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Parents: a Neglected Resource

A couple years ago, a parent of a senior started e-mailing or calling me every week.  She wanted to know if her son had turned in assignments and what the next week’s work was going to be.  I thought that was obsessive behavior for a senior’s mom, but I answered her questions and sent her the material she asked for.  Later, after the class ended, I talked to her about it.  She said that she loved her son, knew he was capable, but he was a terrible procrastinator.  He would be going to college next year, so she felt this was her last chance to be a parent and to help him develop the work habits he would have to have.

There was a sense of desperation in her voice that I totally understood.

On a related note, I have an ongoing argument about ParentVue with a friend of mine who teaches middle school math. He thinks that teachers posting their gradebook online feeds two evils: student irresponsibility and helicopter parenting.  Since I disagree with him, I have a tough time paraphrasing his point of view.  Basically he thinks that by the time a kid gets to middle school that he should be adult enough to take care of his own grades.  My friend believes that the high stake nature of grades creates responsibility since if the kid fails he will pay the penalty.  Paying the penalty is the lesson.  ParentVue makes it harder for kids to fail so an irresponsible kid won’t learn the important lesson by failing.

See, I told you I wouldn’t be able to make his argument well.  It sounds silly to me to even say it.

At the same time, ParentVue encourages too involved parents to become truly intrusive, where they call all the time, question the teacher’s grading policy, and never give their kids a break.

My friend believes that the quicker we treat kids like adults by making them solely responsible for their grades and divorcing them from their parents, the quicker the kids will become adults.

In theory his arguments make sense.  here’s why I think he’s wrong.
One of the best things to happen to me as a teacher was to become a parent of a school-aged child.  Suddenly, in a very concrete way, I understood that every kid in my class was somebody’s baby.  When students sat in my room taking notes or reading their texts or writing essays, I saw like a ghostly presence the image of their parent or parents behind them, hoping, praying, agonizing over their child’s fate.  Even the kids who were doing well—or maybe most particularly the kids who were doing well—had parents who still wanted to be involved in their student’s academic life.

They want to parent. I think I’m shortsighted if I don’t involve them.

My administrator friend who asked me for “easy wins,” the things we can do to make education better that don’t break the bank, will appreciate this: I believe that the most underutilized force to improve high school are the parents.  We made a stride forward with ParentVue by putting the power of the gradebook in parents’ hands.  It’s only a single step, though.

Somebody asked me once what changes I’d seen in education during my career.  There weren’t many, and most of them were negative, but ParentVue was a positive.  A concerned student or parent could query me if the kid’s grades were going south.  One click on an e-mail link, and we were suddenly in a dialogue.  Parent-teacher conferences were no longer “gotcha” moments where a kid’s bad grades ambushed parents whose kids had kept them in the dark.  ParentVue gave parents a chance to be parental.

Here’s the next step I would like to propose.  In high school, there’s a tacit conspiracy of silence toward parents.  ParentVue exists, and an active parent will take advantage of it, but ParentVue is passive and impersonal, providing only grades without explanations.  No nuance.  The silence comes from the teachers.

A weird feature of high school (and I suspect this is true in middle school too) is that most teachers do not communicate directly with parents.  The change I propose is that they should.

The quickest way to change our students’ learning, especially for struggling students, is to involve the parents.  I know that sounds obvious, but how often does it happen?  I’ll bet (a lot!) that most middle school and high school teachers do not initiate even one personal parent contact a week.

If I were an administrator who wanted the quickest way to both improve student achievement and to raise the school’s reputation in the community, I would require that every teacher phone (not e-mail or text) five parents a week every week of the school year.  The calls wouldn’t have to be to the lowest performing students, although why wouldn’t you call the lowest achieving students’ parents?  They could be randomly chosen.  The call might just be the teacher telling the parent about a highlight from the student’s week.

Most parents would appreciate the information and the human contact.  Kids would be held more accountable.  Phone calls could help to initiate an active, coordinated conspiracy of adults working in concert to help the kids.

Five phone calls a week.  It’s not a radical suggestion.  It’s an easy win.

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Comments

musingaloud
Jun. 1st, 2015 08:46 pm (UTC)
I would so much have appreciated contact when my son was in middle school. He started not turning in homework, even though I knew he'd done it, he wasn't turning it in. When I did find out, I tried to get the teachers to call me if it continued to be a problem, but they never did. Checking on grades would have helped a ton, too, but that wasn't available back then (and it was before internet was widely available, too). Having to "Pay the penalty" of a bad grade wasn't motivation for him, as he seemed to be on a self-destruct mode then, and it continued through his first (and only) semester away at college, when he flunked out. And I didn't appreciate that because of privacy laws, I had no right to view his college grades (at the time, not sure that's changed now or not), even though I was the one out of thousands and thousands of dollars.

And he's a bright kid.