Friday, March 27, 2009


Yesterday morning I went to a meeting of staff from other schools around the state who wanted to learn from our school. As one of the teacher representatives from my school, I was there to answer questions about just about anything they were wondering.

See if you can figure out what's wrong with this picture.

First question: "There are lots of things going really well at our school, but the one thing that we're having a really hard time with is family involvement. I mean, we just can't get families to show up at school. I can't tell you how many conferences I've scheduled where parents stand me up, without even a phone call. These people just don't come to the school, no matter what we do."

I am lucky enough to work at a school where I have never heard anyone say "these people" about our families. I knew immediately why families weren't showing up at their school. Would you go somewhere if the people who ran the place felt that way about you? I imagine families who face these kinds of attitudes from the school, and who may have painful histories with schools in their own lives, feel about going to the school kind of the way I feel about going to the dentist. It's never fun, I always get bad news, and it reminds me of how much it hurt when I was little.

We gave this teacher good advice: send teachers on home visits before school starts, or promise yourself you'll call each family once a month with good news. Build a relationship based on genuine feelings of good will, a common goal, and love for the students. Have culminating curricular events that students are proud of. I reminded her that one important part of this whole business is what we think and expect of families. "I have never in my life met a family who didn't want to be involved in their student's education, who didn't want the best for their child," I told her. "We have to believe that, to start from a place of knowing that about them. Families will meet those positive expectations if they feel them."

Contrast this teacher and her attitude, so common in the teaching world, with my sister, who has had such a grueling time of it this year. Systemic failures of her school and school system (and of our country) have made her teaching job an impossible task that is brutally heart-breaking on a daily basis. It would be easy for her to blame her students, and their families, almost understandable if she resorted to wondering what is wrong with them that their students act like this and can't do that. But instead, she talks regularly about how much she enjoys her students, what great kids they are, how they did this or that today that made her laugh. She had family conferences last week and ended the day feeling positive and connected, telling me how much she likes her students' families. If there's any test of a great teacher, she's passed it, then. Too bad she can't help out this veteran teacher in western Massachusetts who can't get her families to show up.

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