Education Opinion

Sink or Swim

By Susan Graham — July 29, 2008 3 min read
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In summertime, the urgency of the classroom fades a bit in the sun, and there’s more opportunity to consider best practice. My friends in the Teacher Leaders Network Forum have been discussing the issue of just how much additional time and support a teacher can/ought/must provide to students who are struggling. Determining the tipping point between helping a child grow and retarding that growth can be difficult. And while we as teachers continually advocate for parental involvement, the formula becomes more complicated when parents become part of the equation.

“Call me every day if you have to,” one parent told my young New York colleague Ariel Sacks. Ariel says, “Some have asked me to email detailed descriptions of any assignments their child doesn’t complete in class or on time—"

Some teachers, such as my husband, maintain websites that give students and their parents’ constant accessibility to learning goals, assignments, student progress and additional resources. Other teachers provide regular lunch or after school tutoring sessions or provide tutorial packets for parents and children to work on together. One teacher friend makes her cell phone number available to students and finds that they rarely abuse that availability. Some teachers report that no matter how much information or access they provide, students and parents still seem to need or even demand more.

Somewhere in the discussion about support and interventions, Nancy Flanagan said, “All of these interesting stories and comments seem to be focused around whose responsibility it is to learn.”

It occurs to me that while it is obvious to us as teachers that learning is ultimately the child’s responsibility, this necessary truth may be opaque to parents. After all, the job of parenting is to nurture and support and protect. Our culture emphasizes protection—car seat, bike helmet, or that new global conditioning tool for your children in the park. But we seem to be much less prepared to deal with the other primary role of parenting -- building self-efficacy.

Maybe it’s because it seems less critical in our world, but we don’t have a clear grasp of how to empower our children to survive on their own. Too often we hang on and facilitate and intervene until our children pass that teachable moment for self determination. At what point does it become irresponsible on our part not to expect our children to be responsible for themselves?

At least for me, this was the hardest part of parenting. Here is this precious creature full of possibilities and you want them to “fulfill all their potential.” That’s the obvious part. But reality is that potential means just that--no one is going to become all of everything that might be, and as parents we have to let go and let our child make lots of hard choices for themselves. The dark side of this is that we don’t want to let go because we don’t want to give up control and/or if our children belong to themselves, we become nonessential.

Long ago when I was a teenager I taught swimming lessons to preschoolers, and I learned a lot about nervous parents. I thought I got it. But when I REALLY got it was after I became a parent and watched my own child flail around in the water, while their instructor said, “Come on, you can make it to the side! Keep kicking!”

To partner with a teacher and say, “Help me decide when my child is going under and when he’s just learning to swim” is an act of trust. But if children never risk crashing and failing, neither will they ever discover their own power or reach their potential. Letting go is hard for parents, and sometimes a parent needs a teacher to hold their hand while they allow their child to sink a little and flail a little, and even swallow some water, so that eventually that child can swim against the tide.

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