Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Teacher Recommendations

I just received this question, and it's article worthy.

Off topic but what do you do when your teacher doesn't seem qualified to teach second grade. This year is very important because we take COGAT in a couple of months and the GT committee considers not only test scores but more importantly second grade teacher's recommendation to pick who gets in and who doesn't and the voice of the second grade teacher weights most. Our teacher this year is her first year of teaching EVER, she has been a teacher's aid for a couple of years prior but this is her first year she has her own class. The worst part of it is that she just moved to our state from somewhere else and I bet she doesn't even know how the GT process works and what she is supposed to do on the test day (e.g. give instructions) or prep kids for the test (other classes do some kind of practice tests before the real COGAT test day). I am worried that my kid won't learn much for the whole year, but also about the GT application. All I can do is to make sure the test score is great and see what happens. Having a meltdown already in the first week of school. Should I start communication with the teacher early on that we want to definitely make it to GT? How do you even do that without looking like "one of those parents?" What do I do to make sure that my child doesn't fall behind so that she doesn't have so much to catch up next year? 

This question is totally awesome because my scheduled article picking apart figure matrices is really dry and needs a video to go with it, which I won't get to until Saturday.

As a courtesy to the questioner, I will ramble on for 4 or 5 paragraphs about how great teachers are, including this one, until I've lost 90 of 100 readers.  GAT slots are limited after all, and when you ask someone who studied both strategy and game theory at top 10 graduate schools, who's bitter about his wife not allowing him to work 18 hours a day and move every 3 years as he claws his way to the corporate ladder, but is stuck writing his blog counting the days until his kids earn full academic scholarships to Stanford so he can quit his job and teach, you're going to get rambling.

I've talked to teachers about teacher parent interactions and teacher parent conferences.   The best way to do this is to open a tab.  The teacher's perspective is shocking and eye opening.   First, the parents expect the teacher to ignore the other 29 kids and cater to their child's special abilities and needs.  Second, the parent, who hasn't taught for X years, reviewed curriculum, gotten an education degree, or anything else that remotely qualifies them to open their mouth during a parent teacher conference nonetheless explains to the teacher where she is lacking as a teacher.

What bothers a teacher the most are the parents who do zero at home and are upset that the teacher is not doing more.  This is the group usually at the 50% and below.  What bothers me the most are the parents who expect a teacher to change a grade from a B to an A.  If my kid got a B, I wouldn't necessarily express my disgust at his total ineptitude wasting all of that math genius on a B, because he doesn't do anything half way so it would be a D to spite me.  I would take it as an opportunity to build grit.  Walking into a teacher's office to speak on behalf of your child guarantees that he is going to grow up to be an unethical loser.  

Every teacher is somewhere in her career.  I haven't met a bad teacher yet, but somewhere in the career can spell disaster.   First year is usually the worse.   The last year is the worse for us with a couple of boys who did this year's math last year and would rather talk than pay attention.  I didn't invent 'Write Off' for 4th grade, I think the retiring teacher did.  I had to do a lot of teaching at home that year, including reading.

The first year teacher has to spend most of her waking hours building a curriculum.  If you've ever seen a curriculum for a 20 year veteran, first year teachers face a nightmare.   The first year teacher is going to be faced with dropping test scores, usually around 10 or 15 points, and parents demanding her ouster (at least for the high strung parents in my older son's classroom).

This teacher is going to pick a few kids for strong recommendations, and a few kids for 'maybe, let's wait and see' recommendations.   These kids will be totally into their academic work, and most likely have parents who are supportive of the teacher.  

We've been in this spot 6 times.  Two of these times were just difficult situations, 2 times with experienced teachers who were new to the program, once with a retiring teacher (worst year ever), and once with a teacher who left after one month and was replaced by a substitute for the entire year.  

So here's our scenario.  My 2nd grade child lost his teacher at the end of September.  The GAT program started in 1st grade, and we didn't know that the rest of the class could already read at the 3rd grade level going into the program. Oops!  Sometimes cheating your way into a GAT program can backfire.  I invented Pre-K Phonics so the next child would sit in class wondering why everyone else is so far behind.

So I laid it on the line.  'Look dude, this teacher has a ton of problems.  She needs help. You're going to help.  You're going to walk in their every day and say high and be cheery and polite, and if other kids step out of line, you wack them down like you're the Mafia's 8 year old hit man in training.'

That didn't work, so I let the kid know how much I looked up to and respected this teacher. She was my hero.  I still feel this way.  She's the best thing that ever happened to 2nd grade.  She was like Admiral Halsey walking into the Guadalcanal situation.  Only he had it easy compared to her challenge.  Next time we fight a war, I'm going to put together a special unit of GAT parents to consult the enemy on what a bad job they are doing until the enemy just quits out of demoralization.  (I plagiarized this from one of Dave Barry's books. Thanks Dave.)

I went in to parent teacher conferences with this attitude.  I thought about handing the teacher a bouquet of roses and singing how great she was, but instead I just kept my mouth shut and did whatever she recommended.

I kept this up during the legendarily difficult 3rd grade teacher who turned out to be my absolute favorite, and for 2 years, I didn't have to worry about a B, lack of preferential treatment, student council or anything else because my kid, who adopted a positive attitude toward the teacher, was the go-to guy in class because he actually got stuff done and was super helpful.  This of course created the perfect storm for 4th grade, but we fixed that the next year.  (Dude, I think it's time you have to start doing work.  This teacher actually grades homework and you haven't finished more than 20% of any assignment ever.)

