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Listen, Please, Ron Clarke: On Developing Partnerships Between Parents and Teachers

| Elena Aguilar

I am saddened by this recent article by "acclaimed teacher and author," Ron Clarke who tells parents "what teachers really want to say." He does not speak for me -- not as a teacher or as a parent.

On the first day of school this year I dropped off my second-grade son outside his portable, waiting only until his teacher opened her door and welcomed students in. We've done this first-day-of school thing for a few years now; we were both less anxious. I then bolted to an elementary school across town where I helped parents finish registration forms, locate their child's classroom, and manage their emotions.

As I coaxed a sobbing mother away from her child's kindergarten door, I had to hold back my own tears that welled in empathy. It really is a terrifying experience to leave your four- or five- year old child with strangers, not knowing much about what's going to happen during the day, how safe they'll be, how other kids will treat them, or what the teacher will be like. (Have you experienced this, Ron Clarke?) Even more so for the thousands of parents who did not attend school in this country and don't speak the language of the teacher; also for parents whose own experiences in schools (sometimes in the same district or even school) was less than positive. (My guess is that your experience in school was positive, Ron Clarke.)

As a teacher, I was eager to partner with parents. They held many keys that could make my job easier and more successful. I visited homes, frequently called parents, and always made time to meet with them. I knew they were my primary allies in supporting my students to be successful and I enjoyed working with parents.

I taught for nine years before I had a child. Although I'd like to think that I worked well with parents in those pre-child years, after my baby was born I was a different educator. I started seeing my middle school students, in all their annoying glory, as someone's baby. I visualized particular students as a cooing, cuddly four-month old, or as a toddler starting to walk. This made it much easier to deal with obnoxious behavior. I imagined the child's mother playing with her baby, watching him take his first steps, tending to scraped knees, and laying in bed worrying about her son's future. My empathy expanded, became more personal; I felt it in my body.

After my son was born, when I lamented not having family who could show me the ways of motherhood, I realized that right in front of me lay a storehouse of knowledge: dozens of women who had raised children. They knew secrets for stuffy noses and sore throats, they knew how to get a fussy baby to sleep. I humbly turned to them, asking, "Please be my teachers now." And they did. A new partnership was formed. (One day, parents might have something to teach you, too, Ron Clarke.)

This is what I'd like to say to my son's teachers:

Please get to know him. Find out what he likes to do, what he loves. Listen for his quirky sense of humor and his aspirations. I want you to help him learn, to help him understand what he reads and to multiply and divide; and I want you to like him, to care about him. I want him to know that you care about him. Show this by learning who he is and using that knowledge to help him learn. (He loves music and he'll remember anything that's put to song). And let's work together, sharing what we know, so that he gets what he needs and deserves in school.

I was saddened by Ron Clarke's article. We don't have time for dictates -- "Take my advice," he orders, "trust us. Quit with all the excuses."

If we're going to partner to educate our kids, we need to start by listening to each other, and listening sometimes to what is not said. As a teacher, when I had "difficult" parents, they were usually terrified, isolated parents, at their wits end about how to help their kids. In my years in the classroom, I only had perhaps two or three parents who were very difficult. I had hundreds of parents who trusted me perhaps more than I deserved (what did I know as a 24-year-old teacher?) and who would do anything to partner with me.

Parents are not the enemy or an obstacle; nor are teachers the bad guys. This kind of blaming, polarizing thinking, fueled by the media and some politicians, is what's destroying our schools. Let's not contribute to this and figure out how we can better work together.

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Disappointed

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As a transformational leader, I find it disappointing that you would express your opinion in such a snide and cynical fashion. Perhaps you intended humor, but that was not the message I received due to your Ron Clark digs at the end of every paragraph (in parenthesis and italicized).

If identifying areas of need is suddenly "blaming", we have a long way to go when it comes to improving things in education. For better or worse, there are cause and effect relationships that exist in education, and just like there are times when educators need to make adjustments to instruction or attitude, there may also be a need for parents to make adjustments as well. It is necessary for all stakeholders (this includes the parents) to be in a constant state of reflection and make adjustments when necessary in order to make improvements. Four years ago, President Obama, while campaigning, stated that it was time for parents to turn off the tv and start taking an interest in their child's education, and educators everywhere stood and said, "AMEN!" Was that blaming? Call me crazy, but the cord of three strands (parent/teacher/student) seems a little weak as of late. Clearly this is not new information what with the NCLB legislation and the parental involvement component.

As professional, experienced educators, we all have something to bring to the table. Ron Clark is right in that parents need to stop making excuses for their students and start holding them accountable and start trusting their teachers who are working so hard. You are right in that we need to be building positive relationships with the parents since they are an integral part of that cord of three strands I referred to earlier. But disrespectful disagreement between professionals does more to divide us and undermine the efforts of professional educators everywhere, and ultimately, the students are the ones to pay the price.

Respectfully,
Lisa

Fifth Grade Teacher

I enjoyed reading this

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I enjoyed reading this article and getting a different perspective. In my experiences, it can be quite difficult to get parents to be concerned with their child's education. (unless they are failing) Do you have any suggestions to encourage the parents to create a partnership with their child's teacher? It seems like I have a few parents every year who are difficult to get ahold of and do not seem interested in what I have to say. Unfortunately, it seems these are the parents of children who could really use an extra boost and extra support.

Dear Elena, Thank you for

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Dear Elena,

Thank you for your posting here. I enjoyed reading it, and I could 100% empathise with your feelings, although I am a pre-child teacher. I was led by curiosity into your posting because I too read Ron Clarke's article and thought hard about what he wrote. It was quite direct and the man knew what he wanted to say.

I think people are just different and we all have different points of views. Schools are all about differentiation and understanding how our students are all at different abilities, stages of learning and readiness levels, but somehow we forget that as adults, are are STILL different and continuously at different readiness and learning levels. Everyone has different concerns and different perspectives.

That being said, I kind of agree with different aspects of what both of you have written, even though they are very different.
Unfortunately, like Mr. Clarke says, some parents DO make needless excuses, and you say that teachers are the ones pointing blame, but parents do too. The reasons WHY they are choosing to point their fingers are for many reasons (and some because of fear and negative past experiences, like you mentioned). I think a good teacher considers these reasons, but does not let them be excuses for doing the right thing for the learner. These reasons are KEY to understanding parents and building positive relationships with them. I think this is where your strenghts come into play.

I think you are absolutely right to have the perspective that you do. However, so does Ron. I think it would be nice for the both of you to take a walk in each other's shoes for a day. You might react to a parent in a different way to Mr. Clarke, but can we really say that he's 100% wrong? Have you never had a parent that really was making excuses for their child?

Intersting things to think about :)

I know you wrote this posting a while back, but do send me your thoughts.

Warm Regards,
Patey

Communicating Effectively

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Hey Elena,
I definitely agree that teachers and parents need to see each other as partners, not rivals, in the task of educating children. The problem seems to be an inability to communicate. Parents can't be forced to improve their communication skills, but teachers can. I think implementing a public speaking and communication training aspect within teacher training would be a big help!

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