I remember when I first started teaching sometime in the late 1800s when one of the moms of one of my 4th graders came to the class to apologize. She had always been The Room Mother for her kids, but this year she was working outside the home, and she was apologizing for not being able to be involved.
I said, “You’re going to be involved, because you’re a good mom. You don’t have to be a school volunteer to be involved. I’m a mom, and I’ve got a job, too.”
One of my students, eavesdropping, said, “Really, Miss Eskelsen? You have a job?”
Yes. Well. My point is that I, and millions of working moms and dads are involved with their kids’ education because we make sure they do their homework and that they don’t watch too much TV and the ask what they’re doing at school, and they make them answer us. We do that every day, and it’s the best parent involvement any teacher could ask for.
We love it when parents get involved. But just as things have changed in the world so that there are fewer and fewer stay-home parents who can even think about being school volunteers, schools, themselves, need to recognize how they need to change to involve all parents.
I visit so many schools in my role representing American educators. I’ve been to communities where families have to work two or three part-time jobs with no benefits just to put food on the table and pay the rent and whose kids complain about their toothache and wish they could afford to go to the dentist.
I’ve been to communities where families have swimming pools in the back yard and who regularly take their kids to concerts and museums and whose kids complain about their braces and how they hate to go to the orthodontist.
I’ve worked with all sorts of parents who live in very different worlds. And I know what they have in common. They love their children. They want the best for their children. They want to be involved in their children’s schools, and they want to help the educators who love their children.
All families are counting on that school to care about their children, mind, body and character. That is a huge responsibility. And one that educators take seriously.
One school secretary in Connecticut told me that when she lost her part-time office aide, she found that she was up to her eyeballs in answering the phone and there were times when parents came into the office and had to wait to be served. She overcame her frustration and got creative. She bought a little Mr. Coffee out of her own pocket and set up a corner where she could invite parents to have a cup of coffee until she could get to them.
She was amazed how that little gesture changed the atmosphere. Parents appreciated being treated as if they were special.
In another school in Wisconsin, teachers were frustrated with the poor turnout of parents for Back-to-School night or parent-teacher conferences. Finally, at a faculty meeting, one teacher had an idea about what the problem might be and what the solution might be.
He said, “More and more of our parents are immigrants who don’t always speak English well. That can be pretty intimidating. Why don’t we have something more welcoming. Fiesta Night! We could have our student mariachi band play. We could have presentations from students – music, dance, art exhibits – Why not use the arts and a celebration to make it fun to come to school?”
So they built it. And the parents came. It was an opportunity to talk to parents about the possibilities of a college education for their sons and daughters. It was an opportunity to listen to parents about their questions and their concerns. It was an opportunity to make plans together so that students were at the center of everything.
I loved my Room Mothers and Room Father (not plural, because I only had one, Lord love him). But I loved all my parents. They were my partners. We were a team. Parents had a huge responsibility, but one of my responsibilities as the teacher was to find ways to make my school a place of respect and energy and inclusion so that parents knew they were important and they were wanted.
Inside the school, research says the teacher is the single most important factor in the success of a child. But research also says that outside the school, research says the parent is the single most important factor in the success of a child. Put the two most important factors together, and this child will fly to the future. So celebrate!
It’s Parent Day today. Every day is Parent Day.