Meeting With My Son's Teacher, Reflecting on Public Education

After receiving last week's completely out of the blue, not-so-positive progress report about my third grade son, I sent back the following note on the bottom of the form that required parent signature:
Dear Mrs. ********,

My husband and I would like to meet with you this week to discuss this notice as well as the attached progress report. We are available any day after school. Please give me a call at ***-***-**** to let us know what day/time is convenient for you.

Thank you,
Liz ******
The teacher was absent on Monday but on Tuesday she gave me a call during her lunchtime and we set up a meeting for Wednesday after school.

From some of the comments on my post on this from last week I think a couple of folks seemed to be under the impression that I was going to go up to the school poppin' my neck and cussing the teacher out. Uh, no. I don't roll like that. My dissatisfaction with the way my son's academic progress was communicated - or in this instance not communicated - does not mean that I'm not going to be completely professional and civilized to his teacher when meeting with her.

First we talked about the things checked off in the report's frowny face column: Not using class time to best advantage; Work improving, but more effort is required; Inattentive when directions are given.

The details seem to be that my son sometimes talks in class when he's not supposed to, his desk is disorganized and the teacher has to tell him to do something more than once. He's a little daydreamer-ish during the independent practice.

I didn't see the point in going down the road of debating how frequently this was happening or asking, "Why didn't you tell us this before?" even if I was wondering both things.

Instead, I expressed to the teacher that our expectations for our son's behavior and academic performance are incredibly high and if he's not doing what he's supposed to even ONE day, we want to know immediately so that we can address it at home. We want to know the first time it happens, not when it's happened over and over again. I requested that she keep us in the loop in a more frequent basis, perhaps with a weekly progress report on these particular things.

I'm glad to say she was agreeable to that and had a form she said she'd send home with him on Fridays, but what really struck me was that she was surprised that we'd want this. She said that in previous years some parents had complained that this was too much information for them and so she figured most parents didn't want that much information.

It makes me wonder, if parents are truly to be partners in their children's education, why don't more schools see the imperative of looping parents in on their child's classroom performance on a more regular basis? Why isn't the expectation set by schools that parents should want this? If parents aren't asking for this, why aren't they?

As far as the writing that my boy has not, "made minimal or adequate progress toward meeting grade level standards in," the gist is that my son doesn't indent consistently, has poor penmanship, and doesn't always finish writing within the allotted time, especially when he's not that interested in the subject. I'm not sure if that all qualifies in my book as not making minimal progress but whatever, I'm not interested in the minimum for him anyway. I want him to be equipped to score at the highest levels. If he has things to work on, that's fine.

Again, I focused on wanting to know where he's having issues immediately and expressed my desire to be kept apprised of his progress in a more consistent and immediate fashion. I shared that I'm happy to work on his writing with him. I also asked for a copy of the writing rubric on which his work will be scored, and asked if his writing folder could be sent home every Friday so I could see how he did on that week's assignments. His teacher agreed that these things would be a good idea.

Then I asked how happy my son seems in the class, about his personality in the room and how she motivates him. I told her how upset he was about the check boxes and how he'd interpreted it as him not doing a good job in school. He was confused because he really prides himself on excelling academically and behaving in school. Then we got onto the subject of my son's interests. I mentioned that it takes him only four or five hours to read 150+ page novels - right now he's hooked on abridged classics and he writes and draws extensively.

His teacher began to wonder if he's talking or not consistently following directions because he's actually bored in class. She wondered if the level of the work may not be rigorous enough for him. It could be, so we talked about gifted testing and about following up in a week at the official district parent-teacher conferences.

Overall, I think it was a productive meeting. I advocated for my son and made my expectations clear around what kinds of information I need in order to support him academically, and I was glad to hear the perspective of the teacher. I was also glad that even though she was surprised by my wanting information, she didn't act like I was totally insane.

I will say that the most interesting thing throughout all this has been the attitude expressed by some commenters on my previous post that parents don't have the right or responsibility to demand that public education not fail their children. Apparently, if the schools are failing or the teacher's missing the mark in some way, the parent has to just suck it up because teachers are overworked and have too many kids in the classroom.

