Parents are the Frontline of Their Children’s Academic Achievement: A Book Review of I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother by Suzette Clarke

 

 

 

 

I'm your teacher

 

 

 

Class is in session.

In her self-published book, I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother, Suzette Clarke ignites a controversial conversation about the “true source” of student failure. While finger-pointing has typically designated teachers, schools, standardized tests, and standards as the source of fault, Clarke turns the finger to a “culprit” more centrally located to students’ lives.  The parents.  A former middle school teacher and library media specialist of fifteen years, Clarke postulates lack of parental involvement and investment as most impactful on academic success, and that this factor must be considered before blame be placed solely and sorely on the shoulders of educational institutions and those who work within them.

I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother is a collection of expositions, vignettes, statistics, observations, and personal reflections based on the frontline of working in schools.  Clarke asserts parents’ attitudes about learning, orientations toward what support looks like, and understandings of obligations and responsibilities all play a role in how learning is supported, and not supported at home. Recounting hers and colleagues’ experiences, parental involvement has been staggeringly low.  Reflecting both on her own and colleagues’ experiences working in New York City schools, Clarke identifies several factors for why she thinks parental lack of both commitment and participation occurs on so large a scale.

Clarke asserts that some parents situate school as the primary officiator of their children’s success instead of themselves. “It seems they believe overseeing their children’s educational development is someone else’s responsibility.” However, she also contends that with pressing economic times many parents are pulled away from home, working long hours and multiple jobs, resulting in less possibility for them to be actively involved in monitoring children’s academic success closely.  “We have become a society of overwhelmed parents” who work “so much from the home that many depend on the system to develop and guide children.”

In other cases, Clarke contends that children “who fail have been given the power to fail by their parents,” and particularly those “who perform poorly or cause trouble in school do so because they have parents who are enablers. These parents do not do what is necessary to stem such behaviors.” Still in other cases parental failure of students is attributable to a lack of parents understanding their role to make sure students actively and responsibly participate in their own learning (completing tasks, fulfilling assignments, preparing for assessments). Being good intentioned, Clarke contends that such parents correlate being older as inherently being more responsible. She asserts that these expectations of autonomy, self-monitoring, and self-reliance are too much to handle, even for teenagers.

In all, Clarke suggests that at epidemic levels, “children are not getting the daily educational supervision they need at home in order to succeed at school.” Central to students performing successfully in school is parental establishment and enforcement of what she describes as an “educational tone in their home.” She emphasizes that parents must inaugurate high educational standards as soon as children commence school, and institute them every day until high school graduation.  She contends that if parents demonstrate concern for their children’s education and couple that with daily monitoring, then they will excel.  “Children who fail are not stupid. They are just unsupervised, undisciplined, unfocused, and out of practice.”

Clarke proclaims that there is “a distinct correlation between the concerned parent and the proactive student.” Students who do well are those who are “well trained, organized, disciplined, and motivated…They have parents who provide them with constant order, support, and guidance.” In the second half of her book, she then puts forth myriad suggestions for different ways parental involvement and commitment can be fully actualized.

For one, Clarke promotes reading at home as beneficially impactful on academic progress, while simultaneously honing an essential life skill. If parents “require reading time every day at home, reading scores would soar, and more students would become natural readers. Their overall knowledge, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, writing and spelling skills would improve.” As well, she purports avid readers as “more informed and are better communicators.”

Clarke suggests minimizing excessive showering children with gifts, especially those who are not successful in school, as it communicates values around material wealth over mental.  Indulgence in expensive gifts and trappings, in place of a consistent emotional involvement with child and school, endorses inappropriate school behavior and performance.

Parents reinforcing organization, such as the maintenance of an organized notebook, hold their children accountable in maintaining successful habits of mind and work. Frequent notebook checks are a way Clarke suggests parents can be kept abreast of a child’s progress. They can serve as a lens into any challenges or weaknesses his/her child is experiencing, and intervene. “If parents made sure their children maintained a constant level of organization and discipline, how can they fail?”

Clarke suggests that a mutually respectful partnership be established between parent and teacher. Parents of struggling students need to indulge less the blaming of teachers exclusively for their child’s poor performance. Instead, they should take the teachers’ input and advice and implement them into an action plan. She also admonishes parents to not be dissuaded by their child’s attitude toward a teacher, and not endorse their lack of successful performance just because they do not like a teacher. Parents must promote and uphold the expectation of the child to complete assigned work and excel on assessments, and not let a child’s excuse of “I don’t like the teacher” or “The teacher is out to get me” as justifiable eclipses of their potential.

Finally, Clarke suggests that supervision and activity are centripetal to academic success. From 3-6pm, students need activities that keep them engaged outside of school, and thus out of trouble. Examples include after school programs, play rehearsals, sports, language classes, tutoring, and when old enough, employment and volunteerism.

At the end of each chapter, Clarke asks parents pointed and poignant questions to reflect upon their involvement and investment in their child’s successes. They serve as prompts for parents to assess and reevaluate how they are supporting their child’s development. For example, a salient question she asks parents to consider is, “If a teacher has told you that your child is missing homework assignments, what new procedures have you implemented at home to ensure that all work is completed?” Such questions could serve as discussion starters during parent meetings, or as an opportunity for quiet reflection for individual parents.

