Let's begin this discussion with some perspective: The average starting salary for sanitation workers exceeds that of public school teachers in virtually every region of this country. It's an abomination (in a nation that strives to be a world and technological leader) that the people who are teaching that technology make less money than the people who clean up the refuse from that technology.
Understand, we've got nothing against sanitation workers. It's a fine, respectable job -- and a vitally important one at that. We applaud sanitation workers' rights to go out and earn as much money as they possibly can, because they deserve it. But we do have an issue with the across-the-board low salaries doled out to our nation's teachers. It's embarrassing and shortsighted, and it goes to the root of a lot of the problems confronting our children as we move headlong into this next century.
We believe that in order to maintain America's position at the head of its class, we desperately need to overhaul our education system to where the level of respect and prestige we accord our teachers is commensurate with the demands we place on the job.
We need to recruit more people of quality to the classroom. We need to hold out education as a noble and rewarding career pursuit. We need to ensure that the best and the brightest are out in front, challenging our kids to be the best and the brightest.
We're a long way from home on this one. In most of our communities, we spend as little as possible and hope that our teachers get the most out of our children. How can this be? Spend less, you get fewer results. Spend more, you get more results. The thinking should be that this money is not an above-the-line cost, but an investment in our shared futures.
Seniors, parents of older children, unencumbered adults ... we don't buy the argument that you shouldn't have to pay the freight for other people's kids. Put a top-of-the-line education system in place, and we all benefit. Society benefits. Your neighborhoods are cleaner, safer, and more efficient. Your health-care and quality-of-life needs are more easily, and more intelligently, met. We're investing in our children, people, not bottom-auctioning for baby-sitting services to look after them five days a week. These are not your neighbors' issues, or the issues of the young family down the block. These are your issues -- no matter what stage of life you're passing through. Nothing is more important.
Okay, we've had our little venting. We've said our piece. It's not our intention here to present a position paper on the state of public-school education in this country, but to help parents lay a practical foundation for the education of their children. Everything else flows from this issue right here, from the individual efforts we make with our own kids. We can rail against our misplaced societal notions regarding education until we turn blue, but the truth is that education begins at home -- and in the best of all possible worlds, it should begin before your child reaches school age. And as long as we're reaching, it should be constant, and unrelenting.
You Are the Most Important Teacher
Despite all of the hours you will spend in conference with professional educators in the years ahead, never lose sight of the fact that you are your children's most important teacher. You are their first line of attack and their last line of defense against indifference and routine in your neighborhood schools. It starts with you, and it ends with you -- and it begins the moment your child is born. Your baby's brain cells multiply at an incredible rate, especially during the first three months after birth, so the child is learning rapidly. Babies are incredibly responsive to sight, sound, smell, and motion, and they thrive on sensory stimulation, so take advantage of this opportunity -- because it doesn't come around again.
Raise a child who loves to learn and you're miles ahead of the race. Be careful, though; some kids can develop a fear of learning if we push them too far too fast, or if we expect more from them than they can deliver by a certain age. If your children appear tentative about a learning activity, talk to them about it. You can probably come up with a way to help them alleviate the fear and find the fun in whatever the goal is.
Sometimes children may not want to read because they have some sort of difficulty, perhaps bad vision or hearing, a learning disability, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), all of which are common. Or the problems might be psychologically rooted, such as related maturation conflicts. Pay close attention to unusual behavior, and be ready to help your children work out problems. And always be ready to consult an expert for diagnosis and treatment.
As a parent, when you bring fun into the teaching equation, it can make your job a lot easier, and at the same time take away the fear of learning. If children are having fun, anxiety doesn't even come into the picture. Make rhymes for things you're trying to teach your children. Gently begin teaching them how to read, count, recite the alphabet, or do simple math. Be a working partner to your children's learning process.
Think back to when you were a child, and remember the teachers who were able to draw the most out of you. Talk to your children the way you enjoyed being spoken to: in informal, non-confrontational tones and situations -- for example, during bathtime or while walking in the park. Reverse roles by allowing your kids to ask you questions, and give right and wrong answers to see if they can catch you in your "errors." Use plenty of positive verbal reinforcement.
