Insight / Published Aug 08, 2016

Secretary of Education John King, Jr.'s #ParentPerspective

Earlier this year, we introduced #ParentPerspectives, which gives a platform for moms and dads across the country to share their diverse perspectives on kids and schools.

This week, I’m pleased to share the voices of two parents who, it’s safe to say, are far more attuned to issues of kids and schools than most: former teacher, principal, and current U.S. Secretary of Education John King, Jr., and his wife Melissa Steel King, a former teacher and researcher who currently focuses on public policy at Bellwether Education Partners.

John and Melissa are enormously accomplished education professionals—but they are also parents trying to find a path for their children. Together, they are raising two daughters who attend public schools: Amina, a rising eighth grader, and Mira, a rising fifth grader.

Like other educators who are also parents, they find themselves wearing two hats: One during their day job, when they are responsible for the success of other people’s children, and one at home, where they are only responsible for their own. How do these worlds intersect? And what can we learn from how educators parent?

I’m so grateful for John and Melissa’s willingness to share how they approach the hard work of parenting. They are two of the most committed, honest, brilliant, and sweet parents I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Amina and Mira are independent, curious, thoughtful, and all-around-wonderful. You’ll learn more about them below. Without further ado, let’s hear from the Kings.

-- Timothy Daly, Founding Partner

How would you describe the way your children view school?

John King, Jr.: Both of our daughters have been really fortunate to attend schools where their teachers present learning as fun and engaging; and, as a result, they think of school as really interesting. They have had a wonderful experience in Montgomery County, Maryland public schools that are providing them with a strong, well-rounded education and that are racially and socioeconomically diverse.

Melissa Steel King: We believe their curiosity about the world is, in large part, a product of being in great learning environments. Currently, Mira is in a magnet program and, while she has said that the work can be hard, she also enjoys it because she likes to be challenged. Some of her favorite subjects include math, science, and computer coding. She also loves reading. This summer, she is going to a camp where she is doing a mix each day of computer coding and sports.

“Amina’s favorite class this year was social studies, which makes me happy, as a former social studies teacher.”

John: I’d say Amina’s favorite class this year was social studies, which makes me happy, as a former social studies teacher. In particular, I think one of her teacher’s approaches—in which students imagine themselves living in different historical periods and engage in role plays and simulations —was particularly effective.

Melissa: Amina has said she likes school because it is preparing her for life and she appreciates how hard her teachers work. Both of our daughters want to be teachers when they grow up, along with other pursuits.

John: Amina has it all planned. She is going to be an actress, and when she is ready to have a family, she wants to teach. Mira wants to teach, in addition to being a professional soccer player. As parents and former educators, we are very happy that both girls see school—and the idea of lifelong learning and teaching—as challenging, fulfilling, and fun.

How do you approach parent-teacher conferences? What questions do you ask?

John: We always make an effort to go together. In fact, I can only think of one conference over the years where we weren’t both there. We like to ask teachers questions about how our daughters are doing academically, but we also think it’s important to ask about the socio-emotional things. Are they being good friends? Are they being good classroom citizens? How are they doing managing their time in class?

Melissa: Both John and I have been teachers, so we are well aware that the kid you see at home isn’t always the kid a teacher sees in the classroom. A student who is very emotional at home, for example, might not exhibit the same level of emotion at school. As a result, we are extremely interested in the perspective of our daughters’ teachers.

John: Teachers often have different insights into your children—especially because they see your children in a different context.

Melissa: As parents, we want to partner with our daughters’ teachers, celebrate what our girls are doing well, and work with them on areas where there is room to grow and build on their knowledge and skills.

Are there skills you learned as an educator that come in handy when you are parenting?

Melissa: One thing that comes to mind is how we deal with consequences. We aren’t always perfect in following this concept ourselves, but the general idea is that we do not propose a consequence that we wouldn’t be willing to follow through on. When you give your child a consequence, you have to mean it and stick with it. So, if you tell your child, “If you continue with this behavior, we are not going to the amusement park,” and, if, as the adult, you really want to go to the park with your child, you might want to reconsider that consequence.

