Teachers Speak Out On How Parents Can Support Them As We Head Back-to-School

With this year’s back-to-school season marked by a teachers’ shortage, continued COVID-19 surges, and book bannings, teachers share what parents can do to make the process easier on everyone.

Students looking at a laptop with a teacher in a classroom
Photo: LWA/Dann Tardif/Getty Images

The past two years have been particularly challenging for teachers, and this fall, they have a lot on their minds: the continuing spread of COVID-19 variants, the mental health and behavior issues that became more prevalent last year, laws banning certain books or subjects or even topics of conversation in the classroom, not to mention teacher and staff shortages reported nationwide.

According to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's 2022 Educator Confidence Report, an annual survey of more than 1,000 K-12 educators and administrators in America, more than 76% feel negatively about the state of the teaching profession at the moment.

But ready or not, we're back to school.

We asked teachers from across the country how parents can support them this year and what they want their students' parents to know about teaching right now to help make this school year better for everyone.

Here's what they have to say.

Don't Expect All Classrooms to Be the Same

Following isolation during the pandemic, many students are still playing "catch up" on their social development, notes Amanda Leach, a sixth-grade math teacher in Cobb County, Georgia. "Anything parents can do to help their children practice engaging with peers on a social level would be of great benefit to the student," she says. And that would benefit classrooms as well.

The disruptions of the past few years can affect older children, too, says Central Florida college math professor Tammy Steffy. "In the past couple of years, students have experienced broad differences in schools' responses to recent challenges," she says. "Their high school experiences have varied tremendously, so it might be harder to know what's expected in college."

There's a Need for Social-Emotional Learning

Recent changes in curriculum and teaching protocols have teachers scrambling to be prepared for the new school year. Some of the changes are welcome, says Jennifer Gilbert, who teaches second grade in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. "These past few years have been extremely difficult for so many of us, and there have been so many sacrifices. However, one of the best things that has come out of it is a true focus on social-emotional learning," she says.

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, helps students acquire and apply skills and attitudes to develop their own healthy identities, manage their emotions, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions, as described by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based organization aiming to make SEL part of all students' education.

Though SEL has been recently pulled into debates in several states including Florida about the "fundamental rights of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children in a specified manner," the goal of SEL is apolitical and straightforward: to give children the tools to be more socially and self-aware, self regulate better, and form better relationships between each other—which makes for a more positive classroom environment and, with work, a better school culture. Research also shows that SEL can help make our schools safer and curb school violence.

Gilbert adds, "A safe, happy, confident learner who feels valued by their teachers and their classmates will not only perform well academically, but they will continue to spread that kindness, respect, and understanding for others into their communities."

Curriculum Changes Require Adjustment Periods

In certain states, teachers are facing harder transitions. "I wish parents knew that as teachers, we are constantly switching gears and making decisions with the best interest of each of our students in mind," says Sara Conway, a second-grade teacher in Winter Springs, Florida.

Conway points out that Florida is implementing a new state-wide curriculum this year, Florida's B.E.S.T. Standards, which will include new and very specific guidelines for teaching English and math and will change the standardized testing format for public schools from one test at the end of the year to formative assessments three times a year. "This is a lot of new things for all educators, so please show us grace as we navigate through all of this together," she says.

Book Bans Are Exhausting

Marjorie Soffer, a sixth-grade English teacher at a large suburban middle school in Lake Worth, Florida, asks that parents remember teachers are not the enemy. "When I have to remove books from my library, it deepens the divide between me and my students' parents," says Soffer. "I have over 4,000 books in my classroom library, and I had to go through them to make sure there was nothing in them that might offend someone and go through a checklist for each book that might potentially be a problem."

Soffer said because of new state mandates, she had to remove books like the Hunger Games series, Lily and Dunkin, and others from her classroom. "Many teachers I know have completely put away their classroom libraries and have no books," says Soffer. "They would rather not have any books out for children to read than deal with challenges from parents. That is a very sad state of affairs."

Teachers Need Allyship and Support

Greg Andree, who teaches eighth grade in Massachusetts, says he was surprised last year when parents came to open house with "talking points about 'critical race theory' and 'my kids will not read gay books…' meaning anything with an LGBTQ+ character in it," he says. "I've been teaching for 20 years, and I have never had so much politics brought into my classroom, where kids are coached by parents on how to derail any conversation about racism, LGBTQ+ people, equality for girls, and even equal rights and justice under the law."

Andree says parents can support teachers, especially in subjects like English and civics, by being "loud and unrelenting" in their support of the teachers, because whether parents are aware of it or not, teachers are facing a lot of criticism from a small but vocal minority of parents for "discussions about non-white people and LGBTQ+ people. When a class or school library has materials that reflect the diversity of our country, write to the administration. Let them know how much you appreciate seeing books like that in a class curriculum or library collection," Andree suggests. "Attend school board meetings, and voice your support of those materials. When there is an attack on books or ideas, call it out for what it is: bigotry and racism."

