All parents want the best education for their children, and news of teacher shortages is cause for concern. The number of college students pursuing degrees in teaching has dropped 50 percent in five years, and the national teacher shortage is now at crisis levels in some states in which unfilled positions are in the tens of thousands.

In response to extreme teacher shortages, some state legislatures are making teaching certifications easier to obtain, only requiring applicants to exhibit competence in academic content and have prior professional experience, but not formal training or experience in education.

Please take a minute to put this into perspective: The average U.S. classroom has over 30 kids in a room. One teacher is expected to provide an equal amount of attention to each student, many who, although in the same grade, vary in ability by at least two grade levels.

So an adult with strong content knowledge and previous professional experience (let’s say prowess in mathematics and the professional experience of an engineer, a profession that tends to work alone or in small teams of adults) gets hired as an eighth-grade math teacher, in charge of 32 children with academic abilities and behavioral maturity ranging from sixth to tenth grade.  Although an expert in mathematics, this teacher might struggle with classroom management and lack an understanding of how to guide the cognitive development of 32 separate individuals – let alone do it in 60 minutes.

How much does having an effective teacher matter to your child’s success? It matters a lot. Research shows that of all of the variables that influence student achievement, teacher effectiveness makes the biggest difference. Your child might be one of thousands of students receiving instruction from an adult who knows the academic content but is still learning how to teach.

 

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Before we criticize these teachers, let’s acknowledge that people who leave other (often more financially lucrative) professions to teach are admirable, and their passion for teaching might make a lasting impression on children, especially once they can add pedagogy to their areas of expertise. However, effective teaching skills and strategies grow over time, and these new teachers will need substantial support from school and district personnel as well as from parents. Parental involvement is critical.

What can parents do to ensure their children get the best education possible in the current educational environment? First, do your research. Meet with the principal to discuss three important factors:

1 | Opportunities for teachers to work together
2 | The teacher evaluation system
3 | Access to professional development.

Questions for the principal

A school that offers adequate support for teachers will provide time for peer collaboration. Peer collaboration can be in the form of a mentoring program, in which effective veteran teachers mentor novice teachers, or peer coaching, in which teachers work with one another on improving their craft, usually by focusing on one or two important skills and areas for improvement.

Ask your principal when teachers have time to work together, what the school’s mentoring program looks like, and what peer coaching, if any, is provided to all teachers. If you don’t get specific and knowledgeable answers, you might want to consider another school or make sure your child is in a class lead by an experienced and respected teacher.

Another point of discussion with the principal is the teacher evaluation system. Many schools will have a formal teacher evaluation system in place, with a timeline of when it occurs as well as the documents used. Ask the principal if you can see the school’s teacher evaluation instrument. This will most likely be a list of items of what administrators want their teachers to be doing, as well as a rubric used to score the teachers. By knowing the criteria for teacher evaluation and how often it takes place, you will have a better understanding of what the teacher is expected to exhibit in your child’s classroom.

The last item to ask the principal is what kind of continuous job training (also called professional development) is offered to teachers. The school should have a clear professional development plan that connects to the items on the teacher evaluation form. Continued training should be provided to teachers in the areas in which they are expected to excel.

Many schools have early release days so teachers have time to attend professional development. These early release days can be a burden on parents, but if the time is being used to make your child’s teacher more effective, the inconvenience is worth it.

If you are not satisfied with the answers you receive after questioning the principal, you might want to consider finding another school for your child. If you are satisfied with your principal’s plans for teacher collaboration, evaluation, and professional development, then it’s time for phase two: getting to know your child’s teacher and letting the teacher get to know you.

Questions for the teacher

Teachers welcome parent participation in their children’s education. In fact, showing evidence of involving and communicating with parents is probably a part of teachers’ evaluations. Taking the initiative to form a partnership with your child’s teacher – especially when the teacher might be overwhelmed at the beginning of the school year and might not have much time to reach out to you – is a positive, provided you schedule meetings with the teacher in advance and communicate appropriately. (It is not appropriate to just “drop in” during class time.)

Schedule a time to formally meet your child’s teacher without your child being present. Your introductory meeting with the teacher might include these discussion items:

  • The teacher’s background and experience
  • The grade-level academic standards being taught
  • Volunteer opportunities and ways you can help reinforce learning at home
  • How you can follow your child’s progress and monitor grades and attendance.

Conclude your first meeting by letting the teacher know you would like to meet at least quarterly throughout the year, but also on an as-needed basis, and identify times for these meetings that work for you both.

Showing that you are involved in your child’s education does not make you an overbearing “helicopter parent,” as long as you respect the teacher’s boundaries and behave as an ally rather than an adversary. It is also important that you follow through; avoid scheduling meetings only to end up cancelling them at the last minute.

Your role

Finally, remember that a child’s education is more than a single person’s job. Parents are teachers, too. Even if you cannot provide subject-area guidance (how many of us can actually remember geometry formulas?!), you can create expectations for homework completion and identify areas where your child is struggling to help your child to communicate needs for remediation to the teacher.

You can also regularly ask questions about whether or not your child feels safe, respected, and supported at school. The earlier a problem is noticed and addressed, the better for everyone. Again, in most cases, the teacher wants the best for your child. But due to today’s climate, he or she could lack the time, resources, and even training to singlehandedly provide all that your child needs.