Teachers and parents need to be partners in education. Here are guidelines to help make that a reality in your classroom.
By Dr. Patricia M. McCormack, IHM
Students and teachers share time and space, mind and soul for at least five hours a day. Consequently, the Catholic school becomes a privileged place for the total formation of children.
Minds are challenged, souls are nourished, and Christian principles set the standard for every effort in the classroom, at the computer lab, on the playground, or during a school assembly. The vocation of Catholic-school teacher challenges the adult to view every moment as an opportunity for formation.
Soulful formation is the primary purpose of the Catholic school. Academic excellence, self-discipline, student responsibility, and productivity are hallmarks of Catholic schools.
But soul formation is the reason that the Catholic school exists. Ongoing formation in Gospel values that is integrated into every aspect of the school day distinguishes a Catholic school from other quality schools across the nation, public or private.
Teacher as Formation Agent
Without question, parents are the primary educators of their children. It is the right and privilege of parents to choose the school environment that will best support their vocation to provide education for their child.
Because privilege and responsibility are inseparable, it then becomes a parent’s duty to support the policies and decisions of the school, and for them to expect the same of children. A parent who chooses to enroll a child in a Catholic school entrusts the continued formation of the child to the staff of the school.
Teachers stand in loco parentis (in the place of parents). They serve this role for long periods of quality, interactive time daily.
Even during vacation times, many parents would be hard-pressed to spend several hours a day in uninterrupted quality interaction with their child, either alone or with a group of the child’s peers.
Teachers, however, do this daily.
Very frequently, elementary school teachers also observe or interact with their students during playground periods, cafeteria time, assemblies, and extracurricular activity. Sometimes teachers can observe their students when another professional is teaching the group.
Interaction with a student during any of these times and observation of the student’s interaction with others during group times allow the teacher a privileged view into the soul of each student.
Consequently, a teacher can be an invaluable resource for parents. Two factors make objectivity more possible for the teacher:
- The teacher is not related by blood or family ties to the student.
- The student is one of many others of the same age.
These factors, along with the probability that the teacher has spent years working with children of the same grade level, assist the teacher in identifying baseline norms and detecting red-flag behaviors.
This is not to suggest that the teacher is an all-knowing god; but the perceptions of the teacher can suggest valuable guidelines, especially for parents who are living through this particular grade/age/stage for the first time.
Parents and Teachers as Partners
Teachers are most effective when they receive the support of parents. Lack of support has a demoralizing effect and, consequently, frustrates the ability of the teacher to bring about good for the students.
It reminds me of the Gospel scene in Mark 6: Jesus had cast out demons; healed many at Simon’s house; restored life to a child; and cured a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, and a woman who had hemorrhaged for 12 years.
Then he went to his hometown, Nazareth. The townsfolk took offense at him, saying that he was only a carpenter! Mark reported that Jesus could perform no miracles there because of the people’s lack of faith.
I have seen this unfortunate scenario in action many times personally or through shared stories. Students benefit most when home and school work in partnership.
Lack of partnership defeats the purpose for enrolling a child in the school, and it grows a counterproductive attitude within the child.
If a parent criticizes the teacher or school in front of the child or displays anger toward the teacher or principal, the child assumes permission to disrespect or disregard the authority of the teacher.
That is not good for the moral development nor for the psycho-social development of the child. In extreme cases, it can even stop a child’s development.
When Parents Disagree
When a parent disagrees with a teacher’s action or school policy, it benefits the child for the parent to suggest a coping skill appropriate to the situation: “It sounds like we should ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your teacher and to strengthen your patience. Write up that intention and add it to our family prayer dish.”
If the issue involves a parental value or principle, it is best followed up with a private teacher appointment, unknown to the child. Adults thus interact like adults and the child remains a child, unaware of parent-teacher conflict and, therefore,“free” to be a child.
If the situation requires both sides of the story, then the child could be present in a second teacher appointment. Of course, all parent-teacher encounters require respectful listening and speaking.
Parents and teachers must always model for children the kind of behavior and interaction that we want children to acquire. Let me share a personal story to illustrate this wisdom:
On the first day of school in second grade, my teacher asked aloud, “Patricia, is it true that you had honors last year?” With quite a bit of pleasure I responded, “Yes, Miss X.” She then said, “Well, you won’t get them this year!”
What I did not compute until I was much older was that it was the teacher’s first year of teaching and she had 100 students in the room! She was trying to establish that the students would have to work very hard that year.
At home, in tears, I told my mother what the teacher said. She responded with a single sentence that did not focus on the teacher. It focused on me. My mother said, “Pat, if you give the teacher honors, the teacher has to give you honors.” She then hugged me and changed the topic.
My mother gave me a great gift that day. In one sentence I learned that I had autonomy.
I was responsible for my product and my result. I believed my mother, so I went out into the world believing that I controlled my destiny.
As I grew into adulthood, I learned that I do not always have control over the results, but at the time I needed to believe that I did and I therefore learned to put my energy into my efforts. Funny! Usually results match effort!
