Professional Learning

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

Teacher-parent relationships are critical to student success.

September 14, 2011

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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