One million words.
One million words might just be the key to begin eradicating the stubbornly persistent achievement gap that exists between children from low income and middle/high income families, between white and Asian children and their black and brown peers, and between children whose first language is English and those for whom it is not.
In 2019, Ohio State University published a study that found that students who are regularly read to prior to entering kindergarten are exposed to 1.4 million more words than those who are not. That difference, the study supposes, could be the reason the gap in achievement begins at a young age and grows as the years progress. Further, we know that success in school is highly correlated to earnings throughout life.
In this, a presidential election year, candidates and pundits fall all over themselves to sell you their solutions to fix the growing income gaps in America, lift families out of poverty, and reverse the trend of stagnant wages. Maybe - just maybe - folks would be well served to visit a local high-quality preschool to realize the answer.
Early childhood education is imperative. All things being equal, it is the difference-maker. It is the one tool in public education’s and the government’s tool belts that can be used to the greatest effect. When you can solve for poverty and economic mobility over the long term, you have a chance of solving the achievement gap for future generations. Without great, accessible early childhood education, we can only hope to make change around the edges. It is the gift that keeps on giving. For my money, there is simply no better investment that impacts a child’s success in school and future earning potential than high-quality early childhood education. Full stop.
It’s not often that school districts attempt to do something they aren’t required to do and for which there is no money. In California, where recently we have struggled to even get to 38th out of the fifty states in school funding, providing preschool is not required of local school districts. The cost of providing the programs, even with some state and federal funding reimbursement, is monumental. The bureaucratic red tape, while well intentioned, limits school districts’ abilities and willingness to consider providing these services, even when the need is clearly there. Governor Newsom has made expanding preschool services a top priority and has put some funds forward to try to do so.
The reality is that without a significant influx of funds and a long-term commitment by policy-makers and the electorate to prioritize early childhood education, we are unfortunately doomed to a groundhog-day-esque circular conversation. People blame public schools for not closing the gap and schools throw up their arms in frustration without the necessary tools to address the challenges of doing so.
There is much to do. We must ensure access to high quality preschool for all children in our state. We must increase the wages of our preschool educators and end the second-class treatment of our early childhood educators. We must ensure that preschool programs are equipped to serve students with identified and unidentified special needs. We must invest in high quality teacher training programs and professional development. We must prioritize the creation of equitable preschool classrooms that expose our youngest children to the rich diversity of culture, income, and perspective that defines our great state.
We have a pretty good idea of what the answer is.
We have to have the will and conviction to make it happen.
I am proud to serve a community that decided not to wait for state policymakers to solve the problem. I am also fortunate to lead a district that is creative and well-resourced enough to design outside-of-the-box solutions. With a commitment of one-time set-up funds and ongoing facility and infrastructure provision, our district is able to provide a high-quality, fee-based preschool program to families who can afford market rate preschool and reserve 25% of enrollment to low income families on a sliding scale. What has resulted is a diverse community of children together receiving a high-quality preschool education focused on the whole child. Our teachers and staff are paid far better than their private preschool counterparts and our program is aligned to the vertical experience they will have in their K-12 school experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step. It’s a model for other communities that want to see action.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and, like me, want to see our communities and state take action to provide high quality early education, or if you desire more information about this regional, state, and national issue, I invite you to join us for a screening of the acclaimed documentary No Small Matter on January 22, 2020 at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.. We will view the film, which addresses the need for and challenges involved with quality early childhood education, and engage in a panel discussion with regional leaders. Sign up for your free tickets, and free childcare if needed, here.
In addition to the No Small Matter event, electing candidates who value and prioritize early childhood education is another important step we can take. Our friends at the Community Equity Collaborative are sponsoring a candidate forum for the upcoming California District 13 State Senate election. My school district is hosting this event at Hillview Middle School on February 9, 2020 from 3-5 p.m. The ECE State Senate Candidate Forum will convene a diverse gathering of community members, educators, local organizations (including faith-based institutions) along with local leaders and candidates for the District 13 election in order to increase awareness of and encourage broad-based commitments to early learning priorities. During this moderated conversation we hope to learn more from the candidates about their platforms and plans for elevating these issues and leading our state to greater equity in education, especially for young children and preschool teachers. Please join me at one or both of these outstanding events.
It is possible to stop spinning our wheels and take action to close the achievement gap. I hope you will seek information, press your leaders, and take action. Big challenges call for big ideas.
As modern technology is designed to do, my go-to places for news automagically curate a series of articles in which I am most likely to be interested. Inevitably my list includes parenting articles and blogs based on my frequency of clicking on all things parent-advice related. Intellectually, I understand that most articles and blogs are “clickbait” and provide very little real value.
Even knowing this, I never cease to be amazed at the level to which clickbait-copy-editors will stoop to get people to click on a parenting-advice article. Were you to believe the eye catching titles, you would be convinced that no matter the label you would give to your parenting style--it’s wrong. You would also be led to believe that the secrets to good parenting are kept so tightly hidden that only a select few are smart enough to know. You’d be quite sure that not only will your child not get into an elite college, but they’ll be lucky to leave your basement before the age of 40 because of all the terrible decisions you have made as a parent. Suffice it to say, none of the overzealous claims made in these blogs and articles is of much merit; they are simply trying to get you to click.
However, parenting does change from generation to generation. Knowing how and why parenting evolves is an important consideration when preparing our children for the world into which they will be launched rather than the one into which we were set in motion.
So how might this generation of children be pushing our thinking around parenting? I think we can take a page from what is happening in schools around the country for an indication. Much attention has been paid around something known as restorative justice; it is providing a model to look at discipline in schools differently.
As educational leaders, policy makers, and researchers look deeper into the causes of generational poverty, achievement gaps, and high school dropout rates, etc., many are asking if the punitive manner in which schools have traditionally approached discipline exacerbates problems, rather than fixes them, especially among ethnic minority populations, low income communities, and boys. Borrowing from work within the criminal justice system, schools began experimenting with restorative justice as an alternative to more punitive and exclusionary discipline techniques like suspension. Rather than punishing someone for their choices and meting out external consequences that have little impact on future choices and often further escalate division, restorative justice emphasizes accountability and making amends. When successful, restorative justice repairs harm caused by an infraction resulting in transformational change, relationship building, and empathy; it also dramatically decreases recidivism.
