What I think I know about parent-teacher relations:
1) Based on anecdotal information—readers comments in periodicals and personal conversations with friends and acquaintances—I believe the parent-teacher divide is wider than anyone writing about education reform is admitting. Everyone is being far too polite.
2) Meaningful progress in improved parent-teacher relations won’t happen until both groups commit to exploring the mutual misunderstandings and related antipathy that have built up like water behind a gigantic dam.
3) Teacher education programs do a lousy job preparing new teachers to work constructively with students’ families. It’s not that it’s taught poorly, it’s that it’s often not taught at all. Too often, beginning teachers are forced to learn how to partner constructively with families on the job, sometimes from colleagues who exhibit negative attitudes towards families.
4) An increasing percentage of parents and guardians question whether teachers have their children’s best interests in mind. Ethnic, gender, and class differences sometimes translate into suspicion. At conferences, my “old school” mom and dad always said to my teachers, “What if anything do you want Ron doing differently next Monday morning?” In contrast, an increasing percentage of “new school” parents ask, “Why are you picking on my child? What do you have against him or her?”
5) School parents have delegated too much responsibility for children’s social and academic development to teachers. Take me for example. I quickly skim a few of the numerous pieces of work my tenth grade daughter brings home. Meanwhile, her history teacher shows one movie after another. Some may be justifiable, but others don’t make sense in the context of the curriculum. The opportunity costs of showing film after film? Zero historical novels, zero essay writing, very little analysis, debate, and critical thinking. Have I constructively expressed my concerns? No.
6) Too often, when parents do engage, there’s a tendency towards helicopter-parenting. Instead of expecting their children to take responsibility and help problem solve, they argue and ask, “I want my child moved into another class.” “Why isn’t my child starting when she’s one of the best players?” “Why should my child’s poor attendance affect his grade?”
7) Many teachers, especially secondary ones, want to be left alone and are too quick to assume negative things about engaged parents and guardians.
8) Teachers could bridge a large part of the parent divide by asking their students’ parents and guardians one simple question, “What would you like me to know about your son or daughter?” The follow up, “What do you think I could do to teach him/her even more effectively?”
9) All the talk of more convenient teacher conference times for working parents, providing food and childcare during conferences, and communicating meeting information in parents’ and guardians’ primary languages won’t translate into much progress until both groups honestly communicate their pent-up frustations as a first step in starting over on a foundation of heightened understanding, mutual respect, and partnership.