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Becoming a Classroom Parent

How to help out at preschool.
 

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A parent of a new preschooler, thrilled to have her child in a wonderful school, asked if she could provide the class snack on her child's birthday. The snack she brought in? Huge cupcakes and more than $125 in party favors! "Snacktime" that day lasted for an hour instead of 10 minutes. The 3-year-old students were overwhelmed (several cried), the teacher was unhappy, and the parent couldn't understand why her generous gesture wasn't appreciated. The moral of this story could serve as the mantra for all parents of preschoolers: Good Intentions Do Not a Good Classroom Parent Make.

Building a Great Partnership
Understanding guidelines and respecting them is the first — and probably biggest — step in building a solid partnership with your child's teacher. Teachers welcome and encourage parents' participation. But that participation has to be done in an effective manner that works within the classroom structure, under the teacher's guidance, and in the best interests of all the children.

Communication is the root of all good home-school relationships. Developing a clear understanding of the teacher's goals and boundaries, as well as her communication style, is key to forming an effective partnership.

It's also important for both parents and teachers to remember that (barring an emergency) there are good and bad times to talk about contributing to the class. You certainly wouldn't want your child's teacher calling you 14 times a day to report every little triumph or infraction. And if every parent called the teacher several times during the school day, there wouldn't be a whole lot of time for learning. So ask your child's teacher for the best times to get in touch with her. When is she at the school during non-classroom hours? If she provides a home number, when is a good time to call?

Do Ask, Don't Tell
If you had a dinner party and were serving fish, you would not appreciate one of your guests showing up with a five-pound pot roast. You would expect that if a guest wanted to contribute something to the party, she would ask you what she should bring and abide by your answer. This is one way of looking at your budding relationship with your child's teacher.

Barbara Esau, director of Jennie's School for Little Children in Mount Kisco, NY, coined the phrase, "Do ask; don't tell," which means that parents should ask the teacher how they can best help in the classroom, rather than tell the teacher what they plan to do to help. "When a teacher asks for something, either being a volunteer or providing supplies, you the parent should think 'help,' not 'run the program,'" says Esau. "Ask the teacher what she needs, and then provide it if you can. This shows your respect for the teacher."

If you offer to help your child's teacher, or if the teacher makes a request of you, listen attentively and ask questions if you feel she is not being clear. If you have ideas to offer, ask the teacher if she'd like you to act on them. Remember: While you are the expert on your own child, the teacher is professionally trained in what is developmentally appropriate for a classroom of children. And something that works great with one child might prove disastrous in a classroom setting.

So, ask — and keep asking — until you and the teacher reach a consensus on how you can best help in the classroom.

How Nice of You to Come. Now Please Go!
As much as you and your child's teacher may respect and appreciate one another, your child's classroom is not a drop-in-anytime-and-stay-a-while place. Most schools offer guidelines about parental appearances, including coming by too early for pick-up, sticking around too long after drop-off, and (oops!) showing up uninvited. Some schools don't encourage classroom visits early in the year, especially for parents of 3 year olds for whom separation is a monumental achievement.

When you do come to class, honor the teacher's wishes. For example, if you're asked to come in and read a story, you should arrive on time, read what was requested, and then leave.

Carol Coteus, teacher of 3 year olds at Jennie's School, suggests that, like any guest, you should not engage children (even your own!) until you are introduced by the teacher. "Don't join the circle or take your own child onto your lap until the teacher acknowledges you and brings you into the group. This maintains the teacher's position in the classroom and lets the children know who you are and what role you are playing in their room. It's easier for them to understand your presence if there is structure."

Effective communication, understanding the responsibilities of each adult involved in a child's education, and respecting each other's expertise is the foundation of a successful partnership between parent and teacher. This partnership is the best chance for success your child will have in his brand-new career in school. Even the youngest child comes away a big winner when his parents and teachers are so aware, so focused, and so dedicated to working together on his behalf.

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