In my own community of Menlo Park, our school district began restorative work early on in the effort to rethink school discipline. In the first two years of implementation, our middle school, Hillview, experienced a dramatic decline in the number of suspensions, a near eradication of recidivism, and an elimination of the over-representation of students of color being disciplined at school. Over the two-year period, suspensions decreased from 112 to less than 12 in an entire year. Six years later, suspension rates remain low and restorative justice circles have become the approach of choice for helping pre-teens and teens own their mistakes and make amends for the harm they have caused.
Restorative justice is one example of a larger movement in our society known as restorative practices. Restorative practices refer to the mindsets and operations we engage around communication, conflict, and community building. In my community, we rely heavily on resources and wisdom from the International Institute for Restorative Practices to help guide our work around two aspects of our Whole Child Learning and Development Framework: Healthy & Collaborative Relationships and Integrated Well-Being.
Nearly all of our teachers have been trained in restorative practices and weekly or sometimes daily utilize an effective restorative strategy known as “community circles.” Whether it is starting out the day or identifying a brewing conflict within the class and strategizing how to resolve it, community circles give voice to all members of the class and encourage students to practice important skills like empathy, advocacy, allyship, decision-making, and problem solving.
“But I thought this blog was about parenting?” you might be asking yourself. It is. Strategies like community circles and the mindsets that drive the work are useful not just in the classroom, but also in our homes. When we empower our children to give voice to their feelings and experiences, to express that voice, to listen to the voice of others and then engage in empathy, advocacy, and problem-solving we are giving them an invaluable gift.
When our children misbehave, and they will, we can choose to engage them in a process of accountability, making amends, and strengthening the bonds of community within our own families. In doing so, I contend, we are providing them with much more than what punishment alone can provide. Restorative parenting, which takes a page from non-violent communication, reminds us that we operate in quadrants between high & low control and high & low support. Restorative parenting is firm and fair. It honors rather than manages or ignores. It doesn’t rescue the child. It requires them to take responsibility for their actions, elevating the voices of those who may have been harmed in the process, and invites the child to make amends for their choices--something punishment rarely does.
Before you accuse me of blasphemy and characterize my perspective as anti-punishment, I want to assure you that I recognize the value and necessity of punishment in our homes and schools. However, I invite you to learn more about the restorative mindsets and strategies that have evolved my thinking about effective parenting and teaching. I promise you will not be disappointed.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have a wonderful opportunity to hear from one of our favorite Restorative Practitioners, Karen Junker, as she joins the Menlo Park community for a talk on restorative parenting. If you are a parent in our district, her talk will beautifully complement the messages your students are hearing in their schools and the experiences they have when conflict or misbehavior strike. Join us on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School, 1100 Elder Ave, Menlo Park.
Whether you can make it to Karen’s talk or not, I invite you to read more and learn more about the additional parenting tool--restorative practices--that you can add to your tool belt. It just may save you from the next time you want to yell, “You’re grounded until 8th grade!” “I’m gonna throw away all your toys!” or “Why I oughta…!”
A blog expressing gratitude is one of my favorites to write. Science has confirmed that regularly engaging in gratitude releases us from toxic emotions and, over a relatively short period of time, actually changes our brain function. And what better time to share a message of appreciation than a week from Thanksgiving, in the middle of National Gratitude Month.
There are so many selfless, inspiring, and dedicated groups of people I could highlight. As a father of three who tries hard to instill all the right lessons in my children, I have personally experienced the indelible impact of an often unsung group of volunteers. I’d like to spend a moment thanking...
Volunteer Youth Coaches.
I imagine that many parents have, at times, had the same experience as I in raising my own children: it doesn’t matter how much life we’ve lived or how much expertise we might possess on a particular subject, our child just simply isn’t interested in being taught, coached, or mentored by us. It’s as though we have no value to add.
Enter “Coach.” Watch as your son’s or daughter’s eyes light up with the wonder and admiration that only an 8 year old can muster. (And then stop yourself from jumping out of your skin when your child responds with devotion as the Coach says, almost verbatim, what you have been telling your child for the last four weeks.)
There are few more rewarding moments for a parent than to witness your child open up and respond to a coach that has volunteered his or her time to help shape the minds, hearts, and character of our young progeny. There’s something magical about that relationship.
Staying up late putting together the lineup.
Racing from work to get to practice on time.
Showing up early to water the field.
Reaching into her own pocket to buy equipment.
Knowing just the right thing to say at just the right moment to inspire confidence.
Wiping away a tear after the fall.
Exhibiting incredible patience when the animals take over the zoo.
Cracking the relatable joke that exponentially increases their cool-factor.
Building camaraderie and and a strong work ethic.
Reminding them that it’s not about the score; it’s about love of the game and how you play.
Inspiring them to be the best versions of themselves.
These are all things our volunteer youth coaches do and they do them so well. As a result, our children grow as athletes, but even more so as people. The impact is palpable and I, for one, am incredibly grateful.
So this November, let’s take a moment to appreciate all the volunteer coaches who for no other reason than love of the game and a commitment to your kid, give of their time and energy to teach the lessons our children need to hear.
If you know a youth coach who has impacted the life of your child, maybe send them this blog as a message of “THANKS” for the time and energy they have invested. To all the coaches who’ve mentored my children...and you know who you are...THANK YOU!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Note: While this blog was written for narrative clarity with a lean toward athletic coaches, the messages and appreciation ring true for all coaches, whether they be of music, theatre, debate, STEM, chess, or any other venture. If you consider yourself a ‘coach,’ this blog’s for you!
When you blog about education, parenting, and community as I do, you run the risk of making whatever suggestions you provide sound so easy. “If only parents would--FILL IN THE BLANK.” It’s never that easy. Parenting is the hardest job, one for which few of us are ever really prepared. As a teacher, principal, and superintendent I have read countless books on parenting, seen some of the best parents in action, and heard my fair share of speakers discuss the ins and outs of successful parenting. As a parent of three unique kids, I have also had my share of fails.
