Teacher Independence: The Best Allies

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It’s been awhile since our last foray into the concept of teachers’ quietly rebelling against all the outside interference trying to burrow into their classrooms, and instead just doing what they know to be in the best interests of their students.  As always in these essays, it’s important to emphasize that this independence does not mean teachers ignore cooperatively developed educational standards, with input from all participants in the learning process (students, parents, administrators, school boards, community member/leaders, and of course, teachers).  But the implementation methodology for those standards needs to be left to those who understand best what can and cannot work for their situations—teachers.  And yes, teachers do need supervision over and transparency in that implementation.  Without the ability to take control and tailor those standards to the needs of their kids, though, teachers will never attain or maintain the dedication, enthusiasm, and skill in educating children that our society demands.  You won’t get great teachers without great working conditions, and without that independence (which is the foundation of those great working conditions), any reform will end up as the vast majority of them have—with revenue wasted and opportunities for kids missed.

As you can see from all the significant public education participants listed above, the independent teacher needs many others to assist in providing those learning opportunities to students.  Some of those players, unfortunately, will be better helpers than others.  Even more confounding, this year’s obstacle can quickly change to an arch supporter—the result of new classes, retirements, elections, changing demographics, promotions, demotions, fertility rates, cultural evolution, and/or economic cycles.  Obviously and unfortunately, the opposite is just as likely to occur when a previous ally mutates into a new nemesis (most teachers would probably agree that the supporter-to-obstacle transition has been more common lately).  Like just about everything in our lives, the only consistency is inconsistency.  An independent teacher, therefore, should pay close attention to the others involved in education, however indirectly.

I discuss the hierarchy of the other educational players in more detail in Snowflake Schools, but the most important and challenging group for high school teachers to work with would be parents.  You can immediately see the issues that will arise when teachers try to form partnerships with up to one-hundred-fifty different families and the various parenting arrangements each household might have.  The problems with trying to reach any kind of consensus with that many disparate groups causes most public education reformers to gloss over parents in whatever plans they push for high schools.  It has proven difficult to involve high school parents in meaningful ways consistently, and even communicating teacher-to-parent takes much time and is only formally planned once or twice a year in the form of conferences and Open Houses (where teachers basically talk at parents for a couple of minutes.)

But without parental support, a teacher’s job is immeasurably more difficult.  In wealthier areas, lack of support shows up in parental interference and attacks on individual teachers who don’t conform to expectations (stellar grades and test scores for Junior, of course, regardless of Junior’s effort, as well as extra credit or pushed-back deadlines as needed.).  In economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, monetary pressures and previous poor results from public education can result in some families placing little emphasis on their children’s schoolwork, leading students to bad study and assignment-completion habits, to say nothing of poor attendance or parental follow-through when issues arise in the classroom.

Yes, there are some amazing teachers—actually a goodly number—who do overcome that lack of support from home to achieve great things, but those heights could soar much higher with more parental help.  Social reform to help places where weak economies have created habitually unsatisfactory educational results is finally being given serious consideration in the political discussion.  And that’s the best place for teachers to invest their “extra” time in those areas.  Until things like a reasonable minimum wage, fairer income distribution, and more equitable expenditures on public education are in place, it will be difficult to get better teacher/parent interactions in economically disadvantaged, high unemployment areas.  Let’s hope that just because Sanders didn’t secure the Presidential nomination, these issues don’t fade away now.  And that is up to all of us through our robust participation in the political process.  This election, as much as any other during our lifetimes, has an important choice for Americans to make on who will be our next President. Improving the economic landscape for everyone is crucial to improving public high schools, but not something independent teachers can really impact in their classrooms—so make sure to vote!

In the more middle-class, suburban school districts of this area, though, working conditions and parental support are much better.  And the aforementioned “interfering helicopter” parent who could be a problem can actually be helpful when properly channeled.  Too often, however, that doesn’t happen.

This is where teachers have to accept their fair share of responsibility in the weakness of this alliance.  Frequently, the hassle of trying to create parental involvement opportunities or dealing with the clashes over grades with concerned parents results in teachers erecting barriers to keep parents out of the loop entirely.  Of course there are a few parents who will go overboard in trying to influence their children’s educational outcomes, but every teacher can and should provide parents with access to information on class activities, student performance (behavior as well as grades), and opportunities for them to help.

Classroom teachers could learn from the examples set for them by athletic coaches (yes, I realize these are basically the same people).  The high school sports programs with which I am familiar have varying levels of parental involvement possible, but ALL of them have more than most academic classes.  Of course the pre-season parent meeting all the different teams will have is very much like the traditional Open House—with one key difference:  Parents are required to be at the team meetings, but have no such compunction for Open House.  I’m hoping that when you see it written like that, you’ll recognize how silly and backward that is.  But that team meeting (which is also generally at least an hour, compared with the ten minutes each classroom teacher gets with parents during typical open houses at high schools) is just the beginning.  Picture order forms, required work at concession stands, fund raisers (cookie dough, coffee, candy, pies, holiday wreaths, popcorn, and wrapping paper are just the ones I can remember off hand), team apparel purchases, the games/matches/meets themselves, and an end-of-season awards banquet are just some of the ways that parents can (and are encouraged to) get involved in their student-athlete’s sport.  Parents also fill roles in booster groups, even speaking at various school events.

