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Let's Blame the Parents!

Anyone who's ever been in the classroom is familiar with this experience: You're sitting around in the teachers' lounge, letting off steam about student behaviors and carelessness, and someone says something snarky about the wormy little apples not falling far from the parental tree.

This critique of parents comes in several varieties: The irrationally angry parent, "protecting" their child from "vindictive" school employees. The helicopter parent, smoothing over every minor problem and destroying the child's self-initiative. The feckless parent who never reads to their child or tracks homework. You know. Parents who don't do their jobs. [Insert personal job description here.]

This is not limited to teachers, of course. Just try to read an editorial or feature piece on education, via any media outlet at all, without coming across a commenter who wants to righteously and indignantly toss all the problems--from low test scores to Security Guards Run Amok--back into parents' laps.

It's as if the rest of American society didn't exist. As if grinding poverty, political corruption, greed, cultural debasement and racism had nothing to do with the so-called failings of students and their families. Let's blame the parents.

Over at the Badass Teachers (BAT) Facebook page, education advocate Kipp Dawson (whose work and convictions I admire) raised a series of questions over educators' kneejerk tendency to blame students' perceived academic deficiencies and character flaws on their home lives. 

Says Dawson: I suggest asking ourselves a few questions first.

She proceeds to list struggles that may not be apparent to middle-class teachers--multiple low-paying jobs, inconveniently-obtained and expensive material needs like housing and good food and affordable quality child care options. Even students' physical safety. She then asks:

What kinds of phone messages does that parent get from her/his child's school? Being honest, could you -- could I -- do all that this parent has to do for your/our children?

Cue the heated discussion. Teachers--my tribe--don't like being told that their own assumptions might be part of the problem. Especially after a long, hard day fighting the good fight with inadequate resources, then using their last nerve and ounce of energy to compel their own children to complete their assignments. Teachers don't like to be told "not to judge"--judging, in some ways, is their job, if they buy into the concept of education as path to better prospects for their students and communities.

The issue here is around all parties taking responsibility.

The issue is not around educators shouldering accountability (which was supposed to be the key to solving poor outcomes in schools). There's a difference between the blaming and shaming and data-worshipping and structural "innovation" incorporated in the accountability package--and the simple concept Kipp Dawson mentions: Respecting the good intentions of struggling parents.

Responsibility is different. It is stepping up to give educating a difficult child your best shot. It is being the adult in charge, rather than trying to win or cover your backside. It is admitting lapses and outright flops. It is honoring the divergent beliefs of the public school children and parents, even when they do not square with your own--then partnering with caregivers to be responsive to their children's needs. It is calling parents to ask them to help solve a problem.

It is assuring them--sincerely--that you care about the kiddo in question, that wormy and imperfect apple. It is--pretty much--following the golden rule.

Have I always followed my own high-flown rules? Hardly.  I've had my share of "can you believe this parent?" conversations (always with a sympathetic audience).  I've had to backtrack and apologize and acquire a better attitude. And I give Kipp Dawson big props for courageously opening what she surely realized would be a can of worms, then following through.

Several years ago, someone--not me--posted a list of "funny" excerpts from parent excuse notes on the lounge bulletin board, illustrating parents' misspellings and malaprops.  As a group of teachers were eating lunch, a custodian came in for a cup of coffee. He stood reading the list, cradling his mug.

He turned to the teachers: Is this what you think of us, the parents in this district? There was dead silence, as he walked out. Like most support staff in this small town, he grew up here, sent his children to our classrooms, paid taxes and came to football games.

The list came down, but not without a few comments about the sanctity of the teachers' lounge. The question remains: Who gets to judge parents' skill at child-rearing, and its impact on academic success?

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