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The Role of Parents in Schools

teacher parents           

As a parent, I spend very little time in my own children’s school. My lack of involvement is intentional. Having worked in education for so long, I have the dual lens of both parent and educator; I save my interactions with teachers to ones that are strictly necessary, such as parent-teacher conferences. That is because I know firsthand how parents can overstep their roles in a school while I have also witnessed how many mistakes schools can make. Recently, parents in certain parts of the country have been lobbying for a more active role in their children’s schooling, from creating policy to making decisions about course content. There is a degree to which parental involvement is appropriate and desirable, but where is the line between championing children and harming them by interfering in areas outside a parent’s scope of expertise? As we work to define how much is too much, here are some important distinctions that delineate when taking parenting into a school goes from responsible to ridiculous.

Advocate vs. Micromanager           

My first teaching assignment was in a school with a high level of parental involvement, which taught me a lot about being proactive with communication. I also quickly learned that parents who did not respect the school or the teachers (no matter the reason) were vocal and made themselves known frequently, whereas satisfied parents made contact far less often. Parental advocates see themselves as partners and allies of school staff; by contrast, micromanaging parents attempt to have a significant say in the minutiae of how classrooms are run. If parents must stop and wonder whether they spend too much time in their child’s school complaining and laying down the law, it might be time to do one of two things: either unenroll the child if the school cannot be trusted, or step back several paces and let the school do its job. The only role in which parents can fully be managers of a child’s education occurs in a home school model. If we opt to send our children to a school each day, we must stand by our decision to entrust their education with outsiders. If that is not possible, then it is time to pick a new school setting for the good of everyone involved.

Variations in Expertise           

When we interviewed pediatricians shortly before the birth of our eldest child, the one we chose said something that continues to impress me: “We value what parents tell us because you are the experts on your children, not us. We are medical experts, but that is different.” I so much appreciated the doctor’s recognition that I know things about my children that he does not, and I believe the same holds true for teachers and parents. If a child is struggling in class, asking parents for a bigger picture is essential to helping find a solution. A student who is not turning in work might have a challenge teachers are unaware of, like a full-time job after school or a video game addiction that eats up every shred of spare time. Teachers often ask parents to provide the context of a whole child’s experience and share details that we don’t see in limited classroom time with kids. However, the expertise baton is handed to teachers when instructional practice and methodology become relevant to helping a child. We do not teach specific content or deliver it a certain way arbitrarily; everything that skilled teachers present is done with intention, and parents need to trust that we know what we are talking about. It helps when we present data-driven measures of student learning, so making sure we have that handy is also important evidence of expertise.

Relevance of Content Knowledge           

My father taught graduate-level English courses for 40 years and he will be the first to say that his university experience and vast knowledge of literature does not translate to teaching the younger grades. If I took organic chemistry in college and then storm my 11th-grade kid’s science class many years later because I perceive that the content being taught is either too hard or too easy, my lens is completely skewed no matter how much I know about the subject. Times change, instructional content shifts, and parents know very little about how curriculum is developed in Pre-K through 12th grade. If a parent sees that content is being taught incorrectly and it’s either explicitly harmful or represents a pattern, then it is important to speak up. Otherwise, letting the experts do their jobs without getting in the way is far more conducive to helping children learn.

Emotions vs. Data           

Our feelings often interfere with more rational thinking, and that is never truer than when our children are involved. After all, the data may say that our child needs to be in one math class while we have seen them perform better at home. Sometimes, what parents see when their children are comfortable presents a valuable data point to share, such as a child doing well when relaxed but then failing under pressure during test-taking. That is why parents must approach schools about important decisions with information, not ire. Schools, particularly ones that overly track students, make mistakes about what kids can do. However, parents also let their feelings interfere with what their children wish they would let alone. Supporting kids is a balancing act for both parents and teachers, but data and not gut intuition must be the guide to our decision-making.            

We all want to protect our children, but parents do not have the right qualifications to act as de facto educators. Interrupting school meetings is akin to crashing a medical conference and telling doctors how to prioritize patient treatment protocols. Years of work go into becoming an effective educator. I have spent most of my lifetime not just earning advanced degrees and certifications in education, but also attending sessions and trainings to continue my learning. Nearly all teachers have done the same, and we expect to be treated as the experts that we are. We will listen if parents approach us with rationality and respect, but please, stop crashing our meetings and telling us that we do not know what we’re doing. Everyone wants to help children: let’s do it in a way that is collaborative and not divisive.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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