All the parenting advice can be quite dizzying. Someone recently asked me what I thought to be the best advice on parenting. I took the question as an opportunity to frame what advice I think stands the test of time--that which is good advice regardless of what era we find ourselves raising children. I came up with twelve. I offer you, Parenting By the Dozen. Take it for it is worth. There is no judgement, simply an opportunity to reflect. Maybe a few of these will resonate with you, as well.
#1. Be the parent you are. Parent the kid you have.
If I had to select only one piece of advice to offer a parent, this would be it. We are so hard on ourselves as parents and the spirit of comparison that we often find ourselves in doesn’t make it any easier. There are so many theories out there. So many people making money selling their version of the "parenting panacea." The hard, yet freeing, reality is that every kid is different. Every parent is different. Different kids need different approaches. Different parents have different skill sets. Parents will have more success in parenting when they parent from a place of authenticity. This requires parents to take time to look inward, though, to understand ourselves, including our shortcomings. It also requires parents to take time to get to know what makes each of our children tick. The biggest gift I have found in my own parenting is that each of my children teaches me how to parent them; it just requires me to suspend judgement and listen, observe, and learn sometimes--a posture we adults struggle to take at times.
#2. Be present when, where, and how your kid wants to talk.
This piece of advice is especially important as our kids get older. There is a natural part of growing up called “individuation.” This process begins in early adolescence. It’s hard for many parents to warm up to this stage of growing up because we’re not ready to let go of control; however, it is essential to our children’s healthy development. During the individuation process it’s normal for kids to avoid talking and sharing with parents. However, the same phase involves a lot of curiosity, feelings, and fear--emotions they will need to share and process. All too often, we expect kids to talk to us on our timelines; that often doesn’t work out well. We have to be ready to listen when our kids are ready to talk. As best we can, we need to pause what we’re doing when, where, and how they are ready. Preteens and teens often like talking when you (and they) least expect it. You can help promote those “moments,” though. Boys will often open up when they are engaged in an activity. Want your boy to share with you? Try tossing the ball with him and just start talking. Many boys also find face-to-face conversations to be intimidating. Try talking side-by-side when you are driving in the car; sometimes the lack of eye contact is all it takes to open the lines of communication. Girls, on the other hand, tend to prefer special, organized, and planned time to communicate. Regardless of where and when your child wants to talk, be ready and drop what you are doing and listen.
#3. Trust, but verify.
Children are going to make mistakes. They are going to disappoint us. The tricky thing about independence is that we have to offer progressively more of it over time in order to develop trust. Kids have to trust themselves that they can handle the independence. They also have to have some independence in order to show us that they are trustworthy. I have heard parenting likened to bowling: you let the kid bowl, but the bumpers are up. They may not get a strike, but they won’t land the ball in the gutter, either. As parents, we have to gradually let go of the reigns and develop the trust muscle. A great example is the time our kid asks us to go the movies or the mall by themselves with their friends. You give them the opportunity, set the expectation, and then put the check-ins in place to make sure they are following the rules. If they screw up, as they sometimes will, we bring in the reigns a little bit and then let them build that trust back. There is, of course, a balance. Too much freedom with no accountability can lead to really bad decisions, especially as our kids get older. Our kids often overestimate how much they know, what they are capable of, and how safe they are. It’s our job to be the bumpers, but we still need to let them bowl.
#4. When you get into a power struggle with your kid, you’ve already lost.
This nugget of gold was advice given to me in my student teaching experience by my master teacher. It’s not only true for a teacher working with students, but it’s also good advice for a parent. When we get into a power struggle with our kids, it sends the message that they have power over which to struggle with you. Successful parenting involves empowerment. Struggling with and questioning authority is also an important part of growing up. However, empowerment doesn’t need to supercede the reason and domain of the parent. In my humble opinion, a healthy level of respect for “the rule of law” is still an important component of effective parenting. Sometimes our kids just need to hear, “I’m not arguing with you. When you calm down and are willing to reason, then we can talk.”
#5. Too much of anything is probably not good.
There’s a lot of noise out there about what might otherwise seem innocent enough, but might really be damaging for your kid. Is screen time robbing children of their childhood or is it a revolutionary tool to unlock self-directed learning? Are our children so overscheduled that they can no longer manage downtime or are we helping our kids by providing productive interests? Is homework taking over family life and children’s free time or is it an essential tool to advance academic progress? Is social media destined to conscribe our children to a life of unsatisfied comparison or is it a natural and healthy social outlet? When it comes to these value-laden questions, I tend to lean toward balance. Rather than approach parenting as a set of legalistic decisions, parenting that allows space for “just enough” and “not too much” is often a great approach. It’s not either-or, it’s “yes, and…”
#6. Not getting what you want? Try something different.
In nearly every parenting workshop I have led or participated in, someone raises their hand and asks a question that goes something like this, “You said in your presentation that if my child is doing BLANK, that I should try BLANK and that should do the trick. Well, I’ve been doing that for the last year and it doesn’t work.” As I shared in #1, every kid is different. Not every strategy works with every kid. In a talk I have given called “Parenting Teens Without Losing Your Mind,” I identify what I believe to be the three “currencies” of the teenager: freedom, privacy, and material possessions. Not every kid is motivated by all three and not all in the same ways. For one kid, losing screen time will be a great motivator, for another it won’t have any impact. The trick is knowing what motivates your kid and adjusting your responses to get the desired response. If what you are doing right now isn’t working (even if it was written in a book, works for your neighbor, or worked for your older kid), give yourself permission to try something different.
#7. Three words...Sleepaway. Summer. Camp.
