After a move to a new community—or a different school in the same community—the first focus is on getting your child settled in school. Soon enough, however, you’ll look up and wonder exactly where you fit in at school. It can be unsettling when all the other parents seem like old pals. Teachers, too, can inadvertently cause you to feel like you’re the one back in grade school where you’re the newbie. Maybe you’re not even sure just how involved you want or have time to be. But there are ways to deal with mommy cliques, win over intimidating teachers, and generally ease your own school jitters.
Odd One Out
It’s a good feeling to watch your child skip onto the playground and quickly become engaged in a game with newfound friends. Now if you could only accomplish a similar feat yourself! But one glance over at a tightly knit group of parents chatting away and making plans can cause its own unique brand of parental anxiety. How will you ever break in?
Jodi R.R. Smith, a mom and owner of Mannersmith, a Boston-area etiquette consulting firm, recommends trying several different approaches. “Start with the most casual,” she says. Immediately after drop-off, she says, “Turn to another mother (if you have a younger child, look for a mother who also has a younger child in tow or perhaps a baby), and say ‘Oh look, everybody’s being good right now—want to grab a quick coffee?’ So, just spur of the moment, on the fly, easy-breezy. And if she says no, it’s no big deal.”
But what if that sort of pickup line doesn’t work or just isn’t your style? “Then what you want to do is look for ways to interact with people so that they can get to know you and want to hang out with you,” Smith says. Volunteering at school is a good start, although Smith doesn’t advise signing up in as big a role as room parent, at least initially. While it’s a worthwhile pursuit, you’ll fare much better in the friend-making department by serving on a committee or just showing up at PTO meetings. “[Start with] anything where you can start going to meetings and seeing people over and over again,” she recommends. “Lots of times people have to see your face a number of times in different settings before they start to feel more comfortable with you.”
An Apple for the Teacher
During the first encounter with your child’s new teacher, you’ll probably experience conflicting thoughts. You want to make a good impression, but at the same time you might feel a little intimidated. It doesn’t help that you’re often made to sit at a little desk in a pint-size chair! “Realize that he or she is a person just like you are,” says Cathy Chomistek, a longtime 2nd grade teacher at Daffron Elementary in Plano, Texas. Conversely, she adds, “Since you are your child’s first educator and know your child better than anybody else, a teacher might just be feeling a little intimidated by you!”
Chomistek advises parents to be confident and to share things with the teacher that will make her job easier. Is your child allergic to anything? Is there something he does particularly well? Anything he’s struggling with? This type of information is very helpful. Above all, Chomistek recommends that parents be open-minded. For instance, it doesn’t matter if your child didn’t get in the same class as his best friend. “Give the teacher an opportunity to show you how wonderful he or she is. Sometimes parents get a mindset where they want a certain teacher and if they don’t get that teacher, sometimes their disappointment shows through.”
“But if you come in open-minded,” she continues, “and realize your child will make friends with whoever is in that classroom, it will give the child an opportunity to grow and to meet other children.”
In a society where respect for teaching professionals doesn’t necessarily abound, etiquette expert Smith urges parents to hold their child’s teacher in high regard. “The teacher is your ally in raising your child,” she says. “You don’t always have to agree with him or her. You may not agree with his or her assessment of your child or your child’s learning abilities, but you need to listen to [the teacher], really listen, and respond appropriately.”
Set Involvement at Your Comfort Level
Time passes and you get to thinking that maybe you can relax. Your child is settled in his new class, the teacher is great, you’ve even managed to arrange a few playdates and become friendly with a couple of other parents. Still, a nagging worry remains —“Am I doing enough to help out at school?”
“It’s important not to overschedule yourself, particularly if you’re a working [outside the home] mom and/or are raising another child or two,” says Michele Borba, Ed. D., author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. “Don’t feel pressured into taking on more than you can handle. It’s essential to leave some time for yourself and for your family.”
If guilt continues to weigh you down, consider what teacher Chomistek has to say on the matter: “Honestly, just about every teacher I work with at school is a working mom herself or a dad. We’re not in our own children’s classrooms helping out so we understand if you can’t be either. There are always opportunities to help out in some other way.”
In other words, head up a committee if you’re able, but don’t feel bad if all you can do is contribute an extra box of tissue or some old margarine tubs for sorting. To offer more targeted help, consult the teacher’s class supply wish list at TeacherLists.com, or ask the teacher what she specifically could use help with. Chomistek is fond of sending home math manipulative cubes, which parents can help assemble as sets. “They can do it with their child while watching TV,” she says. “It’s a fun activity for everybody, and it saves me hours of having to put together stacks of 10.” Ask your child’s teacher if she has similar repetitive tasks that you could complete at home.
Finding your rightful place at a new school will happen, just not overnight. Until then, a smile here, an overture of friendship there, a healthy dose of respect for your child’s teacher, and an extended hand and offer to pitch in will all help you find your place at school—new mom (or dad) or not.