In critique, there are some argumentative and structural elements of the book that need consideration. Argumentatively, the promotion of the idea of parental involvement proving pivotal to children’s successful formation academic habits and subsequent achievement is already established.  Repeating throughout the book that a lack of such investment has negative impact at times stifles its’ illuminative potential rather than augment it. All too brief and cursory descriptions of how and why parents are insufficiently participatory or absent from their children’s academic lives detract from us knowing and understanding what we as stakeholders cannot afford to repeat.  We need the nitty-gritty narratives alluded to by Clarke.  Accounts of specific families, detailing the different practices (or lack thereof) that negatively impact children creating and sustaining successful academic habits would amplify the argument and concretize what to avoid. Most importantly, providing in-depth case studies of parents who have implemented Clarke’s remedies effectively, yielding in children’s successful adoption and/or adaption of fruitful academic habits and achievement, would make the book complete.  Structurally, statistics and data from several diverse sources would provide readers a better understanding of the social, cultural, anthropological and historical milieu within which long-term academic efficacy and failure occur.

However, Clarke, as mother, educator, and advocate, puts her blood, sweat, and tears into initiating a much-needed conversation.  Her words and purpose push us into the arena, and provide an initial arsenal with which to begin the fight.  I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother offers food for thought regarding parents being the most essential agents of change in students’ academic development, progress, and success.

Class is dismissed. 

 

For more information, you can access Suzette’s website at http://imyourteachernotyourmother.com/.

 

 

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Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

The Principles of Effective Principals

A great mentor is one who asks you a question you never thought to ask yourself.  Here is a reflection on her question about what it is like to work with school principals (a work in progress).

 

My mentor Judith had us over for conversation and dinner a few months ago.  A question she asked me pierced our conversations of recent travels and ponderings of summer plans.  She asked what my experiences were like working with principals.  Judith has a gift for asking questions that perforate fronts, latch onto beliefs, and suck out the marrow of your truth.  My instant answer was recounting negative experiences I had with two principals while working at my previous job.  I went right into the “Woes is me” narrative of how difficult their intolerance and unkindness made it daunting and at times disheartening to do authentic work with their teachers and schools.  She listened patiently and then redirected, “I did not ask you that,” explaining the heart of her question was getting at what was I learning from working with principals.  The impact of not correctly answering the question, and the question itself, lingers.  Months later, an answer is evolving.

Now working two new consulting positions, Judith’s question has me thinking about the principles of these principals.   Looking back over the past school year, what am I learning about what principals value?  What am I learning about their standards, ethics, and the sources of both?  Veterans and newcomers, they have afforded an inner sanctum for me to study and train.  They give access to themselves.   They ask profound questions.  They are responsive as both professionals and as people.  They empower me as part of an evolving equation they are trying to create and solve.

Time together is valued.  The principals I now work with build into my schedule time for us to do extensive debriefs and have collaborative discussions.  They make sacrifices, whether it is part of the school day, or afterwards on a Friday afternoon.  There is a sense of urgency and importance about our relationship that they make the time for us to meet and talk.  Our meetings transcend my divulging observations and strategic support provided.  They are spent asking questions of each other, conferring or challenging observations, disclosing concerns, and intimating hopes for staff, students, and school.   I honor such assembly.  Time is at a premium for principals, but these have made exceptions for us to invest in one another that impress and enthrall me.

These school leaders are candidly transparent about their dilemmas.   While their skin is Teflon, it is not so tough so that they don’t allow vulnerabilities to surface.  They are leaders with vision and victory for their students as the vanguard of their leadership, and are so open to asking for input on how best to achieve the best for students.  They ask “deep questions.”  Their inquiries are driven less by checking on teacher compliance or to augmenting documentation to excess “bad” ones.  Their questions hover less around “Did the teachers do what I told them?”  More so around the premise “How can we support them as they support students?”   Their questions revolve in constellations of density and complexity.  They span issues of culturally relevant pedagogy, systems-based approaches to improving school culture, and empowering teachers as agents of change.  I am asked a lot about how can teacher disposition be shifted from a deficit-based orientation of urban students to one that is empowerment-driven.   How best can the connection between disposition and instruction be revealed and improved?  How can they as administrators support staff to build and create effective routines in classrooms and systems in schools?

These leaders allow and provide access to a high level of intimacy with their staff and themselves.   Building trusting relationships where people share themselves, their triumphs and trials, is rewarding albeit risky work.  I am sure it is not easy for principals to have their teachers’ classrooms and schools “put on blast,” exposed to what needs intervention and improvement.   But it is this trusting of me by principals to build relationships with teachers, and sharing the process of how I do that with them, that lends itself to building an intimate relationship invested in and shared between them as school leaders and me as consultant.  They learn from me that my goal is not to judge, but to understand.  Not to condemn, but to collaborate.  Not to enervate, but invigorate and shore up to innovate.  This orientation is for both their teachers and themselves as leaders.  And this orientation to working with them becomes the pipeline for principals and me to connect as professionals and as people.  It becomes the bridge to exchange detailed knowledge, build familiarity, share confidence in one another.

