One of the Biggest Problems in Our Schools: Parents

I attended three different schools in second grade, but the one I stayed in the longest was in Alabama, where I found out that I had been assigned to Mrs. Towry’s class. When cousins and peers heard this, I inevitably got the “Ooh, she’s tough” line, perhaps accompanied by a low whistle which implied that I was in for a hell of a time. I didn’t know what to make of this, so I took a wait-and-see approach. As it happens, Mrs. Towry was not the Wicked Witch of the West, but a kindly older teacher who maintained discipline in her class and cared about her kids. She and I got along just fine.

When I was in fourth grade, my parents had moved to a tiny, rural Texas town. I was in a third- and fourth-grade blend, taught by Mrs. M., who had taught there since the Jurassic period. Okay, I exaggerate a little. She had been asked to come out of retirement, perhaps because not many teachers were banging on the doors to come and teach in a school with six-man football. Mrs. M. was probably a decent teacher once, but it became clear after awhile that something was not quite right with her. She had an explosive temper and was prone to unreasonable outbursts, which sometimes resulted in violence. A classmate was thrown up against the wall hard enough to leave bruises. We tread on eggshells.

I told my parents all this, and the boy who was bruised did the same. My parents and the boy’s parents proceeded to make ourselves highly unpopular by asking the school board for her removal. As an esteemed town paragon, this did not go over well. No one wanted to remove Mrs. M., and although they finally had no other choice, everyone in the town — adults in particular — resented the fact that the two families had spoken up. Local parents, due to politics, would have preferred to keep an abusive teacher in place.

I transferred to another high school nearby in my junior year. The previous English teacher had quit after putting up with years of complaints that she was “too hard” and “why did you fail my kid?” Her replacement was anything but challenging, and since she seemed more interested in being our buddy than our teacher, I had a very hard time respecting her. As fate would have it, the dreaded “hard” Mrs. C. returned for our last six weeks of school while the new teacher was on maternity leave. When you really love and admire a teacher, you have a sort of crush on them. It’s an interesting emotion; it’s not romantic, it’s a little parental, and it’s sort of like reverence for deity. I had that kind of crush on Mrs. C. Too hard? She knew her stuff. She was stimulating. Yet, here was the woman so harried by parental complaints that she ditched it all to be a stay-at-home mom. A gem of a teacher, lost forever.

Some parents are guilty of neglect, and pay little attention to what goes on in their kids’ schools. But some parents are guilty of the opposite, and they perceive their children’s struggles and battles as their own. So when a teacher is challenging, or disciplines such a child, the child is well indoctrinated to take their umbrage home to their parents, who will then wear the mantle themselves. “How dare she! What do you mean you got a D?” The parent, geared to fight their children’s battles for them, buckles on their rhetorical sword and proceeds to complain to the teacher, to the administration, or to anyone who will listen.

If the school administration is toxic, great teachers probably won’t get the backup they need to face down these Parent Warriors. If the school administration is supportive, however, Parent Warriors may find their recourse in gossip about the “terrible teacher who had the audacity to ask their child to behave and learn.” Mrs. Towry was the beneficiary of such gossip, but so was Mrs. C. and so many other excellent teachers.

School officials and teachers sometimes do screw up, and sometimes badly. But parents who overestimate their children’s genius and capacity for misbehavior and untruthfulness often do more harm for their child than good by abusing teachers who are literally on the front lines every day, trying to cajole Dick and Jane into allowing some knowledge into their heads. It can be a thankless task.

So the next time you complain about teachers, take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I part of the problem?” If your child cannot take feedback now, then they will struggle to take feedback in the workforce, and this will make them unemployable. And if your child cannot face the consequences of their choices and actions, then you will find yourself bailing them out forever. Challenges are good. Failure can be instructive. Consequences teach responsibility. You should want your kid to learn these lessons, too.

Mrs. Towry and I

Writer, painter, cat fancier, troublemaker, democratic socialist, & antifascist.

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