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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Parents Aren't Necessary for Students to Learn

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

In teachers' lounges nationwide, parents are a favorite topic of complaint: Now I know why Bertha behaves as she does -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree! or, If parents would do their jobs and raise their children right, then I wouldn't have any trouble getting students to learn.

In these lounges you can regularly hear chat about parents, I know that child's parent, you will never see her and she never answers the phone. Don't parents think their children's schooling is important? I even heard a teacher disparaging the quality of parents in the school in this way, In our school, we judge a parents intelligence by the number of teeth they still have.

Yet schools are required to work with parents. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires that schools reach out to parents and try to engage them in a learning partnership or compacts. When schools do not meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or state standards, parents are required to be invited to needs assessment meetings, school improvement meetings, and performance based monitoring meetings. Each teacher is required to call home to parents when their students' misbehave, and also prepare for a parent/teacher conference at least once year. How can we complain so viciously about the people we are supposed to be working with?

Endemic to this attitude towards parents is the unspoken blame deflection in which some teachers and schools engage: It's not our fault Albert is not learning, it is his parents' fault. I believe that there is too much looking through the window and not at the mirror. The fact is, that the parents send us the very best students that they have. Yeah, sure, parents can do more with their children's learning at home, whether it be reading with them, helping them do their homework, or taking them on field trips.

But we have to come to grips with the fact that we are the professionals and we do not need parents to help students learn in our classrooms. Let me explain why.

Changing Perspectives

I was privileged to attend probably the most outstanding professional learning event of my career: The Professional Learning Community Institute here in San Antonio this summer. (I even got to have lunch with the DuFours and other dignitaries; but that is another blog.) During the closing keynote session, Mike Mattos, a former elementary principal, forcefully explained why we shouldn't depend on parents in this way (paraphrasing). "Parents haven't gone to seven years of college, they haven't passed competency tests, and they have full time jobs of their own, so we cannot expect them to do our job of teaching. Kids don't get to choose where they are born. They spend 15,000 hours in our schools, how can we blame the parents?

If we truly believe that every student can learn, then we also have to truly believe that as professionals, we can make that happen, regardless of whether we have parent support or not. If we truly believe we can help all students can learn, then we have to stop worrying (complaining) about the external forces we can't control and focus on what do control: all the learning that happens in our classrooms. We have absolutely no control over what happens at home, therefore, parent involvement is not essential to student learning.

Think about the body: Is your hand essential? No it is not. You can cut it off and still survive and thrive. How about the heart? Yes! If the heart stops then the whole body ceases to function. The human hand is nice to have, just like parent support is appreciated and welcomed, but they are not critical elements. The definition being that if we do not have them, we cannot function.

What is at the heart of student learning? A teacher that is willing to do whatever it takes to help them learn, a teacher that accepts the responsibility to ensure high levels of learning for every child, and a teacher that collaborates with other teachers that also believe that together, in professional learning communities, they can overcome any societal or economic obstacle to learning.

Of course we want and encourage parents to be partners in school but we first have to eliminate the habit of parent bashing. If we agree with Mike Mattos' take on what is the heart of student learning, then we only have one course of action: Improve our teaching to such a degree so that when students come home from school and parents ask them, What did you learn today? the students don't say, Nothing! and so the parents can never say, Those no good, dirty-rotten teachers! If they would just teach my children like they are supposed to, then I wouldn't have any problems raising my children!

What are your thoughts on how to improve the way we think and talk about parents and what are some reflective ways to improve our craft as teachers? Please share in the comment section below.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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