Build trusting relationships: Even when some challenges or circumstances create uncertainty, working together provides a support system to weather challenging moments. A sense of belonging is vital so our brains can focus on learning rather than on protecting ourselves from threats. This sense of safety requires mutual trust between children and parents, as well as with adults at school. Children need to be surrounded by adults they trust and who trust each other.
School is not easy these days. Many students have been out of school for a long time because of the pandemic, and the continued disruptions and anxieties are still breaking the flow of normal learning. What can parents do to help their children thrive and excel in school, particularly during these challenging and anxiety-provoking times?
To address this, we started a new series called “5 Things Parents Can Do to Help Their Children Thrive and Excel in School.” In this interview series, we are talking to teachers, principals, education experts and successful parents to learn from their insights and experience.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure to interview Jenni Torres.
Jenni Torres is senior vice president of curriculum and instruction at Waterford.org. During more than 15 years in the classroom, Jenni was selected by the U.S. State Department as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher for Uruguay and was awarded Teacher of the Year honors at the school, county and district levels. Jenni earned her master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently earning her doctorate at American University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share with us a bit about your backstory?
Growing up, I was surrounded by educators. My parents met at their first teaching job, and they both dedicated their lives to education. As a college student, I was adamant that the only thing I knew for sure was that I would never be a teacher. And, as we know, one should never say never. After earning my bachelor’s in international business, I decided to dedicate my life to something more altruistic. I was accepted to Harvard’s graduate program, and from then on I have been working to share my passion for language, Spanish, learning about the world and teamwork. As a military spouse, I followed my husband to 10 different duty stations and taught in many schools with different types of programs. In 2012, I began working with Waterford.org as a consultant in Puerto Rico. I was immediately hooked on early childhood education and the power of technology to support early literacy and learning. I saw the power of highly effective English language literacy instruction for Spanish-speaking 4- and 5-year-old children. Since then, I have been a passionate advocate for improving early childhood literacy instruction and additive bilingualism.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I consistently recognized the power of relationships and respect when working with children of all ages. As a teacher in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, I learned that humanity must come before instruction. In fact, if we focused first on building robust and mutual trust with the students and parents we served, then teaching was more fun and effective. After the hurricane, when we returned to school, it was essential to provide space and time for students to unpack the previous months of uncertainty. Learning to build connections with students and between students was necessary for our healing and the community’s ability to find resiliency together. I believe that, in life, we all experience what I now call “Katrina moments.” Sometimes they are shared in community with others, and sometimes they are not. We must find ways to build trauma-informed practices into how we interact with others, especially in schools.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many great ones! I often gravitate to Helen Keller’s quote, “A well-educated mind will always have more questions than answers.” Sometimes in life, it can feel like we are supposed to know all the answers. Humility comes through recognizing just how little we each really do know. My dad used to say, “All important decisions are made on the basis of too little information.” The older I get, the more I think about this statement and recognize its truth. As a military family, moving forced us to see the world differently and taught me that being curious is a gift. I sign my emails “Always Learning” to remind myself, and hopefully others, that mistakes are necessary for moving forward. I need that daily push to remind myself to be open to accepting the lessons I learn through mistakes. I think that children need to hear this more, and adults need more space to be wrong. If we build a school or team culture focused on learning rather than performing together, I think we will find more fulfillment and success.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Thank you. Love, humility and organization have been instrumental in my leadership. Being a classroom teacher was the best practice field for learning to lead. Love was necessary because leaders need a genuine interest in the people that they have an opportunity to lead. If we love others, we will respect them and treat them with kindness. Each year, in my middle school classrooms, there would be a moment about six weeks into the school year where a student would be entirely disrespectful (speaking out, yelling, talking over me), and I would simply ask them, “Have I ever disrespected you?” This question would immediately quiet the class. I would watch as they all thought through our interactions. I took that moment to explain that even teachers are humans and that we all want to be respected and treated with love. This was always a pivotal moment in building trust in our classroom.
We must find ways to learn together and be willing to hear honest feedback, which requires humility. There are a lot of moments when I have been wrong. I like change and thrive on moving quickly, but I had to accept that those characteristics were not creating a favorable work environment for my team. It was tough to hear, but it has given me a new lens through which to question the ways I share information. Leaders must open doors for the team to recognize that no one knows everything. The power of the group is in their willingness to learn.
My last gift is organization and planning, and I try to use those skills to guide our team. Organizational systems should support the work and not overtake the job. Without a clear strategy, clear timelines and clear goals, it is tough to accomplish the work. Our team uses quarterly goals to guide our projects and clearly outline everyone’s contribution. It is fun to look back at everyone’s documentation to see the impact everyone has on our team.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think those will help people?
