After 23 years as a K-12 parent, I’m done. Five parting tips for schools.

From their first day of kindergarten to their graduation, my twins are done with school and so am I.

My twins, the youngest of my four children, graduate high school today, ending my 23 year relationship with K-12 public schools in Georgia.

I have been packing lunches, going on field trips and collecting for teacher gifts since August of 1993. My calendar is now cleared of curriculum nights, book fairs and school concerts. High school graduation often produces tears, but I’m wearing a slight smile. While I enjoyed being a high school student, I found college liberating in the ability to choose what I studied. And I hope my kids will as well.

All my kids received an excellent education overall in Georgia public schools. However, as a parent, I sometimes found public schools exasperating. Unlike private schools that are often under the direction of a veteran headmaster with firm policies and practices followed faithfully schoolwide, public schools race each year to meet new dictates from the district and state and federal governments. There are always new people arriving with improvement plans, whether superintendents, principals, teachers or coaches. Classroom standards can vary, something I saw clearly from having twins taking the same subjects under different teachers.

With the benefit of personal experience and the wider vantage point of writing about education for 20 years, here are five suggestions for administrators, teachers and staff to improve how parents feel about their public schools:

  1. Choose good leaders and allow them time: Without fail, leadership changes bring tensions and uncertainties that should abate over time — unless the changes keep coming. My favorite years as a public school parent were the elementary school years when my children had the same principal from kindergarten through fifth grade. One of the few periods when I saw academic quality and teacher morale falter at the elementary school was when interim principals were in place.
  2. Hold fewer but better organized events, involve all the kids and value parent time: I once arrived at a Friday afternoon “class talent show” to which all parents had been invited. About 15 parents attended. But in a class of 26 or 27, the show featured five students who lip-synched and told corny jokes. It turns out that the five kids organized the show as part of a group project. I walked back to the parking lot with a physician whose child was not among the five. She had shifted patients to attend and vowed never again.
  3.  Communicate more and answer emails: I am surprised at the number of school employees who either don’t answer emails or respond weeks later. And that goes up the chain; I have sent emails in praise of teachers to superintendents, principals and school board members with no acknowledgement. I have relayed offers of help to teachers with no response. (The parents who contact me with school problems often do so in frustration over being ignored by the administration.)
  4. Avoid delegating tasks to students that are more effectively handled by staff. As an example, parents go to events like Curriculum Night to hear teacher expectations and classroom policies. No one benefits when nervous and under-prepared students are delegated to explain this critical information through skits or panels and spend the 30 minutes hissing at each other, “It’s your turn to talk” and “You forgot your line.” Also, as a parent volunteer, I’ve dutifully arrived to chaperone float building or pep rally sign-making to discover the students designated to get supplies or create the designs have not done so. Schools blame a lot of mishaps on poor execution by students, whether names misspelled in yearbooks or kids left out of group project presentations, but it’s the job of staff to oversee students.
  5. Show parents you know their children: For the most part, I felt teachers knew my kids and were rooting for them. But not always. One easy way for schools to assure parents their kids are being seen is to adopt the narrative progress report, something private schools understand. Rather than sending a checklist report card, many private school require teachers write short essays about students, citing specifics about how each excelled or struggled. I ran into one of my kids’ former teachers who now leads a top Atlanta private, and she told me this was a revered and effective tool at her school.

Next week, I’ll  share my tips to parents, one of them being to act on their concerns. I used to pride myself on never taking any problem to the level of the principal. Now, I realize that was a fault, not a virtue.

 

Reader Comments 0

35 comments
breidmusic
breidmusic

My family had a mostly positive experience with Gwinnett County Public Schools. Most of my frustrations are due to the fact that schools have no incentive to cater to their "customers". They schedule and set up events for their convenience. They make all students and parents show up during the same 2-3 hour window at the beginning of the year to physically fill out multiple forms with redundant info (one for the nurse, one for the bus system, one for the administration, etc.) that could easily be entered via computer at the parents convenience and disseminated to the appropriate offices. Don't like it, take your public school business elsewhere. I, too, have been frustrated by lack of response to or acknowledgement of emails. You know who returns my emails? The people in private business who I patronize, because they are afraid I will take my business elsewhere.

