A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 25 2011

On the Influence of Parents

Over the past few months, I’ve fleshed out my own theory about why invested parents matter to a student’s success.

One common view is that parents matter insofar as they provide the guidance and nurturing outside of the school building. In other words, they play a role analogous to the teacher in the classroom. This is clearly true. But, parents matter in an altogether different way–one that rarely gets recognized in current education debates. Parents serve as checks on the behaviors of teachers, consequently affecting the guidance and nurturing of students inside schools as well.


Parents certainly play a huge–if not dominant–role in the development of a child. One’s habits, mindsets and attitudes are all developed in some way by one’s parents. We can see clear benefits accruing to students who have parents that assist them with homework, crack down on laziness, or read bedtime stories. This is generally what we think of when we think of parents.

Anecdotes and facts bear this idea out. In my classrooms, students with more “active” parents in their lives–or, for that matter, their mere presence–generally do better. Research shows, after all, that students spend 70% of their waking hours outside of school–where their source of support would naturally be parents. Clearly, parents, by affecting what students do outside of school, influence how students perform in school.

But parents have an often unnoticed influence within a school by playing an often unnoticed role: the teacher monitor. I’m talking about the parents who want to get straight facts from a teacher about whether Alexus truly has had no homework this semester (students enjoy claiming that teachers assign no homework). About parents who constantly check in with the teacher. Who ask at the beginning of the semester for a more detailed version of the class’ syllabus.

Of course, interacting with parents can, at times, be unpleasant. In every group of parents there will always be a few cranky, whiny, unreasonable ones.  Here are some common refrains and implied messages:

  • You failed my student because you didn’t allow her to do her make-up work!” (implying that, because I didn’t create a work packet in the last week of the semester, I had unfairly prevented a student from “passing”).
  • Why didn’t you let me know…?!” (implying that, as a teacher, I have to inform the student’s parents about their progress on every single assignment as well as their exact physical location via GPS coordinates).
  • You know what? I’m taking this higher up the chain!” (implying that by disallowing a student from answering a phone in class for a “family emergency,” I’ve done something egregiously wrong that can be fixed by speaking to, or threatening to speak to, a “higher authority”).

But, I actually think I would prefer more of these types of “intrusive” parents for one simple, honest reason: a teacher will work much harder for a student whose parent is always shaking things up. Parents monitor teachers and hold them accountable in ways that administrators can’t. Even though the administration ultimately holds teachers accountable for performance in the classroom (wielding the power to fire, theoretically), parents can perform the same role.

I’ve noticed this most saliently through my presence–albeit infrequent–at IEP meetings for students with special needs. Those parents who “rattle their sabers” during these meetings–demanding that the school provide better accommodations, or gather the right assessment data, or demonstrate that their student has met IEP goals–influence teachers’ behaviors in a significant way.

Even though I would ideally treat every student completely fairly, devoting the same exact amount of time to each, the reality is that there are only 24 hours in a day–and teaching demands so much from a teacher that devoting the “desirable” amount of attention to every student becomes difficult. I certainly don’t neglect any students. Instead, let’s just say I allocate my time to those “red-alert” students first. This is just human nature. With a scarce supply of time, allocate it efficiently by reducing the possibility of receiving negative consequences (shouting parents).


What’s the ultimate lesson? Parents matter in a significant way. They can certainly be crucial outside-of-school factors, but they can also affect, indirectly, the inside-of-school context, by holding teachers accountable in ways that principals can’t. Indeed, very few people dare to ignore a demand/request/plea built on the emotions intrinsic to the parent-child relationship.

In a system as dysfunctional as DCPS, we need to make a push to develop parents’ advocacy skills. Unfortunately, many parents don’t have these skills. This is why we need to consider other social services that can help parents help students. The Harlem Children’s Zone seems to be doing a good job with this. I hope that the impending development of Promise Neighborhoods across the country (including one in DC) spurs a rise in advocacy skills in the local community.

Monday is parent-teacher conference day. The reality at my school, and at most schools in DCPS, is that few parents will show up and hold me accountable. But I hope we reach a day when the hallways brim with parents, eager to “monitor” the behaviors of the teachers in my school building. That would be the most productive form of a “parent revolution.”

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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