Although I know some folks may not like me saying this, I think any teacher that's pissed off that a parent wants to be kept in the loop about their child on a more immediate basis should recognize that it's time for them to go be employed in another profession. If you can't "get" that, go do something else and let an educator who CAN get it step into your classroom. There are a whole lot of laid off teachers who would be happy to step in your shoes and handle business.

I suppose I take this personally for several reasons. First, I've seen public education first-hand in our nation's four largest cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and the Bronx. I've worked in the Bronx and in Houston, but my favorite was teaching classes of all retained students in Compton.

In my first year with the district, I found out that there were indeed many teachers that worked hard, cared about the kids and did their best to ensure the children did well. But there were also too many teachers who didn't.

In the previous school year, most of my 3rd grade students had had a teacher who ate in class and then SLEPT on her desk. No wonder they all failed! Some of the kids confessed to me that they'd stolen money out of this woman's wallet while she dozed on her desk. I was secretly glad that they did so because I was so angry that such an incompetent, shiftless and immoral person could appropriate the title of "teacher".

The third grade "teacher" next door, a white man, read his paper while his students went buck wild in his classroom. When I complained about the noise coming through the wall, he had the NERVE to tell me that it didn't really matter because all the kids would probably end up in prison anyway. "Don't work so hard. They're not going to amount to anything anyway."

Across the hall was a "teacher", who happened to be a black man. He came to school every day dressed in the same pair of jeans and a FUBU t-shirt. Some role model, right? Pfft. I used to joke that he had a different FUBU t-shirt for every day of the week. But it wasn't really funny. He didn't believe he had to dress professionally because, as he said, for what? He was only teaching till he could sell a screenplay, and besides, why stress out over kids that were going to end up gang banging and pregnant.

Neither of these men believed my students could learn how to read, or even get to grade level and I was glad to prove them wrong by the end of the school year. No, I didn't show up at 7:30 and leave at 2:30 to do it. It took a LOT of work and time. I sent home a progress report every single Friday. I called homes, I walked kids home from school if there was no working phone number. I went through being transferred from extension to extension at factories, having to go through seven different supervisors at a parent's job just so I could talk to her.

Did I ever meet parents who didn't care? There was one and I think she had serious mental health issues. But I sure as heck met a lot of parents who were absolutely shocked that a teacher might care about their child.

Was I a saint? Was this some stereotypical Dangerous Minds crap? Nope. I just wanted those kids to learn because they deserved it. I liked seeing kids that had essentially been thrown away by our nation's public education system get an A on a reading comprehension test and score well on the state standardized tests. I told them that they needed to be educated so they could take their rightful place in this society and I taught them like I meant it. I taught them like they might one day end up married to my own child.

I was featured in an teaching ad campaign that ran in Rolling Stone, People and Essence magazine because of all this. However, I knew that my being a good teacher was not because I'm special or because someone waved a magic wand over me, and I didn't want my experience to be a one-off kind of thing, I decided to go supervise other teachers in low-income areas to help them be able to do the same things in their classrooms.

When you supervise other teacher's professional development and you go watch their classrooms to evaluate them, you see some truly wonderful learning taking place. But, unfortunately, you also see some completely insane stuff too.

For example, over the years, I've seen teachers who'd segregate their classroom into the kids that wanted to learn and those that didn't. Sometimes they did it mentally but sometimes they actually did it physically. I remember one guy who actually sat with two students in the "Want to Learn" area of the classroom and let the other ones do whatever they pleased. Ask me if I think a teacher could get away with such a thing if he/she wasn't teaching children of color in a low income area?

There were the "teachers" who'd yell at the black kids if they were talking and roll out the consequences left and right. If the Latino kids were talking, nothing would happen. Then the teacher would be pissed off at me when I'd write on the evaluation form something like, "All of your students are talking but you are only administering consequences to your African American students. Why do you think that is?"

