We Interviewed 100 Philly-Area Teachers About What It Takes to Raise Happy, Successful Kids

We asked about everything from parental involvement to screen time, from extracurriculars to expectations to sex ed. They had a lot to say.

philadelphia teachers

Philadelphia teachers tell all / Photograph by Stevie Chris

There’s been much chatter in the media about parenting. Or, to be more specific, bad parenting. You can’t scroll too far into your newsfeed without finding someone agitated about helicopter parents or snowplow parents or free-range parents or yeti parents. (I made that last one up — I think.) And it’s no wonder. Scroll a little further, and you’ll read all about how schoolkids are stressed. Or violent. Or distracted. All historically so. It feels like a bit of a crisis.

With so much at stake, we decided to reach out to the people who spend more time with kids than anyone: teachers. Our goal was to learn the candid truth about our children — the stuff educators don’t (or can’t) share with us otherwise. Many of the 100 area teachers we contacted — from public, private, charter and parochial schools — offered to speak to us anonymously. A surprising number chose to go on the record. What they told us was at times heartbreaking and bleak, at other times hilarious and inspiring.

They shed light on the conditions under which kids learn and thrive; the disparities between schools and districts; the trauma plaguing students; and the havoc technology is wreaking on learning. But their answers also revealed a deep resilience — among students, teachers and families — and strategies we can all use in our own educational journeys. Here’s just a bit of the earful they gave us.

On the Expectations We Place on Kids

“Most parents believe their children are smarter than they actually are. On the plus side, children will often rise to the occasion. Conversely, some parents believe their children can skip certain parts of the curriculum, creating major gaps.” — A teacher at a Montgomery County public elementary school

“At a pre-K event for my daughter, a parent started asking me questions about AP … at pre-K. I think high-achieving schools are a little hypocritical. We say it’s not all about AP or scores or college. But obviously, our program is built to emphasize those things.” — A high-school English teacher at a private Quaker school

“The competition to get into a magnet high school can make some parents put too much pressure on their seventh-grade children. Some of my students have cried or thrown up before, during or after the PSSA.” — Katherine Cohen Volin, an English teacher at Joseph Greenberg Elementary School

“At a magnet school, the most common problem with expectations is the conviction that ‘My child should have all A’s.’ We get plenty of kids who made honor roll at their old schools. They cannot all get A’s here!” — A high-school teacher in the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy (SLA) network

“Parents’ expectations of kids haven’t changed much. What has changed is the expectations they have of teachers. The result has been grade inflation, at least in the independent-school circle. If students don’t get an A, it’s on the teacher.” — An English teacher at a suburban private school

“I’m told that I push eight-year-olds too hard, but in my own education, I wasn’t pushed to excellence, and it was because of my brown skin. That didn’t come from my parents; that came from my school.” — Sheila Myer, a second-grade teacher at Independence Charter School

“All parents want the best for their children. However, many inner-city parents don’t know how to help their kids get there because they haven’t been through the process. I once went to a parent’s house to help her fill out the FAFSA [the federal financial aid form] because she didn’t know what it was.” — A high-school teacher at a Camden charter school

“I had a student who was valedictorian and one of the most amazing kids I’ve ever met, and the parents didn’t attend graduation because they never felt this child was good enough. Don’t be too easy on your kids, but don’t be too hard on them, either.” — An art teacher at a Philadelphia public school

On Parental Involvement

“I’ve had students hand in homework that is literally all in the mom’s handwriting — and nearly all of it was wrong! Parents should admit when they don’t know something and then work with the kid to figure it out. That models metacognition and perseverance.” — A high-school teacher in the SLA network

“Parents need to read with their children for at least a half-hour a day and encourage kids to find joy in reading.” — A teacher at a South Philadelphia public elementary school

“I’m never surprised when a kid tells me they don’t read at home. It’s always the student I suspected wasn’t reading at home.” — A teacher at a West Philadelphia public elementary school

“We took away homework at my school. The parental involvement varied so greatly that we felt it wasn’t fair to grade students on it.” — A special-ed teacher at a Bucks County charter school

I know kids whose parents made all their early choices for them. In high school, they have to start making choices for themselves, and they’re falling apart.” — A high-school teacher in the Science Leadership Academy network

“It’s hard for my kids’ parents to understand that if their child messes up on homework, that means I understand what he knows and what he doesn’t know. That helps me.” — A teacher at a Camden public elementary school

“All students benefit from parents who are able to actively support them in their learning. That’s why it’s crucial to support pro-education policies that allow this. Raising the minimum wage and making sure parents have regular schedules directly impact parents’ capacity to support their kids.” — Jessica Way, a career and technical education teacher in the Philadelphia School District

