E is for Elementary school



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You may wonder why a parent of teenagers would want to write about elementary school, but now that we’ve closed that chapter in our daughters’ lives, I feel like I see those early years of education with more clarity than I did when I was smack in the middle of it.

Full disclosure: I was a pretty involved parent in our school, which colours my opinion, no doubt. When our younger daughter graduated from grade six three years ago, and thus leaving the school, it capped off 10 years of volunteering. Over the years I worked on the Parent Council, was chair of the Parent Council, ran a newspaper club and various other things. Upon leaving the school the principal presented me with a beautiful crystal bowl to thank me. Above and beyond any gift expectations, to be sure.

But it was I who needed to thank the school. I had no idea how much our elementary experience would shape our views on parenting and parental involvement, public education, volunteering – you name it.

Our school is a small K-6 school in the west end of Toronto, about 150 kids. Yep, you read that right. When our youngest started JK we worried that it wouldn’t be good enough for our little superstar. But we soon found the benefits of attending the school closest to us far outweighed other desirables, such as French immersion, extending to grade 8, the resources and opportunities that a larger school can offer.

A friend whose daughter was in the same class as ours quickly volunteered me to be on the parent council. I was skeptical. Just what I need – long meetings plagued by Robertson’s Rules of Order. But instead I found other like-minded parents. We worked with the teachers and administration, not against them. And in this manner, over 10 years, we accomplished a lot.

I worked part-time and was able to dedicate a lot of my spare hours to applying for grants, researching field trips, driving children to track meets (not always my own). Some may say my level of involvement was too much. I recognize it’s not for everyone, but it was right for me. I was able to gain insight into the challenges that teachers face every day. Just one hour working with eight to 10 students on the newspaper was enough for me. How did teachers last the whole day? Or chaperoning a field trip, being responsible for only four kids was a workout!

So, my advice to parents of elementary school children is this:

  • When choosing a school, don’t rely on websites or test results as a true measure of the school’s success. Instead, visit the school. Ask for a tour. Attend open houses and other events. Try to get a sense of how many teachers have been there for more than five years – that’s a really good way to see how happy teachers are, and happy teachers make for a happy school.
  • When your kids come home telling you about something outrageous that happened at school, verify the story. Kids have a funny way of not getting the facts completely straight. Do it calmly, not with guns ablazin’. It’s hard to not go all mama bear if your child gets in trouble (I learned this the hard way), but know that there are two sides to every story.
  • Don’t use Parent Council meetings to air grievances that are specific to your child and your child’s teacher. If you have an individual classroom problem, speak first to your child’s teacher. If that doesn’t lead to a change, then set up a meeting with the principal.
  • Ask your child’s teacher and the Parent Council how you can help. There are lots of ways to volunteer that don’t require helping during classroom hours if you’re working. Bake sales, book sales, fairs – those often happen after hours.
  • Ask friends and family with children at other schools about their experiences. It’s a great way to get ideas and advice.
  • Above all, be positive about school in general and about your child’s school specifically. Kids will take their cues from you and if they hear you complaining about their teacher or the school, they’ll start to lose that lovin’ feeling.

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