Chapter 19 – Parents

Photo Credit: gordontraining.com

Photo Credit: gordontraining.com

Principals and interviewers will ask you about your policy toward having parents in the classroom. While many private schools do not allow parents, and some even have viewing windows which parents must stay behind, my policy is the opposite. I invite them anytime, even without notice. At Meet the Teacher night, I tell them, “I am usually here from 7:30 to 5:00, often later. You are welcome in this classroom any time. I mean it, any time. It would be nice if you would call first, in case we are doing something boring like taking a test or something fun like going a field trip, but it’s not necessary. Sign in at the office and drop in. If you would like to volunteer, I would love it. Let’s talk about what you are comfortable helping out with.”

I strongly believe that children think school is more important if parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., show up. Even if they don’t speak English and sit in the back of the classroom, the children know that learning matters. I did, in fact, have one mom so upset with her son that she came to school and sat in the back for four days straight. It worked then and for the rest of the year. Every time he got rowdy, I mentioned his mom.

In general, middle class parents will call before coming to visit. Non-English speaking and poorer parents will not. While having some warning is nice, learn to live without it. It’s not fair to require non-English speakers to express themselves over the phone or get someone to translate for them. For parents who had poor experiences with school themselves, getting through to make an appointment, then waiting, then showing up is all too much. And the very poor have a hard time putting together a working phone, time off of work, and a working car. Banish the anxiety for your parents and let them show up when they need to.

Having said that, you will have to be on your toes. Learning all of the parents’ names and connecting them with the right kids will be important. You can always ask them to remind you, and most of them will forgive you. I know because I have brain damage that blocks names. It is a constant and embarrassing problem for me.  You may, on rare occasions, have to un-invite a parent. In middle school,  a super sweet grandmother worked in my room, but when she wandered into another class and interrupted the teacher mid-lesson, I had to scrunch up my guts and tell her I didn’t need her help anymore. It was hard, but given the many hours of help I have had from dozens of parents, I’m not complaining.

When parents do volunteer, thank them profusely, find out what they’re good at and how much time they can give you. When we finally moved near my mother, she immediately went to my daughter’s school and volunteered. She is a retired elementary school teacher, and this was her big chance to be involved with her granddaughters’ educations. Ready to help tutor or teach on a regular basis, she told them what she was good at. The teacher gave her pages to put in notebooks. Not fulfilling. Now she volunteers in my classroom tenaciously working with small groups of students. And because getting to work with Ms. Barbara is such an honor, we change it up so most of the children get to have small group with her at some point. She even sponsored a sewing club and later wrote a set of lessons about solving area problems using patchwork quilts. Then she taught the students to sew the quilts.

Other parents may only have a few hours, in which case certain students need someone to sit next to them, your library can be re-sorted, or workbook pages need to be pulled. Some may be between projects at work and able to come in two days a week for a month. I have given these parents two or three writers to work with. Brief them quickly and check in, but I have found them able to get amazing writing from even reluctant writers because they can pay constant attention and be both warm and encouraging. I even had a college student who stopped by with a design background. My bulletin boards have never looked better. The only difficulty I ever had was that some middle school students don’t want their moms in the room. If you can’t get past that, moms can come after school, and one mom even came in during different periods. She loved books, and my library that year was in amazing shape.

 

Parent Communication

Another question principals and interviewers will ask you is about parent communication. Originally, I never answered that one right because I had no experience. Now I know. Here is the fundamental reason why you need parent communication.

Parent: So how was school today?

Student: Fine.

Parent: Anything interesting happen today?

Student: Nah.

Parent: Do you have homework today?

Student: No.

Parent: What did you do today?

Student: Nothing.

Nothing? Nothing! I worked far too hard for my students to go home and say, “Nothing.” I’m very close to being offended. But they’re kids. My own daughter does this. Why am I surprised? In self-defense, I blog. The format is awful, but I only spend ten minutes a day working on it. Here is a sample day…

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Quote of the Day: One child to another, “You’d better get busy. This ain’t no sit and do nothing classroom.”

Celebrations: HG made it to Space!

Specials: Music, P.E., and a celebration of Earth Day with the Central High School Green team. The high school students set up all sorts of stations where the children could touch snakes, practice recycling, clobber cans, and learn about soil erosion, among other things.

Reading: Since Ms. Barbara was sick, and Mrs. Gregory was chaperoning a field trip, I had five reading groups today for the first time in my career! And it worked. A big thank you to Ms. Lisa for helping out, but I also have to thank the students who stayed on task with their groups, and worked hard for the whole hour.

Math: It took our whole hour to do one page of math boxes. We reviewed fractions, parentheses, three-digit subtraction, and division word problems.

Word Study: The SA group figured out their generalization which went something like “When you add a prefix to a word, don’t change the spelling of either part.” Everyone else worked independently.

Storytime: Lawn Boy

Writing: Cursive J. Then Assessment, Day 3, the last day, finally

Social Studies: Production went into full swing today. After critiquing and analyzing the prototypes, I gave awards, then we did a second round of prototypes. Congratulations to HG, JaS, and LA who managed to move their company from last place to first place. After that, we went into full production mode with final versions earning $10, $5 or $1. About a third earned $10, and only two earned $1. One was so amazing that it earned $20.

Homework: Except for tonight’s reading log, it should all be turned in.