“I have a four-year-old, and I notice sometimes that I’m doing things for her instead of letting her struggle to figure it out. That process can be painful, and it can be slow.” — A middle-school English teacher in Montgomery County

“We must be aware that parents are busy, can have multiple kids to help, and deserve family time with their children. The homework we assign must be meaningful, relevant, and not overly time-consuming.” — David Hensel, dean of students, Taggart Elementary in South Philadelphia

On Kids and Technology

“I can’t imagine that these kids ever get a break. Even when they’re home for the day, they’re still ‘on.’ There’s a lot of pressure on kids to be popular, and social media followers have become a new way to assay this.” — Ryan Boylan, a science teacher at a Bucks County public high school

“I can’t go into their homes and tell them to stop playing on their computers, but I can tell their parents, ‘Hey, your kid is tired. You think they’re sleeping, but they’re not.’ Maybe what I do as a parent is have them charge their phones in my room overnight.” — Amy Roat, an ESOL teacher at Feltonville Arts & Sciences

“Their fine motor skills are suffering. We actually had a three-year-old who did not know what to do with a puzzle. She didn’t even know how to take it out of the box.” — A pre-K teacher at a Northeast Philadelphia school

“Wealthier and more affluent parents are much more freaked out by screen time. Parents who work or don’t have the opportunity for a babysitter are, I think, more willing to find a tool that works and let kids use it.” — An upper-elementary teacher at a Philadelphia private school

“When it comes to computer access, more means you’re turning students into zombies, but less means you’re a have-not school.” — Adam Blyweiss, a graphic design and freshman seminar teacher at Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School

“The process for critical thinking is almost lost on many of my students, who would rather get the answer from Google than formulate their own opinions.” — A high-school teacher in North Philadelphia

“I’ve had a lot of kids, especially Black and brown kids, who feel devalued. Social media is one space where they can feel validated. It’s a place to feel that someone is paying attention to me.” — A teacher at a Southwest Philadelphia public school

philadelphia teachers

Philadelphia teachers shared their thoughts on technology / Photograph by Stevie Chris

“The best we can do is to keep ourselves relevant. Design plans that embrace, or at least don’t ignore, tech. Steer into the skid.” — An English teacher at a South Philadelphia high school

On Sex and Sex Ed

“My students don’t know what they don’t know. They certainly joke about the typical and predictable 15-year-old-boy topics. They don’t abundantly know the emotional, physical and psychological issues with sex.” — A science teacher at a private school in the area

“I can’t claim 100 percent that these things are related, but the year after the 2016 presidential election, we had a sudden slew of incidents of extremely sexist behavior — including unwanted touching.” — A high-school English teacher at a private Quaker school

“There is not enough talk about safe sex — except abstinence — or birth control. We have too many young mothers in our school district.” — A social studies teacher at a Montgomery County public high school

“In our culture today, sexual actions are deemed recreational and inconsequential, but something like kissing is considered intimate and serious.” — A high-school teacher in North Philadelphia

“One thing that kids need to hear from their parents: Sex can be pleasurable. It is really tragic how many teens, especially girls, grow up thinking that sex is just supposed to hurt. Somehow, our society has decided that sex ed should be about everything except actually having good sex. As uncomfortable a conversation as that can be for a parent, it is even more difficult to have in a classroom!” — A high-school teacher in the SLA network

“Political realities, social media and support systems are helping students better comprehend gender identity, consent, and toxic masculinity. But plenty of ignorance and naïveté remain regarding sexual activity and its consequences. What do kids know about sex? Still just enough to be dangerous.” — Adam Blyweiss

On Sports and Extracurriculars

“The students I’ve seen succeed most were multi-sport athletes or those involved in various co-curricular activities. Being involved with and surrounded by other like-minded and high-performing students is only positive.” — Andrew Bachman, an engineering and math teacher at Pottstown High School

“Kids who are on sports teams are noticeably better at group work in the classroom.” — A high-school teacher at a Philadelphia charter school

“It helps students academically to work at something outside of school with the goal of methodical improvement. This could be dance lessons, music, sports. Anything that shows them they can get better at something if they focus and set long-term goals.” — A middle-school teacher in Montgomery County

“Kids live for those activities. Some kids hate school except for art class. Some kids hate school entirely, but they love to go to baking club.” — Amy Roat

“I think there is a great lesson to be learned: You don’t get to do everything fully. You can’t. You don’t have that much time or energy.” — A high-school English teacher at a private Quaker school