I am currently finishing up my doctoral journey at American University, and I am exploring a workshop process to critically analyze family feedback. Working with a talented team at Waterford.org, we created the Waterford CARES rubric based on comments hundreds of families shared with us about our program and how we could improve. CARES stands for communication, academic content, relationships, expectations and support. We are currently working to validate the rubric with families to ensure that we are accurately depicting their needs. Once we have the rubric finalized, we will investigate how we can use the guiding principles to improve the content and services we provide to families. I am very interested in learning how to support the growing population of bilingual families in the United States. We are working to establish equitable early learning opportunities in this nation, and we must incorporate the needs of all communities we serve. To do our best work, we must be equity-minded and continue to reflect on our own biases, as well as on the content and services we provide.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about why you are an authority on how to help children succeed in school?
I was a classroom teacher for over 15 years, and I benefited from learning how to help children succeed and how to support families as they worked to help their children. I dedicated years to formal education at Harvard and American University, and I’ve spent decades reading, learning, practicing and trying new ideas. This professional passion, coupled with my personal experiences, gifted me with unique perspectives to share. As I mentioned, I’m a military spouse raising three children, and it required significant expertise to advocate for their individual educational needs each time we moved. (Not to mention great logistical planning.) As with all children, my three are uniquely gifted and complex. I am also an adoptive mom, and my son has taught me more than any formal education possibly could. Talk about humility! All three of our children are bilingual and are now finding their way as young adults. Each of their paths is unique, and each of them needs varying levels of support from us. I hope to use this dual perspective of an academic leader and military, adoptive parent to share my lessons learned so that others can thrive and know they are not alone in this challenging journey of parenthood and learning.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the focus of our interview. Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?
Balancing everyday life is complicated, especially considering the COVID pandemic and uncertainty of the past few years. This complex world increasingly feeds all of us an overload of information. Unrealistic social media depictions of the perfect parent or family can add unnecessary stress. It is overwhelming for families and students to sift through this information and set aside the false expectations of the social media world to determine what is best for them.
Because of this, we all need to be critical thinkers more than ever. This requires higher order thinking skills and a strong foundation in literacy. Couple this demanding, critical reflection work with a complex, uncertain world, and you can see how learning might be a significant challenge for children and their families today.
We must support solutions that build strong families and communities with equitable learning opportunities. Children’s brains need safety to maximize learning, and families need support to provide children with this secure environment. The brains of our earliest learners are growing so fast! We need to capitalize on that early growth with rich, meaningful literacy and learning experiences. Children need rich conversations with and exposure to a wide variety of topics. Technology can provide rigorous, brain-based activities and openness to new issues, so we need to harness the power of technology and find a balance between the tech and the human side of learning. This balance must incorporate building strong communities that support families and learners.
Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?
We must center the humanity in each of us first, focus on science-based practices and give teachers support to fine-tune their own art of teaching.
The world can be a crazy place at times. The COVID-19 pandemic creates uncertainty which can cause anxiety at times. Children feel this uncertainty and fear just like adults, but it can be even more impactful to their developing brains. They need adults in their lives to support them through this stressful time. Sharing unconditional love, focusing on strengths, setting goals, building trusting relationships, and being curious together will help students thrive and excel. Schools should build social skills and trauma-informed practices into their daily activities and culture. Administrators should implement research-based practices from the learning sciences and support teachers as they learn how to instruct using these techniques. Many teachers have not received instruction on the science of reading, but when implemented correctly, these practices can make reading instruction highly effective.
Here is our primary question. Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do to Help Their Children Thrive and Excel in School?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Share unconditional love: First and foremost, all children need to know they belong and that their parents truly believe they can succeed. We all deserve to live in a world where we are accepted just as we are. If children live with a sense of not belonging, that places undue stress on their developing brains. This stress can make learning much more challenging. Parents and caregivers can help children learn about loving others through the way they model acceptance with each other regardless of abilities, background, race, language, or ethnicity. Reading stories together or talking about current events can build conversations around acceptance, choices others make and how to handle mistakes. Unconditionally loving each other can help establish a culture of always learning in the family. In a learning family, children are encouraged to share their mistakes and ask for help when they are struggling. Thriving at school will take learning, which requires struggle. Having a solid base of unconditional love is the best foundation to build on for lifelong learning.
