parenting, Uncategorized

Dear Elementary School.

I know we’ve been together for 10 years, but as our youngest child is finishing up 5th grade, it’s time for us to break up.

It’s a bittersweet ending to what I can truly say has been a pretty amazing relationship. On one hand, it’s time. Our 5th grader is ready to move on to middle school. As parents, we’re beginning to feel a little out of place among the parents herding younger siblings on the playground and pushing them around in strollers.

On the other hand, even though we know it’s time, it’s still so hard to leave.

When we first walked through the door, you were a little intimidating, despite the small stature of the people inside. We were about to trust you to take care of and educate our kids, who frankly we’d only known for a handful of years. We hadn’t yet figured out how to get them to eat anything but plain pasta, so we were wondering how in the world you’d get them to actually learn anything.

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I think of how much we didn’t know when we came into this relationship, and how much we’ve all learned in 10 years.

You taught our kids how to write in cursive. How to check out a library book. What to do if you think you’re going to throw up someplace that’s not home (Answer: try not to do it on the floor. But when you’re still this little, it’ll all be okay if you do). How to write a book report, do long division and play games on those little scooters in gym. How to make conversation during lunch, and how to play nicely at recess (and what happens when you don’t).

You taught our kids that getting a bad grade isn’t the end of the world. That if you fall off the monkey bars, dust yourself off and try it again. That kindness matters.

You worked with us to give our kids the confidence to participate in nerve-wracking spelling bees, to learn how to play an instrument, to give a presentation in front of the class, to ask for help when they needed it. You helped them set goals like making our town’s all-city music ensembles or district art show; you celebrated with them when they achieved these goals, and helped them know it was okay when they didn’t.

We learned lessons too. That sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your kid is just not going to eat that lunch you packed for him (Bonus lesson: he won’t starve to death). We learned that every kid picks up different skills – social and academic – at different times, and comparing your kid to another one is probably not going to make anyone happy.

Together,  we learned that sometimes people are going to disappoint us. And that others are going to be there for us in ways that we couldn’t even anticipate.

Thank you, elementary school. You’re a very special place. I know you’re going to make some other family very happy.

 

 

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Uncategorized

Appreciating the Teachers.

I read on Facebook this morning that today is Teacher Appreciation Day. So it must be true.

My mother is a retired teacher, and I think because I was raised by a teacher, I was taught to appreciate teachers. (Insert shout out here to my mother – my first teacher – who taught me some of the more important things in life – how to fold a fitted sheet and make a bed with hospital corners, how to know when it’s time to flip a pancake, and how to shave my legs).

When I think back to my own childhood, there were so many teachers who impacted me, and helped shape me into the person I am today. My 5th grade teacher Mrs. Drake, who introduced our class to French because it was something she wanted to share. I ended up choosing French as the language I took in middle school, continued through high school, and minored in French in college. And my high school French teacher, Mrs. Larsen, took us to French restaurants in Manhattan, showed us French movies, and shared important French literature and more important French swear words. I remember my first trip to Paris, thinking of Mrs. Larsen as I walked around Montmartre, a place we had talked about in high school.

Mr. Gill, the band director in my elementary school, who nurtured my interest in music. I took piano lessons at home, but Mr. Gill was the one who taught me how to play several instruments, and allowed me to experience the joy of playing in band.

There were teachers who taught me things that were less academic, but equally important. Mrs. Pezak, a high school literature teacher, who taught me the importance of humor and warmth in connecting with people. Dr. Butt (a great college professor with a less than great name), who taught me that working with topics that engage you are going to bring out the best in you. Dr. Goodman, the director of my graduate program, who taught me how to transition from being a student to a professional adult.

Teaching isn’t the best paying profession, and aside from getting summers “off” (when many teachers take on summer jobs), there aren’t a lot of perks. But as a teacher myself, I know that a student letting me know that something they learned from me came up at their internship, or something we talked about was helpful in a job interview — this is what makes it all worth it.

 

 

 

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What I Learned In Elementary School

As the school year is drawing to an end for my kids, I’ve realized that next year will be my last as an elementary school parent. My older son is entering high school in the fall, and my younger son will be in 5th grade.

I will have spent 10 years as the parent of an elementary school-aged child. That’s a fairly significant amount of time, and I’ve learned a fairly significant number of things. So, I thought I’d pass along my pieces of advice to those of you entering or in the midst of this stage in your parenting:

1. You’ll get used to the smell. I remember the first time I walked into my son’s school. I was overwhelmed by, of all things, the smell. Not a bad smell — just that school smell.

2. Ask your child questions. And by questions, I don’t mean, “How was your day?” or “What did you do in school today?,” which isn’t going to get you much information. Ask them questions that will give your child the chance to talk. I have one “talker,” which means I find out a lot of what’s going on inside and outside the classroom. The other kid — not so much. But what I discovered is that if I asked him easy questions like, “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” or “What book did your teacher read to you today?,” it would give me more information, and I could offer follow-up questions.

3. Trust the school. I’m not saying that they don’t make mistakes, because of course, we all do. But I think if you go into your child’s school experience with the attitude that nobody else can take care of your child, you’re destined to fail. Let’s face it — teachers don’t make a ton of money; anyone who chooses this career does it because they love children. They want what’s best for your child, just like you.

