Monday, December 7, 2009

Parent Conferences

Today was parent conference day in the schools of DC. Teachers sat in cafeterias, auditoriums, gymnasiums, and who knows where else between the hours of 12pm and 7pm meeting with all the parents who had time to show up. I personally met with about twenty-five parents out of a total of about eighty students that I have. This is actually a higher number than I'm used to. I met only seven parents during open-house this year and had similar numbers (somewhere between 5-15) when I worked in Seattle with a similar student body in terms of socio-economic background.

Educational policy leaders always like to say that teachers are the single most important factor in the education of a child. I wonder if the roles of parent or peer is included in the factors considered. I tend to think that no matter how much effort I put into teaching or how much skill/talent I have as an educator, it wouldn't matter a bit if a child has no support at home. And I, as do all teachers, have some anecdotal evidence for support.

One of my second period students has all the intellectual capabilities in the world. We'll call her Hope for the sake of anonymity. She came to class almost every day at the beginning of the school year and consistently did her work. She even asked for extra work to make up for any points she'd missed on previous assignments. She used a great deal of metacognition (fancy teacher jargon meaning she was aware of things that helped her learn and acted on them). This lasted until about a month ago when Hope stopped coming to class consistently (and came tardy whenever she did make it), began acting out like I'd never seen in first two months, stopped doing her work, and began sleeping in class often. When I asked her why these things were happening, she told me that she didn't have a place to sleep at night. She told other teachers she had bedbugs and showed them the bites. Her grade has plummeted from an 87% to an 8% in my class. I met with her case worker during parent conferences today who told me that Hope doesn't really live with any of her family and they barely stay in contact by phone.

In my mind this is a clear example of parents and home life playing a bigger role in the success of the education of a child than any teacher. I think this idea would be hard to argue. I just don't think that researchers include the parent/home life as a factor when they cite studies that suggest teachers are the single most important factor (or maybe I'm just ignorant and these studies make it clear that the factors being studied are only factors schools can change, in which case I'd agree that teachers are the most important factor, of the factors negotiable at any given school).

Anyway, because I think we all know parents are so important when it comes to guaranteeing a child's success, I always try to be as prepared for parent conferences as possible. And I'm usually more than a little disappointed by their outcomes. Most of the parents I talked to today, for one reason or another, didn't have much of an idea about how their child is doing in school, what classes they're taking, or who their child associates with at school. Additionally, many of the parents I work with never graduated from high school themselves. As a result, many of them are not prepared to ask important questions or use information they receive from the teacher in order to impact their child. On top of that, I don't speak Spanish, and at least fifty percent of my students' parents speak ONLY Spanish. Luckily we have interpreters and DCPS provides a number for an interpreting service when a teacher wants to call home, but it still poses a massive barrier when it comes to communication. I suspect the non-English-speaking parents that came today were the brave ones. Many of them probably did not want to come talk to teachers out of fear of feeling inferior.

Any time I step back and look at the obstacles facing the students I teach (language barriers, no place to sleep, parents who aren't around for whatever reason, learning disabilities, etc.), it really seems a miracle and triumph of the human spirit that so many of them do manage to struggle out of this place.

I learned today that only 8% of DCPS graduates go on to complete a four-year post-secondary degree within five years of graduating from high school. I guess that sounds pretty abysmal in comparison to a student from Brentwood, TN; Mercer Island, WA; Beverly Hills, CA; or Howard County, MD. But when you look at the challenges that face my students, I often consider it impressive.

I worry about this though. While it may, in fact, be impressive that students who face such challenges overcome, it's also dangerous in that it's possible this realization inadvertently causes me to see them as less capable. If I'm being honest, I'm not sure that this is really possible to avoid. In a lot of ways, many of them are less capable than many of their peers across the country. I, however, have to be careful that I don't assume they are until I have proof that their abilities are below grade level, at which point I can work on bringing them up to grade level. Either way, I often think (rightly or wrongly) that many of my students who are below grade level are that way because of lack of support at home or with peers.

So to those parents who are supporting your children, the teachers at my school and at all schools sincerely thank you. You are often the ones who make this job worthwhile. Without at least one or two students in my classes every year who demonstrate the effects of good parenting, I don't think I'd last all that much longer in this profession.


  1. As a fellow teacher at the school you teach at, I can say that there are many factors that have kept some of us "veterans" at the school. In the last 2 years, things have really gotten out of hand and turnover has peaked. The year I started, I was the only new teacher in my department and there were only about 12 new hires. My fellow colleagues were collegial and congenial and we had productive meetings and were driven by each other and the kids. I was inspired to become a better teacher and to make a difference. I don't know if I had blinders obscuring my view of the school or the fact that I somehow flew under the radar (although I did have a NASTY altercation with your administrator my first year - he likes to pick on new teachers), but I felt like things were manageable until last year. I came back very hesitantly this year for an opportunity to teach a class that I thought could inspire and energize me.

    The "image" of the school is everything. Teachers and students seem to be the least of the school's worries. It's all about how we appear on paper, our public image, all the "great" (in reality, half-assed and unrealistic) programs in our school. It's a really sad thing to say because our school is viewed from the outside world somewhat as a "model" school, but the reality is we are far from it. We are managed poorly, students and teachers are treated unfairly with bias and inequity, and so many injustices happen on a daily basis that are ignored and continue to effect the overall environment in the school.

    This year will be my last year teaching. I have had many of the same "roller coaster" thoughts this year and have considered leaving ASAP, but with all the scheduling turmoil and turnover the kids feel from year-to-year... it's would be even more devastating for them to lose a teacher in the middle of a year, so I plan to maintain my health and sanity as best as I can until June when I will be glad and saddened at the same time (for my former students) to walk away from this school (and most likely education) for good.

    I hope that you can at least make it until the end of the year for the sake of the students and try as best as you can to brush off the unfortunate climate that exists in our school by trying to remain positive (as hard as that is). Look towards the students for inspiration and let them be the judge of how effective you are as a teacher and the IMPACT you make on them, not the administrators.

    Good luck.

  2. There is an ad. on Craigslist for your school, and so the saga continues, at least I think it is your school. Like the new website by the way.

  3. Anon at 6:34. Thanks for the info. That's very interesting.

  4. Relective educator, you say, "Educational policy leaders always like to say that teachers are the single most important factor in the education of a child"

    Yes - I've heard that too, but they are fooling you in a major way by leaving out the words "in school" between "important" and "factor." No kidding - Here are three references from respected educational research organizations:

    “An increasing preponderance of educational research has reached the conclusion that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement” http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2009/0515_obama_budget_berube.aspx ..

    “Educational research continues to give us clear and convincing proof that the single most powerful in-school factor for student achievement gains is the quality of the teacher.” http://www.temple.edu/lss/fs_midad&snetwork.htm

    “Teacher quality matters. In fact, it is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement” http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/books_teacher_quality_execsum_intro/

  5. Anon at 10:36: Thanks! This is exactly what I was talking about!

  6. All I can say about self-important educational policy leaders and researchers is that they should really do something useful that affects student achievement, LIKE GO TEACH. Oh, I forgot; they think they're too smart to do that, that what we do has no social prestige and doing research does.

  7. Wow. You are a brave soul. I promise never again to complain about the helicopter parents I deal with in my classroom.

  8. Research tells us that the teacher is the most significant factor in the SCHOOLING of a child; however, the PARENTS are the most significant factor in his education. We have known this for almost 50 years and the research is very consistent.