How can we have a Different Conversation March 12, 2014
The Lure of Private Schools
I read this post when I woke up this morning. I am a huge fan, supporter, and believer in public schools and specifically public schools in San Francisco. I am just totally dismayed at people in my cohort putting their kids in private school.
I get the mindset of a people who have money and normally use money to buy solutions to problems. There are some problems for which money is a very reasonable solution approach. Want a quiet car that doesn't have technical problems and when it does, they get solved with little time/effort on your part, you can buy that. Want flawless, high quality construction on your house, you can buy that.
Quality education (whatever that means... and it can mean so many things) is not something that one can simply buy.
Quality of education is something that is hard to define. Yes, it's pretty easy to identify "bad" education. But it's really hard to differentiate between "not bad" and "good".
A big challenge as I see it is that parents with a lot of money will often get frustrated with the kind of conversations that take place with teachers and school administrators. The rich folks think, "ah hah, I'll buy an education for my kids where I can have more control." And then it's the herd mentality... other rich people and aspiring rich people do what the leaders do... put their kids in private schools.
And there's a confounding issue. Public school teachers and administrators are so underpaid and generally kicked that they have a knee-jerk reaction to anything less than positive from parents. The reaction seems to be to circle the wagons and deny everything and outlast the parent with the less than positive words.
A Different Set of Words
I am a firm believer in an integrated society that works together and respects each other. Having everyone live in a community rather than the rich segregating themselves into private schools and gated communities. The current "us & them" phrasing of problems exacerbate the challenges of finding a good outcome.
So, here's my crib-sheet of things parents and teachers and administrators can do:
Parents have to have a solid baseline of respect for teachers. Each teacher is different. Each teacher is human. Each teacher deserves the parent appreciating the teacher for the unique person the teacher is. Some teachers do well communicating with parents. Some don't. Some teachers teach the art of being chill and relaxed and some teachers are pedantic and at both ends of the spectrum, the students learn important lessons. No two teachers are the same and each teacher should be viewed by parents as a master chef creating a special meal with the unique collection of kids they have each year.
Parents have to understand the limits teachers face. Teachers are human and have deaths in their family, relationship issues, etc. Teachers are highly educated yet make marginally more than folks flipping burgers. Most teachers are in it for the love of what they do. They are not perfect people. But the side lesson of having a teacher who has a bad day helps kids understand that everybody has bad days and working together to make the day better is what we want as a group and as a society. Parents respecting the teachers as humans with human frailties is important in any conversation.
The School should listen to parents rather than assume parents are saying something other than their words. If a parent has a suggestion, that suggestion may be something that benefits the whole school rather than just benefiting the parent's kid. Go figure... sometimes parents can be altruistic.
If a parent has criticism about a teacher, it's not an attack and it's not that the parent just wants a better grade for their kid. Schools and teachers are in the position of grading (judging) kids so that the kids can improve. And it flows both ways... just as teachers see things in students that help parents be better parents, parents see things in teachers that can help administrators make better decisions about the teachers. This point is especially important because the rich parents that get "shut down" for giving critical feedback on a teacher have the choice of private schools... and that has nasty effects to society as a whole. Parents that have traditionally been powerless just feel more powerless when their voice isn't heard... it's the same old same old powerless thing. Net-net, teachers and administrators have to listen and take seriously parent feedback.
Teachers should prepare grades with the mindset of "how can I help the parents see their children in a different light and a light that will help the parents be better parents and the children grow to be better people?" This requires a lot of work. It's more than just a numeric grade on a test. It's more than just a "David needs to spend more time studying his spelling words." It's an ongoing discussion with the student and the parents about how the student can grow and thrive. As a side note, at my kids' public elementary school, I've seen so many examples of the above... of teachers connecting with their students and with the parents to help everybody do better.
The Virtuous Cycle
I think much of what has happened in public education, and education as a whole, has been a downward spiral. Parents getting frustrated with teachers and administrators that don't listen well either leaving the public school system or voting to defund schools and union-bust teachers. Teachers and administrators who hear every negative comment as an attack and circle their wagons to stave off more of the negative. And so it goes.
But instead, we can change the cycle. We parents can give more respect to the teachers. We can say "Thank you for your hard work" to them enough that they start hearing that we care and understand. The teachers can work a little more on thinking about how to frame a lesson or a grade in terms of a growth experience rather than a pure judgment. The administrators can work a lot more to listen to what parents are saying rather than just sticking to the rule book or being purely reactive about less than positive feedback. Just as it would really suck for schools if every student who ever got a D or an F checked out and ignored school from that day forward, it really sucks when negative parental feedback about a teacher is treated as an attack or something to be deflected.
If you think I'm being stupid and naive, I disagree. I saw one person change the course of the dialog at a San Francisco school. I saw one person get people talking in a positive way and transform the PTA and the overall experience at Lafayette Elementary School. Of the 10 teachers we've had at Lafayette, 8 have been spectacular (in their own way) and one was good but not great. This is an amazing ratio and speaks to a good communication cycle.
I think the cycle can be repeated on a much broader scale and turn the tide on the default for rich families in San Francisco to either leave the city or put their kids in private school.