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The Reflective Teacher: Hello? Is Anybody Home?by Stephanie Blackburn

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Stephanie Blackburn, a 2002 Milken Award winner, teaches fourth grade in Westerly, Rhode Island.

As educators, we know that home-school relations are extremely important to a child's educational success; but what do we do as educators when the home doesn't want to participate?

Recently, I had a student (who I'll call "Sue"). Sue was behind in her work and she was not completing her homework. Despite repeated phone calls and notes, there was no response from the parents. Finally, after three exasperating weeks, I got in touch with mom and set up a conference date.

Stephanie Blackburn

I started the conference with positive comments about Sue. I then began to tell mom of my concerns about Sue; her incomplete homework, lack of motivation, sleeping in the afternoons... I reviewed with mom the strategies I had implemented to help Sue, and explained that nothing I did seemed to be working. I then asked mom if she could provide some suggestions for helping Sue, some insight into Sue's behavior at home, and so on. Her response was shocking to me.

Mom said, "Nothing seems to change Sue. To be honest with you, Mrs. Blackburn, my husband told me to come and sit here and just let what you had to say go in one ear and out the other. We feel that Sue is fine and that she's just Sue. School is important, but I am going to listen to my husband and just let what you said go in one ear and out the other."

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My jaw hit the table. I was utterly shocked that a parent would imply that a teacher's comments or concerns were unimportant. After collecting my thoughts, I tried to explain how unfortunate I thought her feelings were. I pointed out that "school" is more than just what takes place in the classroom; the learning needs to continue at home as well.

"No teacher can do his or her job alone," I said. "For any student to be successful, that child's education needs to be a partnership between home and school." Finally, I told her that I would continue helping her daughter in school and sending home daily updates -- and that I hoped she and her husband would change their minds. After I finished, she smiled at me, and excused herself from the conference.

As I had promised, I continued to write daily notes home. They were returned signed, but -- as mom had promised -- with no other response. I worked individually with Sue during recess and after school to try and help her catch up. Finally, after three weeks, Sue was caught up with her overdue work and completing all her new assignments. I began writing notes home commending Sue, and letting her parents know about her successes. A month later, I got a response: "Thank you."

Was it my perseverance that elicited the response from home? I'm not sure. What the experience did do, however, was reinforce my awareness that, even though I don't live in a Utopian world, I still need to find strategies to reach all my students.

As educators, we need to be persistent. (You never know; maybe there is someone listening after all.) We need to be even more creative with hesitant parents; to convince them of the importance of their involvement in their child's education.

I still have a long road in front of me. I will be constantly looking down side streets to find new ways to get Sue's parents -- and all parents -- involved. In the meantime, it is my job to persevere when faced with challenging students and families, even when it seems they want me to give up.

Previous Teacher Diaries

Be sure to see Education World's previous teacher diary features, The First 180 Days: First-Year Teacher Diaries and A First-Year Teacher and Her Mentor.

Article by Stephanie Blackburn
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