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rockfingersErin (13) came home from school a few weeks ago and sat in front of me with evident drama.

“Guess what.”

“Norway fell into the sea. You can burp the alphabet. Am I close?”

“Dad, stop.” She leaned forward. “We started evolution in science today.”

A tickle of dread went down my spine. I’m a busy boy. No jonesing for another fracas.

“And?”

“And it’s awesome. He’s teaching all about it, just like you would. He explained what theory really means, and said that the evidence is incredibly strong for evolution, and when kids started saying, ‘But the Bible says blah blah blah,’ he just put his hand up and said, ‘You can talk about that with your minister. In this class we are learning about science, about what we know.”

I have never, ever seen her so jazzed about a class experience. She knows what a crapshoot it is, knows that she has less than a 50-50 chance of learning about evolution in any depth in the classroom. She lucked out.

So what’s a parent to do? Most, including me, will do a nice cartoon wipe of the brow and go back to the next thing on the plate. That’s a major mistake. It’s also simply wrong.

We’re happy to fire off a blistering corrective to the Mr. Taylors and Ms. Warners, the educators who fall down on the job and take our kids with them. But we’ve got to get just as good and consistent at complimenting the good as we are at complaining about the bad.

It’s not just a question of good manners. If we really care about quality in the classroom, it’s a practical imperative.

Imagine you’re a biology teacher. The evolution unit is approaching, again, and you know for certain you will get a half dozen scolding emails from angry parents the moment the word crosses your lips. Again. If you’ve never received a note of thanks for tackling the topic honestly, it’s easy to feel isolated and beleaguered. Who could blame you for gradually de-emphasizing the topic until it disappears completely? Even a teacher with the best of intentions can be worn to a nub from years of self-righteous tirades.

And those of us who sit silently, never lifting a finger to reinforce good teaching when we see it, deserve what we get.

I finally woke up to this about two years ago and started making a point of shooting off a message of thanks to teachers who rocked my kids’ worlds. This is especially important for middle and high school teachers, who are much less likely to hear any positive feedback through parent conferences and the other frequent contacts elementary teachers get.

When Erin was working her way through a much better-than-average comparative religion unit in social studies, I dashed off a note of appreciation to the teacher, who nearly passed out from the shock. When Connor told me his high school science teacher spent some time explaining what “theory” means in science, I shot him some kudos. And when Erin came home with this story of courage and integrity, I sent a message expressing my deep and detailed appreciation…and cc’ed the principal.

The teacher replied, telling me how gratifying it was to hear the support. “It’s a passion of mine,” he said. Even passion can be pummeled out of someone. But now, the next time he approaches that unit, he’ll hear not only angry shouts ringing in his ears, but a little bit of encouragement from someone who took the time to make it known.

I’m better at this than I once was, but I’m still about three times as likely to pipe up when I’m pissed as when I’m impressed. Gotta work on that. How about you? Anybody you need to thank RIGHT NOW?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.