Many years passed before I learned that there was a second part to the story. My mother visited the teacher privately to discuss the comment she had made. They had a meeting of minds; my mother concluded the meeting by telling the teacher that I would not know about the meeting, nor would any other parent.
What a gift my mother gave to both the teacher and to me. The teacher was able to grow, while saving face in front of parents and other children, and I was free to be a second grader who never knew that my teacher was in trouble with my mother.
My mother knew the damage of gossip. Gossip means telling information to others that they have no right to know.
Negative gossip about teachers spreads like cancer and it has the same effect! Once faith in a teacher is publicly broken, then he or she, like Jesus at Nazareth, can do no miracles for the current class, even though miracles were done for previous students. Scripture offers the sage advice: Say only the good things that people need to hear, things that will really help them (reference Ephesians 4:29-30).
Seasoned parents defuse teacher-student crises by asking clarifying questions. For instance, “Getting a detention for merely walking to the wastebasket does sound bizarre. Tell me what preceded your action. What was going on in the classroom? Did the teacher give any directions about walking around the room?”
Chances are that such questions will elicit important information. Perhaps the teacher had already corrected this child twice for getting up from the desk without permission, or the students were given explicit instructions to maintain a testing environment until the teacher pronounced that the exam was finished.
Getting the facts and making an attempt to determine a mutual definition of terms are essential elements in avoiding a catastrophe. A wise parent checks both sides of the story before concluding that the teacher is wrong. I have a concrete example of the kind of disaster that occurs when parents make conclusions before gathering the facts.
On a Friday afternoon a seventh-grade boy earned a detention. As instructed, he filled in the reason on the detention slip and then obtained the teacher’s signature. The student indicated that detention was issued for “passing a book in a crowded classroom.”
When he arrived home he argued that the detention was not fair. His parents quickly took his side and went storming back to school, demanding to see the teacher. The teacher had students in the classroom, and so she took the situation into the hallway.
Loud, angry adult voices drew me out of my classroom two rooms away to see what was the problem. I remained as a silent witness. The parents verbalized in accusatory tones that the school and the teacher were a disgrace to the Catholic religion.
They argued that helping another student by sharing a book was a gospel value. Their son ought not to be punished because he passed a social studies book to another student. They accused the teacher of picking on their son, and they demanded an apology. The son was present during this encounter.
The teacher softly replied that she believed that the parent’s opinion was based on a misinterpretation in language. She invited all four of us into her classroom. She instructed the boy to place her in the position of the boy who received the book and to then put himself in his own position.
This gave a visual of a distance between aisle one, seat five and aisle four, seat two. She then asked to boy to describe the classroom at the time. The event occurred during dismissal preparations when 35 students were in various stages of packing books and not expecting an object to fly through the air! Finally she instructed the student to re-enact the position of his body at the time that he passed the book.
What the parents and I saw was that the offending student took the pose of a football player with one leg in the air as he “passed the football” (a heavy book with sturdy corners). Clearly, this was an accident waiting to happen.
The teacher then spoke very calmly. She said, “I have three things to say: First, I praise God that no student was injured. Second, your son acted irresponsibly and in violation of our written safety precautions that forbid throwing objects, running, jumping over furniture, or any movement that can cause an accident. And third, the detention stands. It will be served on Monday.”
The parents instructed their son to apologize to the teacher for his behavior and for wasting her after-school time. Then they, too, apologized for believing the worst of her before corroborating the story.
Asking clarifying questions that included the definition of “passing”—or, at least, asking the child what he thought the teacher would say if his parents protested the detention—could have eliminated this entire nasty Friday afternoon. Perspective, too, could have nipped the situation in the bud.
Let’s face it. This was not a premeditated crime! It was an impulsive act on the part of a 13-year-old boy. Instead of a detention, the teacher might have engaged the student in conversation or assigned a composition in which he was to explain the possible ramifications of his impulsivity. And the parents might have elevated the attitude of “boys will be boys” to “boys become men when they take responsibility for their actions.”
This true story illustrates what a wise, school-worn teacher once said to me: “Children do not lie. You just don’t ask the right questions.” The student wrote the truth on the detention slip when he wrote “passing a book in a crowded classroom.” It was his parents who interpreted the term “passing” to mean handing a book to another student close by. Of course the child allowed the parents to persist in their inaccuracy. But let’s save that point for another day!
A parent-teacher partnership implies that parents and teachers extend the benefit of the doubt to the other.
Whether in conference or in writing, both use respectful tones. Both demonstrate courtesy and self-control.
Both approach the other with a spirit of partnership. Both precede encounters with prayer and thoughtful planning.
And both exercise charity in order to be ready to respond rather than react to any matter of controversy and to practice the meaning of the phrase “to speak the truth in love.”
Partners never speak negatively about the other to the children or to other parents or teachers. Both hold sacred the reputation of the other and, therefore, both practice the discipline of confidentiality.
Dr. Pat McCormack is an international consultant and public speaker on issues of whole-person formation. Contact her at the IHM Office of Formative Support for Parents and Teachers or DrPatMcCormack@aol.com.