If You’re Going to Ask Kids to Advocate for Themselves, Teach Them to Do It Right!


So I have recently transitioned back into teaching middle school from high school. Not just any high school, but a night high school. I miss it because the kids there stole my heart, but the hours, and my soon-to-be-middle-school-aged daughter led up to the decision.

Culture shock, to be certain, but the most difficult adjustment was being addressed the way these middle schoolers have addressed me via email. As I say in my seminars, “Little screens make for big nerve”; it’s always easy to be brave behind a tiny screen. But each time I read a snotty-toned “You made a mistake and I’d appreciate it if you changed my grade” (Yes, this happened more than once and the semester isn’t over.), I was taken aback. Who, exactly, did they think they were addressing? I’m not their friend, not their parent, and certainly NOT some subservient being. It occurred to me that, in the name of “advocating for yourself”, these kids were never taught how to do so properly.

Fortunately, I have a few tips.

Let’s start with cutting down on the paragraph-long, rambling  explanation. That only leads to digging up every perceived slight. A simple, “May I come in and talk to you about my grade?” is more than sufficient.When it is convenient for the teacher, of course. (I can’t tell you how often a student will enter my room and stand there, waiting for me to stop class to deal with their problem immediately. Ironically, this happens very close to the end of the grading period. Every. Time.)

Advocating for one’s self does not include making accusations, nor does it include demands. A teacher -even in the age of the popular sport of teacher-bashing- still holds a place of authority, and addressing them with just a hint of reverence will get a student a lot farther than proclaiming that the teacher must drop everything and take care of this problem NOW. Remember that old adage, “You catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar”? It still holds true. If you’re a quantum physics type, the energy you put out is exactly what you’re going to get back.

The second point would be to spellcheck. Please. Especially when addressing a proud Grammar Policewoman like myself. It is very difficult to even WANT to help a student who is not practicing a grammar rule we discussed that very day in class.

Third, and finally, continue to use correct formatting when writing to a teacher. Yes, yes, email has become quite casual, usually dropping the initial formalities after the first note, but when a teacher’s weekly assignments include proper friendly letter format, at least demonstrate that some of that sunk in and don’t drop the salutations until Spring.

To be perfectly frank, I NEVER had this problem with my night high school kids. As rough as some of them were, they knew the teachers were there for them, modeling what depending on your own self looked like. They took these life-lessons to heart, and they were the most grateful students I have ever had. I see some glimmers of this in these middle grades, so I assure you not all hope is lost.

Communication is key, but written communication is the sticking point as people rarely do it well anymore. Avoid a future social faux pas between your child and their teacher, and teach them early on how to appropriately address an adult in their lives. Teach your children well. Isn’t that a song?