I can’t say enough about the benefits of sleepaway summer camp. I just don’t think there is anything that produces the independence, perspective, safe risk taking, and identity development that sleepaway summer camp can generate. Now, I know there will be folks who say that their kid just isn’t a summer camp kid; and there are probably a few of those kids out there. There are, however, any number of different summer camps that can capture the imagination of a child. If you can find that one for your kid, it’s life changing. I wish sleepaway summer camps weren’t so expensive, but don’t let cost get in your way. Most summer camps provide scholarship opportunities. For more insight into the benefits of sleepaway summer camp, check out my SupsOn blog on the topic.
#8. Character is learned and it takes time.
I have seen it. It’s real. Some kids are just born with a tendency toward kindness, justice, empathy, and good judgement without ever being taught. For some, it’s just their natural instinct. However, this penchant for what one would consider “good character” is not an ingrained response for all kids. It’s also true that children learn from making mistakes, and this includes making mistakes that hurt others’ feelings, offend indiscriminately, and push peoples’ buttons. Most of what we consider right and wrong is a social construct and requires patient teaching, modeling, correction, and encouragement. As parents, and I am guilty as charged, we sometimes let our embarrassment about our children’s inability to follow our meticulous character building direction allow us to lose site of the marathon we are running. Character, in fact, is learned. It takes time for kids to understand, to practice, and to have those behaviors become habit. Empathy takes time to develop. Context is an abstract idea. Our little ones are still under construction. Let’s not be surprised when our five year old acts like a five year old or when our fourteen year old acts like a fourteen year old. We don’t have to condone or excuse behavior, but we can refrain from shock, surprise, and embarrassment and allow our children’s missteps to serve as yet another teachable moment.
#9. If they can do it themselves, let them.
Let’s face it, parenting is a long process of launching our kids into independence. Did you know that some animals grow up without any help from their parents? They are independent from the moment they are born. Somewhere between those animals and your 40 year-old son living in your basement exists the healthy roadmap to human parenting. Every kid is different and some require more “hand holding” than others; however, every child requires the expectation of and opportunity to take responsibility for age-appropriate tasks. In education we refer to this idea of letting go of the learning as “gradual release of responsibility.” If they can put their dishes in the dishwasher, make them. If they can make their own school lunch, expect it. If they can do their own laundry, go for it. The sooner and more completely you can release independence to your child, the better for you and better for them.
#10. Modeling has exponential power.
Before I go to sleep, I like to read the news, watch an SNL or Daily Show video, and maybe clear my personal email inbox--all on my cellphone as I rest comfortably in my bed. The problem, though? I really don’t think it is healthy for kids to have screens in their room or watch screens within an hour of going to sleep. The reality is, I’m not sending the right message to my kids of what is in their best interest. My kids are young. They don’t yet have smartphones (and won’t until they are in 8th grade). They are, however, impressionable. I’m trying to discipline myself to stay off the screens for the hour before they go to bed and to avoid them seeing me on my phone in my room. Why? Because I know how influential my modeling is on my kids’ choices. Want kids to eat healthier? It helps to eat healthy ourselves. Want kids to read more? It helps to read more in front of them. Want kids to be less emotionally dysregulated? It helps to yell less, rush less, harp less, stress less. Yes. We parent more effectively when we are the better versions of ourselves; ugh!
#11. Pick your battles.
Parenting is full of battlefields; picking the right battles is a science that takes time to learn and the strategy changes with each passing age and phase. Generally speaking, parents who feel successful in their parenting are able to reserve “NO” for those times that require us to say no. And when we say it, it’s best that we mean it.
#12. Have a life outside of your kids.
We are at our best as parents when we take care of ourselves. If you are married or otherwise committed to your co-parent, the single best thing you can do to improve your parenting is to take care of your marriage/relationship. It’s important to maintain your friendships and have those friendships be centered around something other than your kids. It doesn’t count when you hang out with your friends and all you talk about are your kids. You are more than your kids. You were interesting before you were a parent; it’s okay to still be interesting once you have kids. What hobbies do you enjoy? What sports do you like to play? What would you do this Saturday if you didn’t have kids? Do those things! And do them without the kids as often as possible. Take care of yourself so you can be the best version of YOU for your kids.
So there you have it. The twelve best pieces of advice for parents that I have come across in my work as a teacher, school leader, parent educator, and parent myself. Did I miss any? Did I get any wrong? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.
These dozen may be common sense, but let’s face it, parenting is one job that will make us lose our senses sometimes. It’s nice to be reminded that wisdom precedes us. Eighteen years is a long time. Enjoy them while they last. I’ve heard it said about parenting: the days are long, but the years are fast. You got this! Before you know it your kids will be out of the house and the cycle will start again...for them.
Within my 5 year-old’s book collection from which we read each night is a book called Superhero Dad. You can imagine the storyline. The young protagonist in the picture book claims his father is a superhero and proceeds to list the reasons. The dad is fun, knows what his kid likes and engages him in those activities, builds things, fixes things, and even scares away the monsters. In the classic expression of fatherly love, the father claims that he is not the superhero, but in fact, it is his son who is a superhero.
As the new school year begins, I’m reminded of the heroes that reside among us...our teachers.
Unless you’ve been a teacher, it’s hard to truly appreciate how complicated and demanding the profession can be. At a recent conference I attended, a well known neurologist and researcher remarked that teaching requires a heavier “cognitive load” than just about any profession that exists, as much or more than a surgeon. This might come as a surprise to many, but not to those of us who are privileged enough to work alongside teachers every day.
In any hero’s journey, it’s important to consider what the hero is up against. So let’s take a gander at what our teachers are up against. For the classroom, teachers spend countless hours preparing instructional experiences that have the best chance of meeting the differing needs and interests of 20-35 children (over 100 children for secondary teachers), all of whom have different levels of foundational knowledge about each topic that is taught. And those children? Not a one has a fully developed brain or sense of self; many of them come with anxiety, trauma, and challenges that are outside of their control. The languages they speak at home are often different than the one in which they are expected to learn, and their homes vary in size and comfort; some don’t even have a place to call home. Teachers in many districts are expected to purchase their own materials for the classroom taken from already low salaries that in most states have not kept pace with the increase in salary in nearly every other profession that requires a college education. In the San Francisco Bay Area where a fixer upper in a decent neighborhood can cost $2 million, teachers often live over an hour’s drive from their school, simply to be able to afford to live on a teacher’s salary.
