A number of years ago, when I worked as the head of a middle school, I asked the teachers to share what they had talked about with parents at their recent mid-term conferences.

My question generated an interesting list, one which I’ve thought about often, as both teacher and parent, and come to respect as pretty intelligent street-level points of view — useful in the classroom, and useful at home.

In fact, they are interesting to look at from almost any moment in the school year — the start of school, when kids are facing new teachers, new studies, new friends, and unfamiliar challenges (as are their parents!) — as well as medial and final moments when students have truly “become” the level of their current grade and might be turning their gaze to the next one ahead, when they most fully inhabit, say, “seventh-graderness.”

And perhaps their teachers feel that they are fully inhabiting “seventh-grade teacherness!”

So, as we stand on the verge of that new “habitation,” I think it’s interesting to think about the following 10 things and how they moderate and influence our common goals. See what you think.

My colleagues wrote:


1. The majority of kids can take charge of their own learning — if we allow them to do so. Don’t over teach, or over parent. Give them time and space to take charge and they’ll be more resilient and competent for having had the independence.

2. Children should feel rewarded by learning itself. External rewards to stimulate good grades thwart long-term joy and power as the result of hard work and accomplishment.

3. Kids see things from a kid’s point of view. Parents and teachers should be journalists: get several sources for objectivity and accuracy when kids report on their school day. And “the story” keeps evolving long after “publication.” Everything is a work in progress.

4. Focusing on good grades alone loses sight of the great positive potential in deciphering a low grade. Failure can be far more instructive than success. Deep learning takes place out of reach of what a grade can ever measure.

5. Collaboration. Crucial life skills come from the struggle implicit in working with others, and wrestling with unfamiliar challenges. Adults want to spare kids discomfort. Better to welcome discomfort and help to guide them out of their discomfort zone.

6. “Little by little the bird makes his nest,” as the saying goes. Today’s lesson builds toward future lessons and accomplishments, often unforeseeable and unplanned. Wise, steady, daily challenges are the golden thread of progressive education.


7. Character. There are no assurances about the exact skills necessary for life in the future. To be forward-looking, teachers must prioritize the concepts that are guaranteed to be at the heart of unforeseeable futures: improvisation, comfort with chaos, skilled questioning, integrity, and ethical character.

8. Balance. Kids need help balancing priorities. Piano lessons getting in the way of homework, or homework getting in the way of piano lessons? Both might be reasonable conclusions … depending on the child.

9. Coach, don’t cushion, during homework time. Bring problems and questions back to school. Don’t deny the teacher and class the chance to understand how a kid experiences the homework — especially if they’ve hit the wall and they can’t figure out how to do the work.

10. Don’t miss school. Work can be made up, but not the contact, texture, and experiences of being present in school.

I’ve thought about this list for many years and have come to feel that it does a good job of encapsulating the deeper equations for learning, fulfillment, happiness, hopeful lives, and resiliency.

The problems on the quiz last Friday or the projections about term grades are vital, but so is the larger concept of proportion, which will support that architecture unit across the hall in history or friendship triangles.

Parents and teachers share the vision and guardianship of long-term learning as well as its daily tasks. It’s the primary partnership for raising effective and resilient kids.

Todd R. Nelson is a former teacher and principal in Penobscot.

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