The parent pedagogue

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Illustration: Jim Leggitt (http://jimleggitt.typepad.com)

As a parent, time at the school gate is very precious because it’s when we touch base with our children’s lives at school and enjoy the little exchanges with fellow parents: the anecdotes that we treasure and our children forget on their way to teenagehood, the inevitable comparison between one’s own child and someone else’s, the odd philosophical reflection on education and so forth.

Now and then we are able to catch a teacher’s eye for a friendly hello or snippet of conversation, but generally – beyond the designated “parents evening” or official communication via the school – the worlds of teachers and parents are pretty separate. In fact the dynamics tend to be brokered by the child itself: in France, where I live, this happens via the “cahier de correspondence”, where notes of an administrative nature get passed back and forth.

Parents are usually a bit of a strain on the school system. They may be the fee-paying, and know it, kind – in which case keeping them happy represents a disproportionate priority for the school. This tends to drain pedagogic decisions of their intuition and creativity, as the business of education provides a rather bleak set of boundaries.

They can also be the highly-involved, over-bearing, ‘I’ve dabbled in a little teaching myself’ kind. These parents fill the “cahier” with copious notes containing helpful suggestions and follow-up links. In this case, we teachers are ever so grateful for their input, because such enthusiasm is of course an asset for any classroom. We thank them, but we do in fact have a job to do so it would be nice if they could just let us get on with doing it.

Parents can also be the well-meaning yet busy kind: the sort who send very important text messages in the middle of parents evening, or worse still, during the school concert. These parents are also usually highly organised and have charming au pairs to shoo their impeccably dressed children along in the mornings while the rest of us trundle our way towards the next shot of caffeine, hoping for the best in terms of what made it into the lunchbox.

Finally there’s the activist kind who circulate petitions in bold print for other parents to sign, demanding better infrastructure and activities. These parents don’t struggle to communicate their needs and ideas, but do struggle to maintain a loyal following with their sideline suggestions of sacred rules for better schools. At the sight of these parents, some of us duck into our mobile phones and devote intense concentration to a text message we only read half a minute ago.

In my eight years of parenting and fifteen years of teaching, I’ve yet to see a school that has a truly fruitful mix of parent-teacher interaction. I wonder why?

School is where children exit the home and enter the social world. They learn autonomy, taste freedom, and navigate a whole new set of rules as they start shaping their spirits on their own terms. This shaping is defined by both parents and teachers, and by parents I of course refer to grand-parents, nannies and all the other people who anchor the family environment. So when the child is left as the main agent negotiating parental and institutional pedagogical values, i.e. education from the home culture and education within the school culture, I feel that the school environment denies itself the riches that this particular inter-cultural dialogue could bring.

You see, the thing about parents is that they usually care an awful lot about their children, want what’s best for them and are willing to work pretty hard to secure it. I see these three criteria as good qualifications for gaining access to this dialogue.

Is raising a child really just a job? Are parents really just doing their jobs when they parent? Of course not. Is educating a child really just a job? Are teachers executing national curricula directives and just getting on with their jobs when they foster a learning environment? Thankfully not. Teachers care an awful lot as well.

Yet as a parent I am sometimes spoken to as if I were an undisciplined child, void of the resources which would enable me to take part in a dialogue on education. As a teacher, I have come across countless colleagues who brace themselves for conversation with parents, put up their defences, rehearse their comebacks and arm themselves with rule books – all in the name of professionalism when dealing with these others. Because parents are ‘others’ sometimes – significant ones, but ‘others’ nonetheless. We don’t like them meddling, coaching and insisting how on schooling is provided or received. Where parents do have dialogue, is when it comes to broken rules – we involve them in disciplining! Calling a child’s parents in over a discipline issue is usually the last straw before more serious action is taken. But we rarely balance this out by calling them in for more positive appraisal, which could have an equally strong impact, and an infinitely more positive outcome.

Of course teachers are busy people, and calling parents in for a meeting to tell them that their children are doing a great job might sound like a luxury – ok for an overstaffed private school, perhaps. But in the school system, as in life, we often allow more room for criticism and less for praise. We see discipline as something that is activated, demanded and enforced, when it can also be fostered, normalised and understood.

Parents should be allowed through the gates and included in the dialogue about education. Bullet-pointed lists of dos and don’ts at parents’ evening should be replaced by explanations of the syllabus that are grounded in pedagogical beliefs – and other perspectives that can cast light on these beliefs should be welcomed. I believe that if parents and teachers could start talking about education, we might start to believe that it isn’t just in the hands of policy makers and opinion formers. I don’t believe that parents who are interested in their children’s lives spoil them.

Neglect is what spoils us, not nurture.

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