I work with kids of all shapes and sizes (cognitively speaking) and it's exhausting for an hour with one kid.  I can't imagine what 30 kids every day would be like.  I think it would kill me by noon on the first day.  So, in the end, I was right all along.  Even the 4th grade teacher was enormously talented and wise, maybe the most talented and wise of the bunch.

Now that I lost the other 90 readers, you 10 listen closely.  Your job as a parent is that your are 100% in charge of the child's education.  Don't try to pass the buck.  The years when you have a really great teacher, you might be able to outsource 80 or 90% of your child's education to the school, maybe more.  In the mean time, you've got to assess your goals (99% across the board for life) with the teacher's goals (get 30 kids up to maybe 75% or more and keep them there) and fill in the gaps.

Turn the tables on your melt down kid.  In my case, I had to yank my kid out of a wonderful small neighborhood school at age 6, where we knew all of the parents and teachers and I taught many of his peers in my house and send him 4 miles away.  2 weeks after school started.  With no warning.  Here's me on Friday "I know you love your school, as do I, but I just got this test score so I'm sending you to a school 4 miles away on a bus that you'll have to get up at 6:00 am to catch and you're going to be shunned by your friends and never get invited to a birthday party again.  Starting Monday."   Which is exactly what happened.  So a week later, after laying awake all night feeling like the worst parent in the world, I said, 'I see that there are a bunch of kids in your same boat, and they are all feeling bad about this (was this true?) so you need to march in there every day and say 'Hi' to every single one of them so that no matter how bad things are, at least there's a friendly face acknowledging them. '  It took some daily nagging for a few months, worked really well.  No matter what your goal, it takes 6 weeks for a little kid to get with the program.

I've never actually approached a teacher to discuss the situation with my child until very recently, conspiring with the Physics teacher for lower initial grades because they were so motivating, and sending the math teacher a 4 page email detailing our progress on high school math through calculus and asking him to raise the bar on geometry because this is our weakest area.  I haven't gotten a response yet from the math teacher.  I think he's waiting for my application to the Insane Parent's Hall of Fame before responding.  But before 4th grade, I asked teacher's how it's going with their situation and offered to help in any way I could.  You could set up a casual meeting on this topic.  Even if the teacher totally sees through your strategy she'll appreciate it.

Next, you're going to prepare for the COGAT, which I'm assuming you're ready for because you are here on my blog.

Finally, you're going to start working on a child who is way ahead by 3rd grade.  That way if you're child is not totally prepared for the test or for 2nd grade (some of the brightest kids I know take a frustratingly long time to get to there), then you're crushing it by 3rd grade and your school is going to have to make some accommodations.  This is exactly why I created Test Prep Math.  You need to devise a read to /reading program and make this the most important 30 minutes of the evening, but there's so much great literature for 1st and 2nd grade (the 1st grade books you google are some of the best read to for older kids).  Test Prep Math is all core skills.  After 5th grade, you can't get to 99% without actually dealing with academic material, but before then, it works magic.  Also, the non-verbal section added to the 3rd Edition is better than the rest of the test prep material by a factor of 5, but make sure you have a practice test to bring the child back to something easier.

Situations like this are a great opportunity for a parent who's on the ball.  It's a competitive advantage for one year.   All the other parents are sitting around complaining, and you are going to quietly raise academic performance and test scores.  Time to shine and stand out.


  1. Awesome. Thank you. This is so encouraging!

  2. Do you have any recommendation for analogy workbooks? My child is particularly struggling with number analogies and figure matrices, getting half of the questions wrong.

    1. I'm going to create a video on Saturday demonstrating how to do these. Half wrong is normal and a good pace for practice. It means growth and learning is taking place.

    2. Thank you. That will be very helpful. If you have any workbook recommendation, please suggest as well.

    3. This was exactly my experience at first. I don't like any of the analogy or figure matrix material. I think the best it's good for is 75 to 85%. That means it's effectiveness depends on what else the child is doing outside test prep. None of it is designed to actually teach the skills. So I created my own. If you take BTS, put it in a test like format, make it 5 times as hard, that's what I used.

  3. I almost need to homeschool my child because he is not learning anything in school (can't go into all the details). But if I want to work with him on science and social studies...etc other than math and reading which we're already doing, what would be out focus? Any workbook recommendations? Or should we try to pick a topic weekly and read books? What would you do in my shoes?

    1. Great question. I faced a slightly different problem in science when a) my 1st grader was facing 3rd grade science and I was desperate and b) we are facing 9th grade science next year and this is the big testing + grades year (7th). For science at young ages, and I'm assuming this is what we're talking about, I use foss which is fully available on the internet and then lots of internet research for each section. Did you know the earth's core is exposed in Canada? Apparently the books don't either, but wiki.com does. For an entire year, we filled our kitchen with rocks and experiments and I am convinced nuts from Russia doing wacky experiments on youtube are way better than a real teacher. Also, our Word Board filled with every word we could find on topic and I think I learned more about science working with 6-8 year old curriculum than I ever did in high school. It was amazing. 7th grade is a little different.

      For social studies, I was totally awed by a teacher that didn't seem to do anything. I'm sure the kids learned, but I couldn't actually find evidence of any reading or lectures. All they did was read novels and do projects like little hand puppet stages and posters and created videos of lego or doll plays. If everyone had a teacher like that, Stanford would get 1.2 million competitive applications each year. I'm willing to bet if you get a list of social studies topic for your target age range, you'll find books and activities and field trips from home schooling websites. You should read the Well Trained Mind by Wise Brown for inspiration.

      The great thing about homeschooling is that you can cover 4 hours in about 20 minutes because you have 1 student. The internet revolution is underestimated for education.

      Hope this helps.