A few weeks ago I launched a spring clothing line to a rowdy crowd of women who love fashion, love each other and love any excuse to join in a party. We had a loud, fun time, and later that night I fell face-first into bed, exhausted and happy. In the wee hours of the following morning, I relived some of the funnier moments of the evening and began to count how many teachers – from different schools and various grades and specialty subjects – were in the room. When I examined the guest list, most were teachers I count as friends. Only some had taught my own children over the years. There was a clutch of preschool teachers who get in the trenches of the sandbox and have a bottomless well of creativity and there were brave middle school teachers who face hormones and high-stakes social scenes while trying to teach algebra. I love all of them but wouldn’t want to be any of them. I am not made of tough enough stuff to face their days.
As I understand it, teaching is more of a calling than a vocation. Exceptional teachers, who realize this and lean into the insanity of the job, show up each day ready to minister. Here’s the understatement of the year – teachers make an actual, measurable difference in our world.
My child saw an enrichment teacher once a week for five years of elementary school. When we realized her program wouldn’t be offered the following year, we both cried. “Your class has been the only place I could be myself other than home,” said the final thank you note. In a string of great homeroom teachers, one was a particular stand out. All I needed to do was type “mayday, mayday” in the subject line of an email sent at midnight and she’d find my kid first thing in the morning and offer a hug, a chat…love. This cycle went on for years, well after my child was no longer in that teacher’s class.
Of course I’ve been disappointed in teachers as well. I was upset by the second-grade teacher who literally screamed in the ear of a crying boy on the very first morning of school as they were lining up to go into class, “You are in second grade now, dry up the tears!” as well as the clueless teacher who tsk-tsked, “I am disappointed in you,” to the perfectionist child who had mustered the courage to challenge a perceived unfair grade. Then there was the tough teacher who spoke the word “hefty” into a sensitive (and beautifully curvy) girl’s soul. Yes, teachers make a difference, and it’s not always for the good.
But in quiet conversations with my teaching pals, most of whom teach at private schools and see their work as inspiring and impactful, I hear one main obstacle that always floats to the surface. This consistent problem keeps them from job satisfaction, from joyfully bettering students’ lives, and from creative educational experiments. This hindrance makes them want to keep their heads down, their voices quiet and simply get through their days. Drum roll, please: it’s the parents!
Sadly, it appears that two really huge and helpful groups of people – parents and teachers – are both loving our next generation and resenting each other in the process. Although I am technically only in the parent camp, I think my friendship with particular teachers has allowed me to comprehend both sides. The truth is that everyone wants the same thing: to support children as they grow and learn. I offer here a few thoughts to chew on for both groups.
What teachers wish parents knew
Teachers are real people with real lives – they buy alcohol and sometimes they get cancer. When the bell rings, teachers have other things going on. At BevMo, I ran into a first-grade teacher with a cart filled to the brim with bottles. She acted like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar and was red with embarrassment. “I’m throwing an engagement party for my roommate,” she finally stammered. I tried to put her at ease by saying I had assumed all the alcohol was for a purpose, and not for her to drink during the school day. She laughed and told me how she always fears running into parents around town because they seem surprised that she has other parts to her life and make comments that make her feel ashamed of things like throwing a party!
One year, while a teacher friend faced diagnosis, chemotherapy, hair loss, nausea, tender skin, and reconstructive surgery, her biggest challenge by far was how the parents of her fourth-grade class treated her. They made her feel that her illness showed a lack of consideration for her students, and was an inconvenience to the parents. “Not on my tuition dime,” was the sentiment from a father who was mad the school hadn’t fired her for missing so many days. (What a self-centered piece of shizzle, huh?) She was essentially asked to apologize for having cancer. I asked a friend “If your single-mother, sole income-provider best friend or sister had cancer, can you imagine feeling anything but compassion for her?”
Teachers understand that parents comprehend on an intellectual level that they are real humans, but our treatment of them implies that we see them as one-dimensional and always at our disposal.