I started this blog a few years ago on TeacherWeb.com. It’s not a pretty blog, and they do charge for the privilege, but I set up the site fast. They also host the files I share between teachers, and it’s easy for parents to find. Plus, Google lists it.

As for the contents, I write a quick blurb about all of the interesting events of the day. My purpose is to give parents something to ask questions about, to change “How was school today?” into “What happened with your prototypes?” There are other uses. When I’m putting grades into the computer and can’t remember what cursive letter I assigned on what day, it’s the fastest place to look. When I can’t remember if we celebrated an accomplishment or gave a Nobel Prize, I can look. Some parents never read it; a few make it their home page. Once I offered a prize for a secret word and got a surprising number of responses. I do print the previous week’s entries and send them home on Monday for those who don’t have internet. Anything to get children talking and processing what they learned.

You will find that everything is a form of parent communication – every school notice, your newsletter, your blog, field trip announcements, pictures, the homework, Back to School nights, conferences, the stories a child tells – all form the shreds of information that parents use to figure out what is going on. And parents filter all of this information through their own school experiences. I had one father look around the walls of my classroom and say, “You have lots of books. Good.” Well, that was easy. Other parents see you as the teacher they hated and are far more critical. You can’t help this, but you can ask about it. As they describe their own school experiences, you can find their hot button issues and either reassure them or tread lightly.

 

Parent Nights

Your first big challenge in front of parents will be Meet the Teacher or Back to School night, the night when you meet your parents en masse. Some schools make it an informal affair – shake hands, look around the room, unpack school supplies. Others require a presentation. Having read and heard all sorts of advice about how to do this, and having attended countless presentations for my own children, I have to speak as a parent. I want to know three things – who you are, how you teach, and how does homework work.

Most teachers skip the “Who I Am” part, except for giving out their name, which sets my parent radar on full alert. Do you have a credential? In what? Do you have extra credentials? What was your major? Do you have a Master’s degree? Are you working on it? In what? What teaching experience do you have? In other words, are you qualified to teach my child? My geometry teacher in high school was a football coach who I think had never taught geometry. Day after day, I watched his broken lines and letters slowly drip off of the overhead as he sprayed, then erased, each proof. I struggled with higher math forever after. It only takes a minute to tell parents…

I’m Marjie DeWilde, Ms. DeWilde to the students. After retiring from a career in Silicon Valley, of which the most famous company was Adobe, I decided to become a teacher. I hold Missouri career certificates in Elementary Education, Early Childhood Education, and Special Reading. I graduated with a Bachelors in Psychology from Santa Clara University where many years later, more than I care to admit, I also completed my teaching credential and got a Masters degree in Interdisciplinary Education with an emphasis in reading instruction. I have also earned various certificates for teaching English learners, gifted students, and History Alive. I taught middle school in California for five years, this is my seventh year here, and my second year teaching 5th  grade. We are going to have a great year!

A similar statement is on my web site and in my new student packet so transfers can see it as well. Parents, looking around your comparatively bare room, will need to know that you are credentialed and well-trained.

Then, parents want to know how you teach. For those who want to see the books, leave them out for perusal while you are talking. Tell them your philosophy of teaching. Briefly. Do your best to describe how that translates to the classroom. Parents want to know that their children will be engaged and excited, but most of all they want to know how their children will learn. For elementary school, make sure parents have the daily schedule, but don’t go over it. Instead, talk about all of the wonderful ways you will use groups, experiments, research projects, field trips, etc., to challenge and motivate their children. Don’t go into discipline. It only applies to a few, and you can discuss it individually. Put it on a handout if you feel the need. Do try to inspire. My junior high daughter hated math, and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I saw her teacher’s presentation. It started with why kids hate math and went on to assignments and points and completeness and percentages and tests. Not one iota of love for math nor any love for children was expressed at any moment. She even forgot to mention her partner teacher. I just wanted to cry for my child. None of us became teachers to make students hate learning, but we do lose our way. On the other hand, her science teacher had the room ringing with laughter and excitement as it became clear she not only knew all about the foibles of this age group, but all about their promise as well. Which teacher do you want to be?

Finally, parents need to know about homework. Show examples. They need to know the schedule and how to find out if it varies because, well, children lie. Some of them lie for months, throwing homework into the trash or hiding it around the house. As children mature, they get savvy, and this could be the year they figure out how not to do their work. You must combat this with clear and consistent communication. I tell parents…

There is homework every week, even short weeks. No exceptions! I always send home at least a reading log. If I fracture my skull or my ankle (both have happened), the school will notify you. If there is any other exception, I will send home a note and post a message on my blog. Do not believe your child if he or she says there is no homework! Feel free to e-mail me, call me or drop by, and we will get it straight.

It is super helpful if you can pass out examples. This is a reading log, this is a math packet, and this is a spelling list. Tell them what day it goes home and what day it’s due. Answer questions. Have a backup plan to help students with homework when their parents can’t. Parents would tell me, “I just don’t understand this new math,” and I used to say, “Don’t worry. I always send the answers home in a separate packet.” It took me a few years to hear what they were actually saying which was, “I can’t read, so I can’t help.” By then, we would be halfway through the year, and their child would be far behind. Now, I have homework help scheduled in the morning before school starts.

