School began this week for thousands of Fairfield students and there is a whole new bumper crop of kindergartners who have started the critical journey down education's path. For some, the journey will be easy. For others it will be difficult.

But at the end of the journey, life awaits.

It seems like an eternity since our daughters first stepped into a classroom and today, both of them are teachers -- one in special education at the high school level and the other will student teach this fall in Michigan.

But this piece isn't about our daughters. It's about all of our children and about making the educational experience meaningful, worthwhile and nurturing. And I'm writing it from two perspectives -- the parent's and the educator's, because these days I split my time among my work at the Fairfield Museum and with clients and as a part-time substitute teacher.

As parents of innocent kindergartners, probably the most agonizing moment of our lives is when the school bus pulls up and some of us have to pry our child's hand loose from ours and help him or her gently onto the bus. And the same is true of those parents who are within walking distance of the school and have to say those difficult words, "Don't worry! Everything's going to be great and you're going to do great!"

Those few moments at the bus or the school door are probably the last innocent moments a child will have with a parent before academia takes over for roughly five hours everyday, five days a week, 10 months out of the year for the next 12 years.

I've never forgotten that first day. Our older daughter plunged headlong into school and academic life, filled with enthusiasm, excitement and angst. Our younger daughter went kicking and screaming, looking traumatized nearly everyday for the next year.

We were blessed for the most part with wonderful teachers who did their level best to provide an environment and the best teaching methods to help our daughters learn. And as parents, we set up a collaborative approach, staying in touch, listening to teacher concerns about how the girls were learning and being involved well beyond the basic required parent nights, teacher conferences and PTA meetings.

When we didn't agree with a teacher's assessment or a grade, we discussed the situation with the teacher and tried to understand where he or she was coming from. Even if I was angry, I tried to see both sides.

Perhaps I remained more diplomatic because I too had started my career on the teacher's side of the desk and appreciated being respected and not being viewed as an indentured servant hired to serve at the will of my students and their families. My philosophy about working with teachers hasn't changed, by the way, and even as a sub, I appreciate receiving respect, because I treat the students with consideration and not contempt.

Throughout their entire academic experience, if my kids just weren't understanding a particular subject and the teacher had tried everything, we always explored tutoring, because it's a wonderful way to take the angst and emotion out of school and, frankly, it works. We learned about tutoring from a wonderful psychologist at the University of Michigan, who tested our older daughter for learning disabilities and concluded that she had a few loose circuits, but nothing that wasn't fixable at the hands of a tutor.

A colleague of mine, Amy, has built a wonderful tutoring business and she's helped so many kids and adults succeed. There should be absolutely no stigma around tutoring. It may be the necessary ingredient to success in a subject and the result can impact a child's self esteem and confidence.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of respect for teachers, and that has to begin at the kindergarten level and never change. Respect like that has to be taught by parents and reinforced throughout the child's academic experience. What I've often noticed as a middle school and high school substitute and experienced in some classrooms is a breakdown in respect and courtesy between students and teachers. There is a level of rudeness that I rarely experienced in my own teaching days in the '60s and an attitude of empowerment among some students that crosses over way too many boundaries.

I wouldn't call this behavior an example of poor parent discipline. On the contrary, I think that most parents are trying as hard as they can, but outside influences are stronger than ever today. And those influences are popping up at the elementary school level.

With the explosion of the Internet, text messaging and social networking pressures, children are being exposed to multi-media that could disrupt any educational environment. I find that probably 90 percent of the students have cell phones and even with rules, the most difficult challenge for any teacher or sub is to get students to stop using them during the school day. The opportunity is just too convenient.

Modifying that behavior, as far as I'm concerned, can only come from the home. I can only urge parents to consider the atmosphere in a teaching environment cluttered with cell phones.

A large percentage of teachers, on the other hand, seem to have acquiesced to I-Pods, especially at the high school level. My motto, frankly, has become, as long as I can't hear the I-Pod and studying or reading appears to be happening, I'll allow it.

These days the journey down the path to education is filled with far more obstacles and detours than ever before. But it remains just as challenging academically and, at the end of the path, the best and brightest still emerge as society's next leaders.

I hope that parents, especially of students who are just beginning their journey, will view their relationship with the school and the teacher as an opportunity and not a battle. After all, the future success of their child hinges on that relationship and should always remain the most important item on their agenda.

Steven Gaynes can be reached at