During awake hours, teachers often spend more time with our children than we parents do. Not only are teachers engaged in teaching our students how to read, calculate, understand history, and deploy the scientific method, they are also teaching our children how to be good people. Teachers navigate a daily balancing act as they try to make sense out of a sometimes dark, confusing, hypocritical and intolerant world while managing the emotions of our young people. For example, they must teach our children how damaged our environment has become as a result of choices we adults have made for many generations and choices we often continue to make, highlighting the real possibility that the world is doomed if we don’t do something dramatic very soon, all while not freaking the children out or placing blame on anyone they know or love. In the same breath that they provide a safe and nurturing environment, they must prepare students for the very real possibility of violence hitting their community or school. Teachers do more than teach every day. They provide counsel, therapy, conflict resolution services, executive functioning coaching, nursing and emergency services, health and wellness advice, furniture repair, tech wizardry, and parenting support. They do all this and more knowing that everyone is watching nearly every decision they make, some doing so in preparation to pounce whenever they perceive a teacher to have made a mistake.
Anyone in this line of work would need some tools to help meet these challenges head on. As all heroes have one or more “super”power to help them triumph, teachers have many at their disposal. Teachers have an uncanny ability to see potential in our children that we often struggle to see ourselves. They are “kid whisperers” speaking possibility into the minds and hearts of our young ones. Teachers can teach children how to read the written word--the most important gift anyone can be given. Teachers give supernatural hugs; they also have outsized hearts for caring and superpowered hearing for listening patiently and understanding. They can somehow read hundreds of narrative essays and find the uniqueness in each. Teachers possess magnificent feedback-skills, providing insight that challenges our children to stretch beyond what’s comfortable. Deep within our teachers exists emotional x-ray vision that allows them to know when our children are hurting, or lonely, or bored. Quick with a snack when our little ones are hungry, encouragement when they are sad, and the just-right-book when a lesson needs to be learned, our teachers seem to always have the right tool when they need it. And with a bullhorn or whistle one teacher can manage scores of little ones on a playground, a feat few of us mortals could hope to accomplish.
Like most heroes, teachers give the credit to others. As a group, teachers are some of the most selfless people on the planet. Were they motivated by fame, money, or prestige, they most certainly would not have chosen a career in teaching. While most people, parents in particular, have a deep and abiding respect for teachers, you wouldn’t necessarily know that by the way the profession is sometimes maligned by the news media or politicians. When they do receive praise and accolades, they regularly deflect, opting instead to shine the light on the children they serve. Their support of our children extends beyond the classroom walls, too. It is common to see teachers in the stands at their students’ sporting events or in the audience at their plays. Some of the biggest fans in our kids’ lives are the people they call teacher.
Teachers are very much like the dad in the children’s book I read to my son, as the father closes his hero’s journey deflecting his own heroicness and breathing a message of encouragement in his son.
“Superhero Dad,” I say, “you are the best by miles.”
My dad says, “I’m no superhero,” then he stops and smiles.
But I know a superhero who is brave and kind and fun.”
Who is it?
“Why, it’s you! You are my superhero son.”
-Tim Knapman, Superhero Dad
Teachers do that everyday. They whisper into the hearts and minds of our kids that they are, in fact, the superheroes of their own tales. They help our kids discover their own superpowers and then send them out into the world to use those powers to do good and be good.
Each year, my school district’s education foundation hosts an auction that raises money to support our schools. In support of that effort, I am asked to “donate” the role of “Superintendent for a Day” for students. I’m not sure why being a Superintendent for a day is attractive, and yet, the children who have joined me have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and learned a ton about leadership.
This year I had the pleasure of hosting two of our students--one a third grader and the other a sixth grader. I loved seeing the world through their eyes for a day and having them see the world through mine. The experience reminds me of the power of empathy to understand another’s point of view. One of my favorite initiatives in education is the Shadow a Student Challenge sponsored by the School Retool organization. The Challenge encourages educators and community leaders to walk in the shoes of a student for a day by shadowing a student in their local schools. The experience is powerful.
In the spirit of celebrating the “walking in the shoes” of someone, I thought I’d share some of the experience of the two young students who walked in my shoes and through whose eyes I saw my district.
The sixth grader who joined me, Arhaan, had the opportunity to meet with our city’s mayor, Ray Mueller, to discuss how our city could better meet the needs of youth in our community. Here’s what Arhaan wrote about his experience:
As Superintendent of the Day, I had the opportunity to visit most of the schools in our district. One main event that happened today is that I interviewed the Menlo Park mayor. We talked about topics that affect students like: crossing guards to ensure student safety and downtown shop owners welcoming youth and being extra nice to them. We also discussed how the middle school experience as a student is a lot different than being behind the scenes like a superintendent or mayor. One thing Mayor Mueller talked about was how he tried to pass an initiative called Menlo Park Loves Kids. When he heard my thoughts on improvements the city could pursue, he was inspired to try and pass his initiative again. He said that as part of his job, he talks with people who feel frustrated or sad about something and want to see something to improve in their community. He said that sometimes if people have a need, that they may even walk up to his front door and knock in order to get his attention.
When Mayor Mueller and I were talking about crossing guards, we both agreed that there should be one on El Camino [a main thoroughfare in our community]. This is because this is a major road for kids on one side of town to get to the middle school on the other side. If there were to be a crossing guard then those kids could have an easier and safer way of getting to school. When I was shadowing Superintendent Burmeister, I learned that there are many things that are different between our schools, aside from their location.
How cool that our mayor took time out of his day to talk to our Superintendent for the Day, and that our student was able to share insightful feedback and learn more about the community partnerships that make cities work?
My third grade protege, Jacob, requested that he be able to reflect on his experience and ask some questions by interviewing me in a “vlog” (video blog) format. He even came prepared with questions that he asked his mom to help him with before spending the day with me. Take a look at this fun and insightful interaction.
