The other day I had a meeting with a parent who told me that she had just been fired. And just the week before she had spent $800 getting her front door fixed after the police broke it down to arrest a relative. Now she laments having spent the money because she has no job. But it was just too cold in Chicago to have a busted up front door, she explained.
Her husband makes about $1,000 a month, which used to be enough when she was working. Now, his check mostly only covers the rent. She can't afford groceries. What is she supposed to do?
BAM Radio recently asked me to be a commentator on a show called "Hidden Causes of Low Parental Engagement in Urban Schools and What to Do About It." There were four guests, a moderator, and only 12 minutes of air time to tackle such a complicated issue.
The mom above had appeared to many of her son's teachers like she just didn't care about his education. She never showed up for conferences to discuss her son's failing grades and his chronic misbehavior. She kept saying she had to work when we requested a parent conference. She told us the boy might have to go to a juvenile dentention center to learn his lesson.
But a few days after she lost her job, she came to school to discuss her son. And in the 20 minutes I had available to talk to her, she revealed to me a lifetime of struggles and anguish she and her children were experiencing.
When parents are struggling to feed their kids or provide a stable place for them to live, it's hard to make the case that they should be volunteering in their child's classroom. Some of these parents are so stressed out that they make wrong decisions out of desperation. Their children watch them make these decisions--with men (or women), the law, family--and they often express their frustrations with life by acting out in school.
I'm not trying to give this mom, and parents like her, a pass. They had the children, so they need to be responsible for making sure those kids get a quality education. They need to provide their children with "home training" or manners. Parents need to make sure their children are getting their homework done every night, and that their kids are in school on time and ready to learn every day.
But how does a school reach out and provide supports to parents who are simply overwhelmed? Parents who can't feed their children adequately at home, or parents who have little choice but to live in a house with relatives who bring illegal activity to their doorsteps?
Sometimes educators' facial expressions and condescending language serve to judge these parents and make them feel even more alienated from the school than they already feel. Other times, we are dismissive of their parental voices, assuming that we know more about raising kids than they do (even though many teachers, especially younger ones, do not have children of their own).
I argued in the BAM Radio segment that every school needs a parent liaison or parent coordinator whose sole job is to reach out to every parent in the school and be the bridge maker between the home and school. Most teachers are too overworked and overwhelmed to manage parent communication in the robust, consistent, and intimate way it needs to be done. It's all about relationships; and fostering strong, trusting relationships between schools and families takes dedicated time and effort--especially in urban environments where crime and poverty rule the day.
I've been reading a new book out from Harvard Education Press and authored by 17 teachers affiliated with Teach Plus (full disclosure: I am an alumna of the Teach Plus Chicago Teaching Policy Fellowship). Entitled Learning From the Experts: Teacher Leaders on Solving America's Education Challenges, it includes a passage from a teacher named Jeremy Robinson that really made me think. He wrote:
When I was three years old, my mother piled her children into the family station wagon, drove to a pay phone at a nearby grocery store, and dialed 9-1-1. "What should a woman do who has five kids and no place to live?" Shortly thereafter, following the advice of the emergency operator who answered my mother's call, we moved into the Salvation Army Women's Shelter in downtown Indianapolis.
Within three months, my mother had managed to secure a second-grade teaching job and convince a landlord to rent her a small house. She would be resuming her career in the classroom, and we would be resuming our lives in a place we could call home.
As my childhood unfolded and the full measure of my mother's difficult decision to raise us on her own became apparent to me, I discovered that I wanted to model myself after her in every way possible--except one. I wanted nothing to do with her chosen profession. From a very early age, I knew in my bones that I did not want to grow up to become a teacher.
But here I am. It took two organizations and, in particular, one principal's incredible leadership to finally convince me of what my mother knew all along: teaching is the most important work a person can do.
Jeremy's point was that he followed in his mother's footsteps and became a teacher after running away from this profession for many years. But the essential takeaway I gleaned from his essay was that a child who spent time living in an urban homeless shelter CAN still grow up to become a teacher or any kind of professional. Obviously his mother played a central role in his education, but at one point she hit rock bottom and needed help. Jeremy didn't go into details, but I'm sure she needed a significant amount of support from her children's school, as well.
When parents are going through tough times in life, I want to be the kind of teacher who uplifts them and their children. It is not my place to judge or assume that the mom who says she is too busy to come to parent conferences just doesn't care.
While I want to encourage and challenge parents to do better by their kids, I must walk a fine line so that my actions or words do not also make them feel out of place in their child's school.
I know. I understand. I am a parent, too. I used to wonder why some parents would let their kids come to school with uncombed hair. But now I have two daughters with crowns full of thick, beautiful, kinky black strands. As I dropped them off at the front door of the school today, I realized that I forgot to brush their hair and sign their nightly reading logs--for the second day in a row.
In a different setting, I, too, might seem like a negligent parent. That, after having spent 15 hours over the long Veteran's Day weekend grading student essays and being just one week away from giving birth.