Another practical early-parenting technique to make learning more fun is to focus on what your child can easily do. For example, together come up with words that all begin with the same letter. Make it a game, not a stressful tutoring session. Let your kids have fun, but always challenge them just a little more by taking them to the next step without expecting them to go there by themselves.
A mother we know would show her three-year-old son the word dog whenever it was written on the page. After a while, he started pointing out the word dog to her. She wouldn't have asked him to attempt such an activity unless she knew for sure that he could, because she didn't want him to feel that he had failed. If you point things out to kids, they will naturally move ahead as soon as they're ready to go there, but if you push them too soon, the effort could backfire. Know your children's limitations, and the expectations they place on themselves.
Avoid showing disappointment or frustration. Children will experience these emotions on an even larger scale than you do because they feel that they've let you down, as well as themselves. Ultimately, positive feelings will encourage learning, and negative ones will cause children to want to avoid whatever topic brought on the bad vibes. Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. (Do you feel a song coming on, or is it just us?)
Kids develop the confidence to learn by observing proper role models -- people who look like them, come from the same backgrounds, or are successful. If these role models are smart, high achieving individuals, our kids will emulate their behavior. The problem is that many of our children are exposed to nonintellectual role models even before they begin formal education. In the black community, for example, many a kid will have a stronger desire to become an athlete or a rapper than a scholar or an educated professional. White schoolgirls would sooner be a pop star than Margaret Mead. This is a troubling phenomenon, and as parents, we should guard against it.
Positive Role Models
Self-esteem is essential to learning, and the practical parent must address this facet of their children's lives as early as possible. Seek out successful individuals (explorers, inventors, entrepreneurs) whose careers you can hold up as a model. If your child's interests are such that the role model must be an athlete, make sure it's an educated, civic-minded athlete who presents a positive ideal. Indeed, sometimes the best role modeling is closer at hand than you realize, and your kids won't have to go looking at athletes or models or movie stars. Cast yourselves as role models, and instill in your children a practical pattern they might follow. Provide love and nurturing to build self-esteem and the confidence to learn.
To be a better role model at home, work to maintain a stable family life, and avoid fighting with your spouse. Instead, discuss issues in a calm manner, and don't lose your temper. If you have a hot-headed nature, this type of patterning will keep you from "going off" on strangers in public places, and possibly prevent you from calling your own child "stupid" or "dumb." Even if it's unintentional, name-calling can be one of the most damaging things a parent can do, and showing irrational anger toward strangers can also set a dangerous model. Quietly work out your spousal disagreements, and make sure never to denigrate your child's intelligence.
People of average and even below-average intelligence with above-average doses of self-esteem and confidence can achieve more in life than geniuses who lack these qualities. Believe in yourself and your own abilities. If needed, consider therapy or any number of winning self-help and motivational books to bolster your own sense of self. If you believe in yourself, that confidence will be communicated to your children, who will in turn feel good about themselves.
Set a good example by being involved in educational pursuits. Take night courses (or correspondence courses) in topics that you're interested in. Turn that equivalency diploma into the real deal, or finish that undergraduate degree that you almost got before you quit to get married. Start on a master's degree. And realize that your pursuit does not have to be academic -- even a carpentry or cooking course will prove rewarding, and set a positive pattern for your child to follow. Through your actions and initiatives, your child will begin to see the pursuit of education and learning as an expected and normal part of life.
This article is excerpted from the book:
by Montel Williams and Jeffrey GardFre, Ph.D.
About the Authors
Montel Williams is the Emmy Award-winning host of the nationally syndicated Montel show. As a highly decorated former Naval intelligence officer, motivational speaker, actor, and humanitarian, Williams is an example of personal achievement for people throughout the country. He is the author of several books: the New York Times bestseller Mountain, Get Out of My Way; an inspirational book called Life Lessons and Reflections; and the proud father of four children. Visit his website at www.montelshow.com
Jeffrey Gardère, Ph.D., a practicing clinical psychologist, has appeared on nearly every major talk and news show on radio and television. He currently hosts Hit It, a relationship advice show on WLIB radio in New York. "Dr. Jeff," as he is called by fans and patients alike, is the founder and CEO of Rainbow Psychological Clinics, a culturally sensitive program providing psychological health care for children, adults, and families in the New York tristate area. Dr. Jeff is the author of Smart Parenting for African-Americans, and is a married father of two children.