Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Winning the Battle but Losing the War

Recently, I've seen some interesting comments about individual parents taking bold stands setting limits for their children with their teachers.  Alfie Kohn published a sample letter for parents to send to teachers.  Yesterday, a contributor to Sara Bennett's Stop Homework Facebook page discussed the position she took with her child's school. Everyday, there are cases of individual parents fighting and winning these battles with the school.  I did that several times with my homework trapped child. The problem is that you can win the battle but lose the war.  Your child will attend thirteen years of public school from K through 12 and have about 40 teachers over that span. Those teachers will differ in personality and beliefs, and will vary greatly in how they respond to the positions you take.  I can think of one parent I advised, in my clinical practice, to take a rational stand with her son.  She did.  The teacher was amenable, and her child' life improved.  The next year, the same battle but this time with a different response, and her feelings of helplessness prevail.  This is why, in part, I'm less inclined to take on the educational questions as some of my colleagues have.  I want teachers to figure out their theories of teaching, and not feel pressured by me, a parent and a psychologist, to think it through for them. In the end, I know that education will improve if teachers rethink, reduce, and possibly eliminate, homework from their craft.  But I'd rather let them figure that out, but set a common understanding of the parameters in which they work.  Teachers -- you are in charge of your class.  Parents -- you are in charge of your home. We will work together for the sake of our children. We know that parents want children to learn as much as teachers want them to learn, and that parents are willing to defer to teachers on educational matters, just as we defer to doctors regarding health, accountants regarding our taxes, mechanics to fix our cars.  But we do that as educated consumers and we retain the final say about what we're going to do.  The issue for me is not what is the right amount of homework, but making it clear that parents are the final decision-makers for matters in the home. Once the lines of authority are established and commonly accepted, this changes the context in which teachers can develop their educational theories.  Give homework -- okay.  Don't give homework -- fine.  Whatever makes sense from an educational point of view. But in all cases understand that homework takes place on another person's turf.  We don't need angry letters about what homework we'll allow as parents. We don't need finely crafted ones either.  We simply need the power to say this is what's going to happen in our homes. In the end, the majority of parents accept the teacher's judgment on homework assignments, and those who do not would readily alter their positions if the assignments made sense and if the time required seemed reasonable to them.  So I applaud the efforts that others have worked to arm parents with tools to take on the school.  I've done it myself.  But, from my experience, it can be a never-ending battle, one with periodic successes, but one which must be refought year after year.  This is why it is so important for parents of homework trapped children to come together, without shame for the difficulties their children have, and advocate for the position that they are in charge of the home. There is research to suggest that there are just as many parents clamoring for more homework as there are asking for less, and that the average parent is okay with what is going on.  We need to move that dialogue from an effort to find consensus among parents about how much homework is to be done, to a consensus over the fact that the parent is in charge of the home. Let teachers figure out what they think makes sense (hopefully through serious inservice training and research review), knowing that their power is limited on matters outside of their class.

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