Carolyn Haldeman
Carolyn Haldeman

Congratulations, Maureen.  Thank you for being a mentor to so many of your readers.  Handsome graduates at your house!  Best wishes to them as they begin a new phase of their lives.  Mom, you must get used to having less input on their education now.  They've been raised right--no worries!

heyteacher
heyteacher

Great points -- especially #2. My son's kindergarten teacher made it sound like it was life or death if a parent didn't attend the end of the year picnic held at 10:30 AM (because that's when the K's eat). I don't know very many working adults that would find that time convenient -- my poor kids know that I can't leave my own students to come and eat with them -- I don't understand why there can't be one or two major events each semester and at least ONE of those held outside of normal working hours. #5 is tough at the secondary level especially if you teach English or a Social Studies course where the grading load is huge. We do need to think outside the box on this one, though -- perhaps we could have a conference day where students and parents could make appointments to meet with teachers? Or teachers could be required to do some kind of narrative on 1/4 of our students each quarter. It is definitely worth mentioning to the folks above my pay grade. 

Mack68
Mack68

Congrats, mom! 

Good job!

weetamoe
weetamoe

Do you lose your job if you do not have at least one comment similar to the "deplorables" one? 

Falcaints
Falcaints

Just finished my 24th year in education and I still get a little misty eyed when the year ends.  I have eight weeks until it all starts again.

Carol White Covic
Carol White Covic

I had very few "done" years. At 63 I try to support my grand girls, their teachers and their school. None of the responsibility but lots of fun. I have always appreciated what almost all the teachers and schools try to do for so many different kinds of children and situations. I'm sure you will find your experience and skills are welcomed and appreciated if you find yourself in a position to be involved in the future. I enjoy the work that you do.

gapeach101
gapeach101

Congratulations Ms Downey, enjoy all of your new found time. 

Surelyyoujest
Surelyyoujest

We only had two kids and still spent 27 years in K - med school/residency and MBA - we really enjoyed it all.

CJKatl
CJKatl

My sister and brother in law finish 23 years of school involvement today, too. Same schools. See you at graduation. 

Jessica Whitehead
Jessica Whitehead

When you have 180 students to teach and little time to even use the bathroom, Im not quite sure where or how we would find the time to write a "short essay" about each student for every progress report and report card we send home. On top of everything else that is required of us to do (way too long to list here) that would literally kill us.

Surelyyoujest
Surelyyoujest

Yup - Mo and Bo live in a utopian world where everything SHOULD be as they see and expect, hardly reality in the world in which the rest of us live.  However, that's what makes the world go round....

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Surelyyoujest I think districts could start with elementary schools and see how it goes. One teacher whose school does something like this told me it dramatically reduced parents seeking conferences to see how their kids were doing. She considered it a win in terms of time. Unlike many private schools that issue narrative reports three times a year, public schools could do one mid-year report. 

taylor48
taylor48

Elementary here.  Writing a "short essay" for all 27 students at the end of the year would be a huge time committment (that would have to happen at home since we are supposed to keep them occupied up to the last day).  Isn't that what conferences are for?  We have two a year, and that's a great time for me to share what I know about a student and for the parent to share with me anything I might not know.  Of course, that requires parents to actually show up.

Another comment
Another comment

You are correct Maureen. Nothing like having to go to a key and look up what 27, 9, 3, 45 , etc mean. Of course every teacher gives a different combination of the 45 odd number codes. So you just ignore them.

