by Joy Libby
I am lucky to count many teachers as friends, some of whom have taught my own children over the years. There was a clutch of preschool teachers who get in the trenches of the sandbox and have a bottomless well of creativity and there were brave middle school teachers who face hormones and high-stakes social scenes while trying to teach algebra. I love all of them but wouldn’t want to be any of them — I am not made of tough enough stuff to face their days.
As I understand it, teaching is more of a calling than a vocation. Exceptional teachers, who realize this and lean into the insanity of the job, show up each day ready to minister. Here’s the understatement of the year – teachers make an actual, measurable difference in our world.
In quiet conversations with my teaching pals, most of whom teach at private schools and see their work as inspiring and impactful, I hear one main obstacle that always floats to the surface. This consistent problem keeps them from job satisfaction, from joyfully bettering students’ lives, and from creative educational experiments. This hindrance makes them want to keep their heads down, their voices quiet and simply get through their days. Drum roll, please: it’s the parents!
Sadly, it appears that two really huge and helpful groups of people – parents and teachers – are both loving our next generation and resenting each other in the process. Although I am technically only in the parent camp, I think my friendship with particular teachers has allowed me to comprehend both sides. The truth is that everyone wants the same thing: to support children as they grow and learn. I offer here a few thoughts to chew on for both groups.
What Teachers wish Parents Knew
Teachers are real people with real lives – they buy alcohol and sometimes they get cancer. During non-school hours, teachers have other things going on. At BevMo, I ran into a first-grade teacher with a cart filled to the brim with bottles. She acted like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar. “I’m throwing an engagement party for my roommate,” she stammered. I tried to put her at ease by saying I had assumed all the alcohol was for a purpose; she laughed and told me how she always fears running into parents around town because they seem surprised that she has other parts to her life. Sadly, one year, while a teacher friend faced diagnosis, chemotherapy, hair loss, nausea, and reconstructive surgery, her biggest challenge by far was how the parents of her fourth-grade class treated her. They made her feel that her illness showed a lack of consideration for her students and was an inconvenience to the parents. “Not on my tuition dime,” was the sentiment from a father who was mad that the school hadn’t fired her for missing so many days. (What a self-centered piece of shizzle, huh?) She was essentially asked to apologize for having cancer. I asked a friend “If your best friend or sister had cancer, can you imagine feeling anything but compassion for her?” Takeaway: reflect on whether your actual treatment of teachers implies that you see them as one-dimensional and always at your disposal.
The pressure and tension you create when you call the dean instead of speaking directly to a teacher makes it much harder to partner with you. It feels as if a quiet war is being waged between parents and teachers – a battle for power. Parents are wearing down teachers, draining them of their confidence, grasping for the upper hand, and slowly sucking the joy out of their jobs. Unfortunately, as parents win this battle, their children lose. How much personal fulfillment and joy can you imagine feeling at the end of six months, when your every move is scrutinized and reported by a teenager? Parents need to sift through the stories and realize a child is talking. A possibility exists that even though your child truly believes what she is saying, he may have misinterpreted what actually happened. Teachers wish parents would stop talking to each other about their disappointments and stop firing off emails to the head of school. How about just speaking directly to the teacher in question? This simple change would replace a critical, nervous, fear-based atmosphere with one of openness and trust. Parents can still have gripes and even disagree with a teacher’s course of action, but they’d stop treating the teacher as if he needs to be tattled on and involve him in the discussion. That said — This is very difficult for parents to do. Many parents have been neck deep in scenarios like this with a teacher and I believe that everything their child is telling them is 100% accurate. We aren’t there to witness what went wrong, but we believe our kid over the teacher. So there we are.
Takeaway: How would you like to be treated?
Parents, we wish you’d focus on what your kid really needs. Teachers see the kid who routinely shows up tardy, without a jacket, forgetting to turn in the permission slip on time, tired from staying up too late, forgetting books left at the other parent’s house and with shoes that need new laces. Teachers notice the kid who is excluded and needs to eat lunch with them in the classroom, who needs extra help in English or extra time for an assignment, who really needs an evening tutor, or who has anxiety and who has stopped eating. Teachers wish parents were open to hearing about these things. Instead, parents tend to focus on the final letter grade given (and how it compares to others), or who was picked for the play or the first-string volleyball team, or if there is too much or too little homework. Parents often focus on the 30,000-foot issues better left to the school, but miss the on-the-ground, day-to-day real-life problems of their children.
Takeaway: It is a parent’s job to raise their kid and a teacher’s job to teach their kid, both are critical and both have to live up to the bargain.
Things Parents wish Teachers knew
We are parenting in a fear-based culture. Parents can’t choose to raise kids at a different time in history; now is what we’ve got. Current culture constantly sends parents messages of worry and fear about their children, and indicates that every single moment, incident or encounter might break them permanently. Parents have responded to this fear by hovering, over-helping, and sometimes by accusing teachers of not doing enough for their kids. They are scared that their children will not succeed in life. No longer are parents happy to let an eight-year-old enjoy second grade; they feel pressure to shape her into the next Steve Jobs. Parents really need teachers to help counter these messages. Instead of scoffing at or mocking current parenting trends, teachers can help by simply offering parents the assurance that they care deeply about kids, and that they’ll let us know when to worry. It’s extremely hard to be the only parents not getting into a tizzy about the ERB scores or verbalizing that our kid doesn’t have to be the best at everything. Takeaway: Teachers should cut parents some slack by acknowledging the pressure they feel from society and then gently explain how parents can trust the system and know their child will be fine in the end.
Most parents are afraid to say anything to you in case you take it out on our kid. Eek! I know this will sound ludicrous to most teachers, but parents really do worry that teachers will seek retribution with children for mistakes they make. Guess what? Kids are afraid of the same thing! Some kids won’t vent or confide their challenges in the classroom, lest parents shoot off an email that will make their next day hard. Takeaway: let’s all be adults here.
You have the power to affect my kid’s life – forever. In our worst and most critical moments, parents can be convinced that teachers have lost sight of this and they are just getting through each day. Parents fear teachers are distracted and not clued into the social scene. Parents want to be sure that teachers remember that their opinion means a lot to children, that one word of encouragement from them can mean more than a million from home, that when they do something exceptional their teachers notice. Students are watching, listening and noticing. They are impressionable. When a teacher shuts a kid down because the teacher is exhausted, or when she offers some extra guidance even though she is beat, she is leaving a legacy, for good or for not so good. Takeaway: Teachers are powerful.
There is so much more to say, but I’ll end with this: When life has thrown curve balls at my kids, teachers have played the most significant roles in their recoveries. With this in mind, I try to start each school year with an open mind about new teachers, figure out what communication style works best, say thank you for even the smallest things, and (it never hurts!) occasionally send in my husband’s amazing banana bread. When I know a teacher has my kid’s back, feels comfortable telling me things I don’t really want to hear but need to know, I sleep better. And if you are as lucky as me, you might find that your kid’s teacher becomes a lifelong friend.