The things too many of them would say about parents and the community were sickening. I had to hear how only Latino parents care and they have such a great family structure, while black parents are pretty much the devil, especially the black moms. If I asked them why they hadn't contacted a black parent, I had to hear about how they were kinda scared and intimidated.

I'll never forget this gem: "I think his mom might be a prostitute. Her voicemail sounds really sexy." Then there'd be the speculation about how many baby daddies a mom might have -- all the while not recognizing how African-American siblings with the same two parents can come out with different skin tones.

These sort of behaviors on the part of teachers were not foreign to me because I grew up black in America. I have a black mom that most of my white female teachers were totally scared of. And why? Well because our society teaches that black women aren't assertive and confident. Instead we're agro, loud, angry and bitchy. We have a chip on our shoulders.

I used to especially hate when, after talking to my mom, my teachers would trot out that tired, racist, "You're so articulate? Where are you from?" mess.

I know first-hand about the public school experiences of every single black male in my family. Tracked into remedial classes even though they were smart and capable. Told not to take four years of English in high school. Ask me if ANY of them went to college.

And me? I could give you a laundry list of instances where teachers attempted the same sort of crap with me. I will never ever forget being told by my high-school guidance counselor that I should take auto-shop instead of college prep classes because I might one day make a good mechanic. According to him, I didn't need four years of math or science even though I knew that's what I needed to get into a top university.

I didn't like the idea of auto shop class so he suggested wood shop. Yeah, why take physics and calculus when I could take wood shop? Do you honestly think any of the white gifted, honors and AP kids at my school were told this?

Again, do I think every teacher is like this? Of course not. I know there are plenty of teachers out there busting their humps for their students and I believe there's a special place in heaven for them. I sometimes feel sorry for really excellent public school teachers because
1) they have to deal with some truly horrible teachers that make the profession look bad,
2) they have to potentially make up for the academic deficiencies of the students who had that newspaper reading teacher the previous year and,
3) they are overworked and underpaid but still get results despite the pretty much wholesale managerial ineptness from a district, state and national level.

All this is why I'm such a huge advocate for better teacher training, increased pay and serious ongoing teacher mentoring and professional development. All this is why I have not flat out abandoned public education. I've been told too many times that I'm stupid to keep my sons in LAUSD and that I'm making my children pay for my own personal politics. I hate thinking this is true. I want to believe things can and will improve, but not without committed parents there working alongside seriously committed and excellent teachers.

But can you understand why I'm not exactly blindly trusting of any teacher? I know they don't all want the best for my sons, and if you're really honest with yourself, you know it too. It's common knowledge that public schools in Los Angeles, and every other city in the United States of America, have a history of disenfranchising and under-educating children of color. If you don't think that's true, pick up a Jonathan Kozol book. Read some Lisa Delpit. It doesn't matter if it was published 5, 10 or 20 years ago. Whatever you read is still going on in this country.

I'm not some crazy overbearing parent that's getting bent out of shape over nothing. I'm under no illusions that public education in America is some magical promised land for my two sons. But you'd better believe I'll be upset and have some serious concerns when I get a progress report like what came home last Wednesday. The stakes are too high for anything else.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I am married to a Teacher. It is good to read about a parent who tenaciously involves herself in her child's education, not that I expected any different.

I am a huge advocate of the idea of Public Schools. It is a long journey to resolution and all parties must go all in.
Liz Dwyer said…
Inkognegro,
I'm sure your wife works very, very hard. Her students surely love her for it. Given all my experiences there's no way I could NOT be involved.

I believe so strongly in public education, in the right of every child to be given an excellent education no matter what color their skin is or what zip code they are born in. Folks wonder what will make us globally competitive again - a world leader...educated children sure will.
Val said…
Wow Liz, that post brought back memories. I went to four different high schools in three different states and by the time I was a senior I was worn out. I told the principal of the school I was attending that I was thinking about dropping out. She said that might be a good idea and that maybe I could even get my GED one day.

So I know first hand about what you are talking about.
BlackLiterature said…
This makes me sad, but I know it is true.