I wrote handwritten meaningful performance reviews for 210 employees twice a year. So there is no excuse. fifteen years out I went to a Christmas party and one former employee asked me in my review you wrote "______". People read and think about written out thoughtful constructive and praiseful comments.

insideview
insideview

Teachers complain too much . This is my 28th year , and if you care, you make it happen.

taylor48
taylor48

@insideview Well, my own kids deserve some of my time too.  Again, we have conferences twice a year.  Parents need to come to those.  That's the time for the in depth discussion.  Plus, I met with parents whenever they requested a conference outside of the regular dates.  Expecting to have a life outside of my work isn't complaining at all, it's a fact.

ErnestB
ErnestB

Great points, Maureen!  Congratulations to you and your family!  As you may recall, I have a similar family structure and found the transition to being a K-12 parent to solely being a taxpayer interesting.  I would add that schools should find a way to keep to greater community engaged as many of us 'empty nesters' still welcome partnering with the schools as schedules permit.  In my case, I still offer myself to neighboring schools as a resource for career days.


I'm looking forward to reading your tips to parents.

Lisa Kelly Mason
Lisa Kelly Mason

This article echoed my feelings as an APS parent exactly. My oldest child graduates from NAHS tomorrow. He's had some great teachers, and I think has been unaware of many of the issues that have frustrated me. I've got 3 more years till my daughter graduates, and will not be sad to be done.

Wrecker
Wrecker

Narratives are a great idea when you have 15-16 kids per class and only have to write 50-60.  Try doing that when your class sizes are 29-30 and you have to write 150 while also doing the ridiculous busywork of complying with federal and state paperwork.  Try doing that with students that miss 15-30 classes in a semester.  Try doing that when your students' parents do not speak any English.


I love private schools, both in idea and execution, but not everything they do translates to mandatory, open-to-all, public schools.  

Another comment
Another comment

I wrote performance reviews for 210 employees with 5-7 elements twice a year. I took them home and wrote them at night after my kids went to sleep for a few night. My employees just larger children appreciated the the feedback.

Kate Maloney
Kate Maloney

Well said, and that is from my two perspectives of teacher and parent. My youngest of four begins high school next year, and my tenure as a Georgia public K-12 parent will end up spanning 1998-2021. Your point about leadership is my favorite.

worriedaboutthenumbers
worriedaboutthenumbers

2 and 4 haven't been a major issue, but 3!3!3! I understand that email time is precious but teachers, I promise, even a short response will go a long way of buying you good will and credibility.
Teachers and Staff: Communicate! Explain! If you get questions from one parent, share info with all!
We parents know that the profession of teaching attracts some really awesome people, but some were clearly C and D students. We can't always tell - do you have low standards and don't care so much, or do have high standards and just don't communicate?
Any amount of explanation as to why you do things will let us know you are one of the ones who think.
Parents worry. Some less, some more. The ones who worry more feed each other's fears. Benefit of the doubt is in short supply, and much easier to be had when we understand that you have standards and a plan, whether we like it or not is not the point.
If you don't provide us with your reasoning, we will fill it in and it will not be pretty.

Amy Christiansen
Amy Christiansen

I enjoyed reading this. I appreciated that you put into perspective what public schools face from boards, governors and federal government. It's a tough job. I really appreciated that you point out how emails go unreturned. I know that administrators get a lot of email, but as each year passes it becomes more mind boggling how even emails with legitimate complaints are ignored, and yes, positive emails are also not acknowledged. As a parent, it truly makes you feel like your school couldn't care less about your student. More and more it feels like administrations are taking the stance of it's us against the parents. And yes, there are parents that are unnecessarily demanding and immediately rude when a problem arises. I've seen that and I get what administrations/teachers have to deal with. But, are those parents truly the majority? A majority in a way that means reasonable parents can't even get a reply to an email?????

Jessica Whitehead
Jessica Whitehead

In some counties, yes, those type of parents are the majority. Most of my parents that I call, or attempt to call, either never answer the phone or do not have a working number. Then, when their child fails or is suspended for something, is when they want to communicate with us. This road goes both