Outside of the occasional generic fund-raiser that is run by a parent organization (your standard magazine sale), no academic high school class has anywhere nearly that many chances for parents to be a part of the action.  Is it any wonder that parents feel more intensely and positively about their kids’ teams than they do about their classes?  And let’s not forget to mention how many clubs and extra-curricular activities also do many of the things that athletic teams do; again, with much more parental participation than possible in the significantly more important (theoretically at least) academic areas.

r is that every high school has many examples of schools which involve parents more in academic activities right in the attendance area—the elementary schools.  From room mothers (isn’t it time to retire that sexist title?) to copier assistants, elementary schools find ways to utilize their parents to a much greater degree than high schools do.  Obviously, some of the decline in parental participation stems from our kids’ growing up and seeking to separate themselves from their terminally embarrassing parental units, but being sensitive to that self-consciousness shouldn’t deter adults from insisting on things which we know would help students to do better in school and to provide safer environments.

My philosophy (which has been in my blog’s title from the beginning) is that each school is a unique entity with its own issues which require solutions created by those most familiar with the culture, resources, and personnel available; so I would be remiss if I now lectured on THE answer to involving parents more significantly in high schools.  Thus, the following propositions should be considered in that light—ideas which may or may not be applicable to any one specific situation and are very much skewed to the suburban, middle-class high school in which I worked.  And these ideas would need to be tweaked to match up better with the one-of-a-kind situation any high school would present.  Therefore, my first suggestion would be for some community committee (teachers, parents, administrators, business leaders, senior citizens, and anyone else who has a stake in making high schools better—which would include everybody, in my opinion) to hammer out a few programs designed to involve parents in positive ways.  Key traits for this group to have would be a willingness to consider any ideas, a methodology for assessing how well various experiments work, patience, and a sense of humor.  With all that in mind, here a couple of specific programs that might help improve both high schools and parental participation.

Extra Help:  Parents could provide all kinds of assistance with various tasks in the school.  It would be important to make sure that overzealous fiscal conservatives didn’t try to eliminate current employees by substituting volunteer parents—that would definitely not improve school/community relations.  But as additional help, parents could really make a difference in how high schools function.  Just think about how likely teenaged cafeteria miscreants would be to act out with their mothers and fathers patrolling the lunchroom.  Would smoking in the bathrooms and bullying be reduced with five or six extra parents helping to keep the hallways calm?  Tutoring struggling students, greeting visitors to the building, running off copies, running passes from the main office to classrooms, and carrying books for injured students would be just some of the help parents could provide.

Mentoring:  A successful program instituted at schools where I worked was to assign an “at risk” student (one who’d struggled academically or behaviorally in junior high) to a teacher who would periodically have one-on-one contacts with the student.  Expanding that to include parents would only increase its effectiveness.  You would need some training program which would help everyone understand both school and community resources that could assist students, not to mention teaching effective communication and confidentiality requirements.  The awkwardness of having some strange adult with whom you were required to eat lunch once week could immediately turn off students, but with some introductory small group activities to help all participants get to know each other, rapport could be established before one-on-one mentoring would begin.  Obviously, you would need much groundwork laid with the school community to avoid anger from working parents who might view their child’s mentor as some meddling interloper who was intent on usurping their authority.   And you would need to figure out each parent’s strengths—some would do well in academic tutoring while other would be better suited to providing an emotional rock to which stormy teens could anchor themselves.   Like most things, the devil would be in the details, but the benefits for individual students and the school would easily outweigh the glitches of a mentoring program.

Classroom “performances” (reading essays or poems, conducting discussions, speeches, and presentations are just the ones that readily occur to an ex-English teacher), chaperoning, guest experts/career days, pep-assembly competitions, art shows, high school performers visiting community centers, and finding local businesses/organizations students could visit are just a smattering of the many other ways parents could be utilized to improve high schools. Our goal here wasn’t an exhaustive list to be set in stone, but instead arguing we should make it a priority to foster an environment where teachers and parents recognize how important their cooperation is.  And that leads to creative ideas constantly being generated and new experiments regularly being undertaken.  No, all those ideas and experiments will not work, but once the overall mindset has been incorporated into the culture of a classroom or school, minor setbacks won’t impede the march toward improvement overall.  The challenges of fostering better parental/school relations should not stop all parties from recognizing just how important this work is.  Our schools can only be as strong as their weakest link, and right now in most high schools, involving parents in a positive way is an area that could be significantly improved.

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