Saturday, March 12, 2016

Crazy Parents and Burned Out Teachers

To maximize their learning potential, students need support from teachers and parents. Unfortunately, this parent-teacher relationship is vulnerable. More than two decades ago I was majoring in Advertising at the University of Alabama. One of the first lessons we were taught was to control the message. Teachers are able to influence the message to an extent through newsletters, emails, phone calls, and notes. Proactive teachers use all of these methods to help parents visualize what is happening every day in their classrooms. However, the bulk of the message is communicated to parents through their children. And we all know you can't ever control what a child is going to say.

As much as my early degree in Advertising has helped me understand the importance of communication, I have still sat in conferences dumbfounded at a parent's inaccurate perception of their student, me or my classroom. I have been fortunate to work in a school where the vast majority of parents give teachers the benefit of the doubt. At our open house night I always tell parents they can ask me anything. I say, "If you don't like something or don't understand why we do it that way, ask me. I can explain why it works best that way, or I may say that I see your point and can make adjustments." A few weeks ago I had a parent text me to ask if we were behind in math. Her friend's third grader at another school was learning concepts in math we hadn't addressed yet. I was thrilled that she asked. I would far rather have her ask me than start texting the rest of the parents in the class asking what they thought. I've spent a lot of time and energy building strong relationships with my parents. It isn't always perfect. Sometimes you have to have difficult conversations. Sometimes parents do not want to hear what you need to say. I've found in these circumstances it is imperative that the parents understand you truly love their child. Because I was a mother of school age children before I became a teacher, I've always felt parent communications was one of my strengths.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on the other side of the parent-teacher conference table. My son has recently entered high school. It is the first time since he was in second grade that I have not worked full time at his school. His teachers have always been my colleagues and we have had excellent relationships. I have independent children and I try to let them manage their own lives as much as possible. I knew he loved his new school and I knew he spent a good bit of time on homework every night. However his grades were not meeting expectations. One class in particular seemed to be giving him trouble. I called friends in the same class and asked about their experiences. I asked my son how the teacher ran his class, posted assignments, and provided feedback. I called a few friends with children in the same class to gauge their experiences. Almost all of the information I received reinforced the idea that the program my son was in held him to a very high standard, but was not holding the teachers to the same accountability. I emailed the teacher to ask for advice on helping my son. The teacher only replied after three weeks when I sent another email to an administrator. His reply was filled with excuses and a scathing description of my son's lack of effort in class. He offered no advice to help my son. My son is far from the perfect student, but I had never received that type of feedback from a teacher. Fortunately the administrator insisted we schedule a conference.

The teacher was no better in the conference. He was defensive and continued to insist it was all my son's fault. I could go into specific details, but it isn't important. At the end of the conference, not only had I still gained no insight into helping my son, but I was afraid I had made him a target. This teacher was clearly burned out, angry and giving minimal effort to reach his students. The administrator sent the teacher back to class and asked me to stay for a little longer. She didn't blindly defend her teacher as so many administrators have been know to do. She had emailed each of my son's teachers and asked their perception of his performance as a student. She also had a conference with his English teacher and provided a sample of his work to compare to another anonymous student's work. She pulled up his standardized test scores to help me determine if it was an ability issue. At the end of the conference I was sure of a few things.

First of all the original teacher wasn't holding up his end of the bargain, but my son clearly was not giving his best effort in any of his classes. He had never really had to study to maintain good grades, and it was obvious that he needed more help learning solid study skills. I had taken my experience with one teacher and projected it onto the entire program which was unfair to the other teachers. I had listened to other parents perceptions and somewhere along the way had mixed up their children's complaints with my own child's. I was amazed at how quickly I had become one of those parents. My child isn't perfect. I never claimed he was, but I had not given the teachers enough benefit of the doubt. This didn't do my child any good at all. Now I'm taking a more active role in helping my son transition to high school.  I will also be more understanding the next time I have a parent-teacher conference with one of those "crazy" parents. After all, if I can go from zero to crazy in no time at all... just about any parent can. If I want my students' parents to give me the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to have to do the same for them.