Friday, June 28, 2013

Teachers or Parents? Who bears the ultimate responsibility for a student's chronic failure to learn?

Teachers or Parents?
Who bears the ultimate responsibility for a student's failure to learn?

Short answer: Parents.  (and students)

Before you start writing the hate mail, read the rest of this article.  After you have read it and thought about it, feel free to comment.  Also note that students, teachers, parents and administrators all share responsibility.  Parents are the legal voice of the student and guide the student's attitude towards learning.

Scenario 1:
A bright and inquisitive child who can quickly learn just about anything is floating through school without much effort.  Year to year it doesn't really matter which teacher he has in elementary school.  Reading the grade card is consistently a time of joy and celebration.  A good teacher brings out his best and inspires further learning but mediocre or poor teachers don't crush his spirit.  His confidence and quick wit overcome any problems with teachers.

Scenario 2:
A bright child who lacks self confidence struggles with even the best teachers.  Anxiety and self doubt overshadow everything the teacher says.  Tests are a nightmare.  Grades are abysmal.  A teacher without empathy can damage this child's self esteem with one comment.  Bullies will target him.  School is a nightmare and he begs to be home schooled

Scenario 3:
A child is non-verbal, exhibits pervasive behaviors and can't hold a pencil well enough to make a mark on paper.  His behavior is disruptive and becoming worse.  The teacher says he needs constant adult supervision and is  not able to do the simplest of tasks.

Most of the students in school fall into one of these three scenarios.  I have subbed in the schools for years and seen many children that just float through school like the child in the first scenario.  For these children, the teacher is the least important.  The students are able to deal with an apathetic or downright bad teacher.  They will survive and something thrive no matter the situation.  Good teachers are appreciated but a bad teacher isn't going to crush them.  Parents may make sure they are getting their homework done and they get to school on time but generally don't need to spend much time worrying about their child's education.  If all children fell into this group, then we would not have the government dictating requirements to schools.  Life would be easy and good.

A large number of kids are more like the second scenario.  They are intelligent but something is preventing them from learning easily.  It could be anxiety, a learning disability, health problems, hunger, or major problems at home.  In a perfect world these kids would have a stress free school environment and a teacher who acknowledges their problems and helps them succeed despite the problems.  For these kids, a good teacher can help survive and a great teacher may help them find a way to overcome their issues.  Anything less than that would be detrimental to the student.  These kids parents need to be actively involved in the education process.  Simply telling their child to do their homework and making them go to school isn't enough.

The third scenario happens.  There are a great number of children who are severely limited in their abilities when they start school.  It may be autism, Down's syndrome, intellectual disability, blindness or deafness.  These are just the few that come to mind quickly.  Rather, I see the faces of the children and adults with these disabilities.  Nothing can be taken for granted.  School and daily living skills are a major focus of the parents' lives.  These kids need the most actively involved parents and teachers.  Anything less will stunt possible progress.

The three children described in the scenarios are mine.  My oldest son skates through school with ease.  He only missed one word on all of his first grade spelling tests, "brother".  Seems ironic.  His grades would be straight As if he applied himself.  Since he plays sports and in the Robotics Club, I don't worry that he gets some Bs.  Actually, our school district has the whacked idea that anything below 93.5% is not an A or even an A-.   By any sane grading scale, he would be very close to all As.

My youngest son is very bright but also sensitive to the stresses of life.  He has trouble focusing on his school work when his father is out of work again because a factory closed, when his brother is having major surgeries or when I am driving his brother to doctor's appointment 90 minutes away.  Learning to spell seems less important than wondering if your brother will be able to walk and run again or if we will lose the house because the economy crashed.  Now that our lives have calmed down, he is able to relax and do better in school.  He has learned to control is anxiety and stand up to kids who are mean.  We all have anxiety and mean people in our lives.   Bullies happen.  Anxiety happens.   We all have to learn to deal with it.

My second son is the child in the third scenario and we were actually told that when he was in preschool.  It was a horrible that that is forever etched in my memory.  Just this year I realized that it was a pivot day.  On that day we were presented with a dismal picture of our son's abilities and future.  We refused to except it and pivoted his education in another direction.  We, as parents, had the ultimate deciding voice in which setting was appropriate for him.  We chose the more difficult path towards an independent life.  Throughout the years I have been engaged in his education and often communicating with his teacher daily.  Together we pushed him and guided him.  Today he is entering 10th grade, attending his community school, taking college prep classes and playing sports.  AND he made the honor roll in the spring.

All the teachers in my sons' lives have been important.  So, why do I say that the ultimate responsibility for a child's failure to learn rests with the parents?   Teachers and the schools have a narrow view of the students.  They know them for a year or more. Then, the students are out of their classroom, out of their building and out of their lives.  Parents, by the grace of God, will be with their children for decades.  Parents know what happens at home.  They know or should know if a student studies.  I have known many students who study diligently but still can't remember how to spell a word.  Teachers will assume the failure was caused by lack of effort.  It is up to parents to monitor effort versus results.  Parents need be honest with themselves and their children about the school work.  Then, they need to discuss problems with teachers to find practical solutions.

If my youngest had been my oldest or even my second child, I would have freaked out about his low grades and his troubles in school.  It would have felt like the end of the world.  Thankfully, I he wasn't and I didn't overreact.  If anything I probably didn't freak out enough.  When I am nursing my 7th grade son back to health after having his feet rebuilt and sleeping on his floor in case he wakes in the night and needs pain medicine, a low grade in spelling seemed less of a crisis.

For each of my children, I have approached the school when there were issues to be resolved.  It is not easy being a parent involved in the schools and sometimes the backlash is very painful.  The school personnel don't always like problems brought to their attention and I am not the most diplomatic person.  I actually think that problems should be discussed openly and resolved.  Not always the best approach.  Subtly is not in my nature.  I also forget about egos.  As the parent of a child with a disability I left my ego by the roadside a long time ago.

So, in case this was too long winded, parents are ultimately responsible for their children's educational failure or success.  Teachers and schools come and go but parents are the constant that needs to drive the process. If something isn't working and the child is failing, the parents have the responsibility and the right to work with the school to improve things.  Advocate is a word tossed around quite often lately.

 "Parents need to advocate for their children."  

It is true.  Teachers make mistakes.  Principals make mistakes.  If something isn't working, it needs to be fixed.  Many times I have been told, "Don't bother saying anything. You can't change it. You will make it worse."  If I do nothing, nothing will ever change. Striving for Independence: Ways to Help Children with Disabilities Learn to Function More Indepedently eBook: Kristan Payne: Kindle Store