Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An open letter to parents: We're on the same side

So here's the thing: I love being a teacher.  Most days, I come home feeling like the work that I do is meaningful and important. 

But I will also tell you this: in all honesty, I can't tell you how often I feel like parents are ruining our profession. 

Let me just describe a conversation that I had with a parent today.  To frame this, the kids have had 8 days solid in school to work on a research project.  I have provided books and websites for them to utilize.  I have allowed them to bring their electronic devices to class to help gather further information.  I have done sample presentations and provided examples of the posters for kids to see what makes a quality presentation.  And, I have let them work.  On nothing but this project.  For 8 days.  With no other homework. 

Today, they were asked to pull it all together on posterboard so that they can present tomorrow. 

I have one group with no posterboard and no research or materials brought to class.  I decide to have the kids call home to inform their parents of this, so that hopefully they will have a chance to turn it around. 

I call the kids up to my desk, and SweetPea is visibly mad.  He doesn't want to have to call his mom and tell her that he doesn't have his stuff together.  He gets all kinds of sassy and rude, telling me with teenager 'tude some things he probably shouldn't have said.

The phone call goes like this:
**Ring ring** Mom answers the phone. 

Me: Hi, Mom, it's Mrs. Strassner from your son's language arts class.  Is this a good time?  Great.  I'm calling because I wanted to let you know that SweetPea has had 8 days in class to work on a project, and unfortunately his group doesn't seem to have much done.  I usually let kids make this call, but SweetPea was pretty upset and I wanted to let you know that he said X in class, and is having some difficulty being respectful.

Mom(agressive): Wait a minute, they're working in a group?  And they don't have anything done?  So tell me, what is being done about the rest of the members in his group?  Why does he have to work with kids who aren't doing anything?

Me: Well, I'm going to let SweetPea tell you that.  He was allowed to chose the group he would work with, and asked to chose carefully since the people he works with would affect his grade.

SweetPea gets on the phone.  Nods several times.  I go about helping the rest of the class, and before long, he is tapping me on the shoulder. 

SP (grinning smugly): My mom wants to talk to you. 

Mom: I can't believe that this project is due tomorrow and you are just telling me about this now?  Didn't you notice that they were behind before now?  Why wasn't I notified that he has an assignment to turn in?

Me: The assignment sheet was handed out last Monday.

Mom: And you expect that he is going to bring it home?

Me: Well, he is in 8th grade, so... yes, I do. 

Mom: Well he didn't.  I don't understand why you wouldn't contact me when my son isn't being successful?  None of the teachers at this school are willing to help him!

Me: I am letting you know now, so that he doesn't fail the project.

Mom: Yeah, the night before it's due.  What help is that?  I had to meet with the Vice Principal and the math teacher to discuss her "communication skills," (ooh I could just hear the air quotations, even on the phone) and I'm not afraid to take you on too!

Me: If you feel that would help SweetPea, I'd be happy to meet with you.  But I have to tell you, I think your frustration is with your son, not with me.  I've provided everything he needs in order to complete this project, but the trouble is, the only person who can actually do the work is SweetPea.

Mom: My frustration is with both of you!  Nobody in this damn school is willing to help!  You all talk about teaching him responsibility, but nobody gives enough of a shit to actually teach him!  He did just fine in elementary school, but since we got to middle school, it's been out of control.  "He has to be responsible for his own work.  He has to keep track of his grades."  I've heard it all before. Now we'll be up all night doing your stupid ass project.

Annnnnd, scene.

There are many three things I wish I could go back and say:
1) I am always happy to have an open dialogue.  However, I draw the line when you start swearing at me.  Would you cuss out your kid's doctor?   I'm guessing not.  Don't cuss out your kid's teacher, either. 

2) You mentioned that you've been hearing the same advice for the past three years?  TAKE IT!  We don't tell you that your child needs help learning responsibility because we hate him and want him to fail.  Exactly the opposite.  We like your child, and we want him to be successful.  We tell you this because, if he keeps going down the path he is on, he won't be successful and we don't want that to happen. 

3) Your child takes his cues about what is appropriate and inappropriate from you (yes, even at 14).  If you treat me like I'm the problem and don't deserve to be treated with respect, your kid will, too.  When a teacher calls to try and help your child, be on the teacher's team.  Even if you disagree.  If you feel strongly about it, schedule a time to talk with the teacher in private.  In front of your kid, you MUST treat me as if you and I are allies. 

The reason we don't come running to parents every time we give out an assignment is that it is our job to help kids begin to manage their own affairs.  These kids are four months away from starting high school, which means that they are going to be asked in very short order to begin making decisions that will impact them for literally the rest of their lives.  Wouldn't you prefer your child to have a little practice on that front?  Even if he makes a mistake and has to face the consequences?  Couldn't we use that failure as a teachable moment, so he does things differently next time and doesn't make even bigger mistakes with even bigger consequences?

"We'll be up all night doing your project."  Boy, oh boy.  Can I begin to address how wrong that is?  It's not MY project, and it's not HER project.  You know who's project it is?  The kid's.  Just as it is the kid's grade, and the kid's decision to put his effort into it, or not.   

I guess everything I'm raving about has already been addressed here, so in some ways I'm just beating a dead horse.  This is a tough old profession, let me tell you.  Most days I absolutely love what I do, but encounters like this really wear on a person. 

Not to mention, it makes me really sad. 

Because the truth is that in this scenario, I'm not the loser no matter how many times mom threatens me or cusses at me.  The truth is that her child - the one who one day will have to face the music without any clue how to do so - is the only one who really loses.

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