With Life-Changing Teacher and Administrator, Jenn VanHekken
I had the honor of working with Jenn years ago. I knew then that Jenn was someone from whom I would learn. She has natural gifts in teaching, in nurturing the hearts of students, and in leading her peers. It is with great joy that I have the opportunity to dig into some of the nitty gritty questions of middle and high School with Jenn; someone who is a pro in this area. Jenn is currently the Director of Academics in the Western Michigan Christian School system. Instead of me rambling on, let's ask Jenn to give us a little insight into what she does.
Jenn, tell us a little bit about your role in academics:
I spent the first 8 years of my career as a middle school and high school English teacher, and I have taught everything from 6th grade Language Arts to 12th grade Advanced Placement Literature. As a District-level administrator, my goal is to continuously stay close to the students, parents, and community in order to build relationships that inform academic policy and not the other way around. I still spend 1 hour a day as a classroom teacher, because when I started in education I knew that I wanted to impact the lives of students - and being in administration doesn’t change that, but I know that if I want to impact student lives, I need to know who they are, where they struggle and where they succeed. So while I am an administrator by title, I will always be an educator first.
Awesome, Jenn...we are excited to learn from you. Here we go:
How can parents and students best acclimate to the newness of middle and high school?
Starting at a new middle school or high school can be as difficult for parents as it is for students. A new school comes with new routines, new grading systems, new classmates, and even a new lunch menu. My best advice is to stay in touch! Make time for back-to-school night, introduce yourself to your child’s teachers, offer to volunteer, get on the email list, go to parent meetings - do what you need to do to be in the know. There are two main difficulties with this. The first is that by nature, we are busy people. It’s very difficult to make time for back-to-school night or the PTA kick-off, but can I challenge you to make time for these types of events that will help you acclimate to a new environment? The more that you understand the culture and climate of the school, the easier it will be to address an issue when one comes up, or feel like you understand what is happening when your child is invited to their first football after-party. The second problem with this is finding the balance between being an involved parent and being a helicopter parent. My challenge for parents in this is to find ways to get involved with the school without using it as a way to spy on your child and their teachers. To date, I’ve not met a teacher who does not have their student’s best interest at heart. Trust them to take care of your child when you are not around, but be enough in the know to understand how to navigate the challenges that might come up.
What are your favorite tips on staying organized?
Middle schoolers and organization just do not go well together. Most of the time 12 and 13 year olds have so much going on in their heads and their bodies that remembering to turn in a paper to their 3rd hour teacher falls to the bottom of their list. On top of that, every student has a different organizational style; talk to your student to find the best way to help them with this. Do they prefer an accordion folder where they can store all of their handouts in one place? Do they appreciate a flowery day planner where they can write down their homework in pink gel pen? Are they tech-minded and prefer to use Google Calendar to keep them organized? There are many great options for students, help them find one that they feel comfortable with. Also, help them get started with the process - remind them to use their folders or their day planner, and be patient with them as they try to remember which class they have on which day and where they might have left their gym clothes.
How can families balance homework, extracurricular activities and family life?
Balancing family, sports, extra-curricular activities and homework can be one of the most difficult parts of middle school and high school - as the parent of a 17 and a 13 year old, I can attest to this on a personal level. I don’t always do it well, but here are a few suggestions for finding balance within your child’s busy schedule.
Do your work together. When I have work that has to be taken home, I often sit in my daughter’s room with her and do it while she’s working on her homework. It gives us a little time just to be together, and sometimes we even take breaks to watch silly YouTube videos together.
Save one night a week as family night. We have a Sunday evening rule. No one is allowed to make plans with friends, work outside of the home, or leave the house on Sunday nights. It’s the one evening that we sit around the dinner table and all eat together. We try to throw in a board game or movie if the homework load is low, but sometimes it’s just dinner and knowing that we are all in the same place at the same time that brings a little moment of peace.
Finally, and this one is controversial, but sometimes you have to say no to the activities that your child wants to be involved in. In this culture of do everything and be everything, we want to allow our children to be overly involved, but instead, make a priority list and find a way to limit your child’s involvement to those things that are the most important to him/her.
How can parents help coach their kids through senioritis?
