Parent involvement touches all aspects of education, affecting children, teachers and schools. Groups of people get together to agree disagreeably, and invent ways to encourage more of it. As a teacher, I know only what I see, and from what I see, the whole debate seems a little pointless.
Parents touch their children’s school lives in a multitude of ways. Some parents come to school and put on a loud show so that everyone knows how much they care, but beyond our eyes they never follow through on any of their promises. Others arrive defeated, exhausted, unsure of how to proceed, and surprised by the demands of parenthood.
The ones you expect to show up always do, and the ones you most need to see almost never come. I have taught some children for three years without meeting a parent.
Nevertheless, the students will do the public relations work for their parents that no one else will do. When I ask them to write an essay about someone they admire, they write about their parents. They write about how grateful they are when their mother is there every night to ask them about school, and they still write about their parents when their mother has a Child Services case pending against her for putting cigarettes out on her children’s skin.
They write about how great their parents are, because deep down, they are children, and whatever their parent’s involvement is, they need to believe. They will take whatever is given to them, and no matter how bad a hand they have been dealt, they will be grateful.
Children come to me when they are in the eighth grade. This is not their first time at the rodeo. Their parents have either been coming to conferences for eight years, or they have not been there in ages. The school either has a working home phone number on file, or it still has one on the record that was disconnected six years ago.
When I call parents to say that their child is doing great in school, they tend to know already. And when I call with a bad report, they can rarely feign surprise.
But in the eighth grade, not everything is fated. I see children transform before my eyes every year. I see a child who could barely write a sentence learn the importance of the comma, and a student who has been held over four times begin to take future possibilities more seriously.
It is a time when many of them begin to take ownership over their own lives. It is when they learn to overcome the challenges that they face each day, and to talk about them honestly. In the course of a year, you can watch them turn from children into young adults, and get a true sense of their own worth.
Last year, a top eighth grader was my student. In the three years she was in my class, I never met a parent. She spoke openly that year about her parents, and their disconnection from her. She confronted her anger, and talked about the different ways that she tried to deal with it. She was hurt and resentful and distrustful, but that year she realized that she was not destined because of it.
She learned to channel her feelings, and her surly attitude became an armor that protected her. Her grade point average shot up, as the number of people who wanted to sit near her in class plummeted. She chose her own path, and accepted nothing less than the best, even though there was no one at home asking to see her report card.
Most children are not as self-motivated by an intrinsic desire to succeed. Most need some external reward — be it prizes or gifts, or just their parents’ affirmation of them — to really be motivated to succeed. But the magical thing about eighth grade is that this is a year when a lot of them can find their own motivation.
The truth is, the visible parts of parent involvement mean nothing if the invisible things are not happening. If children do not go home to a place where they feel important and loved, and as though someone is invested in them, showing up on parent-teacher night is not worth a thing.
Parent involvement is all about being connected — being the link between the home and the school. It is about knowing the cause of their bad moods, or dropping grades, or sudden exhaustion in class.
And we do not need a working phone number to determine whether or not that type of involvement is happening. You can see it in a child’s eyes, in a child’s posture, and in the way that a child searches for what is missing.
It may be acting out, or it may be turning inward, but when there is a giant hole in a child’s life, that is one thing that is never invisible. And a school full of students who are searching to fill that hole is not a school where children are thinking about learning.
Still, teaching makes me realize that everything is possible with children. A child you dread having in class transforms into your star student, and the teacher’s pet from last year succumbs to peer pressure. They can always change.
With parents, it is not the same story. In four years, I have never seen a parent who started out absent get involved. I have never seen one who cared stop caring.
We open doors to enable communication, and we encourage parents to be connected — but the parents who are there at the beginning are still there at the end, and the parents who did not give their phone numbers in sixth grade still do not give them in eighth.
We can talk forever about the reasons why some are more involved than others, and we can pretend to question whether or not parents matter. But maybe what we should really be asking is whether or not our time is well spent trying to transform parents, when it is their children who still have room to change.