It's not that I wasn't aware that I could be doing a better job in the classroom.
I was a newlywed. It was my second year teaching. My grandmother was dying. And I was struggling through a high risk pregnancy which my doctors were suggesting might be one and only. I didn't plan to have a baby during that particularly stressful year, but I had to, if I wanted one at all, I was told. I was fortunate to be pregnant. My body wasn't built for it. So, I was excited, if not overwhelmed.
And oh, how I loved my eighth grade students--all 141 of them. They were smart and funny and so creative. And I tried to be, too. I was passionate about project based learning, reading and writing workshop, and student choice. I worked hard to balance my need for high quality work with their need for meaningful and relevant learning experiences. I worked hard to learn how to assess kids without over relying on tests and grades. I worked hard to master the Essential Elements of Instruction, which my administrators valued as a district-wide initiative and which were admittedly helping me become a better teacher. I worked hard to please some of my colleagues who were also smart and funny and creative and beyond ambitious themselves. I worked too hard to please a few that I shouldn't have, too.
But for all of my good intentions, there just wasn't enough time to do everything well.
I had weekly lesson plans to write, units to design, 300 papers to assess each week, bulletin boards to change up regularly, field trips to plan, books to read with my students, books to read for grad school, five and ten week reports to write, department and team and special committee and staff meetings to attend, and 141 kids to show up for, organized and energized, each and every day. It didn't matter that I was nauseated and often vomiting in the bathroom between class periods most days.
As I soon found out, what mattered was that Carter hated me.
A tall, energetic kid in my fifth period class, he bounced into the room happily each day, surrounded by friends, and typically, horsing around. This didn't bother me. What bothered me was how much he seemed to dislike me, without cause. I gave him plenty of control in the classroom, a whole lot of choice, and the opportunity to talk and learn with his friends every single day. As soon as the bell rang, he slumped in his desk, refused to engage seriously in anything we were doing, and took every opportunity to let me know just how hard I was failing, usually by talking over me or by exchanging shared looks with his friends before erupting in laughter.
I felt like I was being mocked. I'm sure I was. Still, other teachers really liked Carter, and I wanted to, too. But no matter how hard I tried to win him over, Carter was never satisfied.
Neither, it seemed, was his mom.
She was cool at conferences and disinterested in speaking with me at open house. I caught her shaking her head disapprovingly at several points as she wandered my classroom that evening. I could sense that she was unhappy. I was never quite sure about this until the call from my administrator came, though.
I assume that Carter's mom went the principal because she felt she couldn't talk with me. Maybe she didn't want to hurt my feelings. Maybe she didn't want to hear my story. Maybe she thought I wouldn't listen. Maybe she assumed I didn't care.
Carter's mom was active on the PTA. She was at school almost daily, mingling with kids in the hall and organizing fundraisers and book sales and field trips. She wrote a column for our school newsletter encouraging other parents to volunteer more often. She urged them to attend meetings and have their voices heard. She had little patience for those who didn't help out in the same ways that she did. Not that she knew many.
She knew my administrator, though. In fact, they were good friends.
And I appreciated this.
I imagined how one day, when my own baby girl was just a little bit older, I would find myself, at some point or another, struggling with the way she was taught. I imagined that I might feel more comfortable discussing this with an administrator who was a friend before I spoke with a teacher who I didn't really know very well at all.
I tried to understand, especially when my administrator kindly shared this mom's concerns, which were based on many assumptions that I'd had no chance to address previously. My administrator acknowledged this and handled the entire experience fairly. I wasn't called on the carpet. In fact, my administrator practiced great empathy. Still, I felt surprised and ashamed.
It hurt that Carter and his mom hadn't come to ME to talk things through before complaining about me to my administrator and requesting that he be removed from my class. I was grateful when I learned that this request was denied. I hoped it would inspire them to problem solve with me, instead.
Worse than all of this, I knew that Carter's mom was sharing her opinions with other parents in the neighborhood. My friend overheard her at the playground later that afternoon, recounting her meeting with my administrator, her intentions to get satisfaction, and all of her assumptions about me. It wasn't pretty, and I had a hard time returning to class the following the day.
A few weeks later, I was put on bed rest. And then, I became a mom myself. Not just any kind of mom. A teacher mom.
As it turns out, there have been more than few times when I've wanted to go to an administrator about how my kids were taught. My youngest (I was fortunate to have two girls!) is graduating this year, and in our fifteen year relationship with our school district, I've done this exactly three times. The first time, my daughter had been repeatedly pinned down by a boy in her class, and while the teacher was intervening, she made it clear to us that she needed better administrative support. The second time, I was concerned about how data were (or were not) being used to make critical determinations about my child--after conversations with the teacher revealed that he didn't really know. And the third time, I contacted an administrator after several attempts to contact a teacher for much needed curriculum documents went without any response. When asked by two school administrators to recount these three experiences, I did this as well. Other than that, I've stood back and allowed my children to define and follow their own paths through their school system, while remaining a guide on the side. For better or worse.
And that's opened me up to some criticism at times. I'm betting that even Ellen might offer a bit of it herself, once she's finished reading this post. And that's okay. That's what we're all about here. I'm not saying my choices are the best ones, but I do know they've been the right ones for my family.
My kids know that I expect them to be responsible for their own successes and failures. They also know that they're the result of who they are and what they do or do not do, not who I am, who I know, and what I do or do not do inside of their school.
They know that I will advocate for them on two occasions: If they're at risk of being significantly harmed or when the decision being made is based on flawed practices AND it stands to alter the trajectory of their career paths.
I don't help with homework. I don't check their grades. And I don't check up on their teachers, either. I also don't engage with other parents who talk about teachers, thanks to my experiences with Carter's mom. In fact, I try hard not to put myself in situations where this might happen at all, and that's made me fairly invisible inside of our school community, most of the time.
I have two friends who are my closest confidants, and I've processed some very hard moments with them when I've need to. Both have proven themselves to be very discrete over the years. So have teacher and administrator friends from faraway schools who are willing to talk things through with me. They've provided good perspective.
Finally, I've always called or visited teachers directly before making assumptions when something seems off--especially when my kids are hating school and blaming their boring teachers for it. Twenty years of parenting has taught me that boredom isn't always a bad thing, and it isn't always something that teachers and parents can or even should try to fix. It's something successful human beings learn to work with. It's something creative people even value, at times.
I realized early on that like it or not, boredom is often a kid problem. So, this is where I typically start problem solving: With my kids. Even when I think the teacher is less than ideal.
I get some flack from my educator friends about this, too. And you can push my thinking here, if you'd like. My girls may be grown, but I still have much to learn, I know.
I have no solutions, just my own perspectives, and one commitment I'm glad that I stood by: I try to remember, whenever I'm making assumptions about one of my kids' teachers that I was a less than ideal teacher on too many days, too. But, I was always trying to be better. And I was always willing to talk. And I'll bet that they are, too. At least most of them.
Resources for You
This post is a response to one that Ellen wrote earlier this week. In it, she references the SPIRE model and shares this link to a free course, offered by the Wholebeing Institute. Years later, I can easily identify the symptoms of compassion fatigue that I was suffering from as a second year teacher. I hope that tools like this bring you the sort of peace that I struggled to find myself.
And here are some interesting reads that offer uncommon perspectives about the parents' role inside of schools. They aren't the sort of articles about parent involvement that typically go viral, so I'd love to know your thoughts on them.
Why this Momma is Not a PTA mom and Not Ashamed to Admit It
The Ethos of the Over-Involved Parent
10 Signs of a Narcissistic Parent
What to do When Your Child Says They're Bored at School