I remember peeking into the teachers’ lounge when I was an elementary student and saw something that literally rocked my world. To be honest, it sort of messed with my head for a long time. I discovered that my 3rd grade teacher smoked cigarettes!! It wasn’t a big deal that my dad smoked, but Mrs. Sinclair?? Noooo! I might be dating myself a bit, but yes, teachers puffed on a little tobacco while blowing off steam many moons ago.
We no longer use those spaces to light up when students are at recess. They’re simply a place for us to do what you’d expect – eat our lunches, snack on leftover cupcakes from someone’s class party, grab a quick coffee, and to occasionally vent frustrations with friend-colleagues. Contrary to popular belief, teachers are regular folk and handle frustrations similar to other working professionals. We talk with friends about personal issues, share good news among groups, loudly complain to others who will listen, and some even cry. Sentimental teachers, you know who you are! One day while reheating my lunch I observed two colleagues venting their frustrations. It only took a few seconds for me to wish that microwave could work a little faster. They were sharing their frustrations about parents and the perceived lack of involvement with their children’s education. Everyone has bad days – including teachers. However, in this instance I simply wasn’t in the mood to hear some the routine complaints about parents not checking/ helping with homework, failing to show up for school events or conferences, or refusing to respond to calls or emails. Instead of focusing on the perceived shortcomings of family members, teachers must devise ways to connect with parents and see the potential they have in being an integral part of their success as teachers.
Teachers are operating within a culture of increased accountability, and are continually looking for ways to improve student achievement. The obvious and most important reason for student achievement is because it benefits children to ensure they’re prepared for increased academic and social challenges. The other reasons for wanting our students to achieve is because results matter — for pay increases, additional funding for programs, evaluations, and the ability of teachers and administrators to keep their jobs. I’ve seen my fair share of colleagues leave the principal’s office in tears after being notified that their services will not be required for the following school year. Such decisions are also difficult for administrators. As we continually consider ways to increase achievement among students, I often wonder if educators are underestimating the importance of the relationships that they share with families as a way to promote achievement among all students?
Many educators have attended the Flip Flippen workshops on capturing the hearts of children, been taught the necessity of Love and Logic in designing school environments, and have participated in multiple professional development sessions that train them on how to innovate instructional practices as a way to engage their students. Similarly, I’ve had my fair share of thought-provoking dialogue with fellow, future educational leaders and professors on policies and actions designed to close achievement gaps among students. While those types of training sessions and conversations are important, the overwhelming majority of them focus exclusively on students as if they live and operate within a vacuum and without significant influence from parents and other family members. As a teacher I’ve participated in numerous meetings where we’ve talked among ourselves on the importance of engaging parents, but I’ve never seen an instance where parents have been asked to participate in a training session as a way for teachers to hear directly from those we’re trying to engage. Seems logical, right? Likewise, those years of thought-provoking conversations with fellow graduate students rarely include opportunities to hear directly from parents and caregivers. Semester after semester is spent talking about families and the influence of policy on families, but I recall only two instances over the last five years where families have been asked to share their experiences and concerns with future school leaders. Many teachers have mastered the teacher-student relationship concept, but struggle when it comes to how to interact with families in a manner that promotes an on-going, reciprocal relationship between themselves and parents. Kids are easy — some parents can be pretty tough.
As a rookie teacher in 2011 I vividly recall my first experience with a parent who had been labeled as “tough.” Paul was a Special Forces soldier, and he was a little rough around the edges. His demeanor wasn’t a surprise — considering he had a job where he risked his life, and had been required to possibly take the lives of other individuals. Despite his occasional gruff and demanding encounters with teachers, I simply saw him as a guy trying to do what was best for his son. A few months into the school year I was buzzed by the office because Paul wanted to meet one day before classes began. It wasn’t a scheduled appointment (teachers REALLY don’t like those), but I had a few moments and didn’t mind seeing what Paul needed. Paul sat for a few moments without saying much, and then began to talk and cry. His wife had left him, and had taken their infant daughter. He was concerned about his son coping with major upheaval because of the instant change within their home. This was Paul’s second marriage, and another experience of his son/my student losing a mom. In this instance it was his stepmom. I told Paul I was sorry to hear what was happening within his family, and asked if there was anything I could do to help — in addition to ensuring consistency in his son’s environment at school. He shared that he wanted to provide a heads-up in the event his son began having trouble at school. Paul and his wife temporarily reconciled. Unfortunately, he and his entire family would experience major medical, emotional and legal challenges the following year.
Considering that Paul’s demeanor and personality had been significantly shaped by his experiences as a soldier, it’s likely easier for some to be accommodating concerning his needs as a parent. That’s important, but what about the single mother whose child qualifies for free lunch, doesn’t appear to show concern for what her child is doing at school, and would rather navigate on her smartphone while you attempt to engage in conversations about school activities? Are our schools as willing to invest in ways to build a productive, ongoing relationship with her – or is she relegated to being part of a “they don’t care” conversation in the teacher’s lounge?
In his book, Why School, Mike Rose reminds us of the importance of attempting to understand what others are thinking and feeling as a way to build connections. He states, Part of the way we establish our shared humanity is by what we imagine goes on inside the head and the heart of others. If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts — an entire interior life — that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate. Rose’s guidance is very simple, but provides a framework that compels us to look beyond the actions of others if we truly desire to establish positive relationships. We must begin by recognizing that many parents come (back) into school environments with excess baggage that’s loaded with unpleasant school experiences from their childhood. The kid who hated school and felt he was picked on by teachers (and some are) eventually becomes a parent who might not trust your motives, and doesn’t feel compelled to participate in an environment that provided negative experiences when he was a student.
Recognize the challenge, and accept your role in changing the mindset of those parents as part of an effort to build an ongoing sense of community for all families within your schools and classrooms. Instead of perceiving lack of involvement by some as a failure of their ability to be proactive parents, see it as an an area where there’s room for improvement in an aspect of your role as a teacher. If you think about it, you wouldn’t blame your students for being unengaged during instruction. Nor would your boss — who’d likely give you a disapproving “side-eye” if he or she happened to visit your class and students showed little interest while you were trying to teach. On the contrary, you’d consult with veteran teachers and scour Pinterest for the latest and greatest activity for students…after meeting with your principal to try and explain that “issue” he observed while visiting your class. We must put forth a similar effort when attempting to engage parents…particularly, the “tough ones.” And, administrators must show similar concern when there appears to be a lack of consistent involvement and interest among all families within their school. This is especially vital when working in environments where students and families have been labeled in a manner that causes some educators to automatically assume there will be difficulties. “Disadvantaged”, “Title-I”, “SPED”, “Free and reduced” are some of the ingrained words within school culture that invoke specific perceptions and responses from teachers. While it’s challenging to remove or find alternative words to identify the various facets of our student population, it’s very easy to always see individuals and families from a position of strength — it’s a choice. Do it! The same holds true for the way we perceive parent involvement in education. It’s an ongoing dilemma for our profession, or a missed opportunity for teachers to tap into their most important resource for promoting student achievement.
My favorite one yet, Elmer!