I usually post on Sundays, but I just read an essay by a parent that triggers this response:
We all know relationships are a very important part of being a teacher. Who hasn’t heard the saying that kids won’t care about learning unless they know you care about them? In the last two posts, I’ve encouraged you to try to find something THAT student does that is positive. Looking for the positives in a student can change our whole perspective!
There is another person (or persons) with whom we need to establish a positive relationship: the parent. If you are like many teachers, you read that line and rolled your eyes. After all, if THAT student had parents who cared, would s/he be such a challenge?
Let me share a little story about me. I have a son. When he was a child, he was very challenging, both at home and at school. From what I head from teachers, A was rude, defiant, lazy, distracted, and he did not turn in homework. I used to feel sick when it was time for parent-teacher conferences. I wouldn’t sleep the night before. I knew I would hear a litany of negative things about the little boy I loved.
To make matters worse, I was an educator, for goodness sake! I knew what was expected of a child in school. I knew how to get 30+ kids in a single room to behave and how to instill a sense of self-discipline. What A’s teachers did not seem to know was that every day I did all of the things that I knew were supposed to work, all of the things I had suggested to parents during a parent-teacher conference myself. I never found a particularly good way to tell the teachers that A had an assigned homework time, that if he didn’t bring his homework home, he would be assigned homework by me. He had a bedtime that was enforced. He was encouraged to read and explore his interests. He was forced to practice his saxophone daily. We played chess. He did chores. He was disciplined when he make a poor behavior choice. Screen time was limited. We did things together. In short, we did all of the things one would expect a parent of a “good” kid to do. And if I did manage to tell the teacher these things, it was always clear that s/he didn’t believe me.
As I would listen to teachers tell me things like, “He’s smart but . . .”, I would cringe inside. As the teacher began to speak in a more and more patronizing tones, I would take a firm grip on my anger with both hands. I would feel furious and guilty at the same time. At school functions I felt like teachers were whispering among themselves, “You see her over there? That’s A’s mom. Did you know . . .” After all, I had heard teachers say such things in the school where I taught, so why wouldn’t the same be true at A’s school? I felt judged and belittled.
(Yes, A is smart. He earned the second highest ACT score in the state the year he took that exam, but he graduated from high school with a 1.0 grade point average. He managed to raise his GPA that high the day before graduation by showing the English teacher the novel he was allegedly writing; he’d managed to knock off the first three chapters the night before.)
This repeated for every parent-teacher conference for every year A was in school. I figure that is about 26 conferences, and that does not count telephone contacts or letters or “mid-term reports” that would usually arrive just about in time for report cards to come out and it does not count the times I was asked to come to the school for a “special” conference. Is it any wonder that I felt stressed and angry and fearful at the thought of going to conferences or attending school functions?
My son was diagnosed with ADD when he was very young, back when it was called “minimal brain dysfunction.” I did all of the things the doctors recommended: medication, changing his diet, using behavior modification strategies. I would try to talk to teachers each school year about what that kind of diagnosis meant and how I wanted to work with them so that we would be a united team to help A reach his potential. Each year the teachers would demonstrate that they did not really understand ADD (“He pays attention to the computer well enough!”) and they began to assign the “challenging” label to him, and would talk about his “bad behavior.”
Although I lobbied for my son, and even though I repeatedly requested 504 plans, I was consistently told that he did not qualify. I heard this even when I was working on my masters and studying education law. I knew he qualified for many things, but the schools told me he did not and that if I would just do this or that, he would “straighten out.”
I can honestly say that in A’s whole school career I only heard one positive thing about him and that was from the school principal when I was called in to discuss some other infraction.
Why do I tell you all this? To show that I have a prejudice? To gain some sympathy? No. I tell you this because I have a unique perspective: I’ve seen students’ behavior from both sides of the desk – from the perspective of a teacher, from the perspective of a parent, and, later, from the perspective of a school principal.
Because of this unique perspective, I learned something: parents who care deeply about their child’s school success can be alienated from the whole school system.
If you’ve taught for any time at all, you know what it is like to deal with parents who are alienated from the schools. These are the parents who do not answer emails, who do not return phone calls, and who do not come to school functions. They are the parents who are hostile when we do catch up to them or who seem to dismiss our suggestions and requests. They can be the parents we dread to contact because we know they will yell or blame us for whatever the student is doing. Eventually we start to shake our heads and talk about how so-and-so’s parents let him or her get away with murder and who just don’t care.
Raising A taught me many things. One thing is that parents do care. They may not care in the way you would like them to care, but they do care. They are doing the best they can, and while we educators may not agree with how they deal with school issues, they are trying to raise their child well.
Don’t get me wrong! It only takes a single trip to WalMart or the grocery store to see parenting styles that any teacher would classify in the fail column! Nonetheless, parents do care.
So why do so many parents act like they don’t care? Because of their previous experiences with the school, and their perception of what the “school” thinks of their child.
I tried an experiment when I was still in the classroom. I was reading on my never ending quest to know more about classroom management and discipline, and I found a suggestion that I contact every student’s parent(s) with something positive about him or her at least once a month. I was teaching middle school at the time and saw more than 100 students per day. I wasn’t sure I had enough time to do it, but I gave it a try. I was overwhelmed by the response. I heard parents sob on the other end of the phone and tell me they had never once heard anything good about their child from the school. I had parents tell me that they were surprised that anyone at the school liked their child. Suddenly I had parents describing me as one of the “good” teachers even though I was strict. In fact, they would praise my being strict with their child. The principal called me into her office to tell me that she’d received phone calls about me, positive phone calls.
Why did they react this way? I think the parents defined it best: they believed those positive phone calls meant that I liked their child. Later, if I had occasion to make a call about something negative the student did, they were much more willing to listen and to discuss what we, together, could do about it.
I tried the same tactic when I became a principal. I could not contact every student’s family every month, but I picked out the kids who had a reputation for being chronic troublemakers. I watched those kids and made calls about the positive things they did. The response again was positive.
(You can read a short essay I wrote about this in ASCD Express: http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol9/905-roe.aspx )
So besides your relationship with the students, there is another relationship for you to nurture: your relationship with parents. Yes, there are parents with whom it is very easy to establish that positive relationship. It is more challenging to contact the “helicopter” parents and still more challenging to work on the relationship with those parents who have a reputation for not caring or for hating the school system It can be done, and the rewards are enormous. Every positive contact a teacher makes is like putting money into the bank. When that day arrives when the teacher has to make that contact about the student’s negative behavior, that “bank account” pays huge dividends!
Don’t forget that not every household has internet access. It costs money that many families do not have, and it is hard to come by in rural areas. Email is convenient, but it is not the only way to contact parents. I learned to love voice mail. I could make a call, leave a quick message – “Hi, this is Ms. Roe from school. I just wanted to let you know that . . .” I came to believe that there was something more personal about using the phone anyway.
Give it a try! Hopefully, you are already looking for positive things about each of the students, especially THAT student, as suggested in previous posts. You know some of the reasons we form negative opinions about students and are, hopefully, working on ways to overcome the self-fulfilling prophesy. Take the next step and start to let parents know about the positive things you’ve noticed about their child. It is well worth the effort!