Many teachers call their students “my kids” all the time. In fact, I easily have more pictures of my students in my cell phone than pictures of my own biological children. But as much as I mother my students, I am careful to keep clear professional boundaries with them. When it’s all said and done, they are indeed other people’s children. My kids are the ones who will put flowers on my grave.
So what happens when your child is also a student at the school where you teach? How do you keep it professional and cordial when things go awry and you need to assertively advocate for your child at work? I found myself in that uncomfortable predicament last month.
My 8-year-old daughter’s class was chaotic after her first-year teacher got married in Chicago and then relocated to Texas after Christmas break. It was hard enough to bring on a new teacher in the middle of the year, but the situation was only exacerbated when the replacement teacher was also brand new to the profession. (In fairness, my daughter’s class of 28 students was difficult to manage even for more experienced teachers. Teachers had to tap into their inner guru each and every day.)
My administration was trying to work with the replacement teacher, but it was painful for me to watch professional development attempts being made for a novice teacher who was in full crisis mode. Assurances from my school leaders that, with more instructional coaching, the class would gradually get better in time, fell flat with me. It was now February—how much more time could my child afford?
I had to make a heart-wrenching decision: keep being patient and hope for the best, or take drastic action.
My kid wasn’t ambivalent; she knew what she wanted. In fact, she begged me to transfer her out of the school that she had once loved. Even at 8, she was willing to say goodbye to all her friends to gain a sense of emotional safety and sanity.
I love my school and count many of my colleagues as my friends. The teachers (including my daughter’s former teachers) work extremely hard, and it’s obvious that they care about the students. And since it’s a charter school, parents like me feel fortunate that our kids’ names were pulled from the lottery and granted admission. I’ve often lamented that all kids and parents don’t have access to good schools like this one, district or charter.
But now I found myself contemplating the unthinkable—transferring my little girl out.
I cried many tears over this dilemma. Then fear set in. What quality school would even accept a new student in mid-February? I’m not just going to take her anywhere, to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.
(The search for another quality school in Chicago was a shocking, depressing eye-opener; I will have to save that saga for another blog post.)
Last week, a colleague passed on a powerful article
about the author Doug Lemov, who wrote “Teach Like a Champion,” to my principal, who then passed it on to me. These bits from the article gave me peace about the decision I made:
The evidence suggests that a child at a bad school taught by a good teacher is better off than one with a bad teacher at a good school. The benefits of having been in the class of a good teacher cascade down the years; the same is true of the penalty for having had a bad teacher.
In 1992, an economist called Eric Hanushek reached a remarkable conclusion by analyzing decades of data on teacher effectiveness: a student in the class of a very ineffective teacher—one ranked in the bottom 5 percent—will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year, whereas if she was in the class of a very effective teacher—in the top 5 percent—she would learn a year and a half’s worth of material. In other words, the difference between a good and a bad teacher is worth a whole year.
So what did I end up doing? I got honest.
I stopped prioritizing what was convenient for me
. I stopped caring about whether or not I would offend my colleagues or school administrators. I stopped fearing what other parents might say or think. I even stopped referring to my deeply held educational philosophy. I simply based my decision on what was best for my kid.
I used to cringe when I heard education policymakers call for an increased “sense of urgency.” I would think, gee, I’m already working as hard as I can. What else do you want from me?!? But it has taken this deeply personal experience for me to fully grasp the concept. It’s not just about working hard, but it’s the particular mindset that drives your work.
It means that if any one of my students’ parents were to have insight into the day-to-day happenings in the school or classroom the way I am privy to it as a staff member, would they trust that their child was getting the absolute best education possible?
In other words, it means that educators need to approach our practice with the same diligence we would have if our own biological child sat in every single class.
My household operates on a tight budget, so the $700 a month private school tuition bill I now have to pay really hurts. But now that my little girl is excited about learning again and is able to focus in class, I realize that the cost of the status quo was way more expensive.
But I still believe in my school. The fourth-grade teacher is awesome, so let’s hope my daughter’s name gets picked in the less competitive sibling lottery for the fall.
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames’ award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago. An original version of this post appeared on EdWeek.
PHOTO by Education Post.