By Claudia Cornwall and Liz Crompton
It’s a bit like a marriage. For the most part, parents and teachers have the best interests of the child at heart. And they know it’s better if they keep talking to each other. Still, sometimes what should be said is left unsaid—both the positive and the negative. So this story is about opening up those lines of communication. First, with the help of Léger Marketing, we polled 630 Canadian parents. In a web survey, we presented them with 14 statements and asked them if they had ever wanted to say any of these things to teachers. We followed up with phone interviews and then told teachers what the parents wanted to say.
The biggest surprise for everybody—for Reader’s Digest, for parents and for teachers—was that a whopping 90 percent of parents said teachers were doing a very good or somewhat good job. This is an extraordinary level of satisfaction. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that nobody is talking about it. As Colin Riese, a father in Prince Albert, Sask., said, “I don’t think we give our teachers enough pats on the back.” Most teachers were floored by the ringing endorsement. When Leslie Basky, a middle/high-school teacher in Saskatoon, heard the result, she said, “It feels good to know parents are noticing the hard work teachers are doing.”
What else are parents and teachers thinking? Any nagging resentments they’d like to get off their chests, or compliments they’d like to pass on? Read on and find out.
71% of parents want to say, “I’m glad you’re teaching my child to think creatively, encouraging questions and discussions, not just having him regurgitate the curriculum material.”
Cathy McLoughlan said both her children are smart and tend to get bored if they’re not stimulated enough by their school work, so she appreciates the effort of one teacher in particular. “[He] went out of his way to start another program with my youngest child just so he wasn’t sitting in class, bored,” said the Mount Pearl, N.L., resident. “He gave him more challenging things to do himself.”
Teachers thought getting children to think outside the box was just part of their job, and so many were surprised to learn how much parents appreciated their efforts. Wanda Gibbons teaches Grade 9 language arts in Magrath, Alta. A teacher for 24 years, she was impressed by the news that parents were giving teachers kudos for getting children to think creatively. “Seventy-one percent of parents said that?” she asked.
66% of parents want to say “When my child is having trouble with a subject, you are good at letting me know and showing me how I can help him.”
In Yellowknife, Shannon Taylor’s daughter was having trouble with Grade 3 math. Her teacher showed Taylor some websites and games with cards and dice so Taylor could help her daughter develop her skills. “She had some neat ways to get [my daughter] involved, which I had never really thought of. I went to school quite some time ago and was just busy with life. You don’t really think how you can make math more fun.”
Though Taylor was happy to follow these suggestions, Peter Sheppard, who teaches Grade 4 in Canning, N.S., said getting parents on board is sometimes an uphill battle. Sheppard, who is in his 27th year of teaching, said, “I’ve had kids whose fathers refuse to read. All of a sudden the child loses all interest in reading. What’s happening is the child sees the father as a role model. And if his father doesn’t read, he’s not going to read. I’ve had kids actually say that to me, ‘My dad doesn’t read; I don’t read.’ Then you go to the father and say, ‘Dad, you better start reading.’”
62% of parents want to say “I think parents should be able to give teachers report cards at the end of the school year.”
“Report cards might help teachers better understand where they’re doing fine and where they need to improve,” said Riese. “We don’t give them enough praise, and at the same time, we don’t often tell them when we feel they’re not doing a good job.”
Although many of those polled across Canada think parents should be able to give teachers report cards at the end of the year, Quebecers are the most enthusiastic about this—almost three quarters of them gave the notion a thumbs-up.
As you might expect, many teachers were not keen on being graded. Shelly Lord has been teaching high-school history and English in Saskatoon for ten years. She said, “Giving teachers report cards is a little bit scary because we’re calling the parents the experts now. The problem with education is that because everybody has been a student, they think it makes them an expert.” Dorothy McCallion, an elementary-school teacher in Barrie, Ont., worried that giving out report cards would turn into a popularity contest and that teachers would be afraid to give students low marks for fear of getting low marks themselves.
61% of parents want to say “All children are different. You take this into account in your teaching.”
Kathleen O’Connor, a mother from Sarnia, Ont., told us that this past school year, when her son was in Grade 6, he had an amazing teacher who helped him blossom. “This was the first year he actually enjoyed going to school,” said O’Connor, who has spent years trying to get him the special attention he requires. “His self-esteem is just incredible this year compared to what it was.” Almost two thirds of Ontario parents—more than parents elsewhere—gave teachers good marks for being sensitive to the differences between children.
René Jansen teaches high-school geography, physical education, and design and technology. A 21-year veteran in Scarborough, he wanted to let parents know that honing in on the individual needs of students “is a huge challenge.” Last year Jansen had a class of 28 students, 14 of whom had been identified as having special needs. He said it was next to impossible to get them all through the year successfully.
57% of parents want to say, “I know I’m no education expert, but my opinion counts.”
“Parents are just as capable of making decisions for their children as teachers are, most times even more capable,” insisted one B.C. parent.
Jansen agrees. “The parent’s perspective and knowledge of the child will absolutely help a teacher teach that child better. I have no question about that.” But he also had this to say: “There is a problem when a parent doesn’t recognize the professional training of teachers. It’s not like they just got there. I have five years of university and more than 20 years of experience. I have seen 7,000 children in my career. That leads to a lot of experience I can share. To not validate that would handicap the parent. We need to recognize what each partner brings to the situation.”
