Trinities are amazingly important to us because they embody such truths. But there is one trinity that is ultimately important in my professional life as a teacher. It is the trinity of teacher, student, parent. This was brought home to me recently when I read this article:
In it, students of color are shown to be disproportionately punished. The punishments are pushing these students out of learning environments, dooming them to failure and many of them to prison.
I was reading it when my students came back from PE. A student asked me why my eyes were bugging out of my head as I read. He said, “You look really angry.” He was right. I was angry. So, I read them the first few paragraphs. Then, they were angry. They asked me if I had ever seen racial bias in the schools I’ve taught at. Unfortunately, yes, I’ve seen it.
The part that the reporter, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, misses is the part that parents play in the trinity of education. Let me state, right now, that I am not in the business of shaming parents. This is not a diatribe about how awful parents are, nor is this meant to make any parent feel guilty*. On the other hand, I am not absolving parents of their responsibilities, I’m just trying to lay out what I see. And what I see is that students whose parents are unable to come advocate for them are more likely to be singled out and more likely to be punished harshly.
Not all parents are the same. Parents of all students are very, very complicated. But I think the parents of minority students have it pretty bad. Let’s list the issues I’ve personally seen. They often work. If the parents are at work during school hours, they find it difficult to take time off to fight with the district office about the needs of their children because, let’s be honest, to get a school to give up some of its funds is a fight. Next, many minority parents have had their own horrible experiences with public schools. I’ve seen mothers, white-knuckled, cautiously approach me because they were worried enough about their children to fight down their own memories of school. One told me once that she had been beaten by a teacher because she forgot and spoke Spanish in the classroom. Horrific. Then, there can be a language barrier. First- and sometimes second-generation parents struggle to make themselves understood to the school, and they don’t have time to learn the language because they are, what was that again? Oh yeah, working. And then there is illness. Addiction, abuse, and depression all take a major toll on the energy parents have. And then you must talk about poverty. There’s a lot of it out there. The reasons why it makes it hard for parents to advocate for their students are legion. Parents struggling with the above have to trust that the school is able to handle the children they put in their care.
What I’ve seen is that the child who lives with his first-generation immigrant grandmother, under a bridge, is more likely to be reprimanded by teachers than that student whose parent is joked about in the teachers’ lounge as a helicopter parent. (For those of you who don’t know, a helicopter parent is a term for a parent who is over-protective of their child to the point that they are actually doing harm.) Teachers make intelligent gamblers. If you can shut a situation down by coming down on a kid whose parents are not likely to come in and rip you a new orifice, you probably will. Furthermore, if you have a kid who is making the classroom a living nightmare, and you can get that kid out of your classroom by declaring him or her defiant, would you? I’ve seen teachers walk a classroom literally smiling on the kids who spoke perfect English and snapping at the kids who did not speak English well. All the while, all the kids were having the same behaviors.
So, I guess this is a call for action on the part of the schools. We need to behave as if every parent is going to be down our throats, fighting, and fighting hard for their children. (This is a starting point. What we really want is a working relationship with all parents. But let’s just start here.) More importantly, we need to teach our teachers how to have competent classroom management. Guess how many classes I took in my Masters’ program on classroom management? Zero. Zip. Zilch. Fortunately, I was working at a school that was proactive on that front. I also had professors in my certification program who slipped it into the curricula. But I do know that being able to keep all students on task is more important than John Dewey, bless him. Guess which one I need every day. of. my. life.?
The trinity must stand, even when one leg of it is imaginary. Teachers must behave as if every student in their care has an advocate checking on how they are being treated. Even if you know their only advocate is you. To make it harder, educators must decide that there is no principal’s office to use as an escape route, and that keeping the students in the classroom is the best option unless a child is violent. And unfortunately, since most education programs are light on classroom management training, teachers are going to have to demand help from their administrators to get them the training that helps them to make the classroom a place where only learning is happening. Further, teachers need to recognize when they make the easy choice: unduly punishing the kid who is already vulnerable. That’s called bullying. It will come back to haunt us. It already has. 20 years of “zero-tolerance” is just giving us a new industry. Prisons.
* If you would like to feel guilty, or at least have a laugh at the expense of the entire academic world, please feel free to check out my humor blog: Dun Lernen Academy. If you laugh, let people know. If you don’t laugh, I didn’t write it, I know nothing about it, and may the writer (whoever she may be) rot in a watery grave. Peace out.