There are so many perks of working in schools and getting to impact the lives of our young people. One of them is the regular opportunity to see the world through their eyes. The more I do it, the better I am at my job! Maybe a summer challenge for you could be, “How can you find a way to spend some time walking in someone else’s shoes?” You might be surprised by how much you gain from the experience.
The end of the school year is quickly approaching. That feeling of excitement as summer is just around the corner is palpable.
As a 20+ year educator, I have often found parents excitedly jump into summer break with its opportunities for more family time, deep dives into hobbies and interests, and lack of homework. It’s at the end of the summer when I chuckle at the parent faces that now read, “Thank goodness school is starting again; please take my child.”
On the whole, summer is awesome for parents and kids alike. Let’s consider a few helpful tips to make the transition into summer as enjoyable and valuable as possible.
Routine Adds Value
My first tip is don’t kiss routine goodbye. Summer is a great time to have a different routine, but a lack of routine altogether can have short and long term impacts for kids and families. Rest is important. Downtime is essential. Even long stretches of unstructured time can be life-giving for our children. However, all of those things can happen in the context of a routine. Children's brains seek routine. They need it. They appreciate being able to anticipate what happens next. And they will respond with better behavior and a more positive attitude when a routine is created and followed. It doesn’t have to be militant; it can feel very low key.
What are important areas around which families might want to agree on summer routines, even if they are different from the school year?
The effects of not having a routine can range from family conflict and mood swings, to reinforcement of unhealthy habits, and even depression in some kids. It can also be exceedingly difficult for students to transition back into school once summer is over, and they can experience more pronounced academic slide. I don’t share this to scare anyone, but simply to say that a balanced approach (like most things in life) supports our children’s developing minds.
My second tip for the summer transition is to keep the learning happening. Learn by doing. Learn by exploring. Learn by getting kids out of their comfort zones. Day trips to museums, parks, hiking trails, farms, new communities, and historical locations are all fun experiences for families and reinforce the message that learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a HUGE advocate for summer camp, including sleep away camp, as my February 2018 blog, Gimme S’more, illustrates.
Promote summer reading, too. Visit the library twice per month to check out new titles and explore new subjects. While you’re there check out the video section; lots of interesting documentaries provide fodder for discussion and experimentation. You’ll also find that many libraries allow you to check out games or engineering kits and even have wonderful classes for kids.
Both parents working? Don’t fret. There’s an army of completely able high school kids in your local community who are comfortable with younger children, would love some ‘running around’ money, and need something productive to do. Hire them to mentor your younger children and lead some of these great learning excursions. No need to hang out at the local Starbucks to find an interested high schooler: post a want ad on Nextdoor.
Your own kids in high school? Think about a summer job. Not everyone will hire high school kids, but some excellent places will. Call your local YMCA or community center to see if they have camp counselor positions available for the summer. Better yet...have your high school student call them! In my community, Menlo Park, our city sponsors an outstanding summer camp for kids and hires local high school youth to serve as counselors; they even have a service program for middle school students.
My last tip as we transition into summer is to set aside time to set goals and a vision for the next school year. Summer is a perfect opportunity to encourage your child to think about the upcoming school year. Some thoughtful activities to promote reflection and goal setting include: journaling, dream boards, and dinner table discussions. Posting these goals around the house reminds and reinforces, especially as summer starts coming to a close.
When I was a middle school principal, I would often send students off for summer with a series of challenges such as the following:
The number and order don’t matter; it’s the spirit of an expansive mindset that will determine whether the summer is time well spent.
Sleeping in? Great. But what’s the limit?
Netflix and chill on the coach? Yes ma’am. Who’s going on a run with me after?
Take a trip to Tahoe? Count me in. And can we get locked up at the Tahoe Old Jail Museum?
So get those vacations in, those long days at the pool. Go to bed late and sleep in. AND...don’t miss the opportunity to ensure your summer adds value for the whole family.
In January at an event honoring civil rights icon Martin Luther King, newly elected congresswoman and media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an alarming statement, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change...This is the war — this is our World War II.”
Say what you will about AOC, her politics, or her stardom, due to her social media and policy influence, AOC’s comment continues to reverberate. It stands as a harsh reminder that we are up against something big--climate change and the toll the human race has exacted on the spinning ball we call home. “The end,” as AOC puts it, may not be in 12 years, but some really tough decisions are upon us. Scientists agree, if we hope to turn the tide of destruction, we have to act quickly and boldly.
I don’t know about you, but the sheer size of what we are up against weighs heavily on my heart. I can’t seem to be able to wrap my head around what I, my family, or my community can do to make any impact. When challenges just seem too big and my impact just too small, I always remember the starfish story. Do you know it?
It goes something like this…
A young man was walking along the beach. Off in the distance he sees a figure bending down, standing up, and throwing something into the ocean. Over and over, the figure repeats. Bends down. Picks something up. Throws something toward the water.
As the young man gets closer, he realizes that the figure is an older man bending down to pick up starfish off of the shore that have washed up onto the sand at high tide and are stranded in what will soon be the hot sun, certain death awaiting.
The young man noticed that the entire seashore was lined with thousands of starfish. He approached the elderly gentleman and said, “Excuse me, sir. I can’t help but notice that you are picking up these starfish one by one and throwing them into the ocean. I imagine you’re doing so to save them from being dried up in the sun.”
“Yes, son. That is true,” replied the old man.
As the young man looked down the shore seeing all the starfish remaining, he remarked. “But, sir, there are thousands of starfish along this shore as far as the eye can see. How can you possibly make a difference?”
The old man looked at the inquisitive young man, slowly bent down, picked up a starfish and motioning to the starfish in his hand, he said, “It makes a difference to this one.”
He promptly threw the starfish in the ocean and continued his effort.
I have loved this story since the moment I first heard it as a high school student. I have used this story in my own teaching and harkened back to it in my own life.
As I think about the immensity and intensity of the environmental challenges facing us, I’m reminded of the starfish story.
I know there is so much I can’t do. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.
As we approach Earth Day 2019, will you join me in considering how you might individually do your part?
