Thank goodness that most parents of urban high school students are supportive and positive of their children. But, it is a minority of the parents (numerical minority, not demographic minority) that dominate teacher interactions and conferences. Yet, few outside the classroom know how often this happens. One of the most common observations I received from non-teachers who read Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education, was that my narrative about “Myrtle” had to be an exaggeration, or a rare thing to occur. (I invited Myrtle’s mom in for a conference because Myrtle was a past failing student who was now doing exceptionally well, and I wanted to share the pride with her parents. Myrtle’s mom entered the classroom on parent-teacher night, staggering, and announcing loudly “What has the little shit done now?” That was the closest I ever got to losing it with a parent.)
But this is not at all rare for the urban high school teachers I interviewed and surveyed in the three years of research preparing for the book. Painful confrontations, at this extreme level, happen an average of 3.1 times per month. And this figure would be far worse if many of these parents did not simply ignore a request for a conference or meeting. A disturbing 71% of parents asked to attend such meeting refused, or simply blew off the request with the usual “…I don’t have the time for this, I’ll take care of it on my own.”
And the situation gets even worse when urban high school teachers have to rely upon their principal to support and help when a parent gets this confrontational. Just 30% of those surveyed and interviewed said they got strong support when needed. Many teachers related incidents like one of mine, where the principal, over his head and unable to handle conflict, actually left the conference room announcing “…you take care of this, I will go cover your class for you.”
Louise K is a retired high school ESL teacher in California. Her submission has been wait-listed, and is likely to be included in the 2nd edition of Lifting the Curtain. She recreated these conversations from memory to share with other teachers, and to give those outside the classroom a look at what really happens in our schools. Interactions like this are not rare – all of us in the classroom have lived through them. Thankfully, they are still the minority of parent interactions.
“Mr. Johnson, please?”
“Just a sec. Da-a-a-d! It’s for you,” then softly, “Somebody selling something.”
“Well, why’n’t ya just hang up? Dammit, girl, there’s a game on.”
“Is this one of them sales calls?”
“No, this is Patty’s English teacher. You left a message for me to call.”
“Oh. Patty, get in here right now. It’s your teacher.”
“Yeah, what I wanna know is why Patty’s got three F’s.”
“I can’t speak for the other teachers, but Patty hasn’t turned in any of her English homework.”
“Patty, look at me. Why the f*** aren’t you doing your homework?”
“Mr. Johnson! I assume you want to figure out how to help your daughter get back on track.”
“Dammit, girl! You need to do your work.”
“Mr. Johnson,” I say, speaking to this grown man as if he were one of my ninth graders.
“Why don’t you have her pick up a grade check form in the office to take to her teachers every Friday?”
“Patty, your teacher says you need to get a grade check form.”
“One more thing.” I hesitate. “Might Patty’s low grades be a symptom of something else?”
“Patty’s not allowed to have a boyfriend.”
Pause. Struck a nerve?
“Get those earphones out!” he yells at Patty. “Are you seeing somebody?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Johnson,” I say, hanging up quickly.
So much for No Child Left Behind – or Reach for the Top.
Dave, my dean, slumped over his desk, looked up when I entered his office.”Hey,” he said, raising his head, “I hope you’re right that Billy is probably not in a gang,” he said, referring to a student who had been shot after a game. He sounded doubtful, but he was the dean of discipline and dealt with the trouble-makers.
“Got a question,” I said. “I went to turn in a five-day absence form for Allison and was told the transfer came from this office, not attendance. Is Allison in trouble?”
“She’s being transferred for her own protection. The nineteen-year-old who’s the primary suspect in Billy’s shooting is her brother – well, her half-brother.”
“Isn’t he from the Bay Area?”
“Somebody might find out they’re related.”
“Allison is – was – in my sixth period class,” I said. “The same class as Billy. And I had a big talk with the class after the shooting.”
“Clearly, for her safety we had to get her into another school.”
Something began to rumble inside me.
“Do you think I could have been told a week ago?”
“I meant to,” Dave said. “I’m sorry. It’s been so crazy and – well, I just forgot. You should have been kept in the loop.”
Okay. An apology. Still, without knowing it, I had been sitting on a powder keg.
And at the last faculty meeting, before the shooting, the principal had stressed the importance of communication.