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This I know: Children's education begins with parents

Aug. 22, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

I recently had the pleasure of completing John Patrick Grace's 10-week-long class, "Life Writing." Grace's stated goal from the onset is that participants finish the class having written an outline of a book they intend to write as well as one completed chapter. I proudly finished this class having outlined two books I intend to write, an idea for a third, as well as three complete chapters for one of the books. I owe this to the inspiration of my family for encouraging me to begin writing books; and, to Grace, who is an excellent motivator, cheerleader and teacher.

During one class, Grace asked his students to write a short essay about "what you know for sure." Used to writing in privacy and isolation for the past eight years, learning to write in a group, with Grace counting down our remaining time, felt uncomfortable and challenging to me. Despite my stops, stutters and stress, ultimately, I was able to produce "something" I felt I knew. Upon reading this piece to the class, Grace encouraged me to edit my piece and submit to another paper in a nearby town. Instead, I decided to take a risk and share my personal response with you, my dear and faithful readers . . .

This much I know for sure, education matters; and, most importantly, that education begins from day one with the first, most important and longest influential teacher -- parents. While politicians play word games to convince voters they know what is best for children, teachers like me are in the trenches -- and, the trenches are often not as clearly delineated as the politicians make them out.

When I first began teaching over 25 years ago, I thought I knew what education was all about. I was "technically" considered a good teacher -- having earned the grades, the evaluations, the degree, and even an award that said as such. Real teaching occurred when I met my first students. High school students from rural Greenup County, Ky., who lived up "hollers" and rode feeder lines just to get to the bus stops that would then take them on another hour-long, or more, ride to school. The students, identified as special education students, were indeed cognitively impaired -- yet their parents, and perhaps the government, had convinced them they did not need to learn. Have an Individualized Educational Plan, called an IEP for short, equals a "get out of jail free card" -- no need to work.

"Why I got to learn, when a check comes to my house once a month?" This question was asked of me on my first day of teaching by a rather large, blonde-headed boy, who towered a solid foot over me. I, and all those before mentioned credentials, was crushed. I realized I faced a different task; I had to motivate kids to learn; and that motivation began with my learning how to parent.

Working through these past 25 years I have witnessed numerous students who often enter school with no knowledge or understanding of crayons, pencils, papers, and never before held a book. Additionally, numerous students I have taught have rarely, if ever, been engaged in meaningful conversation with adults in their life. Unfortunately, this last phenomenon often crosses all monetary and social classes. I used to wonder how this was possible. Now, I no longer wonder -- at least not as much. I just do what need to be done; I parent. My job as a teacher, therefore, is to parent first, motivate next, then the real learning can begin.

Children need to know they are loved, cared for and valued before they are willing to learn. Once these basic emotional needs are met, then they are usually ready to move on to the next challenge: structure, routine and discipline. Most students would never articulate it in this manner, but kids want structure, routine and discipline -- which is really more parenting. Students often resent these parameters at first, especially if they are not used to them. It doesn't take long though, once these three tenets of learning are appropriately implemented, for students to learn to desire these basic principles their lives have often lacked. I should also point out that those students who do come from homes that provide consistent structure, routine, and discipline especially want this applied in their school environment.

There is no doubt that parenting, society, and therefore teaching, are changing. Unfortunately, it is often the teachers who are held up by politicians as scapegoats for a perceived broken education system. Certainly, there are a few "bad apples" in the teaching field. I would suspect this is true of any given profession. Happily, those types of teachers are few and far between, especially as I reflect not only my own previous teachers, but also of my co-workers for the past 25 years. Most teachers are passionate about teaching in the best manner possible. Additionally, most teachers care deeply for their students. Isn't it funny that politicians rarely point out parental and societal ills as points for accountability and improvement when it comes to our kids' education? I suppose, though, they might lose votes if this was ever addressed in a campaign speech or commercial.

Therefore, I, along with all my fellow colleagues, will continue to teach our students with great fervor. Teaching, I used to think at the beginning of my career, was part art and part science. Now, two-and-a-half decades later, I realize teaching is still part art and part science, but it is also part parenting, counseling, motivational speaking and cheerleading all rolled into the most honorable profession of all.

It is my ardent desire that all educators, including myself, teach in a manner that will influence our students to create positive change in the world, including realization that education, which truly does matter, begins at home. This, I believe, is the bedrock of society upon which all other systems, including education, can be built.

May all parents, including myself, begin education at home. And, may we further remember that we are indeed the longest and most influential teacher our child will ever have.

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Huntington. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at hill992@zoominternet.net.