As far as life-changing events go, there’s no doubt that having my children changed me in an instant. And not just as a parent, but as a teacher too. Parenthood didn’t cause me to change my teaching philosophy or create new classroom procedures, but it did give me a valuable perspective. Immediately, I understood the implicit hope that the world would be good and just and full of opportunity for my children. I also understood, viscerally, what parents need from teachers: to recognize the infinite potential in each student, even when he can’t see it in himself; to know that fair and equal aren’t the same; and to be fully present with the children we work with.
Yet, as a person who has met and talked with tens of thousands of teachers from across the country, I also know that teachers can’t do this work alone. We come into this profession because we have the same implicit hopes for your children as you do. Why is it, then, that I hear far too many stories of teachers and parents working at odds, rather than as partners? Here are a few things parents should know about teachers and the work they do, in order to truly support your child’s education.
Teachers are Professionals
By the second week of June, I’ve usually fielded several of these comments: “Oh, you’re a teacher? You’re so lucky to have your summers off.” I always cringe inside when I hear this. Actually, we don’t get our summers off. Most teachers I know end up working most of June and most of August. Whether they’re taking classes, attending professional development or working in their classrooms, teachers are busy long after the kids are gone and far before the kids return.
Teachers also work 12 months in the space of 10. We are deliberate craftspeople who spend countless hours designing lessons, continuing our education, collaborating with other teachers, and thinking about--caring about--the children who walk through our doors each day. Everyone’s work is tough and skilled and demanding in its own unique way; the classroom is no different.
Don’t Gang Up on Us
Recently, I overheard a conversation between a father and a teacher. With his daughter sitting next to him, he said, “I want my daughter to be responsible, but only if you’re doing your job first.” I was struck by the way she sat up taller, more smugly. This is the first step to undermining a productive partnership. Teachers want to help students solve problems; in fact, problem-solving is a fundamental part of what we teach. But this was clearly a conversation about blame, rather than one intended to solve a problem. I found out, later, that this same student all but demanded an A for the semester because she had “worked hard and was getting an A in all of her other classes.” Luckily, the teacher coached her through different ways to advocate for herself, but imagine what the lesson would have been if she hadn’t.
Talk to Us, Not About Us
Partnerships can become doomed when communication breaks down. One way to invite strained communication is by avoiding teachers and talking to their administrator first. So many times I’ve heard administrators recall a phone conversation where their first response was, “Have you talked to the teacher yet?” If the answer is “no,” then an important piece of the conversation is missing. A teacher explanation can usually fill in the gaps and start the problem-solving process. We really do want to know when something is amiss, but starting with mistrust can make for a tenuous partnership.
You Have to Do Your Part, Too
A great way to forge a new kind of partnership is to be present when you can. When you show interest in school and in education, the children will too. Make every effort to come to parent/teacher conferences. In fact, it’s one of my favorite parts of the year: I get to learn something about my students that only their parents can share. Volunteer if you have time or check the school’s website to see what is going on.
There’s just one exception to this: Respect the rules of the classroom. If you have to contact your child during the day via his cell phone, make sure he knows that doesn’t mean he has to answer it. Just last week, a phone rang in class. I glanced in the direction of the sound thinking I’d see the student putting it away, but instead I heard his voice, “Hello?” I asked why he was answering a phone call in the middle of class. He replied, “It was my mom. She needed to tell me where I’m supposed to go after school.” I reminded him that’s what a lunch break and the front office are for. We want to see you involved and aware, but not interrupting class with a call.
Know the Difference between Learning and Grades
Our school has an online grade program where teachers record grades as they give them. It’s supposed to create more fluid communication, but more often than not, it creates an emphasis on the commodity of school, rather than on the learning. When we focus on points, quibble over a tenth of a percentage, or check the grade program 37 times in one day (one of my student’s parents actually did this) we’re sending a very clear message: it doesn’t matter what you learn, only what you appear to have learned.
And we know better. We’ve all been in a class where we got an A and didn’t learn a thing, but struggled in another class and learned more than we ever would have imagined. An insistence on point-driven learning leads to students becoming risk-averse in their studies and not challenging themselves. We should be asking what they learned, what they’re curious about, or what they want to learn next, because these are the questions that truly lead to lifelong learning, much more than a good grade.
We know that you’re sending to school each day the very best child you can. And we’re sure you know that we’re trying to send home every day, the very best child we can. It reminds me of the second realization of motherhood, right after implicit hope: implicit knowledge that I was going to make some mistakes. But as my 5-year old daughter recently reminded me, “it’s not a mistake, Mom, if you learn from it.”
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. She was the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for the Teaching Channel. She is also a mom to 3 children.