The Parent-Teacher Resolution

In many neighborhoods, the time of the year is fast approaching when parents completely freak over their children’s teacher assignments. Particularly Elementary Parent. At our local elementary school, parents, mostly moms, with cell phones ablaze, stampede toward the class lists taped to the front doors. It’s understandable because a good teacher can make a significant positive difference in one year just as a weak one can prove detrimental.

An educational truism—the quality of every teaching faculty at every school in todo el mundo is always uneven. Word that explicitly enough? Every faculty is a mix of really outstanding, good, and weak teachers. The best schools have more of the former and fewer of the later. And yes, I’m either experienced or arrogant (or both) enough to subdivide the teachers at your school after one site visit without (gasp) access to the students’ standardized test scores.

The inevitable unevenness creates a challenge for administrators who have to deal with parents who naturally want the very best teachers for their children. Consequently, they usually tell parents they can’t pick their children’s teachers. Those who get assigned their least favorite choice complain that the other parents manipulated the outcome by volunteering more, bribing or befriending the principal in some way, or both.

Before rushing the school door this year, take a deep breath and consider a couple of things. First, teachers’ reputations, typically based upon a flawed version of telephone tag, are often inaccurate. Consequently, the teacher who you’ve “heard” is a weak disciplinarian, may turn out to connect with your child in ways the “outstanding disciplinarian” never would have. Similarly, that rare male second grade teacher that everyone praises for being in total control may be so in control that students’ creativity is completely squelched. Often a disappointing assignment turns out more positively than expected.

Second, research suggests what we know intuitively, students are resilient. Case in point. I had lots of weak teachers and now I’m a famous blogger. Research indicates that students assigned to weak teachers two or three years in a row, not one, are at greater risk of falling behind their peers.

At this point Conscientious Parent is thinking, what the hell, I don’t care about the research. When it comes to my child’s future, why should I ever settle for a weak teacher? Because of the law of averages. When you roll the dice six times between Kindergarden and fifth grade, odds are you’re going to end up with teachers in all three categories.

At this point, I’d understand if you’re thinking, “Hey, you’re in teacher education. Why don’t you fix it so that every teacher is, like the Lake Wobegon children, above average.” Sadly, and long story short, I have concluded there are intractable problems in teacher education that are unlikely to be fixed in my lifetime.

While working to making the profession more desirable and to improve teacher education, parents should all make the following resolution: I am my child’s first most important teacher. Or in the case of a two-adult home: We are our child’s first most important teachers.

Set your cell phone down, slowly step back from the class list on the school door, and repeat: I am my child’s first most important teacher.

Too few parents fully grasp that. Simply put, they delegate too damn much.

This is what the homeschoolers don’t seem to understand. Students are in school 22% of the time they’re awake throughout the calendar year. You are in charge of the other 78%. Do teachers (and everyone in society) a favor and take the lead. To what degree do you partner with your children’s teachers? Do you make sure they get enough sleep, nutritious food, exercise? Do you limit their screen time? Do you know what they do on-line? Do you model a literate life? For instance, do you read or watch television more? Do you teach them fractions while baking in the kitchen, teach them about world geography while discussing current events at the dinner table, teach them how to apply math through word problems in the car? Are you a stable, committed, affectionate presence who models conflict resolution through peaceful problem solving?

Maybe that’s too many questions of too challenging a nature. Maybe your work is too tiring or you just have “too much on your plate”. Maybe you’d rather just keeping crossing your fingers that you win the teacher lottery.

Parent-Teacher Relations

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.