“They are in dance and then they’ll go to swim. They’ll have more than one activity in a night, and they’re three and four! They are exhausted. And they’re still babies!” — A pre-K teacher at a private Northeast Philadelphia school

“In Philadelphia public schools, we don’t have this problem, because there just aren’t enough free extracurricular activities available to our students.” — David Hensel

On What Makes Kids Succeed Academically

Not parents telling their kids how much they hated school or weren’t good at math.” — Andrew Bachman

“Parents can set an example by modeling how they complete important tasks — a.k.a. grown-up homework. Show your child how you put together a grocery or to-do list or when you pay a bill. Emphasize how you complete this task before starting the fun stuff.” — Julia Salamone, an English language arts teacher at AIM Academy

“A lot of kids, it’s not even that they don’t know how to study. It’s ‘I don’t know what I should be looking at’ or ‘I probably lost it.’ A lot of our kids who fail or are retained, it’s because of executive functioning, not academic skill.” — A special-ed teacher at a Philadelphia charter high school

“Teaching students to chunk their time is crucial. Study material in sections, take breaks, eat a snack, hit the books again. Cramming only creates sleepless nights and buckets of stress.” — Abram Taber, a music teacher at George W. Childs Elementary School

“Consistency and creating a space where kids can do their work, which is probably one of the hardest things when families don’t have the appropriate financial resources.” — A high-school teacher in Olney

“They have to see how success pays off. Visit colleges, do summer programs, and/or interact with people successful in fields they are interested in.” — A teacher at a Philadelphia public high school

“Students learn best when they know it’s perfectly acceptable to take risks and fail. Our philosophy hinges on the belief that students learn best when they’re surrounded by beauty and joy.” — An independent-school administrator in Delaware County

“It is great to reward kids who make the honor roll; however, we often ignore the students who show improvement. If we can reward everyone who achieves, we can get rid of can- and can’t-do groups.” — Ray Porreca, a special-ed teacher in North Philadelphia

“Technology is wonderful, but the old-school method of reading a book and using a pencil and paper to take notes is scientifically proven to be a more active way for your brain to work.” — Ryan Boylan

“There is no best way. The most important job of a teacher is to differentiate. Students are all motivated differently. Learning who your students are as people will allow insight into how they function and what they value. This is why reducing class size is so vital.” — An English teacher at a South Philadelphia high school

“I would say they shouldn’t have good study habits. Like, let them fucking play.” — An upper-elementary teacher at a Philadelphia private school

On Bad Choices and Bad Behavior

“Kids will make poor choices — their prefrontal cortexes are basically oatmeal. Allow kids to make mistakes, and hold them accountable, but don’t hold it against them for eternity.” — Maddie Luebbert, an English teacher at a Kensington high school

“Some students need to touch the burner to know it’s hot. Parents and teachers can only explain, illustrate, point to examples, and apply consequences.” — Andrew Bachman

“Kids live in the moment; they don’t think danger applies to them. The things that have the biggest effect are personal interactions with people who have lived through the worst consequences. We had a person visit who had dealt with opioid addiction. You saw the attention in the room. The kids were very focused.” — A high-school English teacher at a private Quaker school

“Allow students to have choices that are age-appropriate and then hold them accountable. If a student wants to procrastinate on a project, it’s on them. I will let them get a bad grade and not make it up. I don’t believe in extra credit.” — A science teacher at a North Philadelphia public middle school

“I support incorporating daily meditation to allow for headspace. The more headspace, the more thought can go into decisions.” — A suburban elementary-school teacher outside Philadelphia

“For many of our students in Philadelphia, there is a much higher risk of long-term consequences for the same silly decisions that their suburban peers make. We often focus on punishing bad decisions because we fear these consequences, but I am concerned that we forget to fight for a world in which we minimize those same consequences.” — Jessica Way

“It boils down to the village raising the child. How many adults are involved in a child’s life? And those adults have to communicate, to talk among themselves: Let’s support Johnny and keep him on the straight-and-narrow.” — Hector Wangia, a biology teacher at Pottsgrove High School

On School Shootings and Trauma

“Sitting in the dark during a lockdown drill with 25 10-year-olds who trust you to take care of them is traumatic for everyone involved.” — A fifth-grade teacher at a Delaware County public school

“All teachers this year were asked by administrators to put a line of masking tape on the floor of their classrooms to mark the section of the room that is out of the sight line of the door, so kids know where to gather if someone is walking around the school with an AR-15.” — A middle-school teacher in Montgomery County

