Best Teachers in the Country Share Secret to Helping Our At-Risk Kids Succeed

biden roundtableI must admit, before I became a parent, I didn't worry much about the educational system in our city. However, now that my son is headed to kindergarten, it's all I can think about. The classroom experience they have now could shape the rest of their academic lives. It sounds dramatic, I know, but it's true. Sadly, not every child will receive a good education, whether that is because of their struggling district or their own lack of motivation. It's a subject near and dear to Dr. Jill Biden, a teacher herself for the past 32 years. We sat down with Dr. Biden and the four finalists for National Teacher of the Year to find out how parents and educations can work together to ensure a better future for our children. What they had to say about the realities of the situation was both enlightening and alarming. It's a discussion no parent should miss.


So many kids are struggling in school. What is the best way to help them get to graduation?

Dr. Biden: When I taught at-risk kids in high school, one thing I did was that I would call the parents and try to form an alliance with them. An ongoing alliance where I would call them weekly or biweekly and we would continue to talk about their children and what was going right and what was going wrong. That helped the parent feel like we were on the same team, with the same goal of getting that student to graduation. So it did take a lot of time to keep in touch with a lot of parents, but it worked. And I think that the child saw that we were all working together to meet our goals. That is one of the strategies I used.

Heidi Welch - New Hampshire Teacher of the Year: I have a student right now and his mom and I are in frequent email communication. I am his chorus teacher but now I am working with his algebra teacher and I am on him every day -- are you going upstairs to get algebra help after school? Have you gone to assisted studying his afternoon? Now it's not just his mom saying did you get your work done. It's a partnership. He’s got a support system that is going to push him through because we want to see him walk across that stage. Sometimes it just takes one person, but sometimes you need that army to get you through.

Everyone has a teacher they once looked up to yet still society does not value teachers the way we do doctors, lawyers, and scientists. How can we change that?

Heidi Welch: I tell everyone that I have the most amazing job on the planet. I just spent four days in Disney World with my music students performing. One parent who came along said to me, "I had no idea how hard you worked." I think that is one of the problems. So many have no idea what goes into the daily life of an educator. They really just don’t know. They make their assumptions about the 7 to 3 workday and the summers off, but until they are with you on a trip of that magnitude and they see the organization and how you work with the kids and how you diffuse problems and mediate situations, then they get it. We need more parents to see what the day to day is truly like and that will filter out as well. There is so much they don’t know and they are willing to speak negatively about things they don’t understand.

Students aren't the only ones having a hard time. How can we fix under performing teachers?

Jeff Charbonneau - Washington Teacher of the Year & National Teacher of the Year: When a student comes into your classroom and they are trying to learn a difficult subject and the first things out of your mouth are, you did this wrong, you did this wrong, and you did this wrong -- they are not coming back. Similarly, we have to make sure the first thing coming out of our mouth with an educator isn’t you did this wrong because those teachers sometimes feel like not coming back. So one of the best things we can do is to recognize successes in education. Not to discount the challenges that we have, because there are challenges there. We need to recognize the success first and then work on building and improving upon that foundation. That’s what it’s about. It's being a guiding light, being an example, talking about the positives first so that we can fix those things that are challenging to us.

For parents who don't come to you because of language barriers or other reasons, how do you reach out to them?

Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship - Maryland Teacher of the Year: For parents who are reluctant or just overwhelmed, I think it’s really important to just present yourself as a compassionate partner investing in this child’s life. And a lot of times you just have to be willing to do the leg work and detective work. But when you make that connection and you see the difference in that child in your room, it's one of the most important things you can do for you students.

Alex Lopes - Florida Teacher of the Year: One of the most important things that I tell teachers is that it’s not just what works for you, it’s what works for the parent. Sometimes you have this idea you are going to create this newsletter and put a lot of work into it, but if they don’t read it, what good does it do. So it’s what works for the parent. Is it a phone call? Is it a text message? Is it a word when they drop your child off or is it an email?

Q. If you could tell parents just one thing to help their kids, what would it be?

Dr. Biden: Promote and understand diversity. Coming from a community college, I see people from all over the world. I think if you are respectful of other people and their cultures and you can pass that on to your child, I think that really is an important lesson.

Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship: Foster a love of learning. Not so much emphasis on grades. We all want good grades. But too many high school kids are programmed to think, “Just tell me what I have to do to get the A.” I want kids to be excited to learn and take on something that’s challenging because it’s fun and interesting and they are not sure where it’s going to end up.

Jeff Charbonneau: Don’t limit the possibilities for your own child. I have some parents ask, "Is my son really ready to go into chemistry?" Well why not, why wouldn’t he be ready? Let’s try and see what happens. Most of the time, they are already ready. They just have these preconceived notions about what they might not be good at. But they’ve never really tried. Allow your student to try new opportunities in education. Allow them to have unlimited potential. Second to that, when the going gets a little rough in class, convince them that they have the ability to continue.

Heidi Welch: I say give them all the love and support you can in that home. I have been lucky to see my kids every day for four years. I see them grow up. Some kids don’t have that at all and I didn’t. So seeing that mirrored in kids today, I just want to tell their parents to give them that love and support, and with all that, hopefully they will have the confidence and strength to go forward and make a difference in their own world. Hug them every day because it goes like that.

Alex Lopes: Just expose your children to cultural differences and linguistic diversity so that we can build a community of learners, so that we don’t have to waste time preventing bully-ism, so that we can get our students to learn from one another and with one another. And so that it’s not just entirely up to the teacher. When students take ownership of their learning and it becomes a true community of learners.

What are your concerns about your child's education?


Image via the White House

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