I don't remember if I said this on your blog but I remember Mr Leverone, my 7th grade teacher, new to Cali from NY, who told me I should be more realistic when I said I was going to UCLA and wanted to be a psychiatrist. This would be funny, but I went to a private school in an upper middle class neighborhood, has the highest grades in the class and scored the highest on the entry exam to one of the top private schools in my area.

There are
KateGladstone said…
This may help with the penmanship issue at least --
http://bit.ly/BetterLetters
(handwriting instruction resources/info/practice tools -- an iPhone/iPodTouch app from a medical software company owned by a doctor on a crusade against his colleagues' dysfunctional handwriting)
jamila said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
jamila said…
Thank you for believing in LAUSD teachers, even though many will disappoint and under-perform. The educators I worked with at an elementary school in South Los Angeles are and continue to be among the best teachers I have ever come in contact with--constantly maintaining high expectations & making family/community involvement a high priority.

I learned a lot from them, and I learned a lot from you, Liz. People like you (and the other colleagues I speak about) are what drives our public education system to change...because it must change. We, as parents and educators, cannot sit idly by and watch our public education system fail our children--like you said, "The stakes are too high."
Jameil said…
I am SO glad to hear the teacher was amenable to regular contact with you! My friends who teach/taught at low-income schools really wish they had more parents who could be involved. A lot of them work a lot and/or are single parents. I wholeheartedly agree "any teacher that's pissed off that a parent wants to be kept in the loop about their child on a more immediate basis should recognize that it's time for them to go be employed in another profession."
Liz Dwyer said…
Val,
Stuff like this makes my blood boil. I'm glad you didn't didn't listen and drop out but the truth is that do many kids do.

Black Literature,
And I bet Mr. Leverone would never have ever said he's a racist or had lower expectations for a student of color. AAGH!

Kate,
You rock the house...ugh, wish I had an iPhone/iTouch for that. I think they're on to something with the move back toward a more italics based kind of handwriting. I had horrid penmanship up till maybe 6th grade and I had to work so hard at it.

Jamila,
Yep, places like your school and your classroom were truly examples of what's possible. I sometimes used to cry in my car when I'd leave your school because of the learning I saw and the true love and respect you had for your students was such a refreshing and genuine thing. It was clear that you were holding your students to the highest expectations and that you weren't driven by some savior mentality that led to you hating either the kids or community when teaching them didn't come easy.

It made me happy that you weren't the only teacher there like that and it was SO nice to see a principal who was on board with it and did not sabotage your efforts. Places like your school and what you all have accomplished there let me know that change can happen.
1969 said…
Good for you and good for his teacher for being so open to working with you to make sure he gets what he needs to be successful.
Liz Dwyer said…
Jameil,
I'm glad, too. It's sooo hard for working parents and single parents from every economic background. Schools are set up on the model that there's a parent available before 6 pm. Parent conferences at my kid's school are in the middle of the day next week.

What if I was an hourly employee whose boss tells her that if I don't show up for work, I'm going to get written up? Or if I'm a doctor or police officer on duty during those times?

Our schools are operating with a lot of older models of parental contact/involvement and it's tough because what's the solution, for teachers to work all night and meet with parents after hours and on weekends? If you want the parent contact, that's what you have to do, and that's a tough sell to some educators.
Liz Dwyer said…
1969,
I'm glad things went well. I'll keep you all posted on his progress.
Bronwyn said…
Wow, that SO backs up ALL my experience with teachers (not all, but most) in the inner city. Not a single one of those comments or behaviors from a teacher surprised me, and that is the saddest thing of all.

And yes, black kids were treated differently. And I'm white and it took me a while to realize this. Black parents are also treated differently. (and I had some SCARY parents of my students but they were definitely of all colors!)

Would it be ok if I link to this in my blog? It saves me from writing the same post. :)
Liz Dwyer said…
B,
It is sad that these kinds of things are not shocking to any of us and that this is the reality. I wish we could all say that teachers doing these sorts of things were the absolute exception.