Maybe it’s discontinuing the use of ziplock bags when packing your kids’ lunches and instead using alternatives to single use packaging.
Maybe it’s regularly carrying a refillable water bottle and refusing the single use bottles prolific in modern life.
Maybe it’s refusing the straw at your favorite restaurant.
Maybe it’s biking with the kids to school or carpooling with neighbors instead of driving.
Maybe it’s going solar at your home or simply turning down the thermostat.
Maybe it’s purchasing a more eco-friendly car.
There are also some great resources and events for those of us local to the Bay Area...check these out.
Apps and Games
Hike in Woodside
Mountain View Earth Day
Save the Bay
Doing our individual part provides a great example for our children, too. Consider ways in which you can engage your entire family, especially your children in taking smalls steps that make a big difference. Together, we may just be able to save a lot of starfish.
You can’t turn on the news or log on to the internet without seeing the headlines. "College admissions scandal: how will their kids be affected?" "The wide implications of the college admissions scandal." I don’t even need to provide hyperlinks. You know the stories.
As a parent myself, I understand the angst we share about how our children’s futures will turn out, not to mention their present. I recognize the basal desire to want what is best for our children and our desire to sacrifice much, research often, and try just about anything to set our children up for success now and for the future. It’s part of being a parent.
This blog is not about a college entrance scandal. While juicy and close to home for those of us who live in the Bay Area, the bribes and the fallout are really a reflection of something bigger that my heart feels the need to address, especially for those of us who need to hear it more often. And that is this:
You. Are. Enough.
I count myself among the too many bloggers who may or may not be espousing any number of parenting theories, advice, and implorations that may or may not be helpful. Add to the prolific parent blogosphere the inordinate number of books, articles, and “expert” interviews, and parents are right to be confused, if not overwhelmed by all the disparate advice.
In my years as an educator, and sometimes parent-educator, I often feel the tug to share the messages that people need to hear in the moments they need to hear them. The one message that resounds in my heart these days is this, “You are enough.”
Every kid is different. Every family is different. Every context is different. We’re all just doing our best. Parenting is the hardest job for which no one is ever totally prepared and for which there is no perfectly right answer. Parenting is the process of figuring it out along the way. It’s about allowing our children to teach us how to parent them--each one of them, individually. Raising children is cognitively demanding, emotionally draining, and endlessly unpredictable.
So many well intentioned blogs and experts lead us to believe that if there is something wrong with our kid--they make a bad choice, they get sick, they struggle to read--that it must be our fault. The dreaded, “if only” we parents had fill-in-the-blank, we’d have avoided this altogether. Keeping it PG, I’ll just say this...poppycock! The only expert about your child, in this moment, is YOU.
As long as you are expressing your love regularly; ensuring a safe, secure, and healthy environment; and allowing for age-appropriate, gradual independence for your child--you are enough. No doubt, strategies and mindsets exist that can make parenting easier, help our kids avoid danger, and access valuable lessons and opportunities. However, your child is not going to miss his or her chance at success because you didn’t breastfeed her long enough, gave him vegetables that weren’t organic, never taught her how to downhill ski, or failed to enroll him in chess class. And believe it or not, your child will find his or her way even if she or he doesn't attend an Ivy League university.
Our obsession, and I include myself in this criticism, with being super-parent is really about our need to do more. To leave no stone unturned. To offer every advantage. In other words, it stems from our insecurity that we aren’t doing enough, or worse yet, that we aren’t enough. And most disheartening is that it sends the message to our kids that they aren’t enough.
Your. Kid. Is. Enough.
Parenting a five and a nine year old in Silicon Valley, I deeply understand and thoroughly appreciate how hard it is. At times, I succumb to the same parenting insecurity that many of us do. I react to that insecurity in the ways that many of us react.
It makes me wonder, with all my “responsiveness” to the needs of my children, what messages are my kids picking up about how I see them?
Do they think their value lies in pleasing me? Pleasing others?
Do they feel that they have to be perfect all the time? Smart all the time? Right all the time?
Do they fear making a mistake?
Do they assume they can’t do it on their own because I won’t let them?
If they want to quit soccer because they don’t like it, do they think that’s actually an option?
In schools that don’t even give grades until 6th grade, do they know what grades are and what grades I expect? How?
At five and nine, are they already wondering what college they’ll get into and if that college will be good enough?
The only right answer to these questions is a better question… “How do I communicate to my children that they are enough?” In fact, how do I communicate to them that they are more than enough, just the way they are?
They’re going to make mistakes, that’s part of learning. I’m going to make mistakes parenting them, that’s part of life.
My kids were born enough. Your kids were born enough.
But if you still need a list of things to do, here you go: Catch up with your friends. Read a book that doesn't have pictures and is not a parenting manual. Indulge a hobby. Spend more time just living in the moment. Enjoying the moments. Soak in the reality that our kids don’t have to do anything or be anyone other than what they are inclined to do and who they are inclined to be.
And neither do we.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you have likely seen or at least heard about Netflix’s new series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Maybe you’ve even tried KonMari-ing at least one thing in your life. I’ll admit that my family has. Our dresser and closet have never been so organized...and yes, it feels great. KonMari is a method of organizing your home that focuses on minimalism and finding joy in possessions--or getting rid of them. Why am I blogging about home organizing in a blog about education and parenting?
It’s no mystery why Ms. Kondo’s ritualistic approach to decluttering our lives is so powerful - whether we know it or not nearly all of us, our children included, suffer from overstimulation. Marie Kondo, as delightful as she is, hasn’t discovered anything new about the human experience. Her approach to organizing the home hits upon our deep desire for simplicity, meaning, and calm. When we take a step back from the hustle and bustle of our lives and consider the impact of all the demands, expectations, and interactions, it is truly overwhelming.
What lessons might we glean from the Kondo-craze as we create cultures in our homes and classrooms?
My reflections might encourage you to let go of emotions or possessions that are holding you or the children in your life back from experiencing true joy, fulfillment, and learning. My reflections aren’t judgements; they are rhetorical questions that will hopefully lead to giving yourself permission to let go of what isn’t bringing you, your family, or your students joy.
