They’re in this together


They’re in this together   October 25, 2011


Teachers can’t educate children alone, but they can help show parents the way. A positive attitude is important both at home and in the classroom.

It was an action so out of sync with the school system’s typical bureaucratic plodding, I had to read the news story a few times to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood what happened.

Los Angeles Unified school Supt. John Deasy had fired a teacher for a public diatribe against Jews.

There was no hearing, no hand-wringing, no consultation with union leaders.

The teacher, a substitute with a day-to-day contract, was terminated after she declared, in an interview that had gone viral on YouTube, that “Zionist Jews … need to be run out of this country.”

Deasy’s action is a sign he takes seriously the notion that attitude influences teaching: If you’ve written off an entire group as “problem” people, you might have a hard time giving your best in the classroom to those people.

Unfortunately, that same kind of prejudice was reflected in emails I received from educators that same week, after my column about the latest district initiative to improve the academic performance of black and Latino students.

  • “Most black parents don’t care about their children.”
  • “The Mexican kids don’t want to learn.”
  • “The Asians are the only ones willing to work.”

The comments were larded with stereotypes. Many were from well-meaning teachers, who seemed trapped in a thicket of racial, economic and cultural issues.

There are cultural differences that skew student achievement, and many of those probably play out in their classes. That’s an uncomfortable conversation, but one we need to have. I’ll get to that in an upcoming column.

What bothered me most was the bottom line of many of those teacher emails: Students succeed, or fail, not because of what happens in class, but because of how good their parents are.

From the message of a “lifelong teacher and administrator [whose] specialty is difficult schools and challenging kids”:

“Why doesn’t anyone want to put the blame where it belongs for poor performance by kids of ANY color? It’s parenting. Period. HORRIBLE parenting that raises kids with … no moral or spiritual values, no manners, no work ethic and a built-in sense of victimization and entitlement.”

And who deserves the credit for those students “who have been able to get good educations and become successful members of society? It’s their families — their parents,” he said.

That’s a teacher suggesting to me that what goes on in class is meaningless.

Deasy isn’t buying the argument that parenting is destiny. Neither is poverty, or race or language fluency.

“I respect that you can have that opinion as a teacher, but maybe you’d better work in some other place, like Beverly Hills,” he said. “We can’t afford that in LAUSD.”

The teachers say their views are born of experience.

“There is no magic bullet to teach mostly minority and poor, unmotivated and unprepared students,” said a former teacher at Jordan High in Watts. “Successful students come from homes where parents provided a rich educational experience.”

Maybe it’s a sign of surrender by teachers fed up, as one retiree said, “with all the ‘scripted’ lessons and overemphasis on testing.” Or a cop-out in an era of increasing teacher accountability.

To me it seems like another example of how low expectations usher in failure. If you don’t believe you can make a difference, how far will you go to reach those kids? If you never see or hear from students’ parents, do you add them to the lost column?

It’s undeniable that parents contribute mightily to their children’s success in school. And it’s unfair to expect a high school teacher, who might have 150 students or more, to undo years of parental neglect and point a failing kid toward Harvard.

Still, it surprised me to hear so many teachers denigrate their own contributions. One of the best lessons I ever received came from my oldest daughter’s first-grade teacher — a homework assignment for parents before the first work sheet ever came home:

Arrange one spot in your home for homework. Equip it with glue, pencils, crayon, scissors. Set up one time of day, every day. And check in with your child to make sure it’s done.

I might not have known that something so basic could be so important. Even now, 20 years later, a college student is doing homework almost every night at our designated spot, the kitchen table.

It’s the routine, the discipline, the expectation that the child will devote a part of the day, outside of school, to education. That structure is foreign to some parents. But teachers can help them overcome that.

Listen to Chris Damore, a Fullerton teacher, who is exasperated with the teacher-bashing and believes that we ought to “hold parents accountable for the lives they brought into this world.”

That means becoming their teachers as well. “I ask three simple things of my parents each year,” Damore said.

“Read with your child every night, make sure they learn their times tables, get homework back to school the next day. I’ve had parents with a fourth-grade education from Mexico fulfill this simple request, and I’ve had parents with college degrees ignore it.”

Last year, 21 of Damore’s 25 third-graders scored “proficient” in math. “Without exception, every one of those had parents who made sure they learned their times tables by December at the latest.” Even if those parents didn’t know 6 times 7 themselves.

Can teachers educate children alone? No.

But they can help show parents the way by spelling out responsibilities, sharing high expectations and not giving any student a pass on account of race or poverty.