 

Parent Conferences

You can do as much work as you want for a conference, but we work so hard on our regular lessons that I rarely stop to do any special preparation like having students write letters to parents, completing questionnaires, or decorating.  We do try to clean the room. I confess my conferences are quite simple. We hold them twice a year, and they are student-led. The students and I make a chart of what parents must see, could see, and must meet with me about. It ends up looking something like this…

Welcome! Be sure to show your parents…

Reading notebook

Math workbook

Writing work

Social Studies/Science binder

If you have time, share…

Cursive workbook

Math folder

Independent reading book

Drawing folder

Fluency Friday binder

Portfolio

Rock collection

Concept questions board

Honor level board

Make sure to save 15 minutes for…

Report card

Test scores

Learner profile survey

I schedule for twenty minute intervals, but since students start without me, families enter whenever they arrive. The students take their parents around the room while I meet in the back. With this format, I can even handle drop-in conferences of which there have been several, and lengthen my part if I need to. By accepting drop-ins, by saying, “How about if you come in right now? I’m here,” and by doing a few home visits, I get 95% attendance at my first conference of the year and average about 75% at my second. I probably could improve the conference experience by devoting more class time than it takes to make our list, but I am quite jealous of learning time. I am satisfied that parents get to look at all of the real work we do in our classroom and that we have had a meaningful meeting. That’s what a conference is all about.

Parents Who Are Right

Before I go into all of the way parents can be challenging, I should point out that sometimes they are right. My sister-in-law was shocked when her son told her that some boys had pushed a set of lockers onto him in the locker room, but she became furious when the coach told her it was an accident. This tiny woman drove to the school, parted the sea of students in the halls with the storm on her face, marched into the boys’ locker room, gathered a group of boys, and demonstrated to the coach that it was impossible to tip the lockers without significant effort. A week later, those lockers were bolted down. (In defense of my sister-in-law, I should point out that it’s a rural school in a small town, and she has worked at the school.)

The coach in this case made several common mistakes. The first was to not handle the incident properly in the first place. But having said that, sometimes students don’t tell teachers, and you’ll have to hear it from a parent. This leads to the coach’s second error. He minimized, passing off a deliberate act as an accident. As a teacher, you will be frustrated by this a well. A punch in the ribs will, as it works through the discipline process, somehow morph into a slap on the shoulder. Finally, the coach dismissed her concerns, doing the social equivalent of hanging up on her.

When you encounter a serious incident, know that parents will call. Prepare by gathering as much information as you can on the spot. Separate the children and talk to them one at a time. It takes a while, but you will be amazed at the picture that emerges. It is quite often completely different from what you assumed when you walked upon the scene.

When a parent does call, listen. Take notes. Promise to investigate and get back to them. Make no comment on whether you agree or disagree, but do ask questions that can help you find facts. Then speak to the children involved, file discipline paperwork if necessary, and call them back. You may be telling them that you have referred it to your principal or you may have to give them the new facts, but be sure to stick to the facts as you discovered them. Choose your verbs carefully because that parent will repeat your words to many others.

One more thing, if you are a male teacher, please be sensitive to an issue still hanging around in our society. As a woman of a certain age, I have long memories of being ignored and even harassed by men in authority. Just a few months ago, when I went to buy my new car, I couldn’t get the salesman to stop selling the car to my husband. If you make the mistake of not listening or minimizing, I go straight back to the days of being patted on the head and ignored by the sixty male engineers I worked with. Our social history is not your fault, but it is your burden. You may have to make an extra effort to get past it.

 

Parents Who Only Text

I always have a few parents for whom the school has no working phone number. No one answers, the phone doesn’t accept calls, and/or voicemail is not set up. I finally figured out that I can text those numbers. I get responses within minutes nearly every time.

Of course, the problem is that I have to use my own cell phone. The district phone system is stuck somewhere in the 80’s. We still use landlines and my classroom phone doesn’t even have a screen on it so I can see what number I dialed, let alone who’s calling me. When I tell my colleagues that I reached unreachable parents, they are stunned, but still don’t want to use their personal cell phones. I understand their reluctance, but so far it hasn’t been a problem. No parent has ever bombed my line with calls or sent threatening texts, and it has been great for my relationship with them to send them a comforting note when they’re having a difficult weekend.

Older Parents

While many teachers are young, parents in America are getting older and older. As one of those old parents (I was 38 when I had Hailey and 42 when I had Anna), I have scared one or two of those young teachers. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t even know that I had until I went to a conference with the teacher and she insisted upon including the principal.

From my point of view, I know that my older daughter needs inspiring teachers who keeps the class quiet-ish and my younger needs a teacher that she can love. I do admit to cringing a little when I sit down to conference with someone half my age, but as long as those requirements are met, I’m good. However, it would be helpful if you could do a couple of simple things.

Listen. Young teachers don’t hear me. They pick one word from the question I asked and riff on that. I get more lengthy answers to questions I didn’t ask than you might imagine. After it happens twice, I look over at my husband, shrug, and give up.

Be clear. I don’t want to go home and have to dissect what you said to figure out what you really meant. Plus, my husband specializes in reading between the lines and will think the worst. “She sometimes bothers other children,” does not help us. “She sticks her hand, her books, and her pencil in other students’ faces about twice an hour,” is much more helpful because my husband was thinking, “She punches, trips, and hits other kids every time the teacher isn’t looking.”

