This particular insight comes from the intersections of my life as a mother and teacher.
Yesterday, I sent my daughters off to school in this new place that we now call home. My older daughter, who just turned 10, was especially nervous. Although I tried to contact the school last week hoping to set up a meeting with her teacher, or maybe to just tour around the school for a few minutes so she would know what it looked like, I received no call back.
I understand that back to school is busy. There are so many pressing priorities. I do understand how a single call back to a single family might have been overlooked in the rush to prepare everything else. I really do get this.
However, for children like mine, who are feeling displaced, sad to have left dear and cherished friends behind, and anxious about all of the unanswered questions that go along with new beginnings (Will I make friends? Will my teacher like me? Will I be good at school here?) I believe it is essential for schools to make a special effort to make contact. I know this takes time. However, the goodwill that is gained from this special effort is, in my view, entirely worth it. As a family, we would have felt so much more positively about the start of school yesterday had our request to speak with someone at the school about our daughter’s transition been answered. Of course, as a teacher educator, I feel empowered to talk to school administrators, and to write this blog — but other families may not. If one of the central purposes of schooling is to build community, then the values that we espouse through our choices and actions should reflect those of the communities we hope to build, support and sustain.
New teachers, pay attention. Your work is as much about building relationships that build healthy communities as it is about teaching content.
Importantly, my younger daughter’s teacher did call us in advance. Because little one was starting Kindergarten, they had a system in place to review each child’s needs. They invited her (and us, though only my husband could attend at the available time) into the school for a meeting. It didn’t last long, but it was all we needed as a family to trust that our daughter would be known and cared for by her teachers. As a result, we felt so much more confident about the Kindergartner than the 5th grader. Odd, isn’t it? First day of Kindergarten is usually the hardest day for parents and kids. Because her teacher made the special effort to reach out to us, it wasn’t. Relationship building matters so much.
[As an aside, my husband did request to take a tour around the school with both children while they were there for this meeting and received permission to do so, though nobody from the office offered to join them. When they met a teacher in the hall, she abruptly informed them that they were not allowed to just openly tour around the school — an awkward exchange ensued. We understand the security concern, but wonder if there is a way to balance this within a culture of hospitality?]
As an FYI, I handed this letter to our older daughter’s teacher when we met on the school yard for the first time yesterday. At the end of the day, she thanked my husband for it and explained that she had received no message that we had called or that we were interested in speaking with her in advance. We know that this teacher (who seems absolutely perfect for our daughter’s needs) would have called had she known.
New teachers — again, take notice. I encourage you to check every child’s name on your class lists before the school year begins. Go to the office and ask the staff, “Are there any children on my class lists who are absolutely new to our school this year?” When they say yes, what will you do?
Dear Teacher who will spend the next year working with our daughter, Z—-
We do wish we knew your name.
We called the school and left a message early last week, but nobody called back. We didn’t receive an email either — so we are writing this note to you.
We called because we wanted to tell you that we’re new to Ottawa. We were hoping that we could share a little bit about our daughter, who is joining your class today. We know you have many students to get to know this week. As teachers ourselves, we have really appreciated it when parents have shared the basics about who their children are with us. We hope you don’t mind. We write this note hoping it helps you to know enough about Z– to ease her transition, and also yours. Every school year brings many new challenges for teachers too.
This summer, we moved from Michigan to Ottawa. Mostly, we are thrilled to be here.
Z—-, though, is feeling anxious and especially vulnerable today. You see, she just turned 10 last week. Because I earned a position here in Ottawa, she had to leave dear and trusted friends behind. She had to leave a school that she loved, where everyone knew her. She had to leave behind the only home she has ever known. Although she was born in Ontario, she has only ever attended school in America. She knows the Pledge of Allegiance better than O Canada. She’s nervous about not fitting in. She worries she will be the only new kid. She worries about not knowing French as well as the other kids in her class.
She is trying to be brave — but I’m hoping you might make a special effort to introduce her to some of the other students — maybe help her to feel a part of this new community? We would sincerely appreciate this extra bit of care.
In time, you will see that Z—- is sensitive and funny. She loves to draw. Lately, she’s mostly inspired by Star Wars. She is a good swimmer and she loves to create worlds in Minecraft. She loves to tell stories. She is a strong and voracious reader — mostly of non-fiction, actually — or anything that has to do with Star Wars. She’s interested in history. She likes math and she likes science and technology. She has a younger sister who is almost 5 and just starting Kindergarten today.
We also think it’s important for you to know that Z—- is never the kid who jumps in enthusiastically when asked to do something she has never tried. She likes to be good at things, and in the past, perfectionism has been one of her very real struggles. She is nervous to try new things when she isn’t sure she’ll succeed to her imagined standard. At home, we stress that trying is the most important thing. We stress that everyone starts out a novice and that getting good at things takes a lot of time, and necessarily involves lots of tries that don’t result in the desired outcome. Z—- has made very real efforts at trying new things this summer — a good sign! However, we think it’s important for you to know that in a very new situation like this one (new school, new city, new country) you might see her withdraw or feel nervous.
We look forward to chatting with you some time soon. We will always welcome your insights and recommendations for Z—-. We look forward to a really fantastic year with you leading Z–’s Grade 5 learning.
Thank you, in advance, for giving her the extra help she needs just now. We appreciate this so, so much.
Michelle Hagerman & Chris Hagerman,