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Tis the Seasonto Accentuate the Positive

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In the spirit of the holiday season, spread goodwill by saying something positive to some of your most significant others -- the parents or teachers of the children in your life.

In one of my columns, Should Schools Parent Our Kids? I discussed the schools rights and responsibilities in dealing with out-of-school student behavior. That column generated a significant number of angry e-mails. Angry e-mails, of course, are a staple -- and a stimulus -- for any columnist, whose role generally is not to please, but to prod readers. What was unusual was that, this time, the anger was not directed at me.

Look What She Starr-ted!

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for more than a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

Previous StarrPoints

About half the e-mails I received were from parents, angry about teachers who had failed to include them in decisions regarding their childrens education and/or school experiences. A few related blatant examples of a teachers misuse of authority. One e-mail, for example, was from a parent whose 8-year-old had cut her own hair at home. The teacher called the mother to inform her that she was going to discuss the problem with the entire class and point out to the children the dangers of cutting their own hair. The mother responded that the child was embarrassed and chastened by the incident. She asked the teacher to deal with the situation discretely and only with individual students, as necessary. The next day, however, the teacher followed through with her original plan. The child returned home in tears.

An equal number of my angry e-mails were from teachers. Again, some recounted egregious examples of parental neglect, hostility, and harassment. One e-mail was from a teacher who called a parent to discuss a problem she was having with a first grader, who was taking other students belongings and hiding them in his desk. The childs parent responded to the teachers expression of concern by accusing her of planting the evidence -- and of a variety of other crimes and misdemeanors, ranging from incompetence to abuse.

"Studies have shown that, when it comes to a child's successful educational progress and social development outside the home, the most important relationship is not the one between the parent and child or between the teacher and child; the relationship that matters most is the one between the child's parents and teachers."

Most of the e-mails I received contained less dramatic stories, of course. Parents wrote about teachers who were hard to reach or seemed unsympathetic to parental concerns; who assigned too much homework or didnt bother to collect homework conscientiously completed; who didnt notify them when their childrens behavior changed or grades began to fall. Teachers wrote about parents who failed to return repeated phone calls; who never showed up for conferences or school events; who appeared uninterested in their childrens educational progress; who didnt notify them when difficult family situations threatened a childs behavior or grades.

Taken as a whole, the e-mails presented a bleak picture of the state of parent-teacher relationships today. For one teacher, at least, the cause of the conflict is clear. In most schools and homes today, the teacher wrote, there simply is no time to do the things that arent absolutely necessary. Consequently, parents and teachers only communicate with one another when a problem arises, and the gut reaction to that communication -- on one side or both -- is anger. For many teachers, parents have become the enemy. Judging from my e-mails, many parents feel the same way.

What we have here is not a failure to communicate -- in fact, the shouts are deafening -- but rather a failure to communicate in positive ways.

Studies have shown that, when it comes to a childs successful educational progress and social development outside the home, the most important relationship is not the one between the parent and child or between the teacher and child; the relationship that matters most is the one between the childs parents and teachers.

The key to improving that relationship, it seems to me, is not more district-wide programs to increase parental involvement, or more school-based in-service training on correct problem-solving techniques. What is needed is an increased effort among individual parents and teachers to establish an ongoing relationship, one that will allow them to successfully guide a child together, in a spirit of trust and cooperation.

Id like to suggest, therefore, that this month all parents and teachers make a renewed effort to form positive relationships with one another; to forget the need for improvement in the child and concentrate instead on the need for improvement in the interactions between the childs parents and teachers.

My suggestion is this: In the spirit of the season, spread goodwill by simply saying something positive. Teachers, keep a stack of postcards nearby as you review the semesters grades. On each postcard, jot a single complimentary comment about a student and send it to that students home. A simple Manuels sense of humor never fails to brighten my day! is enough. Parents, add a few minutes to your holiday routine and send a holiday message thanking each of your childrens teachers for a single specific accomplishment. Wow! Mandy understands long division! Thanks! will be more appreciated than a magnum of cologne.

And keep in mind throughout the season and through the coming year that building a positive parent-teacher relationship is absolutely necessary.