Some time ago I wrote a piece about what a parent has the right to expect of his child’s teacher; a number of teachers took exception to some of the things I wrote and challenged me to write something similar about the responsibilities of parents. So here goes.

In the interest of full disclosure let me say at the outset, that I am no longer a member of the august group called parents of school age children; my sons and daughters are now parents of school age children.

In a nutshell; parents are expected to be supportive of the school, supportive of the administration and faculty, supportive of its policies and to be fully engaged in the educational lives of their children. The rest is elaboration.

To Be Supportive:

A school is not a place where a number of classes are thrown together in the interest of efficient maintenance and collective transportation. All functions within a school, across the grades it services, are interconnected and essential. In order to be able to function as a single unit with a cross pollination of ideas and interdependent and cooperative services, the school develops policies, rules and regulations. In other words, in order for its educational programs to function properly, a school must be governed by a set of principles and regulations which eliminate chaos and confusion and introduce order and administrative management. Sometimes these rules may seem arbitrary and unnecessary; sometimes they may appear to be unmanageable and even counter-productive and sometimes they are indeed “out of order” but we cannot allow every parent to choose which rules they like and which to ignore.

None of this is to say that there isn’t a better way to achieve order than the policy which the particular school administrators choose to follow. What it does suggest is that unless and until the school administration can be persuaded that there is a better way to make a mousetrap, parents are obligated, in the interest of the school’s success, to follow school policy.

A school must be governed by a set of principles and regulations which eliminate chaos and confusion and introduce order and administrative management.

I recall visiting a school where the majority of children traveled to and from school in carpools. For efficient dismissal purposes, children were lined up outside by class to await there carpools. This meant that in the winter children waited in the cold, as carpool after carpool drove up, loaded and left. As I stood and observed the scene one parent commented to me “there’s got to be a better way. My Debbie has a cold and she had to stand outside for 15 minutes yesterday” she wondered why there couldn't be a way for children to be dismissed directly from the classrooms, perhaps they could enjoy a few minutes of silent reading and be called by the intercom system as their carpool drove up. I asked why she hadn't made that suggestion to the principal and she responded that this is how dismissal was done since the school opened and she didn't think he would be open enough to change. I suggested that she meet with him privately and discuss the issue.

The next time I visited, the dismissal sounded like this over the P.A. system:  “carpool 17” is dismissed, carpool 21 is dismissed". It was a bit slower, less chaotic, and a lot healthier for the children during the winter months. This mother had a good idea and the school adjusted its policy. There is a proper way to communicate an good idea.

Trust School Personnel

It is unreasonable to expect school officials to follow every whim or even every good idea which a parent might have. There may be many considerations of which only the official might be aware which may in fact disqualify the idea and they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let us accept as fact that school personnel are people who care about children; that is why they do what they do. Even when it is necessary to discipline a child an administrator or teacher does so because he cares about the child's welfare along with that of his friends. School officials are human beings and they are not infallible but they are well meaning professionals who know what they are doing.  Parents must develop trust in both the judgment and the intentions of their child's school officials.

When I was growing up the teacher always knew best. If my parents found out I was punished in school, I was punished again at home for being punished.

I recall asking a parent to substitute in a classroom for a day; this parent was not a teacher but I explained that I was in a real bind and I needed a warm body in that classroom. The parent, a lawyer, agreed. At the end of the day he came into my office drained, “come now" I said to him "it wasn’t all that bad, the teacher left plans.” and his response to me was “I couldn’t keep them interested and they ended up doing just what they wanted to.” From that day on that successful attorney had a completely different view of what happens in a classroom. From being an erstwhile critic he became an ardent supporter.

When I was growing up the teacher always knew best. If my parents found out I was punished in school, I was punished again at home for being punished. Those days have long passed, but I wonder whether in some cases the pendulum has not swung too far toward mistrust. In today's climate, if a child is punished it is all too clear to too many parents that the punishment was “unwarranted and downright wrong", or "it did not fit the crime", or perhaps that "the wrong kid was punished"; these are all descriptions which I heard myself.  

Too many parents feel comfortable second guessing an educational judgment as well.  “What do you mean my child is in the second reading group? I know my child she belongs in the top group” or  “No child of mine has a learning dysfunction; my Sammy daydreams a little and the teachers needs to be more understanding and repeat something every once in a while.”

What’s missing there is a healthy dose of trust; that teachers know what they are doing and that they care about each child's development and progress.

What’s missing there is a healthy dose of trust; that teachers know what they are doing and that they care about each child's development and progress. This is not to say that the teacher may not have made a mistake. A polite note, a telephone call or when possible a brief meeting to discuss the issue, may be warranted. It is essential though to remember that there is an issue in question and it is not the teacher's judgment being challenged. Let us not forget that the discussion should not be undertaken in full consultation with the child so that he will come bragging the next morning “you should see how my parents gave it to Mrs. Shapiro”.

Respect for the authority of the school

Educators deserve our respect and admiration if only because they are dedicated to an essential profession without which our society has no future. More accurately it is a calling, one which makes great demands but does not reciprocate with equal benefits. How nice it would be if parents would go out of their way to show the normative respect they show to other professionals, to the teachers of their children. The benefits that accrue to respectful parents far exceed that of the teacher and the children will learn from their parents to value the educational process much as they value its practitioners.

There is nothing wrong with maintaining a healthy skepticism about professional decision making processes which affect our children.  That goes for health practitioners as much as does for educators. We all need to question authority from time to time and make our voices heard about the things we care about, but we need to maintain perspective. I don’t think anybody doubts that the teachers are well intended; it is their professional expertise which is sometimes questioned. After all, the argument goes, we all work with children and we all know something about education since we were all subject to the process at one time. But, we may not loose sight of the fact that it is the professional educators for whom educational issues are daily bread and butter. Do they not deserve the benefit of the doubt when they make an unpopular decision? Assuming the worst; a teacher was actually mistaken on an issue we care about and we now know the he is not infallible, should that really diminish his professional standing? Every teacher makes hundreds of such decisions daily and like the rest of us they are all entitled to err once in awhile.

When there is trust between home and school and they work in tandem, the child will benefit from the symbiotic relationship for the rest of his life. He will learn to respect authority; he will learn to respect orderliness and the rule of law. He will learn to work within a system and to make it work for him; he will learn to give people the benefit of the doubt and not to misjudge their intentions. All of these are subtle messages which will make his a better citizen of the world and his community. This is in addition to the fact that when a child realizes that his parents are partners in the educational processes and systems of his school he develops a completely different respect for what he is being taught.

Conversely if a child sees mistrust of those charged with his care, he will learn albeit vicariously, that people in general are not trustworthy. Worse still if school is denigrated at home, he will learn to mistrust all authority; he will learn that all people with whom he is involved can not be trusted to have his best interest at heart and he will learn to doubt the intentions of all but the closest members of his family; a recipe for a lonely life.

More about being engaged in the educational process of our children in my next piece.