The pressure and tension you create when you call the dean instead of speaking directly to a teacher makes it much harder to partner with you. It feels as if a quiet war is being waged between parents and teachers – a battle for power. Parents are wearing down teachers, draining them of their confidence, grasping for the upper hand, creating burnout, and slowly sucking the joy out of their jobs. Unfortunately, as parents win this battle, their children lose. Imagine going to work every day in an environment where every move you make and comment you utter is scrutinized, filtered through the ears of children first and then reported to your supervisor. How much personal fulfillment and joy can you imagine feeling at the end of six months? Teachers wish parents would stop talking to each other about their disappointments or questions about what’s happening in a classroom and stop firing off emails to the head of school or the dean. How about just speaking directly to the teacher in question? This simple change would replace a critical, nervous, fear-based atmosphere with one of openness and trust. Parents can still have gripes and even disagree with a teacher’s course of action, but they’d stop treating the teacher as if he needs to be tattled on and involve him in the discussion.
Side Note: One brilliant dean told a group of parents at back-to-school night, “This year we promise that we won’t believe everything your kids tell us about you, if you promise not to believe everything they tell you about us.” Seriously, parents need to sift through the stories and realize a child is talking. A possibility exists that even though your child truly believes what she is saying, she may have misinterpreted what actually happened.
Another Side Note: This is nearly impossible for parents to do. I am neck-deep into a scenario with a teacher right now and I believe in my truest heart that everything my child is telling me is 100% accurate. I am desperately trying to conjure up another side to the story, but it’s not happening. I wasn’t there to witness what went wrong, but I believe my kid over the teacher. So there we are.
Parents, we wish you’d stop complaining to each other in front of your children. Last year I met a woman who was in the process of transferring her son to the same school that my son attends, and I asked to which teacher he had been assigned. She told me the name and then said, “I hear she has her favorites and only treats those kids with respect, so I sure hope my son can be one of them.” This mother’s child had not even started classes, yet she already believed and passed on an unfounded rumor. A few weeks later, I ran into a different mother from that same class. She had her son in tow so I asked how his year was going and what he liked the best. Sure enough, the 10-year-old repeated the same rumor with all the confidence of one who believes it to be true. Perhaps an individual experience caused one parent to embrace and share this idea, but how many experiences of other parents and kids were colored by it? I’ve watched children recount the deficiencies of their teachers while looking at their nodding parents for approval and affirmation.
I know every teacher can’t be a favorite, but unless the teacher is actively and purposefully hurting a child emotionally or physically, I just can’t see the upside of criticizing him in front of children. Imagine you signed up for a class at your local community college and in your enthusiasm you told your friends about it. If they only respond with negativity, it would be pretty hard for you to hang onto your enthusiasm for very long, and certainly hard for you to learn – especially if you were there to learn geometry or Latin conjugations, or anything really difficult. If all a child can think of when her teacher speaks is how much all the other important people in her life hate that teacher, I am quite sure that you, dear parent, are a barrier to learning.
Parents, we wish you’d focus on what your kid really needs. Teachers see the kid who routinely shows up tardy, without a jacket, forgetting to turn in the permission slip on time, tired from staying up too late, forgetting books left at the other parent’s house and with shoes that need new laces. Teachers notice the kid who is excluded and needs to eat lunch with them in the classroom, who needs extra help in English or extra time for an assignment, who really needs an evening tutor, who has anxiety and who has stopped eating. Teachers wish parents were open to hearing about these things. Instead, parents tend to focus on the final letter grade given (and how it compares to the grades received by others), who was picked for the play or the first-string volleyball team, whether there is enough enrichment in Math, or if there is too much or too little homework. Parents often focus on the 30,000-foot issues better left to the school, but miss the on-the-ground, day-to-day real-life problems of their children. Teachers are nervous about bringing these sorts of topics up because parents have sent a clear message. They’re happy to chaperone a field trip or send in cookies for a bake sale, heck they’ll even join a search committee for a new administrator, but don’t criticize their children or their parenting. So the teachers quake and a teacher-parent partnership remains impossible.
What parents wish teachers knew
We are parenting in a fear-based culture. Parents can’t choose to raise kids at a different time in history; now is what we’ve got. Current culture constantly sends parents messages of worry and fear about their children, and indicates that every single moment, incident or encounter might break them permanently. Parents have responded to this fear by hovering, owning, over-helping, and sometimes by accusing teachers of not doing enough for their kids. They are scared that their children will not succeed in life, because success has been re-defined as Ivy League-only followed by million-dollar-a-year-salaries. No longer are parents happy to let an eight-year-old enjoy second grade; they feel pressure to shape her into the next Steve Jobs. Parents really need teachers to help counter these messages. I know teachers yearn for the old days when parents handed their kids over and never questioned what happened at school – trusted the teachers to do their jobs – but those days are gone. Instead of scoffing at or mocking current parenting trends, teachers can help by simply offering parents the assurance that they care deeply about kids, that they understand how much parents love them and that they’ll let us know when to worry. It’s extremely hard to be the only parents not getting into a tizzy about the ERB scores, wondering why he didn’t place into the enrichment group, or verbalizing that our kid doesn’t have to be the best at everything. Teachers should cut parents some slack by acknowledging the pressure they feel from society and then gently explain how parents can trust the system and know their child will be fine in the end.
