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Educational Blaming and Shaming

I have something to say about pointing fingers. Specifically, I have something to say about educators who have had it UP TO HERE and then tirade against the enemy: parents.

Last week I read Ron Clark’s article on CNN entitled “What Teachers Really Want To Tell Parents” and, as I read, I nodded along with every single point he made. Yet, even as a teacher who has longed for those same things, I couldn’t disagree more with him on his message delivery. Ron Clark wrote a book I read several years ago called “The Essential 55: An Award-Winning Educator’s Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child” which chronicles his success in the classroom. He wrote about the principles he helps establish in the classroom and how they go a long way towards teaching children more than the required curriculum. Because I’ve been in a position for nearly 17 years that mirrors Mr. Clark’s, I could easily say that I have had each experience he described and wish I could tell parents the things he brings up in his article.

Clark writes that parents should stop making excuses for their child and I’ve seen that firsthand. When I see that in schools my first response is that the parent is playing “lawyer” in things as simple as defending their child’s behavior all to the way flat-out calling teachers liars when they report on what their kid did in the classroom. Clark also writes that parents and schools need to function more like partners and not the Us Versus Them mentality that has permeated the litigious relationship in which we currently find in schools. I didn’t even have to dig back that far to come up with my own example. Two weeks ago a parent was upset with me for making her daughter follow very basic rules and protocols and said, right to my face, that she was going to call her lawyer and sue me for discriminating against her child. In his article, Clark also pleads with parents not to speak disparagingly about teachers in front of children because teachers already “walk on eggshells” when they’re accused of doing something to a child that is entirely appropriate. Kids go home every day and tell one side of a story and parents believe them. Teachers are constantly on the defensive. How do I know this? Because I’m the one who gets the angry phone call from a parent and I’m the one ordered to “do something about that teacher” before I even know all the facts. I am intimately familiar with customer service as an assistant principal.

Clark didn’t say anything that I haven’t already thought or verbalized to my fellow educators in the past. However, I’d like to think I differ from him as to how I work with schools and families. Surely, we both see ourselves as change agents, but to me that means that we all have some changing and learning and growing to do. At best, his tactic was simplistic and not at all helpful to the hardworking teachers and parents raising and educating children. At worst, his tone hit on a tired blaming and shaming model in education. I heard one of my favorite educators and writers, Pedro Noguera, speak at a conference once and he asked us why some teachers can get better results from their students without engaging in the blame game of pointing fingers at who is wrong. There are teachers who take all the woes their students bring with them to school and still manage to help them achieve academically without condemning other parties or using that as an excuse.

What Clark detailed were the stories of what teachers deal with daily. What he failed to get at, though, is how teachers get to that point of weariness in their jobs. Homeless students, violence, assault, rape, incest, malnutrition, living in filth with cockroaches, drug abuse in a home where children are present, failure to get proper medical or dental care, racism, sexism, all the “-isms”. As much as I could go on with this list, these are things I’ve seen within the last 5 years and it’s not getting any better. These are the parents Clark is talking about, the ones raising children in horrid conditions that many of us personally have no intimacy with but we see it nonetheless. But he’s also talking about the ones who financially prosper, who buy their children everything they need and/or desire, who read to their children at night before bed and who sit down to a family meal at least once a day, who enroll their kids in sports and sewing classes and the arts. How is it that we’re having this condescending conversation to all of these people at once? Clark doesn’t lack the experience or insight in the profession that we share, but he certainly didn’t focus on anything short of blaming. The same solution can’t be found for both of them even when they each come into schools screaming about how their child is being taught or treated.

In short, shaming parents into being better school partners doesn’t work. I may have nodded in agreement with his “wants” from the parents, but after pondering the way his message ended I couldn’t abide by his method.

Blaming parents isn’t the way to go. Teachers have a part in this, too. Too often, educators use poverty as an excuse when parents who up angrily defending their child’s behavior or their grades. I’ve sat in meetings with teachers and parents that have gone horribly wrong with every party leaving that discussion more upset than when we began and, sadly, when the parents leave I have heard this uttered time and again: “They are too poor/uneducated/ignorant to understand what we’re doing in schools.” If that were the case, why not give up? Once, when I was on a team of four other 8th grade teachers one of them told me that even though I was new at this I should learn that the poor parents don’t want as much for their child because they have too much going on in their lives to worry about education. Admittedly, I didn’t argue with her. I was 25 years old and had just had my ass handed to me in that meeting. What I failed to see at the time was that the parents (there were two so BAH on that single-parenting excuse) cared as much for their child’s education as the country club parents who came in next. Sometimes, I have to wade through the anger they can hurl at me to see that the underlying needs are the same: they love their child and want them to do their best. Sometimes, they just don’t know how to help them. After 17 years of those same experiences I have at least learned to calm them down enough to have a productive conversation by saying, “You are really upset about what’s happening with your child, but I don’t think you’re really mad at me. How can I truly help you?” It’s simple, but it goes a long way toward a collaborative partnership between home and school.

But that is one example from my career. There are hundreds of others that come to mind, but I couldn’t possibly wag my finger at Enemy Parents and write a diatribe about how they’re doing it all wrong and I’m doing it all right. At some point, humility from both sides needs to come into play so we can even get to having those conversations.

Maybe that’s what is wrong with Clark’s article in the first place. It was a one-sided conversation that was followed up with responses. That article, inappropriately titled “Teachers vs. Parents: Round Two”, became a message board for parents who were upset about his arrogant tone and how he put parents on the defensive. This is getting us nowhere. It’s the wrong conversation and perhaps it’s not a conversation at all. A common theme in the comments from that post (taken from comments on Clark’s original post) is that teachers don’t respect students or parents enough and, thus, haven’t earned the things Ron Clark demanded.

Thus, the cycle continues and we, all of us parents and teachers, are still in this sticky mess together.

But the voice that is missing from the conversation, once again, is students.

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