With the holidays nearly over here in Victoria, I think it is timely I write this post. I need to get some thoughts that have bounced around in my head out and into the public domain before the new school year begins. I fear that, should I write this on active duty it may appear like a thinly veiled attack at someone or other and that certainly isn’t my intention.
The focus for this post is some of the less desirable aspects of parental involvement in education and I almost wish it wasn’t. I’ve written and redrafted this post 5 times now. The problem is the dynamic between parents and schools (and specifically teachers) is incredibly complex, so the subject matter can be quite volatile. It is however, an incredibly important area of education and if I don’t write something about this now, I lose the chance for the better part of the year, so here goes…
I’ll begin with a comment from “Coach” John Wooden of UCLA Basketball fame. When discussing how he came up with his personal philosophy on effort back in 1934 he said,
“…teaching at a high school in South Bend, Indiana, [I was] a little bit disappointed, and delusioned perhaps, by the way parents of the youngsters in my English classes expected their youngsters to get an A or a B. They thought a C was all right for the neighbors’ children, because the neighbors children are all average. But they weren’t satisfied when their own — would make the teacher feel that they had failed, or the youngster had failed. And that’s not right.”
My experience has been slightly different and maybe it is a sign of a gradual social shift over the years. Rarely will parents comment on grades these days – to me anyway. Instead, the fight seems to be over perceptions of behavior. It’s not uncommon for some parents to question or complain when their youngster’s inappropriate actions receive a consequence. So, if I may be allowed to modify Wooden’s observation, it’s as if they thought the school rules were all right for the neighbors children because the neighbors children need school rules. But all the school rules shouldn’t apply to their own.
Wooden’s anecdote brings up a key concept: Parents are often biased. Many are incapable of looking at their children or their children’s actions objectively. They were apparently biased in Indiana in the 1930s, quite a few are much the same in Melbourne in the present day, and I’ll bet it’s no different in whatever part of the world you’re reading this now also.
And I’m completely OK with this. This is how it should be. For heaven’s sake, is there anything more intensely personal and subjective than what you see as the wellbeing of your kids? If a parent isn’t going to be their child’s strongest supporter than who on earth will be?
Bet you didn’t expect me to go there did you! You thought I was going to rant about declining standards etc right? Well, like I said this is a complex thing and I think my profession would do well to remember sometimes that it is the right, and indeed the responsibility, of a parent to be their child’s greatest advocate. Since there’s no real guidebook, they must do this in the ways they think best.
I’m not completely forgiving though. Wooden was spot on when he said making a teacher feel they have failed is not right. Being adversarial is understandable but not acceptable. Just as some parents are single minded and subjective about their child, it’s the hallmark of a great many teachers and schools that they try to be objective and fair to all the children they educate.
Therefore parents must appreciate that their child has an obligation to conform to the school’s expectations and practices. Meeting the school’s expectations is easy for some and not so easy for others so it’s a learning process in itself. Teachers and Schools place consequences on actions – or inaction in the case of work not done – when they feel it is appropriate. They do this in the best interests of the school community and, yes, for the individual in question. Schools don’t always pass on good news. As much as I can appreciate that some parents may not like it when it’s their child’s behavior has been called into question, a confrontational or aggressive call to someone in charge is never acceptable.
I could go on here but I think the point is clear enough. Time now to move to my second point. I mentioned above that ‘children have an obligation to conform to the school’ and I know how troubling that sounds to many. It conjures up images of repressing individuality. Maybe some think of military style academies where the child’s spirit is broken down and strict discipline is used to brutal effect, rebuilding children into drones. Maybe George Orwell’s 1984 springs to mind, where the pups were taken away and ‘educated’. Possibly you recall the video to Pink Floyd’s Wall pt2, with its rows of hammers marching in perfect formation while they sing “Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!”
The word ‘conform’ can be quite alarming to some parents. I get it.
But I don’t buy into the fear and I stand by the statement. Students do need to conform to school expectations. If you look closely at any school’s expectations they usually reflect the same expectations society has for the parents themselves. Schools want students to be civil, respectful, punctual, well attired, and sincerely putting in an effort. That’s pretty much what every employer expects too isn’t it? Rules aren’t designed to break anyone’s spirit or victimize little people. They are designed to allow for stability and cohesion in their school community so that genuine learning can take place.
Ok. So more than 1000 words later I’ve managed to scratch the surface of the topic at least. I’ll finish with this. The parent/teacher relationship is indeed incredibly complex but not hopeless. The overwhelming majority of parents I’ve dealt with over the years have been supportive and appreciative of my efforts and those of my colleagues.
As the year progresses I’ll get around to posting about parental involvement in a more positive light. For now though let’s end with this, we’re all human and we all share a common goal. I just think there’s room for a bit more understanding, trust and patience on both sides.
John Wooden’s TED talk (worth 15 minutes of your time)