“I encourage students to use fiction writing as a way to work out troubling issues. After the Paris concert shooting, two students wrote short stories where the protagonist was in a similar situation.” — Katherine Cohen Volin

“Students are fearful, angry, depressed and sad. My students created and held an injustice forum this past April to express their frustration.” — Angela Crawford, an English teacher at MLK High

“My kids walk through metal detectors to come to school. And when we’ve talked about school shootings, it’s always, ‘No offense, but that’s something white kids do.’” — A high-school teacher at a Philadelphia charter school

“They are saddened by these stories but wonder why they [mostly minorities] are considered ‘dangerous’ by the culture when these shootings are mainly done in suburban settings by white individuals.” — A high-school teacher in North Philadelphia

“Some of the stuff they deal with is so traumatic that I support them the best I can, and then I try to block it out of my memory so it doesn’t overwhelm me.” — A middle-school teacher in Camden

“Our students see the school as a safe space. When we lost one of our students last year, the kids actually used our space on weekends; there were after-school and before-school hours. Kids would just come and hang out.” — A science teacher at a West Philadelphia charter high school

“For students who have experienced trauma, it essentially becomes who they are. We, as educators, have to try to teach them how to overcome it.” — A special-ed teacher at a North Philadelphia charter elementary school

“To teach a student dealing with trauma, you must start with an unhurried desire to get to know that student. Appreciate them for who they are and what they like, then encourage their interests and be a stable presence.” — Daniel Symonds, a history teacher at a Philadelphia magnet school

“I grew up in North Philadelphia, and like many of my students, I experienced trauma. I once had a student whose mother was incarcerated. She was often very sad and started regressing academically. I shared a story with her about my family. I purchased stamps and envelopes and allowed her to write to her mother during journal time. She felt safe because I did not judge her or her parent. Her mother, once released, also appreciated the lack of judgment.” — A bilingual elementary-school teacher in Northeast Philadelphia

“One of my students is the brother of a student we lost to gun violence last year. This child showed up to school the next day. He was in classes; he was doing his work. And I’m sure part of it was, like, his need for a routine, right? But man, my mouth dropped. That blew my mind.” — A science teacher at a West Philadelphia charter high school

On Schools and Diversity

“Our student and family population is richly diverse. We need to do a much better job of attracting diverse faculty, staff and trustees. It’s a major concern and priority.” — An independent-school administrator in Delaware County

“For the past two years, a group of teachers has met to discuss how we can build anti-racist practices. But this conversation needs to be more central to the way our school runs, not just teachers meeting on the side.” — Charlie McGeehan, a teacher and building rep at a North Philadelphia high school

“We have had some atrocious professional development seminars. We had a presentation on racial micro-aggressions that was run by someone who didn’t know what micro-aggressions are.” — A middle-school teacher in Montgomery County

“There is an overrepresentation of Black and brown students in special education and disciplinary action and an overrepresentation of white and Asian students in AP courses. I am not sure if additional training is the answer.” — Robin Roberts, a Philadelphia School District physical therapist

“I wish lunchtime accommodations were made at my school for students fasting during Ramadan. I made my own so they didn’t need to sit with others who were eating.” — A third-grade teacher in Tacony

“We have one ESL teacher for around 1,100 students. Our school district is seen as a wealthy district that performs very well. However, we have a fast-growing community of homes that speak other languages. These are hardworking parents who want to help their children but due to the language barrier are not able to.” — A Chester County middle-level special-ed teacher

“Staff diversity is a huge issue. When you look at the typical charter school, the teachers are usually white; the administrators are usually white. And who are the Black people in the building? The random teacher who has either been there for 15 years or is brand-new to the building, the behavior specialist, the dean of students, and the people who work at lunch. What kind of message does that send?” — A middle-school teacher in Camden

“When I hear white staff members denouncing policies that hurt people of color but then turn around and talk about students with ‘weird names’ or call a student who is acting out due to trauma ‘evil,’ it shows the limitation of good intentions.” — Abram Taber

“There are systemic and deep-rooted issues of trust that can’t be solved easily by training. Education is no different from law enforcement in this regard.” — A teacher at a Montgomery County public high school

“Public schools need to move from being institutions that are satisfied with being ‘not racist’ to institutions that are actively anti-racist.” — A fifth-grade teacher at a Delaware County public school

On Gender Expression

“Our school ignores it.” — A Chester County middle-level special-ed teacher

“After a teacher training on gender expression, many of us did away with ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ lines and instituted lines based on our school colors instead — a simple fix that hopefully alleviates stress for non-binary students.” — A teacher in a South Philadelphia public elementary school