Senioritis is alive and well in the hallways of our schools. After 11.5 years of traditional education, students begin to go stir crazy, and begin slacking their work ethic, decreasing the rigor of their class schedules, and even skipping class. Unfortunately, the only cure for Senioritis is graduation, however, take the time to help your child finish strong. Check with your child’s school to determine their final-semester requirements for seniors. Some schools will exempt their seniors from final exams if they have zero absences or tardies. Other schools offer an early-release date for seniors if they meet a specific grade point average. Check in with your student’s school and then remind your senior about these options. Also, for those students who are college-bound, remind them that an acceptance letter from college is conditional, and that full enrollment doesn’t actually happen until the school receives and approves a final graduation transcript (if you need more information about this, contact your school Guidance Counselor or College Admission Officer).
What tips do you have on prepping for college?
As a junior, your child probably has a college-plan. They most likely have it narrowed down to a few college choices and are looking at a few majors. As a senior, they will most likely chuck all those plans out the window and fall apart. Sometime between being ready for college and actually making an initial housing deposit, your student is likely to come to the realization that they are being asked to choose a course of study and location of study that may affect their entire life; on top of that, they will be asked to take multiple entrance exams, examine their GPA, meet with admissions officers, memorize their social security number, and find a job/grant/loan to help them pay for up to $50,000 a year. Your calm and steady child, may all of a sudden have multiple breakdowns, begin staying home when they once went out all the time, or begin going out when they always stayed home. More than anything, they will need a steady presence reminding them that it will be okay. That steady presence will be you. In the midst of all of this, here are a few ways to help them through the process.
Have them take multiple college-entrance exams. The ACT is more prevalent in the Midwest and Central states, and the SAT dominates the U.S. Coastlines, but encourage your child to take both. The ACT is geared toward concrete thinkers, while the SAT is geared toward more critical-thinkers and writers. Encourage your student to take each one in order to see if there is one or the other in which they feel more confident and/or score better. This can help with college entrance and with scholarship opportunities for your student.
Make a budget. Sit down and talk with your student about the amount of money that they have available to them for their college studies. Look at college costs together (every college website has a breakdown of their costs) and discuss how much you can offer, how much they might be able to get in grants and scholarships, and how much they will be responsible for. While this can seem daunting and uncomfortable, students are able to make wiser decisions when they have all of the information available to them.
Explore. Go visit college campuses, sit in on a class, eat in the dining hall, stay overnight. Your child will be spending the next 4 years in one place, and you want it to feel like home. Even if your child is set on one specific school, encourage them to visit others as well - this will hopefully solidify in their minds where they want to go, and, it will add to their t-shirt collection and yours!
Allow your child to make their own decision. This is a biggie, and it’s a tough one. As parents, our one desire is to keep our students safe and help them through the battles of life. Allowing them to fail is not on any parent’s bucket list, so when they make decisions that are different from what we would’ve made, it is often all we can do not to tie them up and throw them in their bedroom until they change their mind. BUT, and this is a big BUT, this is a really important time for your child to grow in their independence and decision-making skills. Give wisdom, give guidance, visit different schools with them, dream with them, and give them a dose of reality, but then, let them go. Sometimes they will choose your dream school, sometimes they will choose a school across the country, and sometimes they will choose a trade school that maybe wasn’t part of the original plan. But in the end, what is most important is remembering that they are your child, and that when they come home on Christmas break, or come home for dinner after a long day of Community College, they will still need love, support, and food. And after all of the forms are filled out, paperwork signed, bills paid, and tests taken, sometimes, just having a parent available to support them in their endeavors, is all that your child really wants.
Are there any resources you would recommend?
The best resource I can suggest to parents is their school Guidance Counselor. Guidance Counselors know the various guidelines for your state, for you high school, and for different colleges. They can really help navigate all of the twists and turns that middle school and high school can bring.
If there was one big takeaway for our readers, what would it be?
Release your child to their experience. Allow them to struggle; allow them to try new things. Recognize that your child will not have the same gifts and talents as the classmate next to them, and they may not have the same gifts and talents as you do. Be realistic about your expectations for them and celebrate the unique way that they were created - even if their journey looks different from the one you were anticipating.