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Back to School Parental Involvement

For kids, the start of a new school year means new subjects and new friends... for teachers, it's new lesson plans and new names to learn. Many parents and guardians limit their role in this annual rite of passage to helping shop for new school supplies. But in this era of overcrowded classrooms and strict performance standards, experts say parents need to get more involved in their children's education. However, there is a fine line between being an effective, involved advocate and an interfering, over-involved meddler.

Phillip Done has been an elementary school teacher for 20 years. "I love the first week of school," he says. "I like the newness of it. All the new tags are not torn yet. None of the pencils have teeth marks."

He says the beginning of a new school year brings excitement back to classrooms. "No matter how long you've been teaching, I still get butterflies that night before the first day of school," he says. "Sometimes, I can't sleep, because to me the first day of school is almost like the opening night of a show. The performance is live and anything can happen."

Mr. Done considers teaching one of the most honorable - and underappreciated - professions. He says individualizing the curricula is just one of the challenges teachers face on a daily basis. "Of course you're going to present lessons to the whole class that everybody needs to know," he says, " but you have kids that are at a lower level, you have kids at a higher level, and you need to meet their needs too.That's one of the great challenges of teaching -- but it's also the art of teaching."

In a new book,In a new book, 32 Third Graders and one Class Bunny, Mr. Done relates two decades' worth of funny stories from his classroom. He also reveals some of the secrets that earned him national recognition. One of them, he says, is getting parents involved in the educational process. "In the beginning of the year," he says, "I send a letter out to my parents and say, 'Please, I can't run my program successfully without your help. Please, volunteer to help.' Studies show that children whose parents help out in school, in some way, do better in school."

Mr. Done says attending parent-teacher conferences, volunteering at school and supporting school events all enhance children's learning achievement.

Donna Goldberg agrees. The author of The Organized Student says parents can make a difference outside the classroom as well: they must be proactive, vote in school board elections and become advocates for better education in their local community. At home, she says, parents can help their children in many ways. They can read to them, limit TV viewing on school nights and teach them how to manage their time. "That's truly one of the things that we don't teach in school," she says."We teach children how to tell time, but never how to manage time. We leave that to every individual to figure out. That encompasses everything from gauging how long an activity will take, to mapping out a realistic schedule and completing an assignment on time."

However, not all teachers appreciate what some parents do to help their children at school, according to Stacy DeBroff. The parenting expert interviewed hundreds of teachers and parents across the country, and compiled their thoughts in 'The Mom Book' Goes to School.

"Parents often come into school in the morning and say, 'There is such a problem, my child came home so upset!'" she says. "We often catch the teacher on the defensive. And teachers want time to understand what the issue is and to think about it, then get back to us. Teachers really resent when we go over their heads, to the school administrator, to the principal, and we do not give them the chance to solve the problem in their classroom. Also, teachers feel that parents come to spy on them, trying to see what they are doing and criticize them."

Ms. DeBroff says teachers get really annoyed when parents say negative things about them to their children. She says such comments undermine a teacher's efforts in the classroom. "It's so easy for a parent to say, 'Your teacher doesn't seem very accomplished,' or 'They are doing a terrible job running the classroom,'" she says. "Teachers say they literally hear the same comments get back to them in the classroom. And if we don't respect the teacher, our children don't feel they have to be respectful to the teacher."

Ms. DeBroff says one of the top complaints voiced by many teachers is about parents who get overly involved with their children's homework. "One teacher I interviewed said, 'I know when you've done the homework for their children, especially when it's a big project coming in looking perfect,'" she says. "They realize that you are doing it with them. Another teacher said, 'If you fix all the mistakes in the homework, then I have no idea that your child is struggling.' What happens is teachers give a quiz in class and suddenly realize - it's a surprise to the teachers - that the child doesn't really understand what's going on at all."

Stacy DeBroff says teachers recognize that parents have become active players in their classrooms, no longer just dropping their kids at the school door. And she says teachers appreciate parents who help increase their children's passion for learning. What they don't like to see is parents who get so involved that they control every detail of their kids' school life.