These days, you need to be your child’s advocate when it comes to public education. The more you communicate with your child’s teachers and others at your child’s school, the more you can ensure your child gets the best education possible. You can help your child’s school help your child. Here are some tips to get started:
Be prepared when you call, e-mail, or visit your child’s teachers or administrators. Think of it as a partnership meeting where you and your child’s teachers and administrators strategize together to optimize your child’s educational opportunities. Before your meeting, jot down any concerns or questions you have, including specific incidents or conversations you have had with your child about his school or with teachers or other school personnel.
Also, bring a pen and paper to write down the answers to your questions and other helpful tips and advice your child’s teachers and administrators may give you. Ask school staff about your concerns, being respectful and non-emotional wherever possible. Speak up if you’re confused, and don’t be afraid to ask for explanations if you don’t understand something.
Ask your child’s teachers and administrators about all of your child’s educational options, including long-term paths that may be impacted by making a specific choice about classes or programming. If your child’s teachers or administrators recommend a certain test, make sure you understand why the test is necessary and when you will learn the results. If a classroom placement is recommended, make sure you understand why that placement is necessary.
You should be asked for your consent prior to any major change in your child’s educational path. Finally, keep in mind that there are many organizations, including this one, that can help you make good decisions regarding your child’s educational options.
Did that sound like something from a flyer? Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, it was. I plagiarized it from this notice I received from United Health Care back in 2008. [Is it really plagiarism if you admit you tweaked it a bit?]
I have saved this brochure for five years because it struck me that the words “child’s education” or “child’s school” could be substituted for the references to health care and doctors’ offices. I have often felt like public education could use a movement similar to the patient advocacy movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s when we were all encouraged to become advocates for our own health care, to ask questions of our doctors…basically not to trust that everything our doctors said was entirely accurate because no one doctor can possibly know everything about our individual health condition.
The same can be said about teachers and our children, right? And while teachers are professionals and know about teaching, parents and family members know about their children. The discussion between teachers and family members is one that requires each party trusting each other, just as the doctor-patient relationship requires. And when it comes to trust, it is fair to say that there appears to be a trust issue between public educators and the parents and families whose children they educate in our public schools. Dr. Steven Constantino, an expert in family engagement, in a discussion published on EdWeek in March 2012, said this:
The culture of public education has contained as a core element, an attitude of “we know best” and “trust us, we are the professionals.” The combination of little exposure to family engagement research and practice in teacher preparation programs coupled with teachers’ initial experiences with families’ which more often than not are less than positive, and what results is a perfect storm of mistrust between families and teachers. In many studies, families report better more trusting relationships with bus drivers than they do with teachers.
Again, similarities can be drawn to the health care advocacy movement 20 years ago. And when we speak with our doctors, we know that our health is on the line and that we need our doctors’ help to make us healthy. Well…we need our children’s teachers and administrators’ help to educate our child, don’t we?
An Active Role Means We Parents and Families Have a Duty to be Respectful
Relationships are built through communication. How that communication is conducted is key to that relationship (ask any marriage counselor). Relationships among parents, families, teachers, and schools are much like marriages. At the beginning of a school year, a child is matched with a teacher, and unless something really awful happens, that teacher and that student…and the student’s family…are wedded through the end of the school year.
This story from 2011 on CNN.com stated what I hear many teachers say: “I can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us”. On the flip side, I hear many parents and families tell stories of teachers and administrators who refuse to communicate with them, which infuriates families and leads to further deterioration of relationships between families and schools. We parents and families, while taking an active role in our children’s education, must be respectful in our communications with our children’s teachers and administrators. I don’t have the magic words for how to calm yourself when you’ve gotten bad news from your child or another parent about something that happened in school that day. But I do know that screaming and yelling doesn’t do anything except make us temporarily feel like we’ve had our say. The damage to the relationship is often felt for years after those types of conversations. Believe me, I know.
Looking Toward Next School Year
With five more weeks left in this school year, now’s a good time to take stock of how this year went, what you left undone, what you did too much of, and what you wish you’d done better…all in relation to your child’s education, mind you. The summer is such a whirlwind for those with school-aged children, that when registration rolls around in August, it’s easy to forget the lessons we learned and the promises we’ve made to do better next school year. So write it down. Make a pledge to improve relationships with your child’s teachers and administrators next year. And if the learning environment isn’t what you’d like it to be for your child, work with others in your school community to improve it. The summer is a great time to have those conversations with others in your school community.
Be Your Child’s Best Advocate
It’s often said that we don’t know what we don’t know. Take some time to poke around the internet to learn what great schools look like and what best practices in education are in schools. Look to the schools that are successful and find out why. Don’t believe the lie that schools with high numbers of students in poverty should be excused from succeeding at high levels. The more you learn about how great schools succeed, the better partner you can become in your child’s education.
See, when it comes down to it, the folks in Montgomery….the legislature and the state department of education…can make all the rules and regulations they want, but this thing we call “education”…the end product…happens in our schools, between teachers and children and their families. We have to get our role right. We must learn to be our child’s best advocate. As this school year wraps up, take time to plan to make next year a great school year for your child. And stay tuned for the launch of the Family and School Partnership Academy here on the Alabama School Connection blog to help you learn essential skills and information that you can use to be your child’s best advocate to help your child obtain a great public education. Submit your ideas through e-mail or through this survey to let me know about what it is you’d like to learn more.