who are really engaged with the learning process and a teacher who really loves his or her job. You want to feel like your child’s teacher has taken the time to find what each student’s strengths and weaknesses are and that he or she is determined to have the classroom be a place for positive development.
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