End with a plan. For a few years, our family struggled mightily with Hailey. We knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what. Teacher meetings, parent conferences, and meetings with the principal were a litany of bad news. And while we struggled at home with the question of how could a child of ours be doing these things, we struggled publicly with how do we get a handle on this? The worst of her teachers blamed us and expected us to have consequences at home, which we did, but being removed from the event, they were largely ineffective. The best, especially Mrs. Hughes, ended every meeting with a plan. Here is what I will do, here is what you will do, here is what we expect Hailey to do. And while not everything went according to plan, we could always compare notes the next time we met and adjust the plan instead of blame. It was a much more positive way to work with a teacher.

 

Parents Who Are Insecure

Occasionally, you will have parent who starts a conversation that goes something like this, “Ray and I have been practicing multiplication. I write them down on a piece of paper, and he can’t go outside to play unless he gets them all right. Then we toss the basketball around and practice them some more. Can you think of some other ways we can practice? I also have him say his times tables in the car. He knows his twos and threes really well, but gets stuck on fours. I make him write all the ones he misses ten times each. We practice before he goes to bed, too, don’t we Ray?”

A sadder version goes like this,” Well, I know her ear hurts and she’s missing school, but I couldn’t get her to the doctor because the car needed gas, and my son took the money out of my purse. I was going to get some money from my mom, but my littlest one had head lice again and I couldn’t take her to the babysitter with it and I couldn’t walk to my mom’s with the baby so I can’t get out of the house. My sister said she would bring the lice medicine over but now the school says I have to treat the whole family so I guess I can take her to the hospital for her ear after I get some more lice shampoo.”

There are about four places that I want to stop these mothers and suggest something helpful, but I can’t get a word in edgewise. When I do start a sentence, they usually jump in and starts listing more things they have done or can’t do.

The rules of polite conversation say not to interrupt, but it is so hard. They won’t stop talking, don’t know that there’s a better way, and can’t hear what you have to say because they are so busy thinking about what to say next.

If you really have to get a point across, listen politely for a bit, jump in when you can, then affirm. This parent needs to know that you appreciate their efforts. After that, write a simple plan down on paper, while they’re talking if necessary. List three better ideas for studying, or the number for the school nurse to check that ear infection. At that point, interrupt and go over it. Excuse yourself if necessary, keep nodding, and walk them to the door. Above all, keep your non-verbal communication warm. Parents like this are already skittish. They don’t want to feel judged by their child’s teacher.

 

Parents Who Hate or Mistrust School

Some parents bring heat the second you meet them. Others refuse to step on school grounds. Often the root cause is the same. They had terrible experiences in school.

Working with these parents can be like walking through a mine field. You never know when something you do will remind them of their own past and set them off. Worse, they may well blow up at home and never tell you. Your only clue may be something their child says at school.

One mother, who had screamed at me twice the year before for not finding her son at dismissal time (he wasn’t even in my class), was sure that I was out to get her daughter. It was absolutely untrue, she had a very loveable child, but there was no changing her mind. A big part of the problem was that her daughter, while sweet, craved attention and rarely told the whole truth about what happened in school. This mother believed everything her child said and matched it to her own poor experiences. Absolutely certain that teachers were evil, she refused to talk to me and called the principal instead.

This will happen and you have to accept it. While we would all prefer that anyone who has a problem tell us directly, that’s not how the world works. Examine your own life and you will probably find times when you stepped over the employee and went to the boss. Accept it and understand that people will speak to whomever they are most comfortable with. Hopefully, it is you. But if not, you need this information about a child no matter where it comes from.

It doesn’t always go badly. During our second conference of the year, I sensed something was bothering one mother. She finally said, “Why is my daughter still in that desk facing the wall? She was there the last time I was in here and that was months ago. Why can’t she be out with the class?” Her daughter and I took turns explaining. She had been out with the class for the past few months. She had asked to move back to the semi-private seat the week before because it was quieter. I was so glad that her mother said something. Seeing her daughter there had accidentally connected to her own feelings of isolation in school. Knowing that her daughter chose that seat and could choose to move again made all the difference to her.

 

Parents Who Want a Different Teacher

I admit it. I pulled my daughter out of a class after I met her teacher, who was brand new. I even pulled her out of a school. And a couple of parents have pulled their children out of my class or out of our school. Don’t fight this, and don’t obsess. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher. It means that a parent thinks you’re not the best teacher for that child. And if you’re not, do you want to be struggling with that child for the entire year? Worse, do you want to have to prove yourself to the parent every time you speak to them? Yes, it is embarrassing, but it is more important to do what is right for the child. And you’re going to have to trust that the parent knows more about their child than you do.

I pulled my child out of a school because of bullying. I pulled her out of a class because I thought she would be too challenging for a new teacher. She has ADHD and at the time, a long history of paying no attention in the classroom. I still send mental apologies to her 3rd grade teacher, and feel like I’m paying her back when I patiently deal with yet another child in my own classroom. At any rate, after Meet the Teacher night, I was certain it was not a good match. That young woman will be great someday, but not the year that my daughter needed her.

 

Parents who Make Excuses

The strangest thing happens to me at the end of the school year. At least one parent stops me in the car pickup line on the last day of school and says, “Is she being held back?” I have never planned to hold her daughter back, and never mentioned it, but she still asked as if she had been expecting it all year. As if it excuses all of the year’s missing work and failures.