- Focus on strengths: We all appreciate when others recognize one of our strengths. It feels much better to start learning from a strength — especially when we know there is a lot we still need to learn. Approaching children with an asset-based approach can encourage self-reflection. It encourages conversation and partnership. You might ask a child to think about their own strengths and then work together to figure out ways to build from there. For example, music was an essential part of daily life in my family, so connecting ideas to concepts or lyrics in music was helpful when I was trying to understand new content. My dad would sometimes make up funny songs to help me remember. Our strengths also influence our interests. Knowing our interests is important so that you can help your child find connections to make sense of new concepts they are learning. Learning to build skill practice into activities that children already enjoy can help infuse learning throughout the day. Making up rhymes is an awesome way to practice early literacy skills, bouncing a basketball while you do multiplication or spell words can be a fun too. As a parent, it is often easier to focus on what a child is doing wrong. Intentionally encouraging children to recognize their own strengths, so they can use those strengths to work on the areas where they have an opportunity to improve, is a helpful tactic.
- Set clear goals: Learning requires ongoing practice. Children need achievable goals and the chance to be partners in building a plan to accomplish them. Knowing the expectations within a clear structure sets children up to find success and to feel supported. Organizational skills and goal setting are important skills to establish early in life. Do not plan and organize everything for your child — do it with your child. Breaking larger projects down into smaller tasks makes it easier to see a way forward and to accomplish goals. Build plans for school projects together; make a list of the steps and lay them out to finish the tasks by the deadline. Remember, you want your child to grow up to be an independent learner, so the earlier they can be a part of making choices and setting goals, the better. Even young children can think of things they want to learn and recognize the steps they need to get there. If your child has a book report, talk about how many pages to read each night, discuss the supplies they need to gather for the final project and build in time to practice before the presentation. Talking about goals is a great way to highlight that we are all always learning.
- Build trusting relationships: Even when some challenges or circumstances create uncertainty, working together provides a support system to weather challenging moments. A sense of belonging is vital so our brains can focus on learning rather than on protecting ourselves from threats. This sense of safety requires mutual trust between children and parents, as well as with adults at school. Children need to be surrounded by adults they trust and who trust each other. They need to know that their teachers and parents respect each other and are working together to support their learning. Check in with your child’s teacher early and let them know special things about your child. You know your child best, and your information is helpful to their teachers. Ask your child about school each day and talk about the ideas they are learning. These don’t have to be long conversations, but checking in gives them a sense that school is essential and that you care about their learning. Besides, conversations about a wide variety of topics can help build your child’s understanding of the world and expand their vocabulary. Be sure to ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes and no. If your child shares something that is tough for them, brainstorm ideas to solve the challenge together.
- Be curious together: The world is changing quickly, with new technologies created every day. It is not possible to predict the knowledge a child will need in the future. Since the world is increasingly complex, we must find ways to harness the power of our curiosities. Children need to use their natural sense of wonder to foster curiosity about the world. They need opportunities to test ideas and solutions. They need to read about many topics and be encouraged to seek out answers when they have questions. When I was growing up, my parents did not know that I would need skills to work all day remotely. They prepared me by fostering my curiosity, giving me chances to problem-solve and providing opportunities to practice my communication skills so that no matter the context, I could find success. Parents can help their child by being curiosity partners. Read books together and talk about new ideas. Look up answers together, visit new places, try new foods, and talk and read a lot. It’s natural to not have all the answers to their questions. It can be a wonderful moment when you do not know the answer and, together, you are able to learn something new.
As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
We need a campaign to elevate the role of educators and more flexible options for earning teaching certificates. Our culture often has a deficit mindset toward teachers, and we do not give them the respect they deserve as professionals in a challenging career. Most teachers spend five to six years on formal education and select this profession to positively impact the world. We should value them as such. Teachers want to use the most effective research-based practices, so we need to provide high-quality tools, job-embedded coaching and communities of learning in which they know that they can work with others to refine their craft. The learning sciences bring us research-based practices, such as the science of reading, that we need to share with teachers. We need to offer opportunities to shadow other colleagues and learn about best practices and content areas that interest them. Providing internship opportunities where current high school and college students can spend time in classrooms to test out the field could be helpful for both existing and potential teachers. Overall, teachers need space to learn and to grow so they can implement the latest research and fine-tune the art of their own teaching style.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!
I would love to have lunch with Brené Brown. I read her books, which inspire me as a leader, a mother, a friend and a woman. Her work pushes me to keep learning, to be vulnerable and to be authentic. I would love to learn more about her research methods and her writing process. In fact, I have her “10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living” on my desk. I just think she is one of the most fabulous women I could meet!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!