Greg Andree, 8th grade teacher

"I never thought that as a teacher I'd be seen as some kind of revolutionary because I do something as small as reading books that include Black characters or LGBTQ+ people.... If I have to fight people over poetry and novels, that's what I'll keep doing. It's easy to be tired and give in. Because I am tired, and old. But I'm also stubborn."

— Greg Andree, 8th grade teacher

It's helpful to also actively share your support. "Write to teachers and let them know they're not alone. Because I can tell you, I get a heck of a lot of emails from angry parents who want books removed or who are angry about the Pride flag in my classroom saying it's part of my 'political agenda.'"

Andree adds parents should rest assured that teachers like him don't actually have political agenda. "For real, my only agenda is to help kids think for themselves, read about lives outside their experiences, and to have students that go forward and care about the rights and lives of all people," he says. "To have students that want to build communities that support and fight for the rights and liberties of all people."

In the end, he still sees it as his job to create critical thinkers. "I never thought that as a teacher I'd be seen as some kind of revolutionary because I do something as small as reading books that include Black characters or LGBTQ+ people," he says. "I became a teacher because I love reading and writing and stories. But if I have to fight people over poetry and novels, that's what I'll keep doing. It's easy to be tired and give in. Because I am tired, and old. But I'm also stubborn."

Teachers Are Facing Burnout

Stephen* left his job as a high school teacher in Oklahoma this summer after 16 years in the classroom. He says "social unrest and heightened political tension" impacted his classroom.

When his state of Oklahoma, like several others, passed a law banning teaching CRT curriculum, Stephen says it did more than erode the public's trust in teachers. "The law was so vague that...my colleagues were now outwardly scared to guide their students through complicated and difficult social questions, as the law—and parents with megaphones outside our school—threatened legal action against teachers," he says. And the agenda is making it difficult for teachers to support their students. "Entire parts of my curriculum were extremely uncomfortable precisely because of the ugly nature of systematic racism in our history: slavery, imperialism, genocide," he explains. "I frequently had to help students navigate their feelings about these very difficult topics."

Stephen worried that by helping his students navigate important events in history, he might find himself entangled in a lawsuit. "The humanities became, overnight, littered with landmines that teachers feared could end their career, a casualty of the culture wars that were now invading their classrooms."

Stephen is hardly alone in looking for the exit. A February National Education Association poll predicted "an unprecedented staffing crisis" as more than 55% of educators surveyed said they were planning to leave the profession. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American public schools have lost more than 567,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Teachers are facing some of the biggest challenges they've ever faced this new school year. Parents need to get to the ballot box this fall, says Stephen. "We need to reject the political ideology that is tearing our education system apart."

What Happens At Home Matters

"Students need more support than most parents realize with getting organized and staying organized on an almost daily basis," says Leach. "Checking the backpacks, agendas, online platforms, and gradebooks are pivotal to assisting students in being successful."

She also suggests parents limit home screen time and instead replace that time with "reading, basic math fluency, or even having students do creative activities, or get exercise playing outside or in organized sports." And talking through the very real social and political changes that continue to impact kids and schools is critical.

TAMMY STEFFY, Central Florida college math professor

"I want parents to remember that we are a team. We play for the same side, with our students' success as our top priority." 

— TAMMY STEFFY, Central Florida college math professor

Students Need Freedom to Flourish

Sarah Hart, a science teacher at Walton High School in Marietta, Georgia, asks for parents to step back a little this year. "Please stop texting during school hours. Kids are so distracted," she says. "Also, kids need to make mistakes to learn. Too many parents are protecting kids, and they are becoming entitled and can't handle difficult things."

High school kids need to start figuring things out on their own, says Hart. "The goal is to prepare them for life on their own, and time is running out."

Teachers Could Use A Little TLC, Too

At a time when many are choosing to leave the profession, teachers could use some love. "Teachers are really, really beat up right now," says Sumer Ramsey, a second-grade teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana. "We need encouragement and support. Legislators have painted us as villains. Please give us some grace and send an email telling your child's teacher that you think they hung the moon, then CC the principal. And sending in lots of extra pencils won't hurt."

The last few years have taken their toll on all of us. "We're exhausted," says Steffy. "Always passionate and enthusiastic about students and learning, but we've taken this past couple of years on the chin. It's been physically and psychologically demanding to respond to the changing needs of our jobs. Now, I'm watching political issues outside the classroom wear on dedicated teachers. So many truly exceptional educators are leaving the field."

But most importantly, keep in mind that when it comes to the kids, we're all in this together. "I want parents to remember that we are a team," she says. "We play for the same side, with our students' success as our top priority. You can see our dedication to them during these challenging years. We might not vote the same way or sit in the same pews on the weekends, but we all want our young people to learn, grow, lead, and support each other."

*Name has been changed for privacy purposes.

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