22 November 2015

Parents: The Hidden Terror of Teaching, Unless, as Usually is the Case they are Really Nice, or More Likely Unseen

Parents. When you're a middle school teacher -- as I was for decades -- they are as unavoidable as colds and sometimes just as welcome although they can be perfectly charming, wonderful and delightful. But truly they are mostly unseen. I offer you know a different sort of reminisce of my teaching days.

There was the woman from New Orleans who was known to hate white people. She came in on parent conference day and asked angry questions and glared at me and when I pointed at a grade print out wouldn’t look at it. She would not listen to explanations but she did sigh loudly at me as if putting up with my nonsense was more than a person could bear. Her child was a decent kid but a lazy student. Frankly I still have no idea why she showed up. To show contempt? She was a rarity, however, I never felt a dose of racism directed towards me by other parents, though it doubtless existed to some degree. On the flip side one parent accused me of being Afrocentric. And I came to understand that there was some grumblings about my alleged over emphasis on the black experience in US History. There ya go.

There was the mother who came into see me to complain that school was not challenging enough for her Becca and could I please double assignments for her. Give her two papers to do instead of one and extra homework and extra test questions. Why not, I said, but I thought that the mother should back off and let Becca be a 13 year old girl. It didn’t surprise me when six weeks later Becca the A student was getting a C and her mother called off the extra work nonsense. Teacher knows best.

Of course there were parents on the other end of the spectrum who complained about too much homework which limited their child’s time for family activities. These were invariably parents of high achieving kids who were doing quite well in school and had many friends. They didn’t need mom and dad playing the role of a buttinski. I was particularly careful never to overdo the homework but at the same time I had to get the wee ones ready for the rigors of high school.

“You will see a change.” I wish I had a greenback for every time I hard this nugget. The comment would come from a parent after a conference about their child's academic failings or their errant behavior or likely both. The “you-will-see-a-change” students almost never changed and if they did it was usually temporary. I remember walking out of such a meeting once with a colleague who said with much sarcasm: "that oughtta do it." We often spoke of students who made 360 degree changes. After a few weeks of real effort they'd revert to their tried and true practice of slacking off.

Some parents wanted to be notified any and every time their child missed a homework assignment or disrupted class. They did not want to hear how unrealistic it was for us to follow through on such a promise if we ever chanced to make it. The more realistic approach was the weekly report. Students who were having trouble would get a form from the office on Friday morning then get each of their teachers to fill it out telling how they were doing and what assignments, if any were missing. It was easy for students and teachers and effective for parents. In theory. I was constantly finding the damn things on the ground at the end of school and many students forgot to get them filled out by all their teachers or in many cases any of their teachers. It always amazed me that so many parents lost interest. Report cards would come or it would be time for parent conferences and they would express their concern and vow to oversee a turnaround. Often we never heard from them again.  I think it many cases these parents were more personally embarrassed by their child's errant ways than they were concerned about seeing the young 'un succeed in school.

We had some parents who came in once for a conference about their struggling youngster. Both parents were on disability and thus always at home should we ever needed to call them. Toward the end of the conference a teacher asked them if they were on the internet because if so it would be particularly easy to update them. “We don’t have time for all that,” one of them replied. Yes, one can see how two people who are at home all the time wouldn’t “have time” for computers and such.

On parent conference days most folks who showed up were the parents of model students. These conferences went something like this: “so how’s she doing?” “Great, she’s getting an A, participates in class and is just a wonderful student.” “Well, she really enjoys your class.” Smiles all around. It was nice for the parents to hear how wonderful their children were (I was a parent in such conferences myself) but other than ego gratification they were a goddamned waste of time.

The vast majority of people whose children were failing and/or had discipline issues never showed for conferences, even if we called them and even if they promised to come. Not everyone is well suited to be parents or they have children too soon or too late in life or they have serious problems of their own like addiction, imprisonment, poverty and not knowing where the hell the child's other parent is. I felt for these families but there was nothing I could do save being the best teacher I could and perhaps lending their progeny an ear. Needless to say many of the children from "broken" homes are the ones giving you the most trouble.

I always said: "I like all my students, even the ones I don't like." Other teachers knew what I meant. In over 20 years of teaching I had about five or six students who I actually didn't like and this was because I hated them. Each one was a sociopath with no conscience, no sense of morality. A couple were decent academically and any one of them could have achieved financial and social success legally but they all seemed as though they would forever be heartless human beings who could and would beguile innocents at any opportunity. None of them had parents who I ever laid eyes on.

I got along famously with many parents. Especially in my role as the school's soccer and girl's softball coach. One who I got to know quite well was an author and historian who wrote the definitive biography of the great American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called All on Fire, the chap's name was Henry Mayer and I had the pleasure of talking to him about the book as well as other matters in the course of car rides to some of our matches. Sadly he died suddenly and much too soon of an undetected heart condition. I also got to know a parent who was a professor of and a leading authority on constitutional law as well as one who was a federal judge, an English professor, and others who may not have boasted impressive CVs but were fine people.

Indeed getting to know some of the parents was one of the privileges of the job. Its easy to recount stories of the wild and wacky -- believe me I've only scratched the surface, I haven't even gotten to the ones who claimed that anytime a child failed it was the fault of the teacher, there were many of them -- but the majority were either anonymous to me or quite pleasant or even practically friends (I would never start a true friendship with a student's parent as a few of my colleagues did on occasion,  that's just me).

Generally speaking parents are decent sorts. Take me for example. I'm sure my children will attest to what a great father I have been. I'm not sure enough to actually ask them, but pretty sure. 

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