Back to School Night flyers (paper or PDF, if a school’s gone green) are often decorated with drawings of apples, pencils, books and smiling students. But the event is often fraught with tension and even fear and mistrust on both sides between teachers and parents.
I look forward to Back to School Night, but it seems I am in the minority. My husband and I are both “in the education business” (we’re both professors at Catholic universities in the northeast); many of my students are studying to be, or are, teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists. I’ve always liked — all right, loved — school and learning; seeing my parents go to Back to School night was non-controversial.
Even more, education and school are key to my teenage autistic son Charlie’s future and we really value opportunities to talk to his teachers and therapists and see his school, which is in another town and county than we live in. Charlie can only talk a little and we rely on notes and reports from the school to find out how he spends his days so any chance we can visit his school and talk to its staff mean a lot.
Tensions Surround Back to School Night
In a recent conversation with a former student who now teaches middle-school language arts, I noted that the phrase “Back to School” send a frown across her face. My neighbor has taught middle school math for almost two decades; talking to her the day after Back to School Night, I realized the extent of her preparations to meet parents, including having her own little daughter spend the night with her mother. She was definitely surprised when I told her how much I liked Back to School Night and how I saw it as a chance to learn more about how Charlie spends his days. She reflected that she shouldn’t get so nervous about Back to School Night. Then she laughed and said, “but I still do.”
On Back to School Night at Charlie’s school, his teacher didn’t have the easy-going manner he does in his notes and at conferences. I had showed up in work clothes and whatever sweater I could grab; some parents were in shorts and very casual. But there were definitely those dressed and sat on the edges of their seats and frowned when questions (“why are there all these empty classrooms and our kids have to share a room with another class?”) were responded to with references to the “a” word — to the administration.
How Did It Come To This?
As much as we say we value education, reports about education policy, curricular issues, teacher training, special education law and the like are often received with polite attention and a yawn. Education often only makes the news when there’s a scandal, too often involving physical or sexual abuse, the teaching of topics such as creationism instead of evolution or — as highlighted by the teachers’ strike in Chicago — teachers’ unions and issues of tenure and evaluation.
Often it seems that teaching is a profession everyone has an opinion about but too many are glad not to have to do. Teachers are deemed selfish, our schools are perpetually said to be in a crisis, there are constant calls for reform by giving people “more choice” via charter schools.
Our education system does often falls short of meeting the grade we’d like to give it. I do think there is a lot of bureaucracy (and paperwork — certainly for children in special education) and administrative detail that often doesn’t seem to be too closely tied to actually educating children. I also know that, like it or not, some of those onerous regulations are better to have, such as demands for more oversight and documentation about the use of physical restraint techniques and seclusion rooms in public schools. As Charlie is autistic, he would not even be able to go to school without the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Even with the IDEA, parents of kids with disabilities still often find themselves fighting with school districts about appropriate school placements and services for children. A recent incident in which a non-verbal autistic boy went without lunch at his New Jersey school because his parents owed $2.00 for his lunch bill showed how rules and protocol can get in the way of common sense. The boy’s parents only learned about what had happened via a brief note from their son’s teacher. I wondered if the incident would not have blown up as much as it did if the parents could have been contacted during the day or some kind of more extensive communication about what happened and discussion of ways to prevent it had occurred.
I like meeting teachers, therapists and school staff as they’re the people whose work plays such a huge role in preparing Charlie for his future. I’ve been something of a “warrior mom” in the past and sometimes it was necessary to provide Charlie with what he needed. But sometimes contentious emails and recording every meeting just communicated to the teachers that we didn’t trust them and were questioned how well they were doing their job.
My neighbor, the veteran middle school math teacher, often gets home around the time I’m waiting for Charlie’s schoolbus. She may look tired; as she often tells me with a smile, she loves teaching and truly enjoys her job. How can we make Back to School Night as positive?
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