Most parents are afraid to say anything to you in case you take it out on our kid. Eek! I know this will sound ludicrous to most teachers, but parents really do worry that teachers will seek retribution with children for mistakes parents make. Guess what? Kids are afraid of the same thing! Some kids won’t vent or confide their challenges in the classroom, lest parents shoot off an email that will make their next day hard. A teacher once told my child, “Every time you tell your parents that someone is mean to you they send a mean email to me. So maybe you can stop telling them so much about it.” Something is very broken in this system. Because parents see their children as fragile and about to fail at every second, they will do anything to keep harm from coming their way. Sometimes that means not speaking up when they really should, but instead they stew, the resentment builds when they hear comments like the one previously mentioned, and they find it harder to trust that teachers are in their jobs because they enjoy and care about kids. Imaginations go wild and parents build massive cases against teachers, all without uttering a word. When the parent finally can’t keep it all bottled up, it’s like a match has been dropped into a gas can and teachers and administrators are left wondering where all the explosive anger came from. It comes from stewing and thinking kids will be treated unfairly if parents challenge anything, even in the most polite way.
You have the power to affect my kid’s life – forever. In our worst and most critical moments, parents can be convinced that teachers have lost sight of this and they are just getting through each day. Parents see them caught up in small little details – whether the kids line up quickly or talk too loudly. They fear teachers are distracted and not clued into the social scene. Parents want to be sure that teachers remember that their opinion means a lot to children, that one word of encouragement from them means more than a million from home, that when they do something exceptional their teachers notice. Listening to a bunch of kids at a party in June recount the highlights and lowlights of a school year, I was amazed by what they remembered. They talked about the day their teacher wore two different shoes by mistake, the week she had the flu and the substitute was awful and messed up the lesson plans and the day she brought in ice cream sandwiches for first period. (I still remember the English teacher who taught me to write from my heart and the physics teacher who came to my wedding and whose most important advice was, “Patience is a virtue to be cultivated.” He said it in every class – even tested us on it occasionally – and I never forgot it.) Students are watching, listening and noticing. They are impressionable. When a teacher shuts a kid down because she is exhausted and tired of listening to the same recess scenario, or when she offers some extra guidance even though she is beat, she is leaving a legacy, for good or for not so good. Teachers are powerful.
Also, a new weird dynamic in education is creeping in that feels very corporate. Especially in the private school arena, parents view the education of their child as a product to purchase and teachers as the service providers. Whenever I’ve been unhappy about a school-related scenario or problem (and disobeying my own advice about not engaging in chatter around the parent community), someone will say, “You are paying too much to have to deal with this.” And on the other side, when teachers vent their stories to me, my instinct is to tell them, “You don’t get paid enough to have to deal with this.” Money – with its sinister way of pied-pipering all of us – is there in the room with both camps at all times.
There is so much more to say, but I’ll end with this: When life has thrown curve balls at my kids, teachers have played the most significant roles in their recoveries. With this in mind, I try to start each school year with an open mind about new teachers, figure out what communication style works best, say thank you for even the smallest things, and (it never hurts!) occasionally send in my husband’s amazing banana bread. When I know a teacher has my kid’s back, feels comfortable telling me things I don’t really want to hear but need to know, I sleep better. And if you are as lucky as me, you might find that your kid’s teacher not only strips to her panties to try on clothes in your living room, but also becomes a lifelong friend.
If you are a teacher or a parent (or both!), leave a comment in the comments section and tell us anything else you wish the other side would know. Keeping it anonymous is OK!
- I know this post mostly reflects a private school experience. If you are a public school parent or teacher, please share a different perspective.
- I am guilty of all of the above behavior plus more.
- Thank you to the special teachers who helped me with this post and confided in me.
- Photo Creds go to ME! I found this card in a cute paper shop on Fillmore Street. It’s true: I really do ♥ teachers!