Another mom insisted that her 5th grade son Randy would not do homework. She visited three times that year to tell me it was impossible. The first time I made several suggestions which she rejected, so I sent home his favorite snacks from the snack box so she could use them as rewards. When she returned a couple months later, she said she only gave him one because she gave the rest to his little brother. So much for that idea. The weird part was that he did all of his classwork. And when I threatened to leave him behind on a field trip, he caught up on his homework. This all proved he was capable. I came to believe that the excuses weren’t about him at all.

The most common excuse is for reading logs. I require twenty minutes of reading every school night. Students can read anything they want – books, cookbooks, magazines, sports pages, blogs. I even had a child read subtitles on TV shows. He looked up the new words he learned, and his reading improved dramatically over the course of the year. After they read, students have to discuss one question printed on the log with someone older at home. That person gives them a discussion grade and signs off on the reading. It’s a pretty simple system. Students can even do all of their reading at once as long as the total comes out right. The discussion question is to make sure they actually read, and so their parents see how well they comprehend their reading. (I don’t ask for a written response because my own child used to refuse to read if she had to write. She considered it a punishment. I don’t want reading to feel like a punishment.)

Simplicity doesn’t seem to matter, nor does teaching students how to fill out a log. Every year, I have parents who tell me, “She has been reading a lot. Can’t you just excuse it?” Or “He reads before he falls asleep at night. So we don’t know how much to mark down, but it’s a lot.” That’s all great, and I’m delighted that my students are reading so much, but no one has been discussing that reading. They haven’t thought about it, processed it, made new connections, learned new words, or demonstrated comprehension. So I tell those parents, “That’s great. Estimate how much reading he did. Do your best to talk over the question and sign off on it.”

My experience is that students are much more capable than the parents who make excuses think they are. If they can work in class, they can work at home. Keep an eye out for other reasons they struggle at home. Some students live in one room and have no place to work. Some have to take care of their siblings. Those are valid excuses, but generally aren’t the ones that parents tell you.

The other excuses that affect your classroom revolve around personal care. Medication is missing, glasses are missing, dental care is missing, the free lunch application is missing, appropriate shoes are missing. For this, you have to phone home. You will hear all sorts of excuses. Some sound valid, like Medicaid doesn’t transfer across state lines. Some are frustrating, like the lunch application keeps getting lost. Some, like glasses and dentists, you will have to spend too many hours working out with the school nurse. Some, like no shoes, they may not want to admit because they think you will report them to Child Protective Services. Do your best. At least the parents know you are watching out for their child.

As it happens, I do accept excuses from parents, but only the kind that come signed with notes. Math papers sometimes come back with “We don’t have a ruler at home,” so I send one. I have also had notes that said, “We didn’t have time,” to which I either give them the weekend or make plans to do it in our study hall sessions, depending on the family. The one valid excuse is, “We spent half an hour on this and this is as far as we got.” Done. Excused. I vividly remember the mountain of homework that destroyed our home life nearly every night in California. After we got home from work and made dinner, every minute of the time we had left had to be devoted to homework. Night after night, either kindergartener Anna or 3rd grader Hailey would be in tears after two hours, and we would only be half done. It was awful. Don’t get so married to your homework that you are willing to damage a family.

 

Frightened Parents

A father of a 6th grader asked for a conference. His son was depressed, and couldn’t keep up with the homework. That was fine, I responded. I can excuse as much homework as he needs. You may sign off on anything that is too much, and I’ll excuse it. In fact, any parent can at any time, but few of them ever do. “No,” he replied, “You need to assign less homework for all of your students.”

Apparently he had spoken to “lots of” parents who all felt I gave too much homework. Of course he couldn’t tell me who they were, how many, or if any had disagreed. Since my homework was comparable to the other language arts teachers, this kind of threw me. As we talked, I began to realize how frightened he was and how desperate he was for a solution. Even though his son had something serious going on, he didn’t want to do anything to make his son stand out so excusing homework wasn’t acceptable. So there he sat, trying to change the world for his child. I empathized deeply with that father, but settled on excusing his son’s work without telling anyone.

Watching a child descend into mental illness, depression, drug use, or sexual promiscuity is heartbreaking for a teacher, but terrifying for a parent. I have had parents search my blog for clues about what might have gone wrong at school when their child suddenly withdraws. Sadly, my blog is not much help in those situations. When they call, of course you can be sympathetic, but they don’t need your opinion, especially because this is not your area of expertise. They do need your observations and all of the facts that you can provide. For example, “Jeremy is not well-liked and frequently complains about the other students,” is not particularly helpful. However, this is. “When we broke up into independent work, Jeremy sat with his back to the other students. Near the end of our work time, he came up to me and told that Sanjay and Rebecca were using disgusting language behind his back. When I pointed out that Sanjay had been working over near the door, and Rebecca was across the room, he seemed confused and walked away.” Do your best to stick to facts when parents need clear information this badly.

 

Pushy Parents

I don’t argue with parents. I present the facts as best I know them, give them reasonable choices and let them decide. If they want their child in a harder spelling group, fine. I assume there will be extra support at home or they will be okay with lower grades. It will work or it will fall of its own weight, but the consequences won’t be life threatening. If they want harder math, fine. The same logic applies. I don’t even argue about retention. I present the case for both sides, discuss it with the parents and ask for their decision. Due to age differences and social issues, most students can only be retained once in elementary school, so if a struggling child isn’t retained during my year, it could well be the next year.