“They don’t have safe spaces to learn about sexuality. I identify as non-binary, and if I mention gender or share a personal anecdote, often the floodgates open and kids fire off every question they’ve been lugging along for Lord knows how long.” — Maddie Luebbert

“We have done away with King and Queen, we created a gender-neutral bathroom, and we allow students to choose to identify with the gender of their choice, including uniform choices.” — Amy Leary, a counselor in a Delaware high school

“Teacher trainings could be very helpful, as some teachers do not understand gender identity concepts at all.” — A teacher at a Philadelphia public high school

“How hard is it for schools to add a gender-non-conforming bathroom? This would be a big help.” — Daniel Symonds

“For our prom ad this year, we featured a heterosexual couple and a gay couple. I thought that was groundbreaking.” — Keziah Ridgeway, an African-American History teacher at Northeast High

“Though it embraced all faith, cultural and ethnic traditions, my private-school experience was not as accommodating to LGBTQIA identities. In my recent charter-school experience in the city, kids were openly gay, bisexual or queer, and they proudly celebrated Pride Month and each others’ identities. It was great to experience this kind of openness among the student body. ” — A middle-school Spanish teacher at a Philadelphia charter school

On Standardized Tests

“I am a huge fan of the new term ‘educational apartheid,’ and that’s how these standardized tests are used. It’s proving that the kids who have access, ability, resources and support can do well on these tests, and the kids who don’t have that, can’t.” — Sheila Myer

“They provide minimal to no useful feedback to classroom teachers.” — A kindergarten teacher at a West Philadelphia charter school

“We need to make sure all parents and kids know that anyone can opt out. Opt out if you wish to not put that stress on your student. Opt out; it’s okay!” — A middle-school teacher in the suburbs

“I know the grading in our school is incredibly inflated — everyone gets A’s. How do we differentiate? That’s where standardized testing comes in. But the pressure it puts on kids is extraordinary. It’s unfair to kids who don’t test well and will never be able to show how smart they are.” — A high-school teacher at a private single-sex school

“The stakes are too high for just a few weeks of testing. It is concerning that the written portions of the test are graded by non-educators with just a bachelor’s degree who get temp jobs by answering ads online.” — David Hensel

“I hate it. I hate it so much. It takes away from what you’re actually trying to do. I have to prepare my students for what’s going to be on that test. That leaves little room for my struggling students or for my high-achieving students. It keeps us all in second gear.” — Hector Wangia

And Finally, If Teachers Could Say Just One Thing to …

“Smaller class sizes! With 15 kids in a class, I can individualize instruction. With 20 kids, I can do a pretty good job of differentiating. With 28 kids, I’m just managing a room. With 30 kids? All bets are off.” — Michelle Lubonski, an English teacher at a South Jersey public high school

“I recognize that your job is impossible, and I appreciate your hard work. But also … this meeting could be an email.” — A biology teacher in the suburbs

“Less micro-management and less pointless paperwork. SLOs, PDPs, fantastical lesson-plan formats — it all wastes our time.” — A Philadelphia public-school art teacher

Their fellow teachers
“Don’t behave like our students. Don’t engage in gossip about fellow teachers.” — Jim Lint, art and film teacher at Maritime Academy Charter School

“Don’t hide in your room or disappear at the final bell. No teacher is an island. We need each other. Every act of solidarity helps.” — Adam Blyweiss

“Q-TIP: Quit taking it personally. Students are not bad. They may be annoying, but you signed up to be their servant.” — A high-school teacher in North Philadelphia

“Step out of your comfort zone. Find a student who needs you to see him. We all come from different places. You might be the difference a child is looking for.” — Hector Wangia

“‘You are all so deserving, and I don’t tell you enough. Take care of yourselves, and I am always here for you.’ I sent this message to all of my students after one of my students committed suicide a few months ago. I wish I could have told it to her.” — A biology teacher in a Philadelphia suburb

“Take advantage of as many of the opportunities your school offers as possible. You will not get this time back.” — A teacher at a Philadelphia public high school

“I love to see glimpses of the world through your eyes. It is amazing and always catches me off-guard.” — An art teacher/department chair at an independent school in Chester County

“Homework isn’t important for little kids!” — A West Philadelphia elementary-school teacher

“Get your child a library card.” — A South Philadelphia elementary-school teacher

“Your kid is wonderful. Your kid is not you.” — Daniel Symonds

Reported by Sandy Hingston, Sunny Morgan, Kristian Rhim, Samantha Spengler and Sarah Zlotnick. Edited by Brian Howard.

Published as “Classroom Confidential” in the September 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.