I spent nearly five years at a nonprofit focused on getting students in and through college. Many of the students we got were not on track to graduate high school when we got them, yet we did a great job of getting students caught up and on the right track. I spent much of my time working closely with counselors, parents, and principals to make that happen.

What we wanted to accomplish was passing on a skill set to parents so they could continue the work without us or with their other children that were not in our program. Many of the children I’ve worked with over the years have been like me, meaning they’re parents weren’t college graduates. Advocating for your student can be tough when you have your insecurities regarding education. It can be especially tough when you have a valid level of distrust in any education system based on the education or lack thereof a parent may have experienced. I found that it was also difficult for parents with degrees to sometimes navigate education on behalf of their children. So here are some questions we used to ask to get what we needed for our students.

Keep in mind this article is a general set of questions that work regardless of the age and grade. It is also for any governance model of school, meaning it works across traditional public schools, charters schools, and private schools. This article doesn’t ignore that education systems need to improve. I just personally believe parents should have a full toolkit. Add this to it.

What’s my child’s reading level? This is a critical question because many parents think that school grades correspond with reading levels. They oftentimes do not. Personally, I go a bit harder on reading because so many of our kids can’t read. Many are multiple years behind reading level yet are getting As and Bs in the subject. So asking the question is important. Apply this question to math as well. Know your child’s status, go beyond the letter grade.

Can we set up a regular time to check-in? This question does something special to everyone involved. For the parent, it empowers you and sets implicit deadlines around student performance. For the teacher, it signifies to them they have an active partner in working with your child. For the child, he or she may act a bit differently when knowing your pops will be having a conversation with Ms. Johnson on Friday. I would suggest pushing to meet with counselors/principals as well at about a 1:3 ratio (i.e. if you meet with a teacher monthly, try to meet with the principal quarterly). If the teacher refuses to meet with you, then I’d strongly suggest a conversation with the principal asap.

What do you see in my child? First off, your kid is a human deserving of love and respect. How can someone truly love and respect my child if you know nothing about my baby? How can someone truly serve my child from a place of love if he or she doesn’t see his or her potential? This question opens up a conversation about your child’s humanity. It ensures we start from a place of picturing the best for our children that are often seen as much older and dangerous in the eyes of the world — boys AND our girls.

What’s the goal for this month (or section, quarter, market period, etc.)? This question was critical when I was advocating for students on behalf of their parents. One, for many teachers I teamed up with, they were juiced that someone saw and respected the complexity of their work enough to attempt to speak the language. Two, it allowed them to expound on the hopes and goals they have for their students. What it does for you as a parent is allow you to internalize the goals and discuss them at home.

What is your discipline policy? The numbers are clear that Black boys and girls get suspended at crazy rates. It’s! Crazy! Son! However, broaching the conversation early and often is important so kids acting like kids doesn’t become a liability to your child due to unintentional racism and sends your baby down a tough road that many of our babies don’t recover from. So listen to the policy. Ask questions about the policy. Make yourself available to the teacher and ask the teacher to be available to you because here’s the deal, sometimes, teachers are quick on the draw as they are trying to hold a space not just for your child but for every child in the class. Sometimes your child gets targeted unfairly for a variety of reasons. Sometimes your child may just be off the hook in the moment. All of these things may be true, I don’t know and am not claiming to know. However, what I do know is that when a parent and a teacher are working as a team, things can be mitigated much better. There are conversations about what is happening and why.

When there is a relationship, you’re shooting the teacher a text when your son had a rough weekend for reason X. When there is a relationship, the teacher is letting you know when your child has been acting out of character. It’s a way to create harmony when things are rocky and for most people, there will be rocky times.

When I was working with my students, I got a host of text messages and emails from teachers and parents about these things, and we were able to work with them at a level 2 rather than a level 10. Relationships matter.

Again, this article is pretty general to reach a large audience. This isn’t a political piece. What I’m not here for is to discuss charter vs. traditional public. I’m not here to discuss testing. I’m here as an advocate that rolled up those sleeves and helped teachers, kids, and their families get the education and support they needed.

If you need more specific help, comment and I can write a set of suggestions that are more targeted depending on the situation. I’m here to see Black Excellence. Whatever that takes. Feel free to ask more questions [email protected] or tweet me @ccoleiii.

This was originally published in the blog One Oakland United.


Dr. Charles Cole, III​ is an educator focused on the advancement of youth of color, but more specifically Black males. This passion comes from his experiences growing up without proper support, including being homeless and attending more than ten elementary schools across the country while his parents battled addiction and incarceration. Throughout that experience, no adult, no group, no organization ever asked him how he was achieving success nor how he was surviving. Schools were not a place where students in similar predicaments were learning. This experience helped lead to the publication of his first book, ​Beyond Grit and Resilience. As founder of ​Energy Convertors​, Charles comes from the community and has shared many of the students’ experiences. Previously Charles served as a social worker, a Director for Teach for America, the Vice Chair of the California Young Democrats, Black Caucus and at a director’s level with various youth-focused nonprofits. n addition to founding Energy Convertors, Charles is a national speaker and a writer, and he can be found in Oakland and around the country working with youth on how to equip themselves appropriately to lay the groundwork for a bright future. Charles is currently a board member of ​UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital​, and co-host of the ​8 Black Hands Podcast. Charles’ life goal is to better the communities he grew up in, which include Chicago, Paducah, KY, and Oakland.    


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