Parents: Allies, Not Enemies

I’ve been teaching the first-semester course in a teacher education program since 2003. This is the very first course that students take after they’ve been admitted to the teacher education program. On the first evening of class, I always ask the students to work in groups to answer the following questions:

  1. What are you most excited about?
  2. What are you most nervous about?

Every semester, one of the most common answers to number 2 is: dealing with parents.

Why Are Parents Scary?

New teachers are scared of parents for lots of reasons. Probably the real reason is because they imagine their own parents angry at them, and they feel like caught, powerless children in the face of that. But bracketing the psychology of this, it’s likely that new teachers are only imaging parents as yelling at them.

There are some real issues angry-momwith parents. Media reports on helicopter parents, tiger moms, and other formidable stereotypes take an oversized role in new teachers’ minds. New teachers also always imagine themselves on the defensive with parents: trying to justify some action, grade, or event they can’t easily explain.  In reality, the iStockphoto-630x419vast majority of parents are concerned, busy people trying to do their best for their children. Just like teachers.

What Should Teachers Really Think of Parents?

Teachers should, and most do, think of parents as allies. Parents and teachers have the same goal: the best interests of the child. Yes, some parents have significant challenges–financial, emotional, medical, and worse–and we have to work with them. If a teacher has these issues and they interfere with their work, the teacher is let go. Parents rarely get fired. And teachers (and children) have to work with what they get.

That said, most parents are there for their kids, and doing the best they can. Teachers should treat them with respect and kindness. toddler_and_parent_smiling_with_book_02.jpgAnd, they should expect parents to be part of their students’ education. It would be nice if parents also treated teachers with respect and kindness, but this isn’t required. Parents can behave pretty much any way they want. And a few really push the envelope. THOSE are the parents new teachers are imaging. But they are not common.

Advice for New Teachers

New teachers should think of parents as allies in their students’ lives and educations. I have had many, many conversations with parents over the years, and the majority of them have gone very well.  Here’s some advice for teachers:

  1. When parents call, listen very carefully to what they say. If they think their child is being treated unfairly, it’s important that you truly appreciate their position.
  2. Repeat their concern back to them, so they know you understand them.
  3. Explain your response respectfully, clearly, and not defensively.
  4. Expect a respectful response.
  5. Sometimes teachers are wrong. If you are, admit it graciously and make the necessary apologies and adjustments.
  6. ALWAYS say something you like about the student. MEAN IT! See here for more on that.
  7. When you call a parent, clearly explain the issue, but start with something nice about the student. Again, see here.
  8. Here are some ways to voice concerns:
    • Johnny is not working up to his potential, and I’m concerned he’s not getting as much out of the class as he should be.
    • Jeannine’s behavior is interfering with other students’ learning.
    • Jamal has missed so many classes, that I’m concerned he is going to fall behind his classmates.
    • Juanita isn’t focusing in class, and I’m concerned that she isn’t getting enough rest to succeed.
  9. If you have any trouble with an unreasonable parent, be respectful, hang up, and speak with your department chair, principal, or a trusted senior colleague for advice. They’ve been there.

The point here is that teachers should care about what parents’ concerns are, and they should express concern about their students’ well being.  Teachers and parents have the same goal: the well being of the child.

Parents aren’t anyone to be afraid of: They are teachers’ allies. It’s not teacher vs. parent. It’s the student, teacher, and parent against the curriculum to be conquered!

parent-teacher-conference-featured

BONUS: To read one of my favorite authors writing about how teachers can engage parents as allies, see this article by Cathy Fleischer and her colleague.

The Bottom Line in Education: Real Student Learning

Measurement in capitalism is pretty easy: It’s profit. You can tell how effective something is by how much money it makes. Education is actually just this easy. What we should measure, the only thing we should care about, the only discussion we should have, the only thing we should fund, the absolute bottom line is: Student Learning.

Real Student Learning is Difficult & Expensive to Measure

The problem that we have is that student learning–real student learning–is extremely difficult to measure. Here are just some of the problems that make measuring real student learning so complicated:

  1. Some content is virtually impossible to measure. My field is English language arts. How do we measure literacy? We can give multiple choice tests, essay exams (which is what is done at scale now), but so many important ELA skills are left out: synthesizing ideas effectively, using words cleverly, making allusions to other knowledge, in-depth understanding of sophisticated content, originality, curiosity, use of peer feedback, ability to use sources well (including the Internet), understanding of multiple forms of correctness (as per genre, audience, purpose, etc.), speaking and presenting well, listening to others well, empathy, open-mindedness, discipline, ability to make difficult choices, editing writing so it is concise but still has impact, use of humor and drama, clarity.  The list goes on and on.ruler
  2. Isolating what impacts student learning is extremely difficult. Think of all the things that can prevent a student from learning effectively. There are big ones that some students face: serious hunger, homelessness, no time to study outside of school, no appropriate place to study outside of school, regular family strife, fear for one’s safety. There are also smaller issues: a bad night’s sleep, a fight with a friend or companion, illness, temporary distraction, a family fight, a flat tire, a disgusting lunch, a paper cut, immaturity. How many of these things can anyone really control?

