A reader asked the following question: “What is your opinion of how to manage parents who are absent or uninvolved. A lot of my kids have working parents and/or disinterested parents. Who takes hold of the autonomy then?” I am offering a response, both in writing and on a video clip. I invite readers to join the discussion and to also pose other questions for me to address.
My answer is that you don’t try to manage people. You accept the fact that people are different. Just as you deal with the children as they are, not necessarily how you would like them to be (I’m sure in every teacher’s career there are some years in which the teacher remembers being assigned a particularly “good” class and other years a much more difficult class). You teach the children you are assigned. The same goes for families. Some are involved; some are absent or at least less involved. Some work. Some have an at-home parent. Some are highly interested. Some leave education to you, the teacher, and focus their interests elsewhere. In effect, parents represent the complex reality of human experience and circumstances. Their behaviors cannot be dictated by the teacher, let alone by the 30 to 40 different teachers their child will encounter over a 13 year, public school career.
There’s a concept that is central to Alcoholics Anonymous called the Serenity Prayer, which offers good advice for everyone, not just alcoholics. The prayer essentially calls for serenity in accepting things that are out of our control, courage in dealing with things that are in our control, and wisdom to know the difference. The problem raised in the reader’s question can be understood as struggling with an expectation that one can manage something that it outside one’s control. Once the teacher recognizes that his or her power and authority resides inside, not outside the classroom, there can be more acceptance of the fact that parents are different, and it does not have to interfere with the teaching process.
I’m always struck by the severity of homework penalties. If a child has some difficulty in class, he might get a low grade, but he’ll rarely get a zero or fail for the difficulties he has. Yet with homework, failure is a serious risk, based simply on the mathematics of the system. If homework, which might take under 10 percent of the child’s total home-school education time, is counted up to 25 percent of the grade, and if the child can get a 0, which I call a super-F, for work not done, we’re looking at a grading system that magnifies the effect of homework difficulties far beyond the impact of in-school difficulties. I think we have gravitated to this standard largely because this is what people do when they try to control behaviors that are outside their control. They create harsher and harsher consequences to influence behavior. Yet, the reality is that continued use of penalties in the absence of desired behavioral change, actually increases, rather than deceases, the prospects of noncompliance. If anything, the harsh penalties mobilize the parent into a frenzy, rather than motivate the child to do his homework.
Once we accept that families differ, we can stay focused on what happens in the classroom. This does not mean the teacher cannot assign homework. It just means, you assign it understanding the realities of the situation, accepting that children go home to different environments, and develop teaching methods that do not make you dependent on things that take place outside the class.
What do you think? Please weigh in with a comment. Please propose another topic as well.
Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. He is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers and currently works in his own private practice.
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