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.