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    Parents, teachers must forget politics, embrace partnership for good of students

    Advice, resources, and reflections on back-to-school season for Chicago’s students, families, and educators.

    Getting back to school affects parents, students — and teachers. To understand what that means and to get some advice, the Sun-Times talked to Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association. The statewide teachers union represents 135,000 education employees outside of Chicago. IEA’s leadership rotates, and Griffin, an elementary school teacher for 30 years, is the current president.

    Q: First, the basics. What is the IEA?
    A: We are the largest labor union in Illinois. We represent all educators, from birth to college, aspiring educators and retirees. And one of our large categories is classified personnel: the people that work in schools, like the janitors, the secretaries and the people who serve you lunch.

    Q: What drew you to union work? 
    A: I was raised in a union family, and when I was little, I thought everyone was in a union. I was also taught that if you have a concern and see something wrong, get involved and do something about it. When you are in education and in a union, your work is to advocate for good things for kids, and I’ve always done that. 

    Q: Where did you teach? 
    A: I taught in elementary school in Schaumburg, preschool through sixth grade. I was also lucky enough to do a multiage program for the library media center. I planned an hour weekly for each teacher and designed lessons for every classroom. So I experienced all curriculum levels in elementary school, which was exciting. 

    Q: How strained are the relationships between parents and teachers?
    A: We have done a state of education bipartisan survey for the last five years. And every year, parents say my local school is wonderful, but every one of the other schools is not. This tells us that people value our local schools. We are partners with our parents. This is the only way we can enhance the success of kids if we work together. 

    Q: Education in America is very political. Is there any way to avoid that? 
    A: I started teaching in 1981, and my entire career has been battling with people who are against public education. It will always be that way because the government funds schooling. But I tell people to remember it’s all about relationships, not rumors. Just keep in touch with your child’s teacher, and if you hear about a problem, go to them and ask. Say: I heard this. Is it true? We all need to work on communicating to help eliminate politicizing our children’s education. 

    Q: What does this time of year — back to school — mean to you? 
    A: Well, my job at IEA is year-round. But if I go back to my days in a classroom, returning to school was so exciting. I looked forward to it. It was a new year, a new time and a reset for everything. You have a new group of students to have a relationship with and new parents, as well. It is so important for teachers and parents to have a partnership. It is vital to be able to bring success to that child. 

    Q: What is your advice for families on preparing for the first day of school? 
    A: From a teacher’s lens, it is so important that kids have a routine started before school starts. Try to start that routine the week before the beginning of school. Don’t forget to incorporate talking with your child about their day. That routine of interaction is so important for parents because it bridges the relationship between school and home. It needs to become a habit.

    Q: Are there any other bridges parents can build? 
    A: I’m also a mother, and my daughter is now a second-grade teacher, but when she was young, I used to make checklists with her: What do you have to do this week? This was to help her prepare for the week and check in on how things were going. In elementary school, children have to start learning about responsibilities, so you are repeatedly reminding them on the checklist what they need to do each day. Did you bring your reading folder back on Tuesday as you’re supposed to do every Tuesday? For high schoolers, make sure you help them get their calendars set so they know when things are due. Teach them to backward plan to have a systemic way to help them get things done. Planning and being prepared are not always taught in school, but it allows our children to be successful. 

    Q: Is there anything else to help our children? 
    A: The amount of time kids spend on devices is too much. Teach them not to be on their phone. At dinnertime, put a basket in the living room and on your way to the table, have everyone drop the phone in the basket. Make sure there is a specific place to charge their devices, not in their bedroom. The routine should be they plug their phone into that place before they go to bed, and then in the morning, they get their phone back. Otherwise, they will be on social media in the bedroom. Also, I would never have a computer in a child’s room. I would always have them working on a computer where adults are. There are just too many online predators. 

    Q: Anything else you would like to say?
    A: I want people to celebrate the first day of school — even for high school kids. It might be making their favorite dinner or having them help make their favorite dinner. Or having ice cream or a picnic in the backyard. Celebrating so they know you are invested in their education is so important. I also want parents to know that mistakes are OK. And when I was in the classroom, we would stop and celebrate mistakes because we knew mistakes meant we were all learning. 

    Susy Schultz is an editor and reporter. 

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