4. Let your child fail sometimes. A few years ago, I was working at home, and found that Matthew had left his completed homework on the kitchen table. Since I was home, I could have brought it in, but I didn’t, even though I knew he might be upset when he realized he didn’t have it. Instead, I e-mailed the teacher and let her know that he’d done it, but forgotten it, and that I didn’t plan to bring it in for him. There are lots of things your child can learn if you don’t rescue them every time — for Matthew, it was that the earth wouldn’t fly off its axis if he made a mistake. Other children might need to learn how to be more responsible or organized. Either way, if you bail them out every time, they’ll learn that they don’t have to be independent.

5. But, remember that they’re still kids. And sometimes, it’s okay to bring a forgotten lunch or musical instrument to school.

6. It’s their homework. Not yours. I remember Matthew working on a book report project in 4th grade. He had to create a cereal box that represented the character and the book. It was a cool assignment, but watching him do it nearly put me over the edge. I REALLY wanted to get my scrapbook paper and some stencils and make the whole thing look way prettier than a 9-year-old could. But I kept telling myself that it looked completely 4th grade appropriate, and as long as he could handle the project himself, I needed to back off. Same goes for nightly homework. Help your child if they ask for it, but not if they don’t.

7. Homework shouldn’t make them cry. I can’t remember which of my child’s teachers told the parents this at back-to-school night, but it’s a rule we’ve always followed. If homework is so frustrating that your kiddo is crying, first take a break and try to come back to it. If they still can’t handle it, stop, put a note to the teacher on the homework and let her know that your child didn’t understand something. Obviously, if this happens every night, there’s something else going on, but on occasion, there’s going to be a lesson that gets by your kid.

8. Let teachers know when they’re doing something right. Unfortunately, parents are quick to complain when something goes wrong, but don’t let the school know when things are going well. It doesn’t take much time to send a teacher a quick e-mail to let him know that your child is excited about a particular lesson, that they’re proud of mastering a new skill, or that they’ve said something particularly nice about a teacher. While you’re at it, let the principal know too. He’s probably fielding more calls from parents with a complaint, so he’d probably like to hear something nice too.

9. Stand up for your kid if you need to. When Matthew was in kindergarten, it took a little bit of work to get him speech therapy services that he needed for a lisp he no longer has (thanks to two years of speech in school!). One year, one of my children had a teacher he thought didn’t like him. I told him that couldn’t possibly be the case, but after I heard it from him a few more times, I asked for a meeting with the teacher, brought my son along, and told her that he thought she didn’t like him. She denied it, of course, and I’ll never know if she just didn’t like him (let’s face it — we all love our kids, but we sometimes meet people in this world who we just don’t care for). But once we addressed it, she was much nicer to him.

10. Enjoy the ride. There’s something very sweet about watching our kids grow from tiny kids who are the same size as their backpacks to “big kids” who are ready to brave middle school. Hang up their artwork. Put their spelling tests on the fridge. Celebrate report cards with their favorite dinner. And hold their hand while they’ll still let you.

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Follow Your Dreams.

Twice a week, I teach college communication classes. I’ve been doing it since Matthew was a baby, so I could freelance, but still have a steady source of income and work (and distraction from the never-ending needs that a baby usually has). While I don’t love the fight for a campus parking spot, some of the dry material I’m contracted to cover, or the grading of sometimes poorly-written papers, I love that there is information I have that I’m able to share with people who have a real desire and need for that information.

Every semester, I tell my students the story about my first job. I graduated from Penn State with a degree in Speech Communication and a dream of working for an advertising agency in New York City. It was mid-recession, so it took me a few months, but I found my dream job – working as an assistant at a large, high-profile advertising agency in New York.

And I hated it.

I hated the 90-minute commute each way and the trudge through Port Authority with the other miserable people who were getting off the bus. I hated the smelly walk up 8th Avenue, I hated my boss, who gave me work to do without explaining anything about it, and who condescendingly handed me extra cash to “get something for myself” when I went to the company cafeteria to fetch coffee for her meetings. I hated the people I worked with. I hated that I got home after 7:00 p.m. every night and felt the need to go for a run as soon as I did, just to burn off the stress of the day.

I stuck it out for four months, until I was able to get a fellowship that covered the cost graduate school, which bought me an extra year and a half to figure out what the heck I was going to do with my life now that the reality of my dream turned out to be a bit of a nightmare.

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Artwork courtesy of Rose Hill Designs by Heather Stillufsen

As I’m telling my students this story, they tend to look at me, dumbfounded – like, why would our professor, who is supposed to be encouraging us and our dreams, be telling us about her awful first job??

And I always tell them, I’m GLAD I had that awful job. I’m glad I had a job in the city, worked in advertising, did precisely what I thought I wanted to do.  Because if I hadn’t, maybe I’d be standing in front of these classes, telling them they should pursue their dreams because I didn’t. I’m glad I can tell them that THIS is the time to be doing what they want to do. From where I stand now, I know that when you have a dream come true and it doesn’t look like a dream anymore, it’s time to find a new dream. From where I stand, I know that if I HADN’T pursued the dream I had, it would be a whole lot tougher to try and do that now.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’m saying that going after a fantasy in your 20s, before you have a mortgage, car payments and kids, is a whole lot easier than doing it later, especially if that dream turns out to be something you never really wanted in the first place.

My story has a happy ending, and that’s also something I stress to my students. While I was in graduate school, I took a public relations class, loved it, did an internship and loved that – I’d figured out what I really wanted to do.  I spent 10 years working in public relations in jobs I enjoyed, and then when I had my first child, started doing freelance PR and teaching.

It turns out that my dream wasn’t what I thought it was. But I’m glad the detour took me to the dream I’m living now.

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