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Parents Aren't Necessary for Students to Learn

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (25) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Celeste's picture
4th grade teacher from Florida

I'm not supposed to be here.
"Parents Aren't Neccessary For Students to Learn"
"What I'm talking about, though, is changing the mindset that students who come from parents that don't, can't, or won't participate in school, are doomed to fail...Great teachers won't let them..."

Oh Mr. Johnson , I follow you more than you'll ever know. For starters, I'm not suppose to be here. Seriously, I'm not! At least that's what a lot of people who harp on parents being involved in schools think. I can count on one hand the number of times my mom came to my schools throughout my entire k-12 public education. I am one of five children raised by a single mom.

During my k-12 education I have attended about ten different schools in the state of Florida. I was that kid that got discussed in teacher lounges. Yet I graduated from high school, got a college degree in education, and went to grad school to earn my masters degree. There's a lot more to this story but I will end by saying this, two teachers made the difference for me. They believed in me and DID NOT LET ME FAIL!

Steve's picture
Music Teacher from Upstate New York

I agree with Celeste, 4th grade teacher from Florida. She says:

"To me, the article 100% agrees with having parents involved and does not down play that fact. I don't believe the article is saying that parents are not important. We all know that they are. The question is what do you do when parents are not involved?"

I would like to offer the analogy of a good, well-rounded education being a three-legged stool. The three legs are, not necessarily in this order: 1. The student and his/her efforts; 2. The family and their efforts, 3. The school and it's efforts.

Without any one of these three 'legs' , the educational effort is hampered.

Caiti's picture
2nd grade teacher from Reno, NV

I agree with Celeste on what the author of the blog is trying to tell us. He is not telling us that parents are not needed in order for a child to succeed in their education. We all know that parents are needed. What he is telling us to do is to not give up on a child when parent support is not there. All we can control is what happens in our classroom. Here is where we do everything in our powers as teachers to help the child succeed. Celeste is a perfect example that even though her mother had limited time for her schooling, she didn't fail because of it. Great teachers she had along the way helped her to become who she is today. It is unfair to put so much pressure on teachers to be superhero like, but sometimes that is what we have to do. That is just part of the job these days. We are in our classrooms to teach every child to become the best they can be and succeed in life, no matter what their situation is at home.

S's picture
Elem. ed. from VA

This article could not be more correct. It makes me think of what we tell our youngest students..."you get what you get, and you don't throw a fit!" While every school dreams of wonderful parent involvement the reality is that there are some parents that you will never see throughout the entire year. Does that mean they do not want the best for their child? It simply means that there is something standing in their way in terms of involvement. As teachers we get what we get. So we have to make the most of it. Regardless of whether or not the parents are as involved as we'd like, our job is to teach every child because every child deserves to learn.

Dale newton's picture
Dale newton
High School Home Economics Teacher

As I read this article I kept nodding in agreement. I have participated in blaming some parents for not doing enough to help in their child's learning, but the fact is some parents simply can not do any better. As teaching professionals we would like parents to be more involved but if they can or can not it is still our responsibility to teach each student and bring out the best in each of them. I must develop the best teaching strategy to reach each student in my care.

Sheila Oneal's picture
Sheila Oneal
4th/5th Grade Science Dublin, Ga

I agree with the comment about stop bashing parents. Those parents are sending us the best that they have. These kids mean the world to them. I always think about how I would want my own children to be treated. I found out many years ago that the key to working with unsupportive parents is PRAISE! The more I lifted their child up, the better our working relationship became. When I did have to contact the parents about a problem, it was not as much a problem any longer. I often contact parents about little items that we need in the classroom such as hand soap, Kleenex, etc. They are more than willing to help out in this way. As the year went by, they just started sending it without my asking. I always felt the greatest joy when my students would come back to school and say they "taught" their parents! I think we need to try everything humanly possible to get our parents involved and on our side of education.

Sel's picture
Information Technology, Northern Virginia

The article is correct from the author's point of view. We have to be determined to do all we can do regardless of parental involvement. However, if the school culture is all about doing EVERYTHING possible to help the student and all the parent has to do is at least one of two things: 1. Attendance 2. Except the help. There are a few parents that falls into this category. They do not make their child attend school and they will not allow the child to get any help. When I hear teachers talk about parents at our school it is usually about parents I just mentioned.

Laura Witt's picture
Laura Witt
Reading/Math Specialist from MD

I have never met a parent who does not want to help his/her child. Parents of past students have always come to me and asked me for strategies to help improve student success. I believe that success for teachers, students, and parents begins with an open door. Teachers need to establish a partnership with parents, so that parents feel comfortable enough to ask questions. I once had a parent ask me for a list of phonics rules so that she could help her son. She said that she felt silly for asking, but she wanted to be able to help him. Sometimes teachers forget that it has been a very long time since some parents have seen things like phonics rules. I felt so blessed that this particular parent felt comfortable enough to ask for help. At my current school we are working hard to build a strong partnership between school and home. I completely agree that we should not be bashing parents. To be completely honest I have never been to a school where I have not heard teachers complaining about parents. It happens...not that it should, but it happens. Teachers become frustrated because little Johnny is not working to his fullest potential and we are not seeing the results we want to see. We feel like we have done everything we could possibly do and we have to place the blame on someone. Instead of blaming parents and focusing on things that are not within our control we need to look at what we can be doing to overcome the challenges we are facing. Being able to talk to staff members and come up with strategies to overcome the challenges we face is essential.
As a mom and a teacher I know how frustrating it can be to get home from work only to discover that there is homework to do at home. I am NOT saying that homework is not necessary, but it is another task to complete at the end of the day. I am happy to be able to work with my daughter and that I get to see the things that she is working on in school. Some parents of middle and high school students may not know how to help with certain tasks. Parents need to know that they can communicate with teachers to help their children succeed. I have also noticed that students work harder when they see parents and teachers working together. Parents are not necessary for students to learn at school, but it is wonderful when we can bridge the gap between home and school. Thank you for your blog! :)

Cynthia Zamora's picture
Cynthia Zamora
3rd Grade Bilingual Teacher from San Juan, Texas

Reading this article brought so many conversations that I have heard in the teacher's lounge time and again about the lack of support from our students parents. Some teachers insist that with parent support our students and our school would be producing the kind of testing results that we are failing to produce. My school has not met state standards and we are in constant contact with parents about behavior and academic issues because we are mandated to do so because of AYP. I have found that parents are receptive to the telephone call and they do the best that they can to help their child. Many of the parents in the community that I work in only speak Spanish and have very little education. So I agree with the article that parents are great supports when they are around but we the professionals, need to stayed focus on what our role is in helping students learn. We need to stop making excuses and find ways to meet the students needs. I love the idea of using professional learning communities and reflection as a means to perfect our craft of teaching.

Kayleigh Cole's picture

I agree with the fact that we do not necessarily need parents in order to teach to the best of OUR ability. However, I feel as though parent support is crucial involving the behavior and expectations we have for our children. I work at a middle school in an upper middle class majority district. One problem we face is the undermining of teacher authority by some parents. We hold high expectations for our students and expect behavior that aligns with our school ideals. If parents do not agree with procedure, they have been known to protest in ways that disrupt other students. This is obviously manageable, however, a close and open line of communication where parents and teachers expect the same things out of the students is easier and more productive. Adolescents need consistency in certain aspects of their lives due to the overwhelming amount of other changes occurring that they do not have control over.

I do believe that teachers who truly view teaching as their mission will go to every measure to ensure a student's success whether parents are involved or not. School's should still make parent communication as easy as possible in order to receive the best possible response.

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