Yes, you are totally free to link to this - and to anything else you like. I don't mind at all.
jstele said…
I think a reason that teachers don't meet with parents is that they are not paid to. I don't think they are necessarily money hungry for doing this. Often times, many teachers have to spend money out of their own pocket for supplies.

I'm sure you know how stressful it is to teach a large room of kids when a few are disruptive. I can understand how some teachers would want to ignore the troublemakers to focus on the attentive students.

It is the teacher's job to do their job as it is the parents' job to do theirs. You have done this, but there are many parents who think in the classroom, only teachers are responsible. You have my kid, you take care of him/her. I think that's why a lot of teachers are frustrated and try to limit contact with parents. They don't think it will help. Just another perspective.
sippinwineman said…
At first, this post reminded me of my mom and of her having my older brothers and sister doing multiplication tables over and over

Then I thought, I was lucky to have had the teachers that I had. I came up in the whole "Black Power" 70's and in D.C. expectations were high.
Sundry said…
"I taught them like they might one day end up married to my own child." This is where I started to cry. Thanks for writing. Maybe this should go to the Times?
jillybean said…
I am an educator and appreciate your post. It's unfortunate that so many people who don't want the best for children are in my profession. I think EVERYONE should read Kozol. Savage Inequalities would really shock many. Lisa Delpit is one of my favorite authors/professors. Thanks for this post!
Bronwyn said…
thanks for letting me share! If you want to see my reflections on it, it's at http://tigerthegecko.blogspot.com/2009/12/reflections-on-public-education-by.html

It's hard for me to write coherently on the subject because I loved the kids I worked with so much (and miss them like crazy) and saw this kind of craziness all the time.
BlackLiterature said…
@LosAngelista
Funny, but as an adult I have a different perspective. As a kid I didn't see a racial aspect in his treatment, I just didn't understand why he didn't seem to like me. He wasn't the only White teacher (all the teachers were White), I wasn't the only student of color. I had the worst year of my entire time in school that year. I still remember a lot of it in detail.

My g/f teaches at a highly rated school in an area where Black students are the minority. She pulled her 8 year old out of the school this year and transfered him to a predom Black/Hispanic Catholic school in a different city. Her rationale was that she had worked there too long and had seen too many things when it came to students of color at the school. She felt that even with the diversity training and education they participated in, too many on staff treated Black students differently, had different expectataions and a different level of interaction with Black parents. Her solution was to put her son in an environment where he would be seen as himself first as opposed to one of those Black kids first. She also wanted him in a situation where Black kids had many roles in the classroom and not just the role of cut-up or talker or poor student.
Anonymous said…
I'm a third grade teacher at an inner-city public school. I agree that you should have been upset with the initial "progress report," especially for its being the first communication after two months of school.
I send home a weekly progress report with that week's work stapled to it. And while I only immediately contact a parent for serious misbehavior, I don't think there is ANY excuse for allowing a pattern of behavior to develop over two months without notifying parents. I do wish I had had more support in effectively communicating with parents as a student teacher and as a new teacher, though. It wasn't until my fourth year of teaching that I had any helpful feedback on writing specific feedback for report card conferences. It wasn't until my eighth year of teaching when, needing to document parent involvement for National Board Certification, I hit upon the idea of doing weekly reports for everyone.
Anonymous said…
@jstele-
I say this as a third grade teacher who has taught in VERY challenging schools for 13 years-- It is NOT understandable that "some teachers would want to ignore the troublemakers to focus on the attentive students."
In the state of California, the teaching standards clearly state that it is our job as teachers to engage all the students. Not just the ones with easy dispositions, not just the ones who are perfectly attentive, not just those with nice parents. ALL students.
That isn't easy to do, but it's not impossible.
Liz Dwyer said…
Jstele,
There are some public schools where the teachers hold back to school night/conferences after work hours b/c almost all their parents are working professionals and can't come in at 1:30 in the afternoon, and so while I kinda understand what you mean and I don't think it's fair, teachers are salaried employees. Sometimes you have to put in some extra time to get the job done.