There is one case, however, where I use stronger words. Cricket, a 3rd grader, had looped with me for two years. She learned easily, finished her work quickly and correctly, challenged herself on open-ended projects and had fairly good work habits. Sometimes, she even turned in her older sister’s math homework “by accident.” I had her in groups that worked well ahead of grade level and she enjoyed it. Conferences always went well until her mother asked me the dreaded question, “If she’s already working ahead of grade level, why not skip her to the next grade?”

Because I used to teach in middle school. Imagine this. A little boy, call him Abe, isn’t ready for school, so his mother keeps him home for a year. When Abe starts kindergarten, he’ll be six when the other children are five. But suppose he struggles in school. Say he gets held back in the 3rd grade. Now, he’s two years older than the other children. Flash forward to 8th grade. The other 8th graders are thirteen, but Abe is fifteen, almost old enough to drive, and although still struggling in school, he is sexually active. Let’s go back to Cricket. While Abe frightens all of the eleven-year-old 6th graders, who think he’s huge, imagine how he looks to ten-year-old Cricket. At this age, she is not equipped to handle him, and being a year younger than her classmates, she probably doesn’t have the tight-knit support system that could help her.

It gets scarier. Flash forward to high school. As a junior, I tutored a 21-year-old senior on the baseball team. It was his last chance to fix his grades and play. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I was fifteen. At my high school, we had many thirteen-year-old freshman girls. One was twelve. Now that I’m a mother, that nine year age difference freaks me out. I get further disturbed knowing that upperclassmen refer to freshmen girls as “fresh meat.”

I did tell a version of this story to Cricket’s mother. As soon as I got to the words “fifteen-year-old boy” she threw up her hands and told me to stop. A child being two years behind is not uncommon. I have had them in my class a few times. In elementary school, it can lead to perpetual miscommunication, like 3rd-grader Trayvon who spent the entire year writing love notes to several two-year-younger girls who simply could not understand what he wanted. In middle school, the consequences can be much scarier. So if you have a parent trying to skip their child ahead, use this story. I changed many details about the boy, but the important parts are all too true. I would much rather challenge a child in her current classroom than risk her well-being later.

Other than this, I generally do what pushy parents ask. I will refer them anywhere they like – gifted testing, special education screening (even though it’s a lot of work), private schools, and counseling.  I will move them into harder math, spelling, or reading groups. Parents almost never ask so I figure if they care that much, they’ll keep an eye on their child. And either it will work or it will fall of its own weight. I also remember my own 5th grade teacher Mr. Shields asking the class, “Would you rather be in an easier reading group and get A’s & B’s or a harder group and get C’s & D’s?” Two of us raised our hands for the harder group. I still can’t believe it. So if I have a child with that much drive or parent support, move them. Maybe they are one of the very few.

The other thing I say no to is private tutoring. Several have asked; and a few have been quite insistent. Some were willing to pay, and others wanted me to stay after school for free. Besides the conflict of interest in having a parent pay me, I just don’t have time. Coaching, clubs, collaborating, and meetings take up my late afternoons. Preparing for the next day and grading the ever-present pile of papers get whatever time is left. Plus, I have a family that doesn’t see enough of me. Since I need a positive response, I remind parents that I start school early just for this purpose. In middle school, I opened my room at lunch a couple of days a week for “office hours.” Think about your answer before you get asked. If you want to tutor, fine. If you don’t, have a recommendation prepared.

Entitled Parents

It is unlikely for a teacher to land in a wealthy school, but it does happen. And entitled parents can pop up anywhere. You recognize this parent because they make you feel small, the “If you were as good as me, you wouldn’t be a teacher” parent. They may seem to be telling you, “I made (or married) my millions and you are not doing enough for my son.” They project this sense that having won their way in the world, they deserve some latitude and they are always right. It’s worse when it rubs off on their children. The boy who phones the maid to tell her what to drop off for lunch will make you cringe. When you realize that a twelve-year-old’s clothes are worth more than your car, it’s hard not to be envious.

Snap out of it. You’re a professional. You are a trained expert in teaching. This becomes important because entitled parents hold strongest to that idea, “The way I was educated is the best for my child.” They will want to know why you don’t teach that way. You can either reply with current educational best practices, or even better, describe what you have observed about their child that might make your idea the better one. If they continue to argue, offer to consider their idea or encourage them to do it at home with materials you can recommend from the nearest educational supply store.

When you come up against the idea that they are always right, you can be in for a serious struggle. One middle school colleague of mine knew a child was stealing, but the child told his father he was innocent. “My son never lies,” the father flatly stated. It happened again later with the exact same results. While I hesitate to imagine this child’s future, this does illustrate your best defense in these situations. Remember you are a professional. Then bring only the facts. Stay calm and start your sentences with, “I observed…” or “This work shows…” If the parent wishes to discuss those facts, great. If not, you tried. Some will want to take them home. Keep copies.

