August 6, 2006

Oh, Those Parents!

So many times it's easy to do some parent bashing--especially why you can see how they are doing everything wrong. Over the years I've seen so many toxic parents who seem to be clueless, but I've also seen parents who aren't really toxic but more helpless. A lot of them are parenting alone--mostly mothers. When you have a parent break down in tears in front of you and release all the weight of their shoulders upon you, well, it's just pretty hard to judge--no matter how much they might deserve it. I had a pretty heavy parent breakdown earlier this summer--but after school ended--so I've been thinking about writing on the topic of parents for a while.

These emotional breakdowns have happened to me several times in my career because I will listen. Well, that's the reason I have come up with, as I don't particularly enjoy these episodes. One young mom broke down and admitted to me that she had not been a good mother and had tried to be her children's friend. She was no longer a single mother and was trying to reform her ways, but it wasn't easy. Most of the moms who break down in front of me are overwhelmed from trying to hold a family together all alone. They are doing their very best, but they recognize that it's not enough. As a struggling parent, what a terrible thing that must be to admit to yourself--let alone the teacher of your child--that you aren't doing a good enough job!

What is enough? I've also dealt with distraught parents from unbroken families who seem to be doing everything right, but the student is still going the down the path of self-destruction. Those moms are less likely to break down in front of me because they have their husbands, but they still feel compelled spill all the dirt. Sometimes poor school performance is only part of the problem, you know. I can think of several families I've dealt with like this. I don't get it. The only thing I can think of in most cases is that some kids are just born rebellious, and no amount of discipline and structure is going to change that. I hate to admit this, but I also think that sometimes strict parents produce problem children because they are overly strict--like it pushed the children in the opposite direction.

Mostly I just listen to parents when they spill their family issues, but sometimes I offer advice, which at the secondary level places a large amount of responsibility on the student--not the parent. These are the times when the parents just don't know what to do about their slacker or lost-and-confused students. The advice is academically focused, as that is what the meetings are usually about, although the conversations sometimes turn to more personal family issues. Some parents really don't have any strategies about how to structure home so students can do their homework. So I offer up my strategies how on to make home more conducive to studying and how students can organize their lives and homework better. These are basically the same tips I give to students.

When a parent starts getting personal and breaks down, offering up some advice on how her student can raise his grades or focus on school is just not appropriate. It's sticky, though. What can I do? I'm not a counselor. I'm a teacher! Sometimes I'm considered the enemy. Yo, parent! Are you sure you want to expose your underbelly? So, I reinforce all the good things the parent is trying to do. Kind of give a little pep talk. Sometimes parents do have all the right strategies, but they don't have the stamina to be consistent. Or even if they do have the stamina, kids can be stubborn. It's so helpful to say, "You're doing fine. Keep up the good work! Stay strong." As teachers we need this kind of pep talk sometimes. Maybe parents do, too. I don't lie, though. I pick the positive traits--like most obvious one being that the parent cares so much.

I avoid handing out parenting advice like, "This is what I'd do...." Sometimes I help them sort out ideas, though. A few years ago I had a parent who was cross between the helpless single mom and strict parent type who was concerned about her son going into rigorous high school program to which he'd been accepted. She knew he was bright and he'd been in accelerated classes in middle school, but his recent scholastic performance made her think he should not go into the program. His poor performance was not about intelligence but about maturity. She knew he would not be happy, as his close friends would be in the rigorous program, but she wasn't sure he would succeed. I helped her line up all the pros and cons, adding some things from a teacher's point of view. In the end, I repeatedly told her, "You're the parent. You're in charge. You do what you think is best for your son." That's a good mantra for all parents, right?

I've forged close relationships with the parents of some of my most wayward students. We cling to each other as a support system as we try to guide students down the best paths. Sometimes all of our hard work seems lost as the students become lost. If you've ever taught teenagers, you know there is that certain age they reach where their parents and teachers hold no influence. So we just stand by, hoping and praying that these kids remember what they've been taught--where they've come from. The majority of them turn out okay--more than okay--and then the parents and I joke, "Can you believe the pain and suffering he put us through? But you see? He remembered what you taught him. He just needed some time to figure it out himself."

Teaching is a tough gig, and mostly we don't know what we're doing until we get some experience. Unfortunately, parenting is quite similar. Just as in education, there are parenting "best practices," but we are dealing with different personalities--not to mention social and family issues or the dreaded teenage hormones--so the one size fits all approach does not work. Teachers who are also parents can probably see both sides pretty easily. For those of us who aren't parents, it's important to remember that even though it sometimes doesn't seem like it, parents are doing their best. They sometimes make mistakes, and often they feel powerless and alone as their try to raise their children. Sometimes they do all the right things, but their children are still difficult brats. Sound familiar? I don't know about you, but I can see parallels to my own classroom...

Well, I'm no expert in parent-teacher relations, but in my experience, parents want the best for their children and they want to be heard. Oh, and some respect for bringing their children into the world. It really doesn't take much to make alliances--and sometimes life-long friends--with your students' parents. Pretty much a good ear and some understanding will do it.

Teacher + Parents = A Good Alliance

No comments: