I worked as an educator for twenty-five years in NJ until I retired a couple years ago. The entire district in was a low socio-economic community. One of the major complaints teachers made was that parents didn’t care about their kids. Once I became a school disciplinarian, I found that parents felt the same about teachers—they were just there for the paycheck. Imagine that! If one would believe both parents and teachers, then who did care about the kids and why was there this disconnect between parents and teachers?
One thing I could piece together was that the parents were fierce about their children. If their kid didn’t have the correct gear or the child’s cell phone was taken or someone was picking on their child, they were at the school demanding action. So it was not accurate that they didn’t care. They cared; it was just that education was not their number one concern. It was the perceived role of the school in the health, welfare, and rights of their child that was paramount.
Teachers didn’t agree with those parental priorities. They felt the lost worksheet, undone homework, disruptive behavior, and failure to contribute educationally was a sign of not only student failure, but parental failure as well. When an especially elusive parent showed up for an unrelated concern (“I want my kid’s cell phone back! I paid five hundred dollars for that phone and I’m not leaving without it!”) and the teacher caught wind of their presence, there they were, trying to discuss grades and behavior. That the parent was not receptive at that particular moment was always a surprise to the teacher. The lack of improvement in the child’s academics and behavior was likewise surprising. The teacher would say that the parent was uncooperative, ineffective, and hard to find and that nothing was working with the student. The parent would say a few things in front of the child about the teacher, and there they were, at an impossible impasse about who was more hopeless at their job.
Perhaps the cell phone seems to be a trivial concern. I have to disagree, having spent fortunes on the latest equipment and having been a victim of a stolen one of my daughter on which the insurance had been accidentally unpaid. I can’t say I was happy about the theft and the cost of the replacement. I believe if I had been asked for a conference about poor academics and a blow by blow of what my child owed in terms of classwork and that had not been my purpose that day, I doubt I would have been real receptive. I think it would have been the icing on the cake, so to speak, and I can easily say it would have been too much to absorb at that time.
So what could the teacher do, rather than try to have a complete unscheduled parent-teacher conference at that time with a parent who until that moment was a ghost? Take the child’s cell phone? That seemed to produce the parent’s presence, but not the right frame of mind. Maybe the teacher could say, right after the parent has received back the cell phone or whatever the resolution is for that case, “Hello, my name is Mrs. Jones. I have the pleasure of working with your beautiful child Eleanor in math class. I know this is a stressful time for you, but may we please have a brief phone conference in the coming weeks regarding a few concerns about Eleanor’s work? I really am invested in seeing her succeed and I know you are too.” Make sure you smile as you speak. Offer a hand to shake as you introduce yourself. Wait. Let it sink in.
A gracious or aware parent would certainly respond in kind to such a friendly overture, right? Maybe not. Try to obtain a phone number for the parent that is current. If this proves to be a dead end, there are other ways to get a parent to come to the school or communicate the issue at hand.
- Email a message
- Send a letter to last known address
- Enlist the aid of brothers or sisters that attend the school
- Call emergency numbers/exhaust every available number and see if that person can reach the parent
- Ask colleagues or administrator or school nurse if they have an up-to-date number
- Ensure the electronic online gradebook is up-to-date with grades and daily progress reports
- Print out student’s progress report and have them bring it home to get it signed and returned to you
- Mail home the same progress report
- Ask the district/school attendance officer to bring a note to the parent’s address to request a conference
- Share your dilemma with the school counselor or administrator to assist in bringing in the parent
- Consider visiting the home of the parent. If you are leery of doing so, bring a friend. If the area is not conducive to easy visiting, then skip this.
Whatever you do, always write it down in a journal or backed up electronic file. Documentation is essential, because that same parent who screams about the cell phone being taken is the same one who wants to contact the board of education over not knowing their child was failing subjects.
Now, the elusive parent is not off the hook. Let’s examine the reason the cell phone was confiscated in the first place and what prompted that teacher to accost you when you were in the middle of an infuriating situation. Your child most likely had their cell phone out and was on social media rather than paying attention in class. I used to have to deal with that in the one year I taught high school English. It was difficult to teach, and even though the district policy was no cell phones in school, the administrators refused to enforce the rules. Why? Because parents complained. They cited it as a safety issue. Although the real safety issue was all the posting on social media that caused the after school fights, not the lack of a cell phone on the walk from school to home.
In the years previous to that assignment, I was a school disciplinarian. One day, I asked the security officers to confiscate cell phones after warning the students the previous day. This was way back when the devices were just beginning to be in nearly every kid’s possession. Teachers were so happy. It was one peaceful day with few discipline problems. Every student got their cell phone back at the end of the day. There were surprisingly few phones taken because the students knew I meant what I said. However, the administrators told me we couldn’t do that. But that’s a story for another day.
My point is that phones are not allowed in class and parents and common sense would tell you that learning cannot occur if a student is inattentive. But the teacher is powerless here. Parent, the teacher needs your support. I bet there is an app or some way your phone company allows you to suspend usage at certain times of the day. Call them and see. I bet your kid’s grades go up if you make this one small consistent change. Your child will respect you as well. There will probably be a few tense moments, but maybe when they actually do something worthy of the label “student,” you will feel proud.
And please give the teacher a working number. It helps your child when adults are all on the same page.
The original intention of this article was to speak about diversity, not cell phones and parental involvement. But isn’t it a type of cultural diversity, or economic diversity, or even educational diversity that keeps parent and teacher from that meeting of the minds that is sought by all stakeholders in the educational system? Or is it simple miscommunication that keeps them from seeing eye to eye?
It is clear from the scenarios given that both parties wish to get along in the world: one at a career and one as a family. But the issue is sometimes a matter of what priorities are. The teacher believes that education is the most important thing. That is how educators are wired, to believe that education is the key to all. However, the parent may not feel the same. Maybe the parent feels that survival is the most important thing, as evidenced by the desire to equip their child with a cell phone for emergencies. Perhaps it isn’t the parent’s intent for the student to break the rules by having the cell phone out in class. Maybe the parent isn’t aware of how distracting, disruptive, and detracting the device is when it is where it shouldn’t be.
Maybe the parent’s biggest concern is that their child fits in socially, and to do that, there must be an adequate smart phone in the child’s hand. That is a valid concern, that one’s child is on an equal playing field with their peers.
Whatever the reason, perhaps it is incumbent on the school and parents to come to an understanding as to what is acceptable in school and what will make the parent comfortable and be able to relinquish authority for those hours the child is in school. To do that, trust must be established between the institution and home. This must all be accomplished with the child’s interests in mind, and not with the child in the middle of a power struggle.