Raising a Child Who Will Talk with a Teacher

Dave Hickman, Head of Upper School

Learning, at the core, is a relationship with the unknown. Anyone who is learning is interacting with knowledge, skills, and understandings that seem elusive, difficult, or vague, until they aren't. While some skills can be modeled and developed with repeated practice, some understandings require dialogue with a teacher or guide. A core endeavor of school is to help students learn to interact with their teachers when this dialogue is critical to unlocking a next step in learning.

Most learners begin with a fixed mindset about teacher conversations and assume that needing to ask a teacher for help is a sign of failure, weakness, or lack of being "smart." It's a lifelong journey, and one that we hope to shorten and build as early as kindergarten, for students to learn that the opposite is true: smart learners ask questions. This learning process begins by teaching students to recognize and enjoy the internal feeling of curiosity as well as the dissonant, internal experience of confusion or frustration. Knowing that you don't know something, and being eager to advance, are fundamental ingredients.

From there, a student who asks a teacher a question, either in a classroom group setting or individually after class or during an individual work time, is likely to move forward more quickly. More importantly, the student builds a muscle made of confidence and agency. Taking action, especially action that may come with a little embarrassment or fear at first, is deeply rewarding as the student then learns to recognize the feeling of becoming "unstuck" as a result of their choices. They also learn another maxim of schools: all teachers are eager to help students, especially when students ask specific questions that show their engagement in the learning.

How can a parent help a child learn to do this? Start with empathy and consider the notion that your child may be afraid, or may feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness. You are engaged in a long process of shifting that narrative to a different notion of what a "smart" student does. School, and life, provides students with continuous exposure to the unknown, and expecting to struggle and ask questions is a key skill for lifelong learning. Model asking questions, talk about being curious, and let your child see you take action when something is confusing to you.

Next, when your child struggles with learning (with homework, at a sports practice, with a musical piece, at a video game) and expresses confusion or frustration, help your child name that feeling and formulate possible routes forward. Ask your child, "What question could you ask, that if you had it answered, would help you?" or "What skill, if you could get better at it, would help you overall with your progress?" While there are some elements where the parent is the best resource for the question, it's hugely important to repeatedly steer them to talk to their teachers or coaches when appropriate. Help your child choose who to ask, and even what to ask. Make a plan with your child about when they will ask that adult. Follow up to see how it went. You can also contact the adult yourself and let them know they child is planning to ask a question at lunch, or after practice, to help set the stage and invite the collaboration of the adult. Let your child present the question or issue.

Most students feel a huge sense of relief and a boost in confidence after speaking with their teachers. It's worth remembering that teachers, when asked questions by students, do not just give the answer right away. They engage in dialogue to pose questions to the student and help the student access their own memories, resources, or critical thinking abilities. A student interacting with a teacher therefore does not just "get the answer," but gets a boost in self-reliance and self-confidence after the interaction.

True self-esteem flows from doing something that appeared difficult or daunting at first glance. Each year, and each "new teacher," presents your child with a new opportunity to "break the ice" and develop that new relationship.