Perhaps less wealthy, but still difficult to work with, is the sports-entitled child. They have games that start at 10:00 at night. Parents try to excuse homework because they have practice every night.  They miss school for tournaments. They limp into the classroom unable to write, but still manage to play at recess. They take home bags full of donated food, but when you go to their games, you notice they have the latest expensive equipment. At those games, you also notice their parents are constantly shouting at them, and not nicely. These parents have serious plans to develop a pro athlete, and they’re not going to let you interfere.

You don’t have to interfere, but you do have to educate their child to the same high standards that you hold all of the other children. If you have to put their learning in terms of being able to read and understand a big contract, then do it. One thing that worries me about some of these children is that they have different faces for different people, sometimes to the point of being quite manipulative. Two boys, unfailingly polite to adults, cussed out younger students when they didn’t know a microphone was on. Another boy kept selling every notebook that I supplied, but told me he had no idea where he had lost them. It’s not a universal trend, but keep an eye on it.

Finally, don’t assume that children with entitled parents can read. A principal from a wealthy school surprised me with this, but he explained that whether it is working, socializing, or sports, these parents aren’t home at night and the children put themselves to bed. No one reads to them. So some of our most advantaged children can start school in the same place as our most disadvantaged. Be prepared.

 

Parents Who Demand Personal Service

A colleague of mine got this request at 7:30 p.m. on the night before picture day, “Please make sure my daughter wears these clothes in her picture for me, then puts on the clothes that her father will bring in for his picture. She may not wear the same clothes in our two pictures. She’ll have to have two separate tickets for two separate orders. It shouldn’t be a problem. Her last school did it.” That was the strangest picture day request I have heard, but not the only one. I have had requests to do hair, fix clothes, and check for fake smiles. I also made the mistake of sending home the pictures mom paid for on dad’s custodial weekend. Parents don’t realize that you will spend picture day nowhere near the camera because you are keeping your students in the “before” line separated from the “after” line and keeping everyone quiet while searching for the picture money that Macy swore she brought in as well as the picture ticket that Greg lost three seconds after you handed it to him. They also don’t realize that you have little idea which parent gets a child on a given weekend; you’re just sending the packets home.

Other parents want daily updates on their child’s behavior. In serious cases and for a limited time, this can be appropriate. However, it is hugely time-consuming, so when you volunteer, put an end date on it. It will take at least twenty minutes every afternoon, and when you have an entire day’s lessons to prep on top of a staff meeting or training, you will struggle with this commitment. If you feel compelled, offer to text instead of call. It is much faster, and you have your documentation on your phone.

One note: Some parents want to you to call them every single time their child messes up at school. I disagree with this one. I think a child and teacher should have a little space to work things out before the shoe drops at home. I will certainly phone if I see a pattern, but a mistake here and there is part of the normal maturing process. Plus, it’s unrealistic, I don’t have time to make two or three phone calls a night over small behavior issues. So if nothing further happens during the week, I let my notes disappear.

 

Parents Who Lie

Trey, a 6th grader, was a handsome boy with a thick cumulative folder, but I wouldn’t know that for a while because it lagged behind his transfer. He had moved out of his mom’s house and in with his adult brother so he could attend school in our district. It wasn’t unheard of; many parents made sacrifices to get into our district. The first thing he did when he joined my class was teach everyone how to shoot staples across the room. He also taught them how to use the tape dispenser cutters as razors and the rollers as spinning tops. So much for my self-serve classroom. He cheated, then lied on his honor pledges. He respected no boundaries. When we did gallery walks to view everyone’s art, he drew on other kids’ pictures. He got into my desk and cupboards. He did little work, shouted, cheated, stole, and lied about it.

It wasn’t only my class he disrupted and was failing, so we asked for a conference. Oddly, his mother scheduled it. We insisted that his brother also attend. They said something about he did homework at her house, then went to his brother’s. They lived miles away from each other which in California translates to hours of driving. This didn’t make sense. High schools will investigate fake addresses, but middle schools don’t have the wherewithal. Then one night he phoned me for homework help late in the evening, and I heard his mother call him to dinner in the background. Finally, by the end of the year, they admitted the subterfuge. By then, I was pretty upset. This child had disrupted so many children’s learning for so long. He didn’t even belong in our school, and the family had no compunction about it at all. Their own behavior was so thick with lies that I had little chance of instilling integrity.

Another boy, Pietr dropped into my 6th grade class mid-year as well. He had moved from his mother’s house to his father’s house. Within a day, I knew something was very wrong. He could only write sentences containing a few words, the writing itself was loopy and large, he read far below grade level, and his behavior was juvenile. By 6th grade, most students are done poking pencils to make friends, talking every single time the teacher turns her back, and stealing other boys’ papers. Then it hit me. Pietr belonged in Special Ed. I went to the office and told the secretary my suspicions. We checked the forms his father completed, but he left all of that information blank. She called his old school. Bingo. He had an IEP. This has happened to me twice since. In one case, the mother even lied about her daughter’s previous school to hide the IEP.

I sympathize with parents who so want their children to be “normal” that they drop them into a regular classroom, hoping that the diagnosis was a mistake, hoping that by being around regular kids their issues will go unnoticed. My own husband used this excuse with our daughter. If she were just around better kids, she would be better. However, special needs really do need trained help, and it doesn’t take long to spot. These parents lie with the best intentions, but it doesn’t help your classroom. Solve it as soon as you can.

