When I accepted my teaching job two summers ago, I did so with the naive expectation that I would be teaching in an environment that was a replication of my own elementary school experiences. Friday mornings would be assembly days, and students would congregate in the auditorium for the week’s class play as well as the handing out of commendations. On other mornings, students would rearrange the desks to clear space for their parents, who would we be coming in (on the way to work, or taking a day off) for a bagel, juice, and a presentation to celebrate our learning. Fathers would be taking video, mothers would be arranging playdates, and I would be working the crowd, thanking people for coming, and exchanging “It’s good to see yous” and “So glad you could make its.”
Of course, I began my teaching career some 13+ years after ending my elementary one, so I could have never possibly been prepared for the harshness of reality that exists in today’s NYC school system. Okay, so parents wouldn’t be coming in as often and on as grand a scale as I envisioned, but I’d still be certain to create those opportunities on some kind of somewhat regular basis. Right, we wouldn’t be covering thematic units like I did in my day, but hey, there’d still be the chance to prepare special programs for the parents.
That was the plan, I promise. I’d supplement parents’ classroom experiences with newsletters, phone calls, and a general overall discourse. Parents would look to me as a beacon of assistance, a go-to for support of their child’s academic and social lives. I would reach out to them proactively and positively, and a relationship would burgeon, affecting for the better everyone in the classroom community.
So, now, as we approach parent-teacher conferences this week, and I prepare to welcome parents in for just the fifth time this year (the others being: parent orientation, open school week, our play, and fall parent-teacher conferences), I reflect on parent-teacher involvement communication: what should have been, what is, and maybe, what still can be.
The maelstrom of being a first year teacher enveloped me rather quickly last year. It became apparent to me that there was going to be significantly more work than I had anticipated relating to my foremost concern, my students. In my first two months on the job, I regularly stayed in the classroom until 5:00 pm, and sometimes past 7:30, organizing, reorganizing, arranging, and rearranging. Bulletin boards went uncovered for several weeks following the first day of school. My classroom looked less like a place of education than a place of dumping refuse. As consuming as the design of my professional space was, what with the need to be able to function effectively and have my students be able to do the same, there was still plenty of work affecting the day-to-day rigors of the work being done in the classroom that needed to be addressed. Most nights, I’d work for several hours after arriving home.
When, please tell me, was I ever going to find time to type a newsletter?
Nevertheless, I still relished the idea of collectively keeping families abreast of the goings on in our classroom. My mentor and I sat down and began to formulate ideas for a newsletter, and the goal was to have it ready for the first parent-teacher conferences of the 2008-2009 school year. Invigorated after my discussion with her, I even began planning a template at home that night. And that was it. It never progressed past a fairly blank Word document.
Around November or December last year, when rallying my class around the idea of starting the inaugural Mosaic Project, I talked up the importance of respecting the camera and keeping it safe. Included in this rah-rah was a contract, to be signed by the student and the parent. Here, I figured, would be a monumental opportunity to bring parents in, recognizing my vision of community that extended beyond the yellow walls of the classroom. So, I included a “clause” in the contract informing parents that, since students would be photographing their culture, it’d be wonderful if everyone could prepare and, on an assigned festival day, bring to school, a typical ethnic food for us to enjoy.
Of course, I had no idea about the onslaught of test preparation that would dominate the ensuing months, first for ELA, then math. By the time the tests were over, I was so busy exhaling (and working on graduation, awards night, full scale Mosaic Project, a scrapbook, and who knows what else) that I became completely distracted from my task of getting the parents in. Yes, they were there to witness the display of student’s photography in our classroom, as well as at graduation, but on both occasions, I felt I was regarded by many parents as a curiosity not to be approached.
So, what’s the excuse this year? I suppose there is none, really. But there’s been no real change. Maybe I’m more comfortable welcoming parents on trips and greeting them for conferences, but these abilities don’t distinguish me in terms of trying to get parents involved.
One of the hardest hurdles to leap, though, is the language barrier that exists between me and the parents. While I do retain some Spanish from high school, I am by no means fluent enough to confidently engage in conversation. I speak no Chinese or Bengali, either. So my interactions with parents are aided – and simultaneously damaged – by a third party. Don’t get me wrong, without translators, my communication with parents would be nil. But not being able to pick up a phone to talk to a parent, and needing someone else to do it, puts me at a considerable disadvantage. Do you know that, at parent-teacher conferences, I demand my students’ attendance? I tell them it’s because I want them to hear what I’m saying, which is true, but I imagine the majority of them figure it’s because I need a translator. Even the most conscientious middleman can not stop the inevitable: words, ideas, and strongly made points will inevitably be lost in translation.
I recently responded to @Newsweek about their request for people’s 6 word assessments of the American educational system today. Mine: Not what I envisioned as teacher.
This being said, I think once the testing hysteria passes the first week of May, I’ll make more of a concerted effort to bring parents in. Life will be considerably lighter by then. I’ll have (slightly) more time and freedom to pursue ideas with my class regarding how we can bring their parents in to actively witness what’s going on. And, keeping in mind that you can’t have involvement without having people in, I will assess our success and begin next school year with eyes on expanding and improving parents’ investment in my classroom.
Certain things transcend language, and I think one of them is humanity. Let the parents see me not only as the teacher of their children, a man they may worry about approaching because they don’t feel invited to do so. Let me not see the parents as the people students refer to as, “my mom” or, “my dad,” but rather as human beings who can positively impact what I’m going for. And let us all reap the benefits.