How many toys does your child have? Sometimes do you just buy them a little cheap thing because it’s the fastest way to get them to pull it together until your Target run is done? What do you do with all those birthday party favors? Have you saved every picture your child has ever drawn since they could hold a pencil?
I’m willing to bet, like our family, you have crates full of toys that don’t get played with and books that don’t get read. Why not get rid of those? One of the greatest lessons we can teach our children is the idea of “enough.” One of the most important presents we can give them is the gift of “empowerment” to winnow their possessions and prioritize what brings them joy and remains a valuable asset. For many children, that’s hard. As soon as you put that tricycle they haven’t ridden for years out on the street with a “free” sign on it, they’ve collapsed on the driveway in tears screaming, “NO...not my favorite tricycle!” Nevermind that they are ten years old and nearly five feet tall. Not all important lessons are easy. In fact, some of the most important lessons are the hardest. As soon as you are able, consider involving your children in the culling process. Consider asking them what old toy they want to donate to another child when they ask you to buy them the newest toy craze. (And while you are considering donating well kept toys for young learners, call a local preschool; they may be able to take those off your hands. In our community, our district preschool is doubling in size next year, great place to drop off your trains, blocks, costumes, legos, magnatiles, etc.).
Beyond “things,” children today also have an abundance of activities and commitments. My children sure do, and they are 4 and 8 years old. I think we all benefit from considering how many activities from which our children can benefit without unnecessarily overwhelming them with too much. Believe me, I’m not suggesting that we not keep kids active. In fact, I think it is essential. However, with our oldest, we learned just how important it was for him to have at least two afternoons per week free from scheduled activity and responsibility. He needs downtime to ride his bike, rest, read a comic book, play a quick video game...just be a kid. We also learned how important it was for us to enjoy that downtime WITH him as a family. We try hard to reserve Sundays for the whole family to share downtime together.
The amount of choice we provide our children is also something to consider. Even our adult brains can be overwhelmed by too much choice; this is more true for the underdeveloped brains of children. If you want your child to be more creative, with an increased attention span and happy to play for longer periods of time, perhaps the easiest way to encourage those qualities is to simply offer fewer options. Even with no toys or multiple parent facilitated options, it’s important to remember that children don’t even need “real toys” to play engagingly. Are you one of those parents that spent countless hours and too much money on holiday or birthday gifts for your five year old, only to have them most enjoy the big box in which one of the big gifts came? Regular household items can be the source of hours of enjoyment; most importantly, those items require children to access their imagination for play--something we should prioritize.
One resource with which we desperately need to reacquaint ourselves and our children is the outdoors. Parents and educators frequently lament that kids today just don’t go outside and play like they used to do. Part of the reason is because we overschedule and overmanage their play. To the extent that we can manage their safety, let’s try to get our kids outside with friends and neighbors. Make use of the parks available in your community. Take bike rides as a family. Go on a hike. Catch tadpoles in the creek. Let’s find ways to cut down on the meaningless distractions we give them, and let their natural creativity in the environment blossom.
Adults are easily distracted by too many toys, too. In the heart of Silicon Valley, where my district is situated, the grown up toys come in the form of the latest electric car, smartphone, vacation house, robot, app...things. They are undeniably fun and I am as guilty as the next guy for pursuing them. However, if I’m being honest, the pursuit and collection of all the “stuff” can derail time from more meaningful pursuits like experiences with friends, time with our family, enjoying a hobby or the outdoors. We are constantly on the lookout for the next best thing. But are we enjoying it? More stuff does not make us any happier.
The same is true for a calendar full of commitments. You may not be a collector of things, but you may, like many, collect appointments, responsibilities, and expectations. My wife frequently reminds me that I’m “always on;” she fears that I’m only happy when I have something scheduled to do. Personality faults aside, she’s right. While I may not fill my life with ‘things,’ I do fill my life with things to do. This clutter of responsibility drains me and those around me--including and especially my kids. I own it. This is all the more reason for me to take stock of the way in which I spend my time and prioritize downtime for myself and with my family.
It’s unrealistic to expect that we are able to abandon material things and busy lives. Working, parenting, maintaining relationships...just living...all require a great deal of our time and attention. Rather, we can live with a bit more intentionality around ‘things’ and time. We can model for our children by making more selective and thoughtful purchases. We can schedule regular time to disconnect. We can try to do one thing each day or each week that gets us closer...not to perfection...but joy.
Perhaps one of the most unlikely - and most impactful - places to spend some time decluttering and focusing is in the classroom. We all have a vision of what a great classroom looks like. Effective and welcoming learning environments come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and themes. However, like the home with fewer toys, a classroom showcasing just a few well chosen items can also spark more creativity and focus.
I can hear teachers cringing as they read this! Yes, there are millions of wonderful educational toys, posters, books, manipulatives to help convey a lesson. Yes, those egg cartons and berry baskets will make excellent crafts or supply holders. But remember, kids (and adults) can only focus on so much at a time. It’s worth a reflection over next summer to consider reducing what is displayed in the classroom and any changes we observe in students’ experience of their learning. The same reflection is necessary around the number of tasks we expect of students at each grade level, or the level of detail, papers, and tasks our young ones, all with underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, are expected to hold in one lesson, day, or week. To be clear, there are no “right” answers or single ways of doing anything. However, continuous improvement requires us to reflect on how what we do (and don’t do) impacts the student experience. Merely asking question is a great place to start. I can just imagine Marie Kondo encouraging us to wonder, “Does my classroom spark joy?” or “Does my lesson spark interest and engagement?”
For the record, I had Marie Kondo’s tidying up book long before it was cool. I had heard about it on NPR and thought the idea of getting rid of the crap in my life might be just what I needed. And the book sat there, among all the other books I haven’t read, gathering dust. Thank goodness for Netflix, right? This surprise heroine is causing millions of us to ask if everything with which we surround ourselves sparks joy. As we consider the mindset impacts on our parenting and educating I would add the question, “Is this adding value?” If the answer is no, maybe it is time to let it go.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.