As an educator and an organizer by training, I hold the empowerment of parents as a core value. When a community has involved, hopeful, and courageous parents it can transform not just a school but an entire school district. The most meaningful reforms that have happened in schools were the result of an organized parent movement - from the desegregation of schools to the push for smaller class sizes.
*waves parent power banner*
Paradoxically I really struggle with parent engagement and relationship building. That’s a euphemism. Correction: I often dread it. As a first year teacher (still in grad school, mind you), to simply call parents regularly feels burdensome on top of the zillion other things that I have to do. Let me give you a glimpse of a typical weekly to do list so you see what I mean:
1. Create and revise lesson plans
2. Grade papers and input in gradebook
3. Meet with school IRF (instructional coach)
4. Post homework online everyday
5. Revise lesson plan
6. Help facilitate student book club meetings
7. During lunch and after school tutoring
8. Grade papers again
9. Grad school homework
10. Make copies for class assignments
11. Mediate conflict outside class with students WHILE teaching
12. Field the hundreds of questions from students about their grades, what they’re doing next class, when they are going on a field trip, why did I choose Ms. So and so for their sub last week
13. Lesson planning again and again…
Now I know what you might be thinking: 11 and 12 don’t sound like to do list items. Well you’re wrong. I do them so often I plan them. If I don’t have students bombarding me with questions at lunch I track them down so I can get the satisfaction of checking off my to do list.
Calling 60 parents every week is the last thing on my mind unless…I have a student who is bringing the whirlwind (is it any wonder, considering we have sown the wind?) You educators know what I’m talking about. That student who you believe in and love in spite of his refusal to do anything except steal all the class’ attention from you and orchestrate chaos. The impulse is to send them out, write them up, and call the parents - often in that order. Contacting parents becomes part of a list of interventions that are all punitive. The relationship with the parent is now a weapon in Batman’s proverbial tool belt, used to fight the bad guy. And who is the bad guy? The kid who’s father is locked up and has no guidance. Or the one who is three grade levels behind in reading because no one has ever had high expectations of her.
We as educators sometimes try to justify this order of things: using parents as a means to punish or not using them at all. But let’s pause and do some truth telling about where this stems from. Too often we hold elitist implicit and explicit views of parents, requiring an ongoing practice of checking privilege. When that parent comes in high to drop off her daughter. Or when that other parent never comes to the parent teacher conferences, though her son is failing all his classes. We can’t help, sometimes, but to think they don’t give a damn. No hope for them (or their kids). Only point in contacting them is to scare their kids into behaving.
Now it’s easy to say you would never think this way, walking around with your rose colored color-blind glasses on and your organic free trade latte in hand.That is until you’ve gotten down in the trenches and you’re green and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You spend a week pulling all nighters to lesson plan only to have Aaron and his friends Ray Ray and Candice shit on your lesson plan. Then you call the parents everyday and they never answer or call back. That’s what’s real. We will fall into despair if we aren’t careful. And in that despair we run the risk of disempowering the ones we are charged to empower.
And what does it mean to empower?
When I was a community organizer i learned about and trained others on power. My organization was all about building a specific type of power. We delineated two types of power: 1. Power over 2. Power with. “Power over” is used to dominant and control. “Power with” is relational and more multilateral. My job was to develop the latter in congregants, youth, and parents. It was very hard work. It requires tons of patience, discernment, and courage. You have to learn to forgive, know what to say and how to say, and deliver hopeful and respectful challenge. If someone is not living into their potential as leaders, you had to call them on it. That’s power building.
If parents are a batarang in your tool belt used to control and dominate students, it’s the wrong kind of power building. Parents and students must feel agency and have a voice in a more lateral relationship. Wielding the the threat of a call home like the Z sword (shout to all you DBZers out there) may work in the short term. But parents will get tired of you calling them everyday about how little Jaime won’t shut his mouth while you’re talking. Jaime is going get tired of it too and it will erode the trust of both.
If you’re expecting this to end with grand platitudes and words of wisdom for educators then I’m sorry. This doesn’t end at all. This is a to be continued because I haven’t figured it out (will I ever? And is that even the goal?) I will, however, leave you with this: if you’re an educator and you don’t have a lateral relationship with parents and kids you’re screwed.