What Parents Get Wrong

Since my “What Engineers Get Wrong” post went viral I figured people are anxious for me to overgeneralize about other groups. Thus, a series is born. This is the second, back-to-school installment. The full title, “What Parents Get Wrong about Their Children’s Teachers”.

I received this letter from a teacher friend who was seeking my advice with in her words, “my current least favorite set of parents”.

The Least Favs wrote to my friend:

I am encouraged to read your statement in the newsletter that arrived today, that students “shouldn’t be afraid to say something if they need help,” because “C” does. He needs more challenges than you have been providing.

C is still not challenged in math.  From talking to him and following class work through homework, nothing seems to have changed since we brought this to your attention at the first parent teacher conferences and during two subsequent meetings. C still says “It is not that I know the material, but after we learn new stuff for a day or two it is pretty slow.” If you changed anything in the way you challenge the faster learners in your class neither C nor we noticed.  We do not see that you implemented any ideas we talked about, like more challenging text problems with the same underlying pre-algebra for the faster learners, or different homework options like the link to [another school] we sent you.

We would like to again explore solutions to make sure that C will be challenged for the final trimester. For us it is sad to see that his former favorite subject rarely make his eyes light up any more. The one time you offered alternative math homework, C had so much fun and walked us through his thoughts and discussed approaches with us. This is what we asked you about and are looking for! We are hoping that maybe drawing on others experience with highly gifted education and the curricula used at other schools will help us find solutions. Also, we would appreciate [the principal’s] mediation to this time come to a clear understanding about next steps.  We feel that after our last conversations, other than changing C’s class placement, which we appreciate, you did not follow up with us on letting us know which other options you explored.  This lack of communication leaves us with the impression that nothing has changed.

We would like to emphasize that C likes you as a teacher and that the way you explain things seems to work well for him.  It is solely the lack of challenges and the speed of learning that we perceive as a problem as well as the lack of communication with us as parents.

I’m giving the Least Favs a “C-” in teacher partnering and problem solving. It’s a flawed letter, but parents like this trounce ones who are asleep at the wheel. At least they’re engaged. I’m also giving them a few points for some positivity in paragraphs three and four.

My teacher friend was wrong for not communicating better with the Least Favs after the previous conference. The problem is the Least Favs use that against the teacher in a way that clearly suggests, “We’re in the right and you’re in the wrong,” instead of “Let’s find a way to meet in the middle and move forward together.”

Also problematic, the parents assume their child is gifted and yet their son admits “It’s not that I know the material. . . .” The student feels the pace is a little slow, but the parents don’t ask the teacher, “Is it possible to increase the pace?” They’re focusing exclusively on their child, who they believe, rightly or wrongly, is gifted. In contrast, the second year teacher is attempting to do her best for all of the students in the class. That’s one important thing parents get wrong, they assume secondary teachers, who typically interact with 100-150 students a day, are able to know their child well and individualize their curriculum and adjust their instructional pace for them. The very best can and do, but they’re the exception to the rule. Most teachers, especially new ones like my friend, teach to the middle to the best of their abilities.

Most problematic is the tone of the letter. Granted, as taxpayers the Least Favs pay the teacher’s salary, but teachers are human, and therefore parents are most effective when they seek common ground with teachers. Like trial lawyers, the Least Favs seem intent on winning an argument without any feel for what “winning” will cost in terms of the teacher’s sentiment towards them, and possibly their child.

Take aways or how to partner more effectively with teachers:

1) When communicating concerns with teachers, start positively. I suspect the first two paragraphs were like body blows; consequently, the positive points in paragraphs three and four were probably lost on my friend. Everyone is more receptive to constructive criticism after positive feedback.

2) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Before pressing a teacher to differentiate their instruction, acknowledge that it’s “probably not very easy” to account for individual differences in background knowledge, skill, and aptitude.

3) Create positive momentum by honoring the teachers’ experience by asking “What have you or colleagues of yours done that’s worked in situations like this in the past?” The implication being “You’re a professional who can resolve the dilemma or partner with other teachers to resolve it.”

4) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Instead of demanding follow up communication, say you’d appreciate some sort of follow up in the next few weeks. Increase the odds of a quick response by acknowledging that it’s “probably not very easy to communicate promptly with every parent every time something bubbles up.”

5) Ask what, if anything, you can do at home to also help improve the situation.

This Cal Bear Gives Me Hope

And that’s no small feat because I confess, after thirty years in the game, I’m too cynical about the potential of educators to reform schooling in the U.S.

Tony Smith, a 44 year-old former offensive lineman for the Cal Bears, and current Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, gives me hope. Never mind that parents in the district are trying to recall five board members for supporting Smith’s proposals for improving Oakland’s schools.

If you need an infusion of hope, take eleven minutes to watch the interview with Smith embedded in this PBS story. I like what Smith says and how he says it. Money quote, “You can’t just transform a single institution and expect to change all the (negative educational) outcomes.

In essence, Smith is saying the dropout, or “pushout” rate, is not the fault of just the schools; consequently, reversing it will require the help of the County Health Department, Housing Authority, and lots of other groups and people in the community.

We have a choice. We can continue to think simply and single-mindedly about the dropout problem and blame teachers exclusively, or as Smith suggests, we can reframe the problem in terms of community development. Smith’s approach emphasizes school-community partnerships so that students begin developing the necessary skills to succeed at specific jobs in the region.

Liberals like me who are skeptical of meritocratic rhetoric will support Smith. Conservatives who lambasted Hillary Clinton’s book “It Takes a Village” will push back, hence the effort to recall the board members.

A note of concern. Eleven minutes isn’t nearly long enough to get much of a feel for Oakland’s schools, but I dislike when the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) religion sidelines the humanities and schooling is thought of strictly in utilitarian, preparation for work ways. Smith alludes to some female students becoming passionate about math and science work. Great, but what about the potential of the humanities and arts to light similar fires in students? Curriculum development shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.

The thing that most intrigues me about Smith is his use of language. It matters because ideas matter. “Pushout” versus “dropout” and “opportunity gap” versus “achievement gap”. Here’s hoping the Oakland parents chill and give Smith more than the typical three years to implement his ideas and see if they Bear fruit.

Deja Vu All Over Again

When the first George Bush was president he oversaw a process that resulted in eight National Education Goals that were straight out of the Republican play book. When Clinton took office he surprisingly said, “Those sound good to me.” 

Now, when I listen to Obama education soundbites, I hear echos of the national educational goals, especially with regard to privileging math and science education at the expense of not just the humanities, but every other subject area.

Here’s a question I’d like someone in the press corp to ask the PE at his next press conference: Your repeated emphasis on math and science education is consistent with your last few predecessors who viewed schooling as a key variable in continued economic growth. Is that the exclusive purpose of schooling or are there other important purposes?

Maybe PE Obama should just get on with it and expedite things by passing an executive order declaring that all elementary schools teach reading and math exclusively and all secondary schools teach math and science exclusively.

The redundant social studies, art, music, foreign language, English, and other teachers can contribute to economic growth by rebuilding highways and bridges.