March 22, 2016
Why Teachers Need Parent Input: Taking the Long View on a Child’s Education
Parents are the Experts on Their Own Kids
While the importance of parental influence on a child’s education may seem obvious, it needs to be emphasized in a society brimming with experts. There are so many experts, specializing in so many things, that parents forget that they are the specialists when it comes to their own kids. The professional experts tend to forget this fact as well. Sure, parents might need support and coaching for specific aspects and issues. But when it comes to breadth of overall understanding, parents are the only ones that can see the full picture over the course of time.
It could be argued that parents are the very ones that don’t see accurately, because they are jaded one way or another about their own children. This may be true in some cases, or when parents have a certain expectation or vision for their progeny that doesn’t match who that child actually is. There’s the classic example of the dad who loves football, wished he’d made it pro as a kid, and wants his own son to fulfill this dream. If his son is not athletic or prefers doing chemistry experiments to blocking and tackling, this will always be a frustration if dad holds to his own vision rather than understanding his son’s wishes. We might also box our children into one approach to learning, pressure them to attend a certain school, push them into a particular career, and even stereotype them based on old habits or interests. (There’s Sarah, our little writer. But Mom! I don’t like writing anymore. Haven’t you seen my new inventions?!).
The parents with whom I’ve worked have been genuinely interested in understanding and supporting their individual children. When asked to provide input, they contribute insightful observations, questions, and concerns. More than anything, they wish to do their part at home to ensure that their children’s needs are met and work productively with teachers. This is where they often encounter challenges.
We Teachers Don’t Always Know Jack
As teachers, we are certainly experts. If we fundamentally love children, we’re experts of the highest caliber. Our expertise might lie in teaching a particular grade level (preschool, elementary, high school), working successfully with particular types of children (reluctant readers, high achievers, disengaged underachievers), using a certain approach (Montessori, Reggio Emilia), or engaging students in a certain subject (19th century literature, art, Spanish). As such, we may have had a lot of training and feel that we have seen it all with students. Jack may remind us of the other Jack that we had two years ago, so we “know” this student or his “type.” That is exactly where we can fall into a trap and where we need to understand the limits of our own experience.
Jack and Jack may have some commonalities. They may have many commonalities. Jack #1 may fit the learning profile of a certain type of learner. So we assume the same for Jack #2 and treat him the way that worked for Jack #1. Then, the second week of school, Jack #2 starts responding differently. Jack #1 didn’t respond like this and we think, “All the other kids respond well to my teaching. Jack #1 responded well when I took this approach. It must be Jack #2. There must be something wrong with him.”
Then we call the parents to a conference, maybe with the school psychologist, and tell them we think their Jack is a great kid but have noticed something out of sync with him and he really should go see an expert. All of this, and we haven’t asked the parents for their input in order to try to figure out who Jack’s really is. Now instead, we have struck the fear of god into the parents that their kid will never succeed in life. We have likely painted them into a defensive posture where their fear will develop into anger which will be unleashed in some way upon us. Parents have every right to be mad and defensive about their kid in such a case, because we have not given them the opportunity to either present an alternate view or even work in partnership with us.
The Pitfalls of Pressuring Parents
All teachers have done this. I will be the first to admit that I’ve made this mistake. I remember having a second grader, Allison, who did not like math facts. I was a new teacher, and it was pressed upon me that each child must master the math fact sheets at the expected pace. I thought, “I can handle this,” and tried every which way to help Allison succeed on the Friday time tests. I cut them into strips, I put them onto fun paper (even heat-sensitive paper one time!), I tried humor, I skipped her ahead past addition which she never completed but obviously knew. Nothing worked, and Allison still only got one or two math facts written down in the allotted time.
There were rumblings from fellow teachers about Allison, because she had refused to do the math facts in first grade as well. They had suggested to her mother that she should “get tested.” Her poor handwriting seemed to provide mounting evidence and seal the case.
I did see a spark in Allison. Any time we did anything science related she lit up and worked at an advanced level. But, I still joined in and pressured the parents, albeit from a different vantage point. I said, “If you get her tested, I’ll bet you’ll find out she is gifted and then no one will keep pestering you.”
The parent flatly refused. I’m glad she did, because I was wrong and so were the other teachers. A few years later I heard that Allison was doing well in school, had no particular issues, and had even won some science awards.
Allison’s mother was right. She took the long view. She had information about her daughter that we neither asked her to contribute nor used as evidence to support different approaches to serving Allison academically.
Thomas Edison’s mother was right, too. She marched into his one-room schoolhouse where the teacher had called six-year-old Thomas “addled” as he admonished him to stop asking questions. Mrs. Edison knew her son’s questions were essential life skills, an important part of his curiosity and identity. So, she pulled him out and taught him herself. Kids walking by the Edison homestead on their way back from the schoolhouse often looked over wistfully. Thomas and his mother were actually laughing as they learned!
People that I interact with in daily life, or meet for the first time, tell me their stories. Most often they were put in special ed, and later found to be gifted or highly creative. The people with these stories were kids who teachers don’t know what to do with because they are outliers in some way. It is sad that our tendency for someone different is to cast them aside or into a separate room to be “handled” by the experts.
Teachers Need to Ask Parents for Input from the Beginning
I submit that as teachers, we are experts, and it is our job to figure kids out. We need to draw upon all of the tools available to us to find strategies that work for many different learners. In order to do this job well, we must solicit information from parents. You might think this is too hard, or too much work, especially if you teach middle school or high school with hundreds of students. I know it’s hard, but it’s not impossible, and could very well be one of the most important things you do as a teacher. If you can’t get information from the parents at the older ages, at least get it from the kids in the form of interest inventories that you put in their files and glance at every now and again.
As elementary teachers with 35 or fewer students for an entire year, it absolutely possible and essential to get parent input. Since elementary students usually have one primary teacher, they don’t have as many opportunities to be understood by a variety of adults. We need to know our students, and know them holistically, in order to support them accurately. Asking parents to provide input and insight at the start will save us time in the end because consistent communications with parents lead to fewer fires for us to put out. Most importantly, the information that we glean can make a big difference in a child’s life.
Parents have the opportunity to take the long view and see their child’s motivations, special talents, and interests grow and change over time. They have a treasure trove of information that can help solve classroom problems accurately, or even prevent the issues in the first place. When teachers view parents as the experts on their children and solicit their input from the get-go, they establish strong working relationships and gather insights that can strengthen the school experience for everyone involved.
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