This teacher said a thing and I thought all hell would break loose.
It happened last week when my 8 Black Hands crew recorded a live podcast at a gathering of educators who came together for the State of Black Learning Conference in Pittsburgh.
It was the last question during our Q&A with the audience. A White woman, a teacher, said her colleagues are under constant pressure for student outcomes, but the responsibility feels lopsided. Families don’t take their responsibility to show up as seriously as they should.
Then, without a hint of self-awareness or tact, she asked: “How can we make parents accountable for their children’s education?” Her emphasis on the word “make” rang out like a tornado warning.
My reply was what I would call “Minnesota polite.” I said the premise of her question was “problematic and in need of calibration.” We shouldn’t take the fact that some parents don’t attend teacher conferences on weekday nights during dinnertime as proof they aren’t accountable for their kids’ success.
It was a softball, insufficient answer, but it was the most constructive thing I could think to say.
My colleague and co-host Dr. Charles Cole took over with a passionate rebuke. How dare this White woman feel so comfortable at an unapologetically Black event focused on Black student achievement as to talk about making Black parents do their job.
That was the answer I felt but didn’t say.
The way educators speak of families and children does too much to characterize them as deficient or irresponsible. And, the truth is, I don’t think this awfulizing of parents—especially those in poverty—is limited to White educators. There is more classist self-hatred in the non-White educator pool than we care to admit.
Still, at that moment when this teacher asked an awkwardly worded but important question that drew heat, I chose to be a firefighter rather than an arsonist.
The first thing I asked myself before answering her was, “How are the children?”
Because these teachers—White, Black and otherwise—came with goodwill to a conference for Black learning, hoping to gain insights that would make them better for our kids. Rather than shut her down and dismiss her poorly worded call for partnership, the goal would be to send her home with anything she could use at her school the following Monday.
Even if I think her frame was as wrong as mayonnaise on hot dogs, she was open enough to raise an issue I assume other less gutsy teachers struggle with in silence. They hear our equity talk and nod in compliance, all the while becoming increasingly cynical because we gloss over the real-world situations they have when working with parents.
As an example, here’s one reflection from a teacher on Reddit:
I work at a Title I school, and many of the teachers have the same problem as I do. The parents will sign up for conferences, and then not show up. They don't contact us beforehand (or even afterwards) to let us know, and when we call them to ask what happened, it's something like "Oh, I forgot I had to work.”
Along those lines, an Indiana superintendent writing to colleagues asks why school reformers seem allergic to parental accountability:
The truth is that except in extreme cases, school officials do not come close to having the impact on a child’s success as does a parent. Between birth and age 18, children spend only 10 percent of their waking hours at school with the bulk of their time spent in the home environment where, with no standards of accountability, parents may choose to be unsupportive and uninvolved in the education process.
When I hear these complaints I cringe. I hear a good deal of cultural incompetence at play. But in my heart of hearts, I know from experience there are situations where it’s true that parents aren’t working their end of the home-school partnership. I think we all know it but none of us dare risk revocation of our Black-card for wandering headlong into Bill Cosby’s troubled “pound cake” territory.
Ironically, the White teacher’s question that set us off came after a young Black man, under the pretense of asking a question, made a strong statement about how his own success in Pittsburgh schools had zero to do with whether or not his teachers loved him or knew him culturally but had everything to do with his own self-efficacy, and his mother’s demand that he does well in school.
“We can’t keep making excuses,” he said.
We didn’t condemn him. He was Black and sounded woke.
I heard echoes of his sentiment from a parent activist in New Jersey a few weeks ago. I spoke about parental rights and responsibilities being flip sides of the same coin. I said we as parents must fight for our rights in the face of a broken system of education that thinks too little of our children, and, at the same time, we must do so with the credibility of people who realize that by law and by nature we are ultimately responsible for the outcomes of our children.
When I was done speaking the parent activist told me that the parents she organizes are often unclear that it is their role to actively support their children’s learning at home beyond what happens in school.
I didn’t condemn her for thinking too little of parents. I didn’t suggest she harbored malice for them or was speaking out of turn.
The truth is I am still without the productive answer for the teacher who asked how we “make” parents accountable. What I know for sure is that the home-school relationship is broken and must be fixed if we truly want our children to be successful.
If we dare to ask "how are the children," we must also be brave enough to ask ourselves how we're partnering with teachers to ensure that they are well.