Fake Student Learning

Real student learning is very expensive and very difficult to measure in a standardized way. Teachers can assess their students effectively, but when one tries to create a standard and compare one class to another, or one school building  to another, or a district to another, or a state school system to another, or a national school system to another, the process gets increasingly more impossible to be done well. 

So some have created what are essentially fake measures of student learning: Standardized exams that ignore the complications

Fake
It’s a Fake!

listed above. And then they use this essentially fake information to make claims about real students and real schools and to justify changes to them.

Perhaps it is true that measurement of real student learning is just too complicated and too expensive. Fine, let’s admit that. But we should not pretend that fake measures are good enough. They are not. Fake measures are deceiving and can be used to manipulate the public for private gain. And, that’s exactly what’s happening. This has set off a firestorm in American Education, and things don’t look like they’ll settle down any time soon.

Instead, we should focus entirely on the bottom line: Real Student Learning.

What Doesn’t Matter in Education? Everything that Doesn’t Address Student Learning

Pundits, politicians, reformers, and many other spend a great deal of time talking about aspects of education that are not centered on student learning. Here, I try to refocus some of those topics on the real bottom line.

Teacher Accountability. This is a big one. Teacher accountability matters, but ONLY in how a teacher’s actions affect real student learning. Fake measures won’t get to this measure. This is why local principals, peer teachers, parents, and students must be heavily involved in teacher evaluation. The fake measures of standardized exams aren’t telling the real story–in fact, they larger distract from them.

Teaching methods. The following things do not matter in teaching, except in how they affect real student learning: originality of methods, likability of the teacher, the behavior of the students, the look of the classroom, the volume of the classroom, the use of Internet blockers, the make up of the students, and more. All of these things DO affect how well the students learn. But that should be the ONLY way those things are measured. My classroom can be very loud and boisterous. No one should tell me to change that, unless doing so will increase student learning.

Ethical dilemmas. There are no ethical dilemmas in teaching (admittedly, this is may be overstating the case). But about any dilemma any teacher has, the following question can be applied: What action in this case that will result in the most real student learning? The answer to that question is ALWAYS the right thing to do. Of course, answering that question well requires a very smart, talented, and well-resourced teacher.

Bean Counting. Many districts must now put a lot of money into the act of gathering and reporting standardized data on the kinds of fake student learning listed above. If this money does not result in an increase in real student learning, it should stop. Period. We’re wasting money and effort.

Some Things that DO Matter in Education

Parental Relations: Help parents understand what they can do to help their children with schoolwork, starting with creating an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. If they don’t have the space at home, find local libraries or other resources. Teachers and parents who work together can have hugely positive impacts on real student learning.

Community Relations: A community that supports its students can have a tremendously powerful impact on increasing real student learning. Bring in local speakers; get business to sponsor special educational events for students; help refresh the teachers’ minds, bodies, and spirits; have local pastors and other non-profit leaders involve students in service learning projects that benefit the community and provide myriad educational experiences. 

Talented, Well-Resourced Teachers: Lots of research shows that teachers are the most important factor for student learning. Reformers and privatizers have used this datum to attack teachers, and to hold them accountable. This is a terrible distraction from the real point. Because teachers are the closest to the actual students, because they are the ones who can see what each student needs and responds to, we should be LISTENING and HELPING teachers. Not beating them up and not distracting them from their students by making them insecure about their jobs. We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that POVERTY is impossible for any teacher to outweigh.

Poverty, Poverty, Poverty! Food-insecure, homeless, unsupported, unhealthy children simply cannot learn at their best. We absolutely must address the problems of children in poverty. So far, poverty is virtually ignored in education reform. This is how we really know that most reform is not truly about real student learning.

Real Student Learning

Any conversation you ever have about education, every action you take as an educator or as

stairs
Let’s keep the focus on real student learning!

an education supporter should be about real student learning. If you start there and you keep that as the bottom line, you’ll be having a conversation of substance. Let’s all try to work to refocus education onto the only thing that matters.

Do Teachers Like Their Students? This One Does

I’ve been hearing in general and reading, mostly on Facebook, a lot of complaints lately about young people. The usual rants. You know: lazy, entitled, bad manners, bad grammar, and on and on. I fight these attitudes when I have the time (and the patience), but it has also reminded me of how important “liking students” is to be an effective teacher.

Why Does Liking Students Matter?

There’s a meme that’s been winding its way around the Internet lately that answers this question:

meme
If they like you, they will want to learn from you.

“If they like you, they will want to learn from you.” It’s true, even among older students, even adult students. But more important, students will open themselves to what you have to teach them, if they believe you like them. Your opinion of them matters to them. Who wants to be disliked? We may not feel a need to be liked, especially not by everyone, but isn’t it better to be liked than to be disliked?

