At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Open Letter to Parents of Students

Admissions policy at Christian schools may not be everyone's cup of tea (neither was I expecting it to be in my last post), but there are other matters that strike a little more close to home.

Not everyone thinks about school policy, but chances are that a vast number of adults fall into the category "parents of students". As a teacher, I've met with many parents over the years--in fact, I am both a teacher and a parents of students--and have been in a unique position to observe what works and what doesn't. What I've done over the last few days is think through some realities that we who are parents of students should keep in mind when dealing with teachers and the entire educational system. In short, what follows are my Ten Commandments to Parents. And keep in mind, I'm preaching these to myself as well.

1. Start your kids off right early. From the time your wee one flees the womb to the time he or she enters school and even beyond that first day in educational splendor, you are the primary teacher for your children. This means you are in a unique position to read to them; to teach them colors, shapes, and numbers; to teach them how to tell time (yes, my mom taught me how to read a clock before I entered kindergarten); to take them to the park and point out trees, birds, and other surroundings that will open their eyes to something beyond an XBox. The parent is the archbishop of a child's intellectual curiosity and stimulation. The earlier you instill a love of learning in your child, they will have a better chance of academic success, practical precocity, and emotional intelligence.

2. Rumor cuts both ways. If you want to know what's going on in your child's classroom, the easy thing to do would be attend a class. Or read the class syllabus. There are a host of ways to gather legitimate information. When your child tells you that something occurred in class today, by all means take their words into account. However, there's something you should know. Your child--if he or she is my student--can have a tendency to talk about many things that happen at home. Every year--in and out--I always propose this (somewhat) funny compromise: If you believe 10 percent of what your child says goes on in class, I'll believe only 10 percent of what your child says goes on at home.

3. Be involved in each school year from the start, not just when there are problems. Teachers listen more carefully and more generously to parents who show a genuine interest in their child's welfare from the first day. This creates a workable atmosphere that is conducive to working through any future choppy waters. Parents who dive-bomb into a perceived crisis like a Louisiana mosquito into a sumo wrestler's love handles are welcome to attempt that tactic. However, if these moments tend to be the first time the teacher has encountered the parent of said child all year, it is not so much gracious conversation as it is grinding confrontation. The level of your involvement sends a powerful message to your child's teacher(s). Don't blow it.

4. Ask, don't demand. A disconcerting trend within the past two years is an increasing lack of grace amongst certain segments of the parental population (Note: I said certain segments, not a wide swath). I received a recent email from a parent, noting that their daughter was going to a funeral the next day. No problem, and I would have given grace an any assignments to be turned in. But the parent proceeded to tell me that--not ask if--her daughter would be waiting for a few days to turn in her project that was due. Again, that would have been my decision anyway, but when she told me what I was going to do rather than asking me if I could please grant some latitude, it did leave a bad taste in my mouth. And consider this: The way you do or do not extend understanding, professionalism, and kindness gets passed down in some measure to your children. Just sayin'.

5. Put away the cell phone. When you are in a conference with me, please don't text someone else or take a call unless a loved one is passing a kidney stone the size of Manitoba. Parent-teacher conferences are set up as a limited amount of time, not indefinite eons. And would you want me to respond to your questions and inquiries about your child's welfare by checking my phone?

6. The classroom is a safe zone, not a cocoon of utopia. My job as a teacher, especially in Ethics class where many competing viewpoints and nuances get thrown around the classroom, is to make certain that students are allowed to express their opinions without being reviled. It does NOT mean that your child is immune from counter-arguments. It does NOT mean that when someone says something, it is automatically an airtight, strong point to which Socrates himself would genuflect in obesiance. Disagreement is part of life. The biblical phrase is "iron sharpeneth iron." My ultimate aim is not someone's personal validation of emotional warmth and fuzziness; the job of a teacher is to (a) draw out [from the Latin educare] the foundational elements of thinking within a child and (b) shepherd that child through the pastures of knowledge with wisdom so that (c) they reach the ultimate goal of knowing, believing, and applying the truth. The classroom is a beautiful haven through which winds an upward incline of pursuit.

7. Think about what we could be doing. Granted, there are some teachers who are in this business to draw a paycheck, and that's it. Some may have the personality of Kristen Stewart on a truckload of downers. Some might lose an intellectual argument with a hole-punching machine. But the super-majority of colleagues I've had over nearly a decade and a half are highly motivated, supremely enthusiastic, pleasantly engaging folks who believe that teaching is not ultimately something they have to do, but it's something they get to do. And if your child has had a number of talented teachers who breathe the craft of what I call edutainment (educational entertainment), chances are these teachers are talented enough to do well in a number of other fields. Places that pay a salary much higher than education. Your child doesn't have to have such teachers, but he or she gets to have them. That should be a cause for celebration. Exceptional teachers who keep teaching are evidence of God's lavish grace.

8. Liking your child is distinct from loving your child. I once received a communication from one parent who was bemoaning a disconnect between myself and his son. Now, I was not aware that such a disconnect existed. If it genuinely did, I wanted to see what could be done. But the parent bewailed that the child was very distressed because he felt I didn't like him. Now, it wasn't true. I enjoyed his son very much and we do get along quite well. And keep in mind, teachers are for your kids and believe in them and want the best for them. However--and hear me out--teachers are not paid to like their students. The quality and depth of teacher-student relationships are NOT automatic, but earned. Would I be forced to like a student who was shiftless, cheated on a major exam, showed no interest in learning, and was disrespectful to myself and others? I think not. But on the other hand, I do believe that every teacher should love their students. That is, we should want the best for them, have a burning desire to see them succeed, wish them well, and be willing to do what it properly takes to assist them become quality young men and women. Loving our students in this way is automatic; liking them is earned. It's always helpful for teachers to hear this, encapsulated in the wisdom of my mentor Tom Foley: "We are teachers of truth, and God will give us relationships."

9. Grades are not the issue. I honestly do not care what messages get pumped through our win-at-all-costs culture. I do not give a rip if ninety percent of the planet votes in favor of a referendum that says, "Grades are what matter." I get it: We'd rather have a higher GPA than lower. No student should tank their efforts and say it'll all come out in the wash. We should desire excellence in all that we do, and it's great to aspire to be better than we were before...All that being said: Grades are not THE issue. A student with a 3.93 GPA can lack integrity, learn things at a surface level, and just view a diploma as a steppingstone to increasing wealth and material possessions. But such a soul might have no love of learning, no passion for plunging the depths of wisdom and free inquiry, no curiosity of knowing for the sheer sake of knowing, and no thirst for what this journey of life reveals about his own soul and God himself. Who you are becoming is infinitely more critical than the specific grade you got in American Literature or Honors Chemistry.

10. Relax. Of course your children have not realized their full potential yet. They have not "arrived" yet. They are stumbling through various mistakes, moral gaffes, and academic screwups. Relax. They'll work through them. Wherever "there" is, your kids will reach it eventually. You have only one shot at being a parent. Enjoy your children. Yes, there are snapshots of when you tear your hair out, but they are nothing compared to the epic motion picture of what your kids can accomplish and what God can do through them. Just chill. God can take care of and love them more than you can ever imagine.

No comments: