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I have picked up students walking a half mile in the rain to get to school from the public bus stop. Re-zoning had decided they lived (literally) on the wrong side of the tracks for the school bus. I have also seen a parking lot decked out like Nutcracker’s Christmas with giant-sized bows on shiny new cars for sixteenth birthdays while I parked out back with the rest of the teachers in our beat-up vans and 90s sedans. I have driven over an hour each way to teach homeschool students in a tiny Sunday school classroom repurposed for tutorials, Bibles and felt boards pushed to the side.

I have taught public and private and homeschool and one-on-one. I have had students with learning disabilities who pulled Ds to As with diligence and learning services. I have had geniuses (actual IQs disclosed with pride) who failed my class due to lack of interest and motivation and foresight. I have had parents ignore my emails for 8 months out of 9 until final exams and letters with the principal’s signature brought them running. I have also had parents with my phone on speed dial and parents who pulled me aside in shiny suits to suggest that I look back through the grades and try to see how, “we can’t find him that A.” I’ve see the gamut.

So, when I read one teacher’s letter to the editor, “Parents are the Problem,” I caught myself nodding in agreement to much of it. Yes, parents are more willing to complain than participate much of the time or buy new clothes over new school supplies. Yes, teachers always take the first hit when it comes to school reform. They are on the front lines. It is only natural. They are the infantry, in it up to their necks in bureaucratic nonsense to rival Lewis Carroll. 

And yet, she lost me with this line: “When you look at these factors, you will see that it is not schools who are failing but the parents.” To call a parent a failure is to give up hope. And teaching, if nothing else, is a hopeful endeavor. You measure and weigh the skill sets in those first few weeks in September when school spirit is well-rested, if not abundant. And then you gradually increase the pressure, the reps, the weighted expectations, adjusting as need be for each participant. And come spring, you look over your team and see how far they’ve come, how much intellectual stamina you’ve helped them build. You’re not looking for Olympic medalists here. You’d be happy with shorter mile times. That’s just it. You can’t plod through a year without believing in what you do. They’ll sniff you out, parents and students alike.

We’ve all had that teacher. You know the one. The one who looked disappointed in you and bored before the class had even begun. The one whose sarcasm or apathy made you walk slower to class and pack up five minutes before the bell. The one whose tests and essays you tossed in the trash on your way out the door, because what was the point when they didn’t care either? Hope is a skill set too.

Maybe parents aren’t pulling their weight. Maybe teachers and students and the school system aren’t either. But we’re never going to get there if we don’t think we can. Criticizing the school system in big generic phrases, “The teachers are not the problem! The parents are the problem!” is like trying to fix a pocket watch with a mallet. You can’t smash your way through it. If you want to re-work the system, you have to proceed slowly…with finesse, patience, and positivism. To do anything less is to lose hope and that’s the true failure.

 

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Jamie Sumner

Jamie Sumner is the author of the middle-grade novel, Roll with It. Her second and third middle-grade novels with Atheneum Books for Young Readers will be coming out in 2020 and 2021. She is also the author of the nonfiction book on motherhood, Unboundand the forthcoming bookEat, Sleep, Save the Worldfor parents of children with special needs. She is also mom to a son with cerebral palsy and she writes and speaks about disability in literature. She loves stories that celebrate the grit and beauty in all kids. She and her family live in Nashville, Tennessee. Connect with her at Jamie-Sumner.com   

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