Blame the Parents I Do

By Matthew Amaral

Last year at Back-To-School-Night, I was pleasantly surprised to see both parents of a struggling student show up. The student was in my accelerated 9th grade class. She had an F, she didn’t do any homework, and always came into my classroom smelling like cigarettes. Up until then I had minimal contact with her parents. They were hard to get a hold of, made vague promises they would help turn her around, but the next day she would still show up without her homework.

So when the two of them showed up to BTSN, I was happy and hopeful. Heck, I was glad she even had two parents. I hadn’t expected that, and it made me even more optimistic. That is, until they sat down at my desk.

It was apparent to me right away there was something wrong with the both of them. They couldn’t sit still. Their eyes were wide open, they kept scratching themselves, and they seemed to be grinding their teeth together. They nodded too quickly and too many times, and were eager to agree with everything I said. Their eyes moved from my face to the computer screen with feverish intensity, as if I was telling them the world was going to end in the next couple of minutes and we should email as many people as we possibly could. Basically, they were high on something, and my guess was meth.

They made the same promises they had made on the phone. They all but screamed their approval, shaking my hand and thanking me as if I had just promised to give them a month’s supply of Sudafed and Brake Cleaner, and all they had to do was cook it. The next day their daughter came in without the most important assignment of the year, which I had specifically told them about. I don’t think I ever heard from them again. They stopped returning my calls, and their daughter failed my class (I won’t go into my attempts to prove my theory, let’s just say accusing parents of being high at Back-To-School-Night is a complicated affair).

This happens to teachers and counselors quite a bit. We wonder why a kid is failing in class. We meet their parents-then we know.

Back-To-School-Night is a dismal affair. We prepare presentations, handouts, sign up sheets, and envision a packed room full of curious adults interested in their kids’ education. We look forward to finally meeting the adult versions of our students, and can’t wait to team up to boost grades and improve attitudes. So we dress up in our best clothes, clean our rooms, and sit back and wait for the hordes to arrive.

I know a teacher last year who had six parents come to his room. Six.

Normally we are instructed to give a ten-minute presentation. They tell us to follow the bell schedule, which is modified for back to school night. The parents go to each one of their student’s classes in the same order as the students, only the classes are 15 minutes long. So they tell us not to talk to the parents individually-just give a ten-minute presentation and field general questions at the end. Unfortunately, there are a couple problems with this format.

The first is that the parents are usually worse at following bell schedules and being on time to class than their kids. They wander around the campus aimlessly, not able to decipher the simple maps we give them. They usually get help from their 5-year old who dreams of someday coming here. The parents show up at the wrong times, to the wrong classrooms, and are generally a mess.

So instead of giving a general presentation that everyone is late to, where half of the parents are in my room during 9th grade Accelerated 2nd period when their student is in 10th Grade Sheltered, I just meet with them individually. I form a line at my computer, I sit them down in front of me and show them their student’s actual grade, and they leave my room with a computer printout of every assignment. I even highlight the categories their kid needs to work on. For example, if the percentage breakdown shows their Homework grade is a D, and everything else is a C or B, I will show the parent this and make sure they understand how their child can improve.

So few parents show up, I find this to be the best way to do BTSN. Plus, I don’t want to miss this golden opportunity to show them, face to face, exactly what is going on with the student’s grade. Because on a normal day, I call a parent and get their cell phone message, which is 90 seconds of a rap song followed by the word “holler.”

But the problem remains. The biggest influence in a child’s education is not the school, or the teachers-it’s the parents. If we really want to change education in our country, we need to start in the homes.

I often say our public schools need an entire staff of social workers on top of our counseling staff, and I don’t think I can say it enough.

Those of us in education know this. Teachers, counselors, administration. We know that for a lot of these kids, we can bend over backwards (and for many of them we do), but it isn’t going to change much if their home life doesn’t change with it. This is the unspoken key to education in our country.

But when we hear our politicians, and superintendents, and school boards talk about education, no one, I mean NO ONE, ever talks about parent outreach. Well, they talk about it, but nothing is ever implemented that makes any difference. NO ONE TALKS ABOUT ANYTHING SUBSTANTIAL. Some schools get together one night a week for parent outreach. At my school it happens once a year. The problem is that when we do these things we get the same kind of turnout as BTSN. No one shows up.

And at my high school of 2,500 students, most years we don’t even have a PTA. Ain’t that some shit.

Of course, I realize we don’t have the resources to implement these things. It took my school eight years to open up the bathrooms in J-Hall because they needed a simple wall built in front of the doorways for privacy. For eight years we had brand new bathrooms sit unused while the students made lines at the other two-all because of a few hundred dollars.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think we can afford an entire staff of social workers. We’re cutting half our counseling staff this year as it is. I just want to make one very clear point. We can complain, and blame teachers (actually, I blame teachers a great deal myself), and students, and everyone and everything else. But we have to know that the NUMBER ONE indicator of a student’s success is a stable home life. So when we address education at the state, and national level, at some point we are going to have to recognize the power of the parent/guardian. The parents are more important than we are. We know this, but I’m not sure they do.

I guess at the heart of what I’m saying is that we need more social services at our school sites. And instead of having these services spread around our cities, why don’t we put them where they are needed most? Why don’t we take all these social outreach programs, and after school programs, and counseling institutions, and make them an integral part of our public schools? I think that by combining all the great things we have out there with the physical site where the learning takes place, we could improve things a great deal. Our teachers, administrative staff, and counselors, are doing jobs we are not trained to do. Half of what we do is social work, which takes away from everything else we want to get to. If we ever want to get serious about CHANGE, this is where we need to start.

So don’t be afraid to say it. The parents need professional help that works with them and their students with the school and at the school. I think I like working with high school kids because a lot of what is going on in their lives isn’t their fault. I don’t blame them most. But I have a hard time giving a forty-year old parent a pass because they are too high to raise their kid. For me, the biggest blame (yes, it is a strong word) lies in one place-I blame the parents-even the nice ones on meth who agree with everything I say.

Matthew Amaral is the founder of teach4real.com, a website dedicated to Real Teachers in our Toughest Schools. Matt is a writer and English Teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read his blog, “Teaching in the Ghetto Ain’t Nufin’ New” at http://www.teach4real.com. You can also receive his FREE Romeo and Juliet Starter Unit, which comes complete with a Final Exam. If you teach public, you should hear what Matt has to say.

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