“We ask a lot of questions. We are interested in our children’s opinions, their view of experiences, and connections they are making between things they are learning and the world around them.”

John: Giving “positive choices”—where both choices are good—is another thing that we’ve done with the girls throughout their lives. For example, when they were very young, we might ask, “Do you want to put your shoes on in the living room or by the door?” Both choices are good ones, the result is productive, and the children feel a genuine sense of agency in decision making. We also ask a lot of questions. We are interested in our children’s opinions, their view of experiences, and connections they are making between things they are learning and the world around them.

Melissa: Another thing we try to do is to give specific praise. For example, saying “I really liked how you didn’t get frustrated with that difficult math problem, but instead tried a different approach to solving it and figured out the answer.” instead of just saying “Good job with your math homework.”

What are (or were) your favorite things to read with your kids? How about your favorite learning-oriented game or app?

Melissa: When the girls were small, we always liked interactive books. A favorite of ours when the girls were younger is called, Do Not Open This Book. Now, we try to read books at the same time as the girls so that we can discuss them. We also listen to audio books, especially with our older daughter. We have listened to Percy Jackson books and we’re currently into The Hunger Games series.

John: When the girls were younger, we read a lot of Dr. Seuss, along with Good Night Moon, one of my personal favorites.

Melissa: In addition to reading together, we enjoy playing games as a family – including board games and word games. For example, we enjoy playing the word game Boggle as a family. We also make up our own fun, where we will come up with a word and the challenge is to find a rhyme for it and keep the rhyming words going.

John: And, if we’re traveling somewhere, we play 20 Questions, or the game Geography.

Melissa: The girls also like to use some educational apps. They’re practicing Spanish independently with the app, Duolingo. I love the app called Max and the Magic Marker, which helps to teach problem-solving skills.

What’s one value that you want to see in your children, and how do you work on it?

Melissa: Just one value? That’s a tough one!

John: I would say empathy is critical. We try to talk with the girls about how situations would feel from other people’s perspectives. We talk about issues of social justice so they get a sense that, while we may have many privileges and blessings, there are folks who do not have those same privileges. We stress that we each need to work to make our society more just and create greater opportunity for all people. Both of our daughters have internalized that idea.

Melissa: Empathy is a good one. If we could offer another, which is related, I think I would include diversity. We have family overseas – in Ghana for example – and we have traveled a little bit. It’s important to see how people in different places live because it helps put things in our own lives into perspective. Even the act of moving from one city to another has enabled our daughters to meet new people. We live in a diverse area of Maryland, and I think diverse communities and diverse schools give our daughters the opportunity to learn from people whose experiences are different from their own.

What does family dinner look like at your house?

Melissa: At often as we can, we try to have family dinner where everyone is at the table. We have a routine where we’ll do a little chant and take turns telling each other about how our day went. They love hearing about our day, and they’re always pressing John to share more details about his. They tease him when he summarizes portions of his day as a series of “meetings.” It’s interesting to see how fascinated they are when we, as adults, talk about our challenges. I will never forget, one day, I shared that I was having trouble figuring out how to solve a situation while not hurting a colleague’s feelings. The kids were so engaged, asking me questions. They said, “You have problems just like the ones we have!”

“It’s interesting to see how fascinated they are when we, as adults, talk about our challenges.”

John: Amina and Mira often come to you for advice about how to navigate relationships. When you were asking them for advice, I think they liked that.

Melissa: My parents told me when you show your children that not everything you do is perfect and that you struggle sometimes, too, they can feel more comfortable coming to you with their problems.

Last question: What’s an unusual rule you have in your house? Or a rule that many others have that you don’t?

John: It might not be that unusual, especially in a family with educators, but everyone in our household always must be reading a book.

Melissa: Right now, I’m reading a children’s book called The Map to Everywhere.

John: And I’m reading One Crazy Summer, with Mira, who is also reading the seventh book in the Harry Potter series.

Melissa: Amina is reading The List. As parents, we hope we are helping Amina and Mira develop the lifelong love of reading we have both enjoyed.