I definitely spent some money out of pocket but you get creative real quick! I started thinking about what did they have in the 1-room school house. A chalkboard and some books and that was it. I didn't need to be THAT barebones, but I didn't need tons of bells and whistles for my kids to learn.

I think troublemakers deserve to learn, too. What I've found is that if the vast majority of kids in a classroom are off task, it's the fault of the teacher. Something they're doing is not right, otherwise, the kids would be engaged. Overall, kids don't misbehave unless they're allowed to. If they know they can get away with it, they will. If it's one or two kids with issues (One year I had a kid who'd randomly flip out, throw things and run out of the room) you still have to teach that kid what he/she is supposed to learn. It's not easy but I think teaching's one of those jobs where moral obligation/responsibility to the student/child is HUGE!

Sippinwineman,
I'm glad you all had your mom on you like that and that you had some good teachers. What do you think of all the recent changes in D.C. schools?

Sundry,
I often cry thinking about those kids and what a privilege it was to teach them.

Jillybean,
Thanks for saying so. I remember the first time I read Kozol and Delpit. Both were such eye-opening experiences. I wish they were on required reading lists everywhere.

B,
I'll come check it out. It's hard for me to write coherently on these subjects too because I just get so outraged over the injustice. People will rail and protest over lots of things but I don't understand why this is not considered THE civil rights issue of our generation.

Black Literature,
Isn't it something how you can look back on things from your path and see them through a new lens because you understand a bit more about how the world really works.

"She felt that even with the diversity training and education they participated in, too many on staff treated Black students differently, had different expectataions and a different level of interaction with Black parents." ===> Too many people think they can go to a diversity training and then they're "cured" in one afternoon of any sort of racist behaviors. Not the case.

Anonymous,
I'm SO glad you send home the weekly one but it's a real shame that it wasn't till you went thru the National Board Cert process that that got shared with you. In my book that sort of thing should be common sense practice but I guess I thought about it because that's what my experience was from 4-8th grade when I went to private school. And I agree with you on teaching all students. I always hated when I'd hear teachers saying stuff like, "You don't want to learn? Fine!" -- No, they want to learn but you've approaching them with low-expectations, poorly planned lessons, and the inability to motivate. -- Hope you keep on teaching. One of my biggest regrets is leaving the classroom.
April said…
So well said, Liz.
sippinwineman said…
Change was definitely needed, BUT Michele Rhee's (DC Public School Chancellor) methodology isn't worth a thing. It's a good thing that she stopped the bickering between the school board and the teachers' union, but it's worse than it seems in the media. (I would know a lot more, but I don't have children. If I did I would hope to be as patient as you. (btw, Did you know that she and Kevin Johnson-mayor of Sacramento- are dating?) sigh.
Anonymous said…
Hi! :-)

First, I love your blog! I just stumbled upon it yesterday. :-)

This is a great post! I currently work for Teach for America as a recruiter, and after I graduate I'll join their corps (and teach in California, though I'm preferencing the Bay Area over LA). What you've written is exactly why what we do is so important, and I wish more people would take a good long look at the current state of our educational system. I'm from Chicago, though I fortunately never had to go through CPS, and it's really unfortunate to see so many kids with loads of potential get shuffled off to the "trade school" and "somebody's baby mama" tracks. I was fortunate enough to have really supportive teachers throughout elementary and high school, but I'm still exceeding others' expectations (by leaps and bounds) in college (mostly other students). Thanks again for writing this post!
Unknown said…
From the other side of the aisle, (teacher), I'll say this. Teachers would love to update parents each week on the status of their child - unfortuantely districts have to make that as easy as possible for both parents and teachers.

For teachers that usually works with a one-click email - for parents, they prefer "bring home" papers. A parent should initiate and maintain the "more frequent" contact.

Parents who emailed me once a week about their child's progress, received a report once a week. Parents, who didn't keep in contact with me, found out at progress report time.

Just work at making the reporting easy for the teacher and you'll go far.

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