In my last post I wrote about my perspective as a teacher and a parent. I ended with the question: What are parents doing that might contribute to the gaps in their children’s education? Here is my answer:
1. The first mistake parents make is blaming the teacher for all of their children’s inadequacies.
The best way to explain this mistake is by an example. A few years ago, parents came in after school to talk to me about their son’s low grade. Their son had a C- in my honor’s freshmen class. I could tell they were angry with me before they started talking.
“Why didn’t you contact us?” they demanded.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Why did I need to contact you?” I questioned.
“You watched his grade plummet from a C+ to a C-.” This student didn’t study very hard for his first vocabulary test, so the C+ was the highest grade he had had in my class. “You should have emailed us when you noticed this.” They spit at me.
In my most polite and matter-of-fact voice I responded with “I don’t notice those small changes. If he dropped to a D or F, I might have emailed you. But it is your responsibility to watch your child’s grade. If it dropped to an unacceptable level for you, I expected you to contact me, which is exactly what you did because you are here now. So how can I help you help your son?”
“I want you to care about my son’s education!” The mom raised her voice.
“I do care. I have asked him over and over again how I can help him, but he has rejected my help.”
“He’s shy. You need to force him to talk to you.”
“My daughter was shy as well. I forced her to talk to her teachers. She hated it and me for a while, but she got over it and now talks to her teachers all the time. Teachers are not mind readers. I can’t force my help on a high-school student. I would love to help him; he just needs to let me know how. I don’t know what his needs are.”
“He needs you to have reasonable expectations. How do you expect students to memorize 250 vocabulary stems by the end of the school year?”
“I give them 25 stems at a time. The tests are cumulative. Many students are getting 100% on those tests. It’s not an unreasonable expectation. Did he take honors English by mistake?”
“No! We wanted him to take it. It looks better on transcripts.”
“It looks better because the expectations are higher. In order for students to succeed in advanced classes, they need to develop a strong work ethic. Also, my vocabulary program helps students perform better at all levels and in all classes.” I turned to their son, “What are your study methods? Are you studying every night like I suggested?”
“No. I’m too busy with sports.”
I turned to the parents, “That’s one way you can help him. Help him study every night.”
“We are too busy with our jobs to help him study.” They were incredulous that I would even dare suggest such a thing to them.
“I’m sorry. I’m confused again. If you are too busy to help your own son with his education, what do you expect from me?”
“For you to do your job! You are his teacher! He needs to get an A! You are ruining our son’s life!” They pounded the desk in front of them. “We want him to get into an ivy league college, but he won’t with a C on his transcript!”
“I’m not giving him a C. That’s what he’s earning. I still don’t know what you want me to do. I will not change my curriculum to make it easier for all students to get an A. I have high expectations, yes, but they are not unreachable. Many of my students get A‘s. Your son can get an A as well. He just needs to study more and ask clarifying questions when he’s confused.”
“You are impossible! I obviously can’t talk to you about my son. You must hate him!” As they angrily stood up to leave, the mom shot a nasty look at me, “Why do people who hate children become teachers?”
The three of them stormed out of my room and marched straight to the principal’s office. When he didn’t respond the way they wanted him to, they met with the superintendent. I lost track of their movements after that. I’m assuming they remained disgruntled because I kept my job, and I was not asked to dumb-down my curriculum. I have heard through the grapevine that these parents believe public education failed their son.
2. The second mistake parents make is they don’t question the A.
When I get students as juniors, the biggest complaint I get from parents is, “Why isn’t my child getting an A like he/she did in all his other classes?” These students usually can’t write and have a non-existent work ethic.
I ask the parents what kind of homework their child brought home freshman and sophomore years. Almost every time, the parents tell me, “I never saw him/her do any homework.”
Parents, please hear me loud and clear: If your child is getting an A in any class but you never see him/her writing a paper or studying for a test, your child is not getting the education he/she deserves.
