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Originally published Thursday, November 28, 2013 at 3:43 PM

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Are you driving your kid’s teachers and principals crazy?

involvement in public education is the long-neglected piece of education reform, writes columnist Lynne K. Varner.


Times editorial columnist

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Helping parents become more knowledgeable and active participants in public education is so vital that the Seattle Public Schools includes it in their “Excellence for All” strategic plan. A School Family Partnerships Advisory Committee offers parents access to Superintendent José Banda.

I’m reminded of the importance of getting the delicate dance right between teachers and parents after reading a CNN.com essay by Ron Clark about over-involved parents.

In it, Clark recounts a conversation with a school principal, once crowned administrator of the year, who announced she was fleeing the profession.

“You can’t leave us,” Clark pleaded. The principal’s response was blunt.

“Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us.”

Clark, author of the 2011 book “The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck — 101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers,” described the principal’s departure and the average 4.5-year tenure for principals to warn that we’re in danger of losing good educators.

Are parents really that bad? Yes, many of us are guilty of the wretched excesses of overparenting. Not all the time. But there’s something about education that makes us sometimes sip from the crazy cup. I’ll cop to it if you will.

I’ve written about public education for nearly two decades and I’ve heard all of the complaints about us parents. I’ve heard about parents who lawyer up for school conferences.

One memorable anecdote from the CNN piece struck a familiar chord. The teacher tells a parent, “Johnny did such-and-such wrong” and the parent turns to the kid and asks, “Is that true?” — as though the teacher were a habitual liar.

I still recall Kate Martin, a former Seattle School Board candidate and recent candidate for Seattle mayor, behaving so threateningly at her son’s school that she was escorted out by police. And then there are the parents who have made a second career, or their only career, out of the Sturm und Drang of public schooling, whether it involved their children or not.

I picked a school district and a school with the qualities that would allow me to trust my son’s teachers and administrators are telling me what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear. But my husband and I also know our son better than anyone else and have an obligation to advocate on his behalf. We shield him when he needs protecting and step back at other times, fingers crossed that we’ve taught him the coping skills and resiliency to endure.

Parent engagement with teachers and principals is not the soft side of education reform; it is the heart of the movement. The ways parents engage with teachers have never been more important. Pressure from federal education laws and competitive grants, such as Race to the Top, require public schools to involve parents and the community in improvement plans. Parents and community leaders are demanding a place at the table where education policy decisions are made.

To make a difference when you get that seat at the table, parents should consider training. Sure you know your child. But do you know your child’s place in the larger scheme of public education’s changing arena?

I’m intrigued by Stand University for Parents, a 10-week curriculum for elementary-school families steeped in parent advocacy. Its offered by the nonprofit national advocacy group Stand for Children.

A City of Seattle pilot program trains parents of very young children in the basic building blocks of teaching a child to read. The Read and Rise program is meant to improve basic child literacy, but it also boosts parents’ understanding of teaching, so they can better communicate with teachers about the craft.

When my son was in elementary school, I volunteered regularly as an art docent, classroom parent and field-trip chaperone. Requirements change dramatically in middle and high school where parents are not needed as much in the classroom and students are encouraged to meet with teachers and advocate on their own behalf.

I’m adjusting to a new landscape.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.com On Twitter @lkvarner



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