For almost a decade I was a high school Spanish teacher. Those were some of the best and hardest years of my life, and, if I’m honest, I still miss the excitement that comes with a new school year. There’s a lot of energy around setting kids up to win to have a successful school year. Teachers are confident and parents are hopeful. But setting a kid up to win in high school can look a lot different than it did in middle school and elementary school.
In my experience, when their kids entered high school, a lot of parents weren’t quite sure how to be involved in a helpful way. Either they didn’t engage enough, or they intervened way too much. Looking back, here are a few things that I wish I could tell every parent as they help their child navigate the high school years.
1. They can advocate for themselves.
By ninth grade, your student can handle most teacher-student conversation on his or her own. If they need to know how to make up a missing assignment, what their grade was, or whether a teacher offers extra credit, they can (and should) ask for themselves. In fact, that’s just as true for when they need help in a subject, with a classmate, or in a challenging group projects. For MOST of the situations your student will face academically, they are completely capable of finding and speaking with the right person.
Here’s the problem: They don’t want to. Talking to adults can feel awkward and uncomfortable for ninth or tenth graders, and the discomfort can lead them avoid those conversations, telling their parents that they just can’t. But that doesn’t meant a parent has to jump right in. In fact, an uncomfortable conversation is one of the best times a parent can let their teenager know, “I believe in you and I believe you can handle this.” One of the chief goals of high school is to lead your student toward independence. In a few short years, they’ll be driving, dating and maybe even living on their own. And while they’re nowhere near ready for any of that in ninth grade, part of our job is to teach them the skills of doing things on their own.
2. You should still advocate for them (sometimes).
In my experience, parents of high schoolers are tempted toward two extremes. They either over-involve themselves, never allowing their child to develop the skills of self-advocacy, OR they back away completely and miss some key opportunities to link arms with and support their child. The truth is, there will be times, even with your high school senior, that you may need to speak up on their behalf. It shouldn’t happen all the time, but when your high schooler has made the attempt to speak up for themselves, either with a coach or a teacher, it is okay to step into the conversation and simply ask the question, “How can I help resolve this?” You may find that your teenager lacks the right words and needs some coaching to know exactly what to say in these situations, or you may find an adult who has failed to recognize your teenager’s best efforts and needs you to provide some clarity.
3. Teachers WANT to help.
Everyone can name a bad teacher. Maybe for you, it was your third grade teacher who insisted you recite multiplication tables backward. Maybe it was a middle school teacher who embarrassed you once (and probably didn’t realize it). Maybe it was a high school coach who made you feel like you didn’t have what it takes to succeed. A negative experience in school is the worst and can make you distrust everybody in that role, but the truth is that while there are a few bad apples, most teachers are genuinely good human beings who care a lot about teenagers.
And here’s the real secret, they’re just as nervous about talking to you as you are about talking to them. Just like parents have had a bad teacher experience, most teachers have had a traumatic parent conversation or two, which can leave both sides a little shy. But as uncomfortable as it is, very few things will benefit your son or daughter like establishing a true partnership with his or her teachers. You know your kid better than anybody. And teachers see your kid in an environment you rarely do. So, when the two of you communicate, share observations, and plot together, your teenager benefits.
The truth is, parenting a teenager is tricky. So is teaching one. And maybe one of the best things that could happen for your teenager this year is for you to partner with his or her teachers. One practical way to get the ball rolling is to offer to bring coffee. Teachers rarely get outside the classroom and legally can’t leave the school during the day. So simply asking, “Can I drop by with a latte for you?” will open the door to conversations that may have never happened otherwise