56% of parents want to say, “I’d like to know what teachers do on professional-development (PD) days.”
Randy Mulder was one of many parents who grumbled about PD days and how they interrupt education. He lives in Longview in southwestern Alberta, where, with a population of just 300, he can see for himself whether teachers are in training. He said he’s seen them out shopping or staying at home. “In my business, I would go out and make my own time to improve myself,” he said.
Leslie Basky agreed that schools could do a better job communicating with parents about this. “I’m all for write-ups in the school newsletter, telling families what teachers have been working on. It’s a good way to keep parents in the loop. I know there’s this idea out there that, on a development day, you are going to the classroom, sitting at your desk with a big cup of coffee, possibly doing some marking.” So what do teachers learn on those days? Popular subjects are: new curricula, new teaching techniques and safety.
48% of parents want to say, “The homework you give is too difficult for students to do on their own.”
“More and more I find myself helping with or teaching my child their homework. Why is this not done during school hours?” one Ontario parent wrote on the survey, while a parent from Alberta groused that teachers shouldn’t expect the kids to learn it all on their own at home. Another Ontario parent said a few teachers look like they’re burned out and just going through the motions. “Our kids survived [the school year] with lots of help from home.”
While all teachers like to see parents involved with their kids’ education, some had warnings about parents who go too far. Brad Ledgerwood, a high-school teacher in Whitby, Ont., said, “Being engaged with your kids is good, but obviously you should not do their homework for them.” Jansen recalled one parent who came to his office and complained about a mark she had received on her child’s homework. “I’m not kidding!” said Jansen.
44% of parents want to say, “I wish you would act on the issues we discuss in parent-teacher meetings.”
When Chrystopher Czulo of Toronto met his son’s Grade 8 teacher two years ago, he said they both wrote notes during their interview, but the teacher didn’t take action. Then Czulo was surprised by his son’s final grades. “I didn’t really find out until the report card, and at that point it was reactionary rather than proactive,” he said, adding the teacher did follow through the second time they discussed the problem.
Some parents don’t act on issues discussed during meetings either, Carole McCurry responded. She has been a teacher for 17 years and now has a kindergarten class in Brandon, Man.
“When a child is struggling, the parents come in and say, ‘What can we do?’ You give them a list of things and by next parent-teacher day, that child is still having difficulty. They say, ‘What can we do?’ and you give them the list again.”
Unfortunately, when it came to solutions for this problem, parents and teachers seemed to be pretty much at an impasse. Nova Scotia parent Julie MacRae remembered that when her child was in Grade 9, “one teacher said to me, ‘Do you expect me to call every parent whose child hasn’t handed in an assignment?’ And I said to him, ‘Has every parent asked you to call them? If they’ve asked you, then yes, I do expect you to.’”
Shelly Lord saw it differently: “I put the onus on the parents. Some parents say to me, ‘Phone me if you need any help.’ But I have over 120 students. I can’t always have time to phone. I say to parents who are concerned, ‘Can you phone me every two weeks to find out how things are going?’”
44% of parents want to say, “Don’t complain about your long days—not everyone gets two months of holiday every summer.”
One Alberta parent wrote on the survey, “Quit complaining about your working conditions. You get three months of paid vacation; you get every Christmas and holiday off; you only have to actually teach for five hours a day, while most people work eight plus overtime on a regular basis; you have the best benefit plan going and a great pension plan for when you retire.”
Hearing parents gripe about their holidays was not news for most teachers. In fact, Andrew Lummis, a Grade 6 teacher and assistant principal in Edmonton, said, “Everyone’s envious of teachers’ holidays. The irony is, when I ask, ‘Well, why didn’t you go into teaching?’ the first answer is, ‘I could never do it!’”
42% of parents want to say, “When children are picked on, you handle it well.”
“In Grade 8 my son was a victim of constant bullying by one particular student,” said a Manitoba parent. “The principal promised to take care of it personally, as I was prepared to call the police at that point. The situation was handled skilfully by the principal without police intervention, and both the bully and my son have coexisted peacefully in the same class since. My son is now in Grade 11.”
This is an ongoing problem, according to teacher Wanda Gibbons. “You have to be constantly aware of it. You need to be watching in the classrooms, in the hallways. Most of it does not happen under your nose. Most of it is subtle things that go on between classes or at lunch, or when students are sitting near each other. Cyberbullying is starting to take place. It’s very hard to deal with. There are many parents who aren’t aware or who don’t want to believe that their child could be a perpetrator or a victim.”
34% of parents want to say, “It’s your job to teach my child, and it’s my job to raise him/her.”
It’s important to realize that almost half the parents—48 percent—have never wanted to tell a teacher to butt out. (And 18 percent ventured no opinion.) “There’s that old African saying: ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” said Shannon Taylor, pointing out that teachers spend many hours a day with children, so the influence of teacher and parent are necessarily intertwined.
Alain Paquette is a teacher at an alternative elementary school in Ste-Thérèse, Que. Like Taylor, he believes teachers and parents need to work as a team. He said, “Both of us are there for the child. I don’t want to intrude on people’s privacy and tell them how to live. Still, it’s my role as a teacher to say to a parent, ‘Your child is staying up too late,’ when I see the child is often tired in class. After all, the child pays the price—school results will suffer.”