Sunday, October 23, 2011

Parents, Teachers, Kids...and race?

The other day a Facebook friend posted the following article:
"What Teachers Want to Tell Parents" by Ron Clark
Some of you might remember Ron Clark.  He's a teacher who wrote a book, made it on to Oprah, and subsequently opened the "Ron Clark Academy," a private, non-profit middle school in the Atlanta area. I have nothing against Ron Clark or his school. I'm sure it's a wonderful place for those few students who are lucky enough to attend. But something about this article really bothered me.  

If you don't have time to read it, here's the gist: great teachers and administrators are leaving the  profession, or rather, being driven out of the profession by parents. Parents need to stop complaining and start respecting teachers more. Stop making "excuses" for your children. They need to get school work done no matter what's going on at home, or else they may wind up "25 and jobless, sitting on your couch eating potato chips." And please, says Clark, when a teacher tells you that your child did something wrong, do not turn to the child and say, "Is that true?" Says Clark, "Well, of course it's true. I just told you. And please don't ask whether a classmate can confirm what happened or whether another teacher might have been present. It only demeans teachers and weakens the partnership between teacher and parent."

Oh, and please don't ever question your child's grades. Whatever grade your child got, he or she deserved it. Period.

Ok, I'm a teacher educator, and I do understand Clark's side of the story. Teachers need parental support, that's absolutely true. But I'm also a parent, and I find that Clark has made a lot of presumptions that just don't pan out in my experience. Clark presumes that teachers are always fair, always kind, and always right. Sadly, this just isn't true. I've heard of many, many times when teachers showed bias, disciplined through humiliation, or were just flat-out wrong about a child. I know of a teacher who dumped the entire contents of a second grader's desk out in front of the whole class to show what a mess it was. That same teacher referred to the parents as "stupid" during a parent-teacher conference. Then there was the third grade teacher who insisted that most of her class had ADHD because they were so "chatty." On the other hand, in the very same school there was a first grade teacher who didn't believe in ADHD at all, even when a child's behavior said differently. There was the seventh grade teacher who silenced two talking boys in the class by saying, "Why don't you two get a room?" There was the sixth grade teacher who gave a student an A on a project. When the student modestly admitted, "My mom helped me," the teacher changed the grade to an A-. Aren't parents supposed to help kids with projects? These were not some renegade teachers, either. They were all well-paid, respected teachers in a white, suburban school district who held their positions for many, many years. 

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Now let me be clear:  THERE ARE A LOT OF GREAT TEACHERS OUT THERE. I believe that, and I hope I've had a small part in training some of them. But Clark's article suggests that teachers know better than parents. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children's code of ethics, respecting parents as partners is an ethical requirement for teachers. According to NAEYC, teachers need to: 
  • Appreciate and support the bond between the child and family
  • Recognize that children are best understood and supported in the context of family, culture, community, and society
  • Respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual (child, family member, and colleague)
  • Respect diversity in children and adults and colleagues
  • Recognize that children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of relationships that are based on trust and respect*
So when parents turn to their children and ask, "Is that true?" (one of Clark's "biggest pet peeves"), teachers need to understand that children have a right to tell their side of the story, and parents have a right to hear it. Yes, teachers are experts in some things, but parents are experts in knowing their children, and it is their responsibility to be their children's advocates.

And what does all this have to do with race? If you look at the picture of Clark and his students you'll notice that Clark is white and most of his students are African American. That tells me something. I don't doubt Clark's motivation, and I'm not suggesting that he's racist. But he needs to consider that he is a cultural outsider to some of his students and their families. He needs to be sure that his "expertise" and his view of parents as "prosecutors" are not based on his position of societal privilege. Lisa Delpit wrote a very famous essay on some things white teachers need to think about in teaching "other people's children."**  Delpit stresses the importance of white teachers recognizing that the classroom reflects a culture of power that often gives teachers the authority to establish their ideas as "truth," superseding the concerns, ideas, or feeling of parents. 

Parents are not the enemy. 


  1. As a therapist who often has to advocate for both the children, the parents, and the teachers in many of these situations, I see a lot of what you are talking about. I am hearing many sides of the same story, and it seems to me that we are, in general, not doing a very good job of recognizing the many ecosystems that are interacting and listening to all the sides.
    There are usually reasons why a child is acting out or doing poorly in school. Sometimes its biological, sometimes it's situational, and sometimes it's not the right teacher/child fit. Teachers are people too and they get frustrated, have too many kids in their classes and not enough money in their paychecks. They are also Teachers, not therapist, or behavior specialists. We do not pay them enough to do theses jobs too, nor do they have the education or experience to do these things. In some cases they are themselves parents, sometimes not, but either way they are usually very much aware of the role parents need to play in the child's education. We are so "busy" as a culture that it's much easier to give our children what they want to keep them quiet/"happy" and blame others for the child's problems or expect others (like teacher and therapists) to do the hard work of parenting for them.

    we ALL need to step back and take a look at the context and collaborate for a positive solution.

  2. I've heard too many abuse stories in the short time of my profession to believe parents should accept every word from school staff.