Years ago, one of my teaching heroes, Peter Elbow, wrote an essay called “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking” that was partially about the power of deliberately liking student writing as you graded it. If you can make yourself like a student’s paper, the more open you are to what it is trying to say and do–and then as a teacher, you can be more helpful in your feedback.

When Communicating with Parents

There is no more important a time for a teacher to like students than when communicating with parents. I tell my pre-service teachers: Before you speak with a parent find something–anything–to like about the student. And it must be sincere. Students (and their parents) can sniff out any insincere comment. In that conversation, lead with what you like about the student. If you mean it and the parent believes you, it can pave the way for a positive discussion even about a very difficult matter.

I’ve had students who’ve greatly challenged my analytical skills, but I’ve always been able to find something to like. He’s got a sharp sense of humor; she’s very nice to other students; he’s got really creative ideas; she’s got a lot of confidence. Expressing that like before any difficult conversation sets a reasonably good tone.

Why I Like Today’s Young People

I think today’s young people are getting the shaft. When I was young, the economy was strong, there were jobs waiting for me after graduation. Yes, I had to move about 300 miles away, but there were good jobs there. Higher education was much cheaper, and what loans I needed didn’t require predatory interest rates. At the age of 21, I was able to branch out on my own and afford a decent life. Things have changed considerably since then, and young people get far less help and have far more challenges than I had.

And yet, the young people I meet are generally very ethical. They are more environmentally conscious, more concerned about others, ready and willing to live much

The young
Some young people who seem very nice.

more modestly. Many of them work many hours per week without complaint. They have more aspirations to travel, and they spend  the money they have more wisely. They are more careful about what they eat, and they are better informed about the world around them. Sure there are some lazy, entitled students with poor manners, but no more among young people than among all the other people I encounter.

It’s a great historical pastime for adults to complain about “these kids today.” But don’t believe it. We’re lucky to have today’s young people around.

 

Addendum: This post has been translated into Dutch here.

 

Advocating for Education: Meeting with Legislators

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with 8 New York State Assembly members and Senators in separate meetings at the state capitol. These meetings were arranged by the United University Professions (the SUNY Union), and we met in teams of 4-6 to advocate for specific legislative and budget proposals that would benefit SUNY, primarily SUNY students.

I first met with a state legislator 2 years ago, and I was quite intimidated then. Since 

meeting cartoon
Meetings with Representatives are very pleasant.

that first meeting–which went very well–I have met many times with other legislators and members of the state Board of Regents. I have found there is no need to be intimidated, as these meetings are always pleasant. In this post, I provide a few notes about meeting with state representatives to speak up about education and the need for proper support.

 

There’s a great deal to know about such advocacy efforts, so this is just a start. I’ll write more in the future on this crucially important topic.

5 Things to Expect When Meeting with State Representatives

  1. It is very easy to make an appointment with your state rep. Their staff members are polite and very willing to arrange time to meet with you. Call or email them, and you will receive a response. Be sure to mention that you are a constituent (one who votes in their district) and what your main topic for the meeting is. You may meet your rep in your home district or at the state capitol.
  2. Forget what you see in debates and read in the paper. Legislators are generally very nice people. Politicians are, by definition, charming and social. Even if you are on opposite political sides with a legislator, s/he would prefer that you feel heard and leave with a positive feeling. I’ve met with over a dozen legislators now, and even the most hard-nosed negotiators who disagree with the platforms I’m supporting are pleasant to meet with.
  3. You may meet with a staff member, rather than the congressional member. Don’t feel disappointed. Legislative staff have the ear of the representative and they can often spend more time learning about your issue than the legislator can. Also, staff members are more likely to follow up and stay in touch with you. 
  4. When meeting with a legislator or his or her staff, it’s important that you get your message across, that you are making a specific request for action or support (in advocacy terminology: an “ask”), and that you leave behind some written information and your contact information. Legislators are excellent talkers, so it’s important that you make sure your message gets across. Advocacy is more about educating legislators about things you know, more than it is about demanding action. You’re a teacher; think of legislators as advanced students.
  5.  Advocacy is about building relationships. Even if you don’t get much out of your first meeting, you have made a first step in creating a relationship. The next time you meet with your legislator, you’ll have more common ground. Eventually, the legislator may think of you as someone s/he can draw upon when s/he needs information on issues you have expertise in.

Advocacy is a Now a Crucial Part of Being an Effective Teacher

When I began teaching in 1988, a teacher could pretty much ignore legislative issues and still count on adequate funding and state support–at least in a state like New York. Those days are gone. Profiteers–in the form of pro-voucher groups, many charter school organizations, anti-tax community groups, alternative teacher certification programs, private testing companies, and many others–have made tremendous headway in education policy, and teachers can no longer assume support, or even basic respect,

NYS Capitol Building
The Capitol Building in Albany, NY

from legislators and other community leaders.

 

We teachers must be advocates for our profession, our schools, and–most importantly–our students. Visiting with legislators is one powerful way to get our messages out.

Do you have additional advice or experiences you’d like to share? Please do so in a comment on this post.