These principals situate school progress as an evolving equation.    This approach to consulting and coaching in schools does not have me working on the periphery (with the hope of access), but as an integrated variable in achieving a solution.  Previously, I have experienced waiting several hours onsite before the principal “sent” me to work with teachers, a principal allowing teachers to “blow off” scheduled coaching if they had something more important to do, and a host of other racial and professional indignities.  When shared with my superiors, their response was “Well, just go back and coach more.”  Currently, these leaders are trying to understand the variables at play, their relationship with one another, and what outcomes are possible based on the best configuration.  It is fascinating work.  At one school site, I worked specifically with the 10th grade teachers in improving classroom management.  The principal (newly installed this year) and I collaborated on how best to coach them, and together, situated the coaching where my weekly coaching would consist of 1) rotating observations and providing feedback to teachers, 2) doing inter-visitations with one struggling second-year teacher, 3) weekly PD meetings with the teachers as a team, 4) sharing out best practices of the team members.  Then, she asked for us to think of 1) how to share out what the 10th grade teachers learned, 2) how we could build the other grade levels to similar capacity, 3) empower grade level teams in behavioral management such that all discipline issues did not fall on the single dean, and 4) what support I could provide to achieve these goals.  In another school site, the principal and two Assistant Principals have involved me in their inquiry around how to understand teacher disposition and its impact on rigor and instruction, and what I could do to support such development and application.

What I begin to understand from these principals are some fundamental principles about working with people.  We make time for what we value.  Being vulnerable and inquisitive signals to others help needed in answering questions.  Intimacy is both a gift and a tool.  An invitation into solving bigger equations confirms peoples’ recognition of your skills and your capacity to both enhance and innovate.

Truths that I thank Judith for forcing me to ponder.


The Makings of a Bad Teacher

 

As prep for a state exam, the teacher created a lesson to review the cause and effects of WWII by having students view an amateur cartoon on YouTube, and then fill out answers to previous state exam questions.  On a different occasion, a teacher was reviewing geometric concepts in prep for the next day’s in-class exam.  However, students were listening to electronic devices, texting, holding side conversations about best lyricists, some had heads down on desks, and one exclaimed after a previously heated exchange with the teacher, “Don’t you sometimes feel like slapping the shit out of_____?”  In a third instance, students were sitting in groups, and then asked to do a do-now of answering questions followed by textbook reading and answering more questions.  The teacher spoke only to give announcements of what to complete in the textbook.

As  a witness to such classrooms, while not pleased and genuinely concerned about the delivery of instruction and the management of classroom dynamics not matching a path leading toward successful evidential learning outcomes, my job is to support teachers where they are into the best they can be.  Consequently, this work does not match the recent outcries of terminating bad teachers.  In this vortex of disconnect, two questions emanate.  Given these examples (and many like them) is this evidence of bad teachers or bad teaching moments?  Going further, is there such a thing as a bad teacher or bad teaching?  Having been a high school teacher and now an educational coach, I am trying to broaden my territory of investigation and support.  But, in the fury of media and politics advocating the eradication of bad teachers, I also have to start asking more clarifying questions.

The problem, in part, is “badness” is collapsed and universalized.  A teacher who chooses not to lesson plan is equated to one diligently struggling in writing and delivering effective lessons.  A teacher who is indifferent to whether all students learn is equated to one genuinely trying to figure out how to manage a class and differentiate instruction (which could be addressed through familiarizing the teacher with different strategies in both classroom management and instructional approaches and modeling them).  A teacher who is trying to practice students collaborating in groups in creating bridges of social interaction and practicing the use of them (as required in the world) is collapsed into the same category of those disinterested in such enterprise.  The point of these examples is that one could see similar outcomes–disengaged disgruntled students, poor instructional delivery, below par student performance–without taking into account the “badness” within context.  Training our eyes less to demonize a person, sharpening them to ascertain other factors in play such as skill and context, can better help us improve the educative experiences struggling teachers can give, and therefore (ideally) improve the learning possibilities of our students.

Perhaps what is needed during this moment of reform amidst calls to fire “bad” teachers based on student test scores, institute merit-based pay, and eliminate  hard-earned tenure–all of these responses to aftershock–is (1) a reexamination of the criteria for defining a “bad teacher,” (2) distinguishing “a bad teacher” from “bad teaching,”  (3) learning and understanding the context and situations that such teaching occurs, and (4) what reform initiatives  match outcomes for improving teaching and learning.  The most immediate solution is to lessen the rhetoric.  The over-sweeping judgments, placements of blame, and generalizations are rampant and fuel hysteria.  They focus our energy and efforts less around understanding the situations and contexts within which some teachers are struggling, and our duty to provide targeted support.  The next is to start asking questions.  What are a teacher’s goals for students, how are they matched with the teacher’s skill set, what is the evidence of effectiveness, and what are places where there is weakness that support can ameliorate?