The other little lie that messes with my whole class is the medication test. Parents, either on purpose or because they ran out or even sold it, take their children off of medication, then wait to see if you call. Your classroom implodes, you can’t figure out what is going on with this child who may have been instructed not to tell you, and after a few days of frustration for the entire class, you finally call home. The parents say, “Oh, we didn’t give him all of his meds. We wondered if you would notice.” It is here that I have to remember to breathe because what I want to say is, “Do you know how many children couldn’t learn (or were in tears from being bullied) because you decided to do a secret experiment?” Instead I have to say, “Please tell me in the future so I can make a better plan and give you quicker feedback.”

I have even experienced parents who do this the week before state tests. In a friend’s classroom, I watched an artistic, energetic, but successful, 4th grade boy, become unable to attend to a thing. He was bouncing on one knee in his seat and his eyes were moving everywhere. Even his pencil danced. His entire body was in continual motion for the entire testing week. He couldn’t even fill in the circles on the Scantron. All I could think was that politicians want to pay us based on test scores? Not until parents get paid for stability.

The medication lie gets much more complicated when you consider how many children are on medication in the average classroom. About one-fourth of the children in one of my classes were on medication. That’s five to seven children, depending on my class size and who had moved in or out. Another year, 11 out of 25 had some sort of behavior diagnosis and about half of those were on medication. My experience was that on any given day, someone forgot, ran out, was trying a new medicine or the medicine just didn’t work. On any given day, at least one child was massively struggling to control behavior and concentrate. Parents warned me about medication changes, I think, four times in a 170-day school year. Once warned, I was completely willing to bend over backwards to help the child in question, but with no information, the discipline plan kicks in faster. I do have content to teach. The closer relationship you develop with your parents, the more likely they are to tell you, but it is no guarantee. Some rely on that closeness to know you will call let them know how things are going. I don’t think parents realize how overwhelmed teachers are, how many children are on medication, and how badly misinformation can trip us up.

 

Parents Who Are Mentally Ill or Substance Abusers

No one told me this in teacher training, but sadly, some parents will be mentally ill, on a lot of medication or self-medicated. It doesn’t matter how rich your community is, it’s far too frequent. You won’t recognize the herculean effort that it took for that mom to put herself together or for that dad to keep his anger in check unless someone who knows the family mentions it. But there are some tip-offs.

I had one mom who called me at least twice a week. She said her son was losing every paper, didn’t understand any homework, etc. I finally realized something was up when she kept asking me to read the same spelling words to her over the phone. When I put her calls on a 24-hour delay before I returned them, she started showing up at my classroom door. She needed more than I could give her. I ended up asking my administration for help. They asked the family to limit her contact and appoint someone else to contact me.

Another boy wasn’t succeeding in middle school, and his mom asked for a conference. Mid-conference, she almost walked out saying she couldn’t handle it, then began grilling me. Had I done this with her son, had I done that. As it happened, I had, including a home visit. But it was inevitable, that she would think of something that I hadn’t tried. In this case it was, “Have you had a personal conference with him to go over his work?” No, not a formal conference. She began yelling at me. Six teachers went into shock, but I was the target. A couple tried to be reasonable and save me, but she wasn’t having it. She successfully turned his failure into my fault by screaming.

Strangely, I wasn’t that upset.  I realized that she was going to keep going until she bore no responsibility for her child’s difficulties. By yelling she made sure that no one would take her on. The part that did make me angry was that our administration knew the mom, knew that meeting would probably go bad, and didn’t warn us or try to attend. What frustrated me was that for the rest of the year her son continued to be satisfied with lackluster work and there was little I could do about it.

I have had dads who spent years in POW or refugee camps who can’t understand why their children don’t appreciate all that they have in America. At home, these fathers get angry at a level that is allowed in the Middle East or the Balkans, but not in the United States. I have watched moms pick their hair or open sores throughout the conferences. Other moms’ speech is so slurred that a child’s older brother or sister has to do the talking. They love their kids, but there is so little they can do for them. One of those moms spied the five dollars that a girl had saved up for a yearbook and took it from her saying, “You know I’m good for it.” She wasn’t; I later gave the child a yearbook. One dad told his daughter cursive was evil because the only proper writing was block letters, all capitals. One mom kept her daughter home whenever she couldn’t stand being alone. Another spent afternoons in the car with her kids parked outside of the jail waiting for her boyfriend to look out of his window. A few young children have told me they have to take care of little ones while their parents are in the basement drinking or smoking “bad smells.” Some parents schedule three conferences before they show up, and then only make it because I offer to come to their house. Some children see the police more than I ever did, and my father was a marshal. Some of them change residences and schools depending on which relative is in jail. None of this makes sense, yet this is a sad part of life.

Every time this happens, I am surprised. I think it is because mental illness and substance abuse present themselves in so many different ways. So I have learned to take a breath, check with someone at school who knows the family, and focus on the child. What can I do for that child? Sometimes, I have to report the family. I hate doing it, but it’s my job. If the child is not safe, I don’t have a choice. Past that, I can be a stable, loving adult. I can be happy to see them, make sure they eat and have clothes (children in the foster care system lose all of their clothes multiple times), find school time to get their homework done, and for older children, remind them that education is a way out. Most of all, I try to stay calm and steady because I know these children have huge emotional winds blowing around them already. Yelling at them is just one more voice from the crowd. A smile and a hug can be an anchor when every day feels like a hurricane.

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