By Kristin Stanberry
Though the image of her cheering her son Michael Phelps from the stands may have made her famous, Debbie Phelps isn’t one to watch life from the sidelines. A dynamic parent, educator, author, and public speaker, Phelps has helped not only her own children succeed but also countless others.
In her recent memoir, A Mother for All Seasons (William Morrow), Phelps recounts her dual life as a parent of three and an educator, pursuing a career that began with teaching home economics and led to cofounding a public school, Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore, where she still serves as principal. Michael, her youngest, presented special challenges because he suffered from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD).
As a devoted single mom — she divorced when her children were teenagers — Phelps has much to say about parenting. But it is the stories of how she lives her life that lend her memoir special resonance. GreatSchools recently had the pleasure of interviewing Phelps about her famous son, her guiding principles as a parent, and her secrets to instilling great expectations in her students.
GreatSchools: You and Michael are very open about the fact that he has AD/HD. How did raising a child with AD/HD influence your attitude toward students with similar challenges?
Debbie Phelps: My philosophy has always been to recognize each student’s learning style, strengths, and needs — whether or not he has a diagnosed disorder. I believe in drawing out the special gifts each child possesses. As a school principal, I expect the teachers I supervise to do the same.
GreatSchools: How did you work with Michael’s teachers to help him succeed in the classroom?
Phelps: I believe being a partner with your child's schools is very important at every level: elementary, middle, and high school. Having teachers who understood Michael's personality and learning style helped him focus in the classroom. Even so, there were some teachers I had to conference with to help them understand and adapt to his learning challenges. While Michael can hyper-focus on subjects and activities he finds interesting, with other subjects, he tunes out, drifts off, or becomes restless. An observant teacher will notice that and help him stay on task using simple techniques. And when a child needs to move around or wiggle, as is true for many kids with AD/HD, there are ways to accommodate that. After all, how many of us adults can comfortably sit still at a desk for long periods of time without taking a break to stand up, stretch, and walk around?
GreatSchools: Over the years, how have you helped Michael stay grounded and focused outside of the classroom?
Phelps: I was able to provide the structure and routine Michael needed at home. I always appreciated his high energy level and tendency to hyper-focus on what fascinated him — both of which served him well as a competitive swimmer.
GreatSchools: The medications used to manage AD/HD have evolved a great deal since Michael was growing up. If you were raising your son today, would you still give him medication?
Phelps: I would consult a doctor, but most likely yes, now that longer-acting medications are available [eliminating the need to visit the school office to take a lunchtime dose, which Michael loathed], I’d definitely have him try taking medication on school days. That said, I’d still make sure his teachers understand what classroom accommodations and teaching methods work best for him. All parents should know what their children need and communicate that to teachers.
Having kids with AD/HD take medication in middle and high school makes total sense, because at that level they’re dealing with several teachers (and teaching styles), classrooms, and academic subjects as well as organizational challenges. Expecting several teachers to adapt to your child — and your child to manage those challenges if he needs medication to focus — isn’t always realistic.
GreatSchools: What have you found are some of the most effective things parents can do to bolster their kids’ success in school and life?
Phelps: I understand parents today have many responsibilities — including their jobs — so they can’t always be at school to volunteer. At my school, parents and grandparents have an open invitation to visit the school to touch base. For example, some of our students’ fathers work in law enforcement and drop by school on their way home after a night shift. This atmosphere creates for our kids a united front: parents, teachers, and principal all working together.
I firmly believe parents and kids should communicate with each other through eye contact and their voices. I encourage parents to have their kids unplug from their iPods, disengage from [instant messaging] etc., and then talk to — and listen to — them. Parents and educators need to set a good example for kids — in the way we dress, talk, and behave. We need to be honest and accountable for our own actions. You are your child’s first teacher and role model.
Too many parents try to be their children’s friends. You have to draw the line and be the parent, the authority figure. Deep down, kids don’t really want their parents, teachers, or principal to be their pals. They want the security that comes from having strong adults in their lives.
GreatSchools: Now that your own kids are adults, do you find it difficult to let go?
Phelps: I tell other parents “Don’t completely let go of your children’s hands. They may not directly ask for your advice, so just be there for them, keep the door to communication propped open, and listen between the lines.” And, yes, it’s possible do that without being a helicopter parent!
GreatSchools: In your book, you describe the philosophy of the swimming club where your kids trained from a young age and how the rigorous training members went through could ultimately lead them down one of three paths: recreation, collegiate swimming and competition, or world-class Olympic swimming. Each road was considered as worthy as the others. Has that philosophy helped you understand your children and students?
Phelps: It’s important that we inspire children to work hard, to strive for excellence, but also to be true to themselves and have some fun. Every student has goals. Some students will aim higher, but I want every child to have the goal of being successful at whatever level is right for him. All goals are worthy.
Parents and teachers should honor the dreams children have and involve them in setting their own goals — then help make them happen. No one learns the same way, so every child should feel free to ask adults for help mastering certain skills or taking steps toward a particular goal.
GreatSchools: What do you expect from the students at your school?
Phelps: I tell my students, “Someday you will run our country. You’ll take care of us — your parents and teachers.” Students are often stunned by that statement. I reassure them by saying, “Your parents and teachers are investing in your future. Coming to school is your job; we’re preparing you for the world.” Our school family embraces each student. That’s the way it should be. Kids need to know that the adults in their lives believe in them.
GreatSchools: What opportunities do you offer students so they can practice that kind of adult responsibility?
Phelps: One example is the principal's advisory board called Student Choice/Student Voice. It's a student roundtable we convene to discuss school rules and practices. When you open your heart, mind, and ears to students, it’s amazing what you learn from them and the ideas and insights they have to offer.
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