Education Matters: Success in the New School Year
Three ways parents can help set their children up for success.
Brian Thomas: Associate head of school / head of the upper school at Bentley.
Eighth grade was when I suddenly knew that school was going to be my thing. For some people, that moment never quite comes. Why is that? Why does school seem to be so difficult for some people and effortless for others? What can parents do to stack the deck to help students make school their “thing”?
From an early age, I was told I was bright. I remember, however, not learning much math in fifth grade. Part way through math class each morning, around 9:15, I would raise my hand to go to the boys’ restroom. Perhaps it wasn’t every day, but it was enough for me to remember it as a habit. I know that my fifth grade teacher liked me quite a bit, but in math, she let me off the hook. She had seen at least a generation of students from the neighborhood not engage all that deeply in math. Perhaps it was lowered expectations. Luckily, that early experience didn’t torpedo my future aspirations.
In eighth grade I had an English teacher named Anne K. Bentley who made school essential for me in all areas, not just her class. It was in Mrs. Bentley’s English class that I learned how to be a student and the value of the habits of mind that come with hard work in an academic context. Mrs. Bentley had extremely high standards. She had this gruff demeanor (“Okay people, butts in seats. Butts in seats! Let’s get ready to w-o-r-k.”), but we never, ever questioned whether she had our best interests at heart. It was clear that she did.
What was different about Anne K. Bentley’s version of the American classroom is that she let us move at our own pace. Couple that with a conversation that sought to find out who we really were and an attitude that always stressed, “you can do better,” and you would get the picture. The way she motivated me was to challenge me, and insist that I work to the best of my abilities. Today educational theorists would call Mrs. Bentley’s methodology “individualized learning.”
Mrs. Bentley challenged every student in her class, even the Timmy Mirowskis and Darryl Wilsons of the class (not their real names) to go beyond their personal circumstances to be good or even great at something. Timmy and Darryl did not like school. They were not school people, yet they were challenged and they learned. By insisting on each student’s personal best, Mrs. Bentley was ahead of her time. This was a time of loveable losers like Welcome Back, Kotter and his Sweat Hogs. It was almost accepted that some people were learners, and others were doomed to less interesting lives.
On the surface, Mrs. Bentley’s classroom was nothing different. It was set up in the traditional way: desks in rows, posters with motivational slogans on the wall, textbooks mining The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Most Dangerous Game, hall passes on engraved wooden paddles much too big to lose marked “girls” and “boys”.
But in addition to challenging each student individually, Mrs. Bentley mixed up her ways of doing things constantly, so that neither her students nor she would get bored. She had me reading and writing in her own specially designed course of study in American literature, starting with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables.
The moments of one-on-one time with Mrs. Bentley that this independent study provided framed my love of literature, which is intensely strong to this day. When I became an English teacher, I cherished the moments I had when a struggling student, or one who had advanced beyond her peers, lit up with a revelation or some self-recognition in a classic tale. Even reading Bartleby the Scrivener with students who would “prefer not” lets students in on the literary jokes that teachers, authors, and great thinkers have always shared. Indeed, it’s a connection to the great fabric of shared ideas and common humanity that links us when we learn.
Of course, one of the reasons students awaken at different times as learners is brain chemistry. Yet, it’s also because great teachers are like master craftspeople. They know just the right tool to help a reluctant learner understand the “open secret” that is education—like Mrs. Bentley so ably showed students who sometimes otherwise destined for factory or service work. It’s like learning to see the Space Shuttle in one of those Magic Eye pictures that were popular a decade or so back. Students want to be in the know. They want to be a part of the club. They just need the right invitation.
Here are three ways parents can help set their children up for success during the school year ahead:
1.) GET TO KNOW YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER
The most important thing you can do is to get to know and appreciate your child’s teacher for who he or she is. Write a letter (not email) of introduction. Ask to volunteer in the classroom or at the school. Ask about donating supplies or other items that a teacher may need or want. The key here is asking what teachers need. Understanding that teachers need support for the hard work that they do every day is key to their success. It could be the key to your child’s success, too.
2.) APPRECIATE YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER IN SMALL WAYS
Appreciation can be shown by writing a nice note of gratitude during the school year to your child’s teacher. It’s pretty easy. Just find something good that they have done for your child, and write about it. Any kind word to an educator (teacher, administrator, or support staff) underscores that that person is valued beyond the December holiday time or the hectic very end of the school year. These nice notes to school also acknowledge the hard work that teachers do in the day-to-day. My mother would often see Mrs. Bentley at our local grocery store. My mom would always thank her for helping me become the young man she was seeing, and so proud of, at home. A kind word goes a long way.
3.) UNDERSTAND AND APPRECIATE A TEACHER’S HIGH EXPECTATIONS WHILE ENCOURAGING YOUR CHILD TO SET HIS OR HER OWN LOFTY GOALS
Like you, your child’s teacher will try to teach the value of not just settling for her second or third best. Feel free to ask what specific expectations that your child’s teacher has for your child and the class in general. High expectations always means clear and honest communication. In turn, help your own child frame his or her own expectations by encouraging them to set lofty goals that don’t involve getting this or that grade. Make the goals effort driven (i.e., “I will read two extra books that were not assigned to me each month,” “I will attend the Julia Robinson Math Festival next spring,” or “I will help another student with his or her social studies homework so I can understand it better, too,” etc.) and feel free to share them with your child’s teacher. These shared expectations will encourage your child and the teacher to make an even stronger, more vital connection.
When I was in college, I would visit Mrs. Bentley when I went home. She and the rest of my teachers were proud of my accomplishments—really, all of our accomplishments. Just as I am so proud of my students’ success. I heard late this spring that Mrs. Bentley passed away a few years back. During those visits, I hope that I adequately conveyed my appreciation for her insistence that I do my absolute best.
Brian Thomas (@brianwthomas) is the Associate Head of School and Head of the Upper School at Bentley School in Lafayette whose Latin motto, Scire Desider, means, “I desire to know.” He's the former head of school of Presidio Hill School, San Francisco, and the executive director/high school designer at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory School in Las Vegas. He has a 23-year career as a teacher and administrator in independent and public schools. Thomas is also an Emmy-winning actor (1988) and is the author of articles and a speaker about education and parenting issues.