New teacher diaries

Learning from parents

New Teacher Diaries

During my year and a half of teaching ESL in a Brooklyn middle school, I’ve learned a great deal from the parents of my students.

During my first year, my parental contacts were uneven; I would feel vague panic in my stomach when phone call time came around. Three phone calls and I was worn out. I wasn’t sure how to approach the parents; I felt torn between authority and deference, and hadn’t learned yet how to combine the two.

Parent conference nights, by contrast, proved a delight; I found most parents warm, respectful and concerned about their children’s education. I would gain insights into the family life, as they arrived with three or four children in tow, or as an older brother came to the school in lieu of a parent.

In my second year, my contact with parents stepped up considerably: I have 105 logged phone calls and still more that didn’t make it into the log. I discovered that many parents were willing to do anything for their children’s education and expected the teacher to maintain rigor and discipline in the classroom. Parents wanted to know about tutoring services and after-school programs. They wanted to know in detail how their children were performing and behaving. They asked me to confiscate any electronic devices, including CD players, which their children had managed to sneak into their book bags.

The conversations sometimes turned philosophical. One student’s uncle recently told me that the tests and grades were not as important as the actual learning, and that any learning involves struggle with difficulty.

I learned about what it took for some parents to bring their children to this country. Some were unable to come to the United States so they sent their child with an uncle or older sibling. Some came by themselves first, leaving their children with a relative in the native country for a few years and then bringing them here when they were already somewhat estranged from their parents and susceptible to peer pressure. Still others came all at once: parents with five children and another on the way. Many suffered from depression and anxiety while trying to adjust to the new country and cope with the pressures of work and school. Many parents made these sacrifices primarily so that their children would have a shot at an education. Such parents often seem disappointed that the schools are not stricter and that students get away with as much as they do.

Every child in every family has a story; no two siblings have the same experience. In learning those stories, I learn how flawed the stereotypes are. As I begin to learn about my students, I recognize how much more there is to learn and how much I may never know.

All that said, contact with parents is a tremendous responsibility that I have by no means mastered. Some parents I phone rarely, others regularly. Sometimes I feel that my lesson planning should assume priority, yet the phone calls seem more urgent. And then, when does the day end? Where does sleep come in, and what about my own life? I have not yet learned how to maintain a personal life as a teacher — and I must learn that if I want to last in the profession.

In the meantime, while I am overextended and learning the ropes, there are enough rewards that I don’t think of quitting. Many parents thank me for taking the extra time to look after my students’ needs. The students generally seem proud of the contact, too; they will say the next day, smiling, “You called my house last night.” Even when I call about a behavior problem, some students seem honored.

I have yet to figure out how to balance phone calls with all my other duties, yet I know that they are too important to drop. The more rapport I build with the parents, the more continuity the students have between school and home. Parental contact not only improves my students’ performance in my class, but teaches me a lot. It may even provide momentary relief from the isolation and bewilderment that many hard-working immigrant families experience.

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