I know that an A usually means everything is going well, but if there is no work to show for that A, then that A is meaningless. I’m not saying that every child should have hours of homework every night, but they should be writing (at the minimum typing a final draft of an essay) at least a few times a month for each of their classes, if not more often. An A with no proof of actual learning taking place is just a letter.
I get students at the junior level who cannot write a logical sentence, yet they have been straight A students until my class. When I give these students opportunities to revise essays, they have no idea how to fix them. It is one of the most frustrating parts of my job. Instead of improving and preparing these juniors for the next level, I have to teach the basics of communication and sentence structure.
All of this could have been avoided if these students and their parents confronted their previous teachers (of all subjects) with the lack of writing and challenging work in their classes, instead of being happy with the grade. I know we all want teachers who are kind to our children, but I also want my children to be challenged; I want them to learn how to communicate well. Many teachers hand out A‘s to deflect the angry parents, like the example I gave earlier. Parents rarely pound on desks when their children have A‘s, even if there is no evidence that their children are learning, no evidence that their children are being challenged to become thinkers and problem solvers.
Instead of the desk pounding in my classroom the parents from the above example did over their son’s C, they should have been in those other classrooms asking the teachers to challenge their son so he could develop a better work ethic, a work ethic that is absolutely necessary at an ivy league college. Those parents should have been asking previous teachers to create more writing assignments so their son could improve his thinking and communication skills. All those parents cared about was the A, not the learning.
3. The third mistake parents make is they help too much or not enough.
I have encountered both types of parents, and neither type truly cares about their child’s education; yet they will blame me for somehow failing their child.
Parents help too much because they get frustrated with guiding their children in completing their homework; it’s easier for parents to complete the assignment, rather than guide their children. Instead of saying, “What steps do you need help with?” Or “Let’s learn about this topic together,” some parents just do it for their children. These enabling parents, more likely than not, clean up after their children as well, instead of dealing with the resistance and teaching the necessity of doing chores.
Even though it is hard at times and time consuming to 1) let children do the work, 2) check it for errors, and 3) discuss with them what could be fixed or improved, it’s better than the alternative. Children who aren’t encouraged to do their own work will feel inadequate with their abilities. They will become intellectually crippled in the classroom, waiting for the answers or for someone to complete the work for them. These children will someday become adults who can’t solve problems, who doubt their own intelligence, and who are afraid to try because they’ve never been able to develop a work ethic. They will not be competent citizens.
Parents need to set up rules with their children and follow through. Encourage them to do something well, not just get it done. I make my son rewrite his answers until they are legible. He fights me sometimes, but what is finally happening is he is trying harder the first time so he doesn’t have to do it over again. Yes. It may take longer, but what is more important than helping children with the abilities and skills they will need to ensure a successful future?
The other type of parent is the prideful, hands-off parent. Over and over again I hear from the parent who is a writer or an English teacher or a successful professional who proudly tells me, “I never help or even read my child’s papers. It’s your job to teach him/her how to write. Not mine.” Every time I hear this I want to shake my head and yell, “What? Why the hell not?” But of course, I’m not allowed to have a reaction like that, so I try to encourage those parents to find a healthy balance of helping vs. doing. Children should have autonomy in their homework: Let them write the rough draft, so it’s theirs, but everyone can benefit from an editor. I know I never publish without someone looking at my post first. And if a parent has the knowledge base to give a grammar and writing lesson on top of that, that’s an added bonus. Why would anyone want to rob their children of that kind of instruction?
I don’t understand when that kind of help became my job, only. Even if a parent doesn’t have a degree in English or communications, most people can tell if writing is detailed enough, if it answers a prompt, or if it has sentence structure problems. Parents should suggest ways to fix an error or question the meaning of something. What a great way to engage with their children and to emphasize the importance of education! I know it takes time to work with a child’s writing, but that one-on-one help is exactly what some children need to thrive. Who better than a loving parent to help with that?
My next post will present a number of positive ways parents can be instruments of change in their children’s schools.
What are your thoughts on the mistakes parents make? I’d love your feedback.