Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hanging Out Under the Sword of Damocles

Interesting experience today. I received an email from one of my son's teachers, a very personable woman who was contacting me out of concern for a particular aspect of my son's learning. You would think that as a teacher, a teacher who composes at least a couple emails just like the one I received from this teacher every day, that I could maintain some perspective.

But I didn't. I got a little sick to my stomach, a little lightheaded. I worried about my child's ability to make it in high school, whether or not he'd get into college, if he'd ever be able to get a job that paid at - let alone above - the poverty line...

In other words, I may have overreacted, and I may have required a medicinal glass of wine. I just might have had one or two bitter thoughts about this teacher I otherwise adore and believe to be a great educator. How dare she question my child's competence? How dare she think my child is anything less than adorable and wonderful?

Yeah, I went there, and I could very easily have flipped out on that teacher. But I didn't. At least not outside the confines of my addled brain, because I logged off and closed the lid on my irrationality. Crazy, protective mom mode was not going to do anyone any good, and flipping out on my son's teacher would be the worst possible reaction, a surefire way to destroy my (and my son's) relationship with this teacher.

An couple of hours later, after that glass of wine, some dinner, an hour of helping my boys with their homework, and bedtime reading and snuggle, I had gained a wee bit of perspective. I thought about all those emails I write from my desk at school. All those emails I bang out when I simply intend to deliver the news that a quiz score was unexpectedly low or a homework assignment was forgotten. I certainly don't mean to send the message that those students are in trouble, out of their depth, or beyond help; I am simply keeping in touch. I only intend to convey the message that their children need support and a solid, open partnership between their parents and their teacher.

I have written about the importance of preserving the parent-teacher partnership for the New York Times but I did not totally understand what it means to receive disturbing news from a teacher when I wrote that piece. I'd been on parental easy street, twirling my umbrella and singing about blue skies.

I did not fully understand what it meant to be on the receiving end of an "I am just writing to let you know..." email until today.

However, no matter how much I'd love to avoid it, I will still have to deliver bad news, because that's my job. Believe me, it's always easier to keep bad news inside the confines of my classroom, because the minute an email leaves my out box, all hell can break loose. It has, and it likely will again. I hold my breath and hit 'send' on those emails, knowing that some parents will flip out on me.

But at least I understand now, in my gut, where it's coming from. Even my most challenging students are someone's kids. And if they were my kids, I would want to know what's happening at school, to have the opportunity to work together with their teacher to find a solution.

That said, I have an email to write to one of my students' parents, as well as a parent-teacher conference about my own son to prepare for. Here's hoping that sanity prevails on both fronts, because both the education of my students and of my children depends on it.


  1. Jess--you are a voice of honesty and reason in a crazy, scary world. Thank you for telling it like it is.

  2. Jess,

    I've just had the opposite experience. An email from my child's principal saying that my child's teacher feels bad because I used the teacher as one of several (disguised) examples of the challenges we face in improving instruction for a blog post.

    Like you, the principal could have taken a medicinal glass of wine, a deep breath, and then said, "Gee, he means well, even if I don't like everything he says." Instead, I was called a liar.

    Sanity. Indeed we need much more of it.

  3. I too received an e-mail today, the second in 3 weeks, to let me know my son was ignoring homework assignments and paying very little attention. I too get that sick feeling when they arrive, and imagine the dominoes of failure lined up, ready to topple. Hard as it is to hear the truth, and it's been a long time since I felt he was misrepresented by a crappy teacher, I'm always so grateful that the time has been taken to let me know - never to rat him out, but to help get him back on track. So we sit at 9:00pm working on the French assignment that's due earlier today and while I'd so much rather he was on top of it all, knowing what's up is the next best thing.

  4. Thank you for sharing this! It's a great perspective to consider when we have to send those emails home to parents.

  5. Thank you for this perspective. As a teacher who writes a few of these emails each day, and a mom who has sons too young to have such an issue, this was important for me to see.

  6. Wow! Thank you guys so much for these kind comments. Meeting with my son's teacher went well - of course - and there's no need to freak out. Of course.

  7. I would freak out too. A Waldorf teacher once said to the parents of our class: "it's our job to look at your child objectively, and it's your job to be subjective." I have come back to this many times, because it both enforces the teacher's obvious role, and permits me to feel a little freaked out when hearing bad news.
    As you point out, it's what we do after that initial surge of fear that really counts.

  8. "Even my most challenging students are someone's kids."
    This is where I try to keep my focus - and, even when our wires get crossed, and parents react to information negatively (i.e. "well, this must mean YOU are not doing your job!"), in the end it's about the kids.