Opinion
Families & the Community Opinion

Bridging the Chasm Between Teachers and Parents

By Justin Minkel — October 23, 2018 4 min read
Illustration of adults and child in a classroom.
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As a dad to a 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, I’m deeply grateful to my children’s teachers. As a teacher of 25 wonderful 2nd graders, I’m deeply grateful to my students’ parents. Yet it often feels like a chasm separates parents and teachers.

In the age of the all-hallowed multiple-choice test, school tends to carve a narrower definition of learning and success than most moms and dads hold for the little humans they love most on Earth. School also makes tremendous claims on the time parents have with their children.

Kids spend more waking hours at school during the week than they spend in their own homes. Add the demands of homework, forms to sign, and school events, and family time can shrink to a thin rind of the evening.

My mom still remembers a parent night when my brother was in 2nd grade. After the teacher explained the nightly homework to the parents in attendance, our friend’s mom raised her hand. “You get my son for seven hours a day,” she said. “When he gets home, that’s our time. If he wants to lie in a field and look up at the sky for a couple of hours instead of doing homework, we’re going to let him.”

Not long after I became a dad, it hit me that I only truly want two things for my daughter and son: I want them to be happy and I want them to be good people. Everything else, from their reading levels to the professions they’ll someday choose, is a means to one of those two ends.

At times, I have been deeply frustrated by my children’s teachers. By their harsh tone of voice when young children have trouble being quiet or sitting still. By their appetite for taking away the students’ precious 20 minutes of recess for infractions like losing their math homework or standing up to get a Kleenex without asking permission first. By their relentless fixation on rewards and punishments, behavior charts and test scores.

As a parent who is also a teacher, I have stood on the other side of that chasm, too. I have felt irked by parents who seem unconcerned that their child is being cruel to other children in class, yet are deeply troubled that the office listed four tardies on the report card when their own count is three and a half. I have been baffled by the fact that some parents of children who read far below grade-level can’t find 20 minutes in their evening to make sure their child reads at home.

So as a member of that tribe of half-parent/half-teacher centaurs, who share a deep and abiding love for our students and our own children, let me offer this dual letter to those on either side.

A Parent’s Plea to Teachers

Last night, my daughter couldn’t stop worrying about the daily folder she had misplaced at school. Her grandma ended up driving to the middle school late at night, convincing the custodian to unlock the door, and scouring the cafeteria until she found the missing folder.

Judging by my daughter’s euphoria when the folder was returned to her, you would think she had been reunited with a lost kitten. All this kerfuffle so I could initial a little box on a photocopied calendar, averting my daughter’s deep fear that she would receive the dreaded “U” if she didn’t have it signed the next day.

In many children’s minds, the classroom consequences—a “color change” or “clipping down” on the behavior chart, a “U” marked in a folder—loom way out of proportion to their actual importance.

Teachers, try to show our children a little patience and grace. Try to remember that it’s just a folder, or a reading log, or a moment of forgetfulness. These little humans and their parents are mostly doing the best we can.

A Teacher’s Plea to Parents

In your home, you might be responsible for the well-being of two or three children. In my classroom, I’m responsible for 25. More than two dozen young humans to care for, all of whom have various moods, mishaps, and needs—a question, a Band-Aid, a Kleenex, a hug—that pop up all day with the unpredictable urgency of exploding popcorn kernels.

I’m doing the best I can to treat every child with the same attention, patience, and compassion I’d want my own children’s teachers to show toward them. But if I miss something—your son’s sudden certainty that he’s about to throw up, the mean girl at recess who hurt your daughter’s feelings—please remember that I’m outnumbered. There’s only one of me, and at many moments of many days, that’s not enough to go around.

So if the car rider line crawls at a snail’s pace during this afternoon’s pickup, or your daughter’s teacher doesn’t think to check her backpack for picture money, or your son loses the toy he brought to school and his teacher doesn’t have time between 3:08 and 3:15 to help him search for it, try to show your children’s teachers a little patience and grace. Most of us are doing the best we can.

P.S. Thank You

Like most parents, I tend to overreact when that papa bear impulse gets triggered. Like most teachers, I tend to fixate on the support I need from parents, while forgetting to ask what support they might need from me. Yet when I think of my children’s teachers over their past five years in public school, or my students’ parents over the past 18, my main emotion is gratitude.

Teachers, thank you. For doing so much, in such exhausting circumstances, to help our sons and daughters thrive while they are in your care.

Parents, thank you. We know your children are your heart itself. You drop off that heart with us every morning. We’re grateful for the gift of your trust.

Teachers and parents need each other. This school year, let’s reach out when we have something to thank each other for, not just when we have a complaint. Let’s remember how hard both our jobs can be, and try to make them a little easier for each other when we can.

We care deeply about the children whose lives, in school and at home, are in our hands. Let’s do whatever we can to honor that shared truth.

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