We know that from the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents—it is the teacher standing at the front of the classroom.
~ Arne Duncan, Secretary of United States Department of Education
When the proverbial shoemaker’s children go barefoot, it is because he is too busy making shoes for other people’s children. Sometimes I think the same might be true for the children of educators. Ask anyone who has spent a decade or two in the classroom, and you are sure to find someone who has, more than they might care to admit, put the needs of other people’s children before their own. Consider it an occupational hazard.
Over the course of the past decade, in a state that Education Week has ranked 44th overall in education, I regret that my child has been somewhat of a tourist in public education. While I have been working to put in place systems and structures that create good schools for other people’s children, mine has often had to fend for herself. True, I have dutifully filled her new backpack every August with all the recommended supplies on the list, even extra boxes of Kleenex for the community chest; I have hovered over her until she finished every page of the summer reading, paid her fees, and shown up on time for parent teacher conferences twice a year. I have scribbled my signature at the bottom of permission slips for a wide variety of extra-curricular activities including movie days that would have been better spent at home with me, on our pajama days. I have signed her day planner to indicate that yes, I saw with my own eyes her completed homework, and even refrained from passing judgement on the caliber of the assignment. Determined not to earn “the parent from hell” moniker but failing, I have tried to maintain a hands-off approach, biting my tongue, and looking the other way when uninspired worksheets masquerading as “reinforcement or practice” came home or when my daughter told tales such as that of the teacher who embarrassed her in class with a sarcastic remark that was subsequently reframed by an administrator as no big deal because everybody knew he was a close-to-retirement-age-curmudgeon with a dry wit, and anyway why was she being so sensitive? My daughter, legally compelled to be there, had no choice but to grin and bear it. On those evenings when she had been sent home unprepared to do her math homework, rather than help her out or confuse her further by teaching her “my way,” I encouraged her to write a note or send an e-mail to her teacher explaining nicely that she didn’t understand it and asking politely if she could get some extra help the next day. You could say I was teaching her to advocate for herself, but the truth is that I didn’t want to throw my weight around as a fellow-educator, with a sharp rebuke about not assigning homework unless you were sure the child knew how to do it. On that, if she had already shown she knew how to do it, then what was the point in assigning more of it at home? Ah, yes. Practice.
So it has been an uneasy tug of war between our house and the schoolhouse, and I wonder how we got here. Most likely, it began about a decade ago, when I accepted a position as principal of a small elementary school. Our daughter had been attending a cooperative pre-school, where she loved to paint, read, and sing, and where she played well with others. As her mother, her first teacher, I knew she was ready for Kindergarten. While it never occurred to me to leave her behind, the law was not on my side, Arizona’s Education Code stipulating that a child is considered “five years old” and eligible for kindergarten only if her date of birth falls before September 1 of the current school year. Where would I find a principal who would enroll her, knowing that her attendance would not generate any state funding? Looking in the mirror, I decided she would just come to my school. Selfish? Yes. Playing the system? Perhaps. But just as I had gone above and beyond for other people’s children, I went to bat for my own. Every day for a year, when I went to work, she came along. On our first day, when I dropped her off in the Kindergarten classroom, just feet away from my office, it occurred to me that each of us was learning on the job how to do school. In a twinkling, it seemed, the school year was over, and when her kindergarten teacher kissed her goodbye, I wondered if we might ever go to school together again. Even though I was eager to return to the field of secondary education, I knew I would miss the ring-side seat at my daughter’s elementary education. I resumed the pursuit of my goals in educational leadership and my daughter began her trek through various public schools, none of them quite hitting the mark. All the while, I held steadfast to the notion that every public school should be – at the very least – an excellent choice for every child. Surely there was one for my daughter. Sadly, and inconveniently, it was not the school just down the street, where in the course of the sixth grade, her class read only one novel. By seventh grade, I thought we had struck gold when I enrolled her in a school considered one of the best in the state. Rigorous academics. Commendable test scores. Fabulous arts curriculum. Teachers with impressive qualifications. By all accounts and certainly on paper, it was the excellent school we had been seeking. Off she went for almost four years, while I went about my business, somewhat detached and in a kind of denial, believing that no news was good news, and spending more of my energy on improving schools for other people’s children.
But the cracks began to show this past year when cancer crashed into our lives. Suddenly my daughter’s book reports, research projects, and math homework seemed unimportant. Her grades didn’t matter. Nor did Christmas. I just wanted to hear that I wasn’t going to die right away, and that her school would be a cancer-free zone, a soft place for her to fall every day. Even though she helped her dad take care of me for weeks following a difficult mastectomy, she wanted no sympathy. She didn’t want her teachers to feel sorry for her or to treat her any differently. My resilient girl expected only a measure of business as usual. To ensure that, I informed the principal who promised to inform all the teachers about my cancer. Surely if they knew, they would lift her up on days that appeared difficult and perhaps even understand when she was not “fully present.” I thought I had it all covered. But the teachers either weren’t informed or they didn’t think cancer was that big of a deal – I soon learned it was no excuse for her not practicing for a violin test. The teacher – a father of a daughter – was inexcusably cruel to my girl, berating her in front of classmates until she cried, caring not that she had spent the previous day in a hospital waiting room, while her mother underwent an 8-hour surgery to remove a cancerous breast.
Everything went downhill from there. She didn’t want to be the kid with the sick mom. She didn’t want concessions or sympathy from her teachers; nor did she want her friends to feel awkward around her during the most awkward phase of her life thus far. She just wanted to be fourteen and to be good at it. Good at rebelling a bit and rolling her eyes at my taste in clothes or music because, well, I’m her mother. Good at pushing boundaries and buttons and experimenting with signatures and hairstyles. That’s how fourteen should be. But this rite of passage was marred by two things – my spectacularly shitty cancer diagnosis and her growing perception that her teachers were disinterested in her as a person with a life beyond the walls of the classroom. She no longer felt that they cared about her. Damage done.
Three more years of high school, and we’re still waiting for that teacher to show up. You know the one – the one who knew you were really good at art and, without telling you, entered your winning painting in a contest. Or maybe it was the teacher who cut you some slack because your mother was in the hospital or your dad lost his job. Maybe it was the wise English teacher whose mantra was that “you will never earn enough money to do a job you do not love.” Now, I’m not asking for a Hollywood version of the great teacher, someone who’ll have you standing on top of a chair reciting Walt Whitman. I’m just asking for the teacher who will pluck a moment out of the 180 days she spends with my child, in loco parentis, to make a quick phone call or send a text, just to let me know when my daughter’s struggling. Or when she’s not. Yes, I know all about work load and high-stakes testing and the mounting pressures teachers face. I’ve been there. Many times. Therefore, I just cannot and will not accept that one phone call in the course of a semester from one of nine teachers is an inordinate request. Rather, it falls in the “good manners” category.
Lest I be misunderstood, I have always been ready to support my daughter’s teachers, ready to listen to them first. No, I am not a well-to-do patron of the arts who makes large financial donations to the school, nor am I the parent who can splurge on expensive gift certificates for teachers at Christmas. But I am a valuable source of information when it comes to my child, so use me. Like most children, my daughter responds with a cryptic “nothing” when I ask her what she did at school today, so talk to me every once in a while about what’s going on in your classroom. When you screw up and lose her paper or enter the wrong grade, or make a joke that’s not funny, just admit it, apologize, and we’ll move on. We all make mistakes. And know this. I am good on my word when I say I will support your homework and classroom management policies, I will check that my daughter has done her homework (even when it is a complete waste of time), I will carry out consequences at home when her assignments are untidy, incomplete, or lost at the bottom of the backpack. I am only a phone call away. I am waiting to help you.
But I have grown accustomed to silence from school. I wonder if there is an assumption that I don’t need the same attention as other parents because I’m one of them, a card-carrying member of the educator’s circle. Or perhaps they just don’t care in the same way I have sometimes heard parents unfairly described by teachers. As a consumer of public education and as a parent, I am disappointed. As a professional educator, I know the stuff of great schools; I know the most significant factor in achievement is the quality of the interpersonal relationship between that person at the front of the room and her student. But a little like the shoemaker, I fear I have been too busy making sure other children and their parents have the kind of school where kids come first.
Parents send us the best children they have, and all children enter the schoolhouse sharing the same needs: to feel safe, to learn, to matter. Good teachers understand that, and they are passionately committed to the most important subject – their students. Is curriculum important? Of course. Will students like my daughter still have to pass all those high-stakes tests and exams? Probably. In the end, however, it will not be the latest app for that, or Attainment Targets or Common Core standards that students will remember . . . it will be their teacher.
As I have written before, it is one of the great privileges of my life to work in a profession defined by renewal, revision, and reward. It turns out my daughter has been paying attention when I come home each day with stories of teachers who care about kids. Coming full circle in that way that both confounds and comforts, she decided the other day that it was time to come to work with me again. And so, as this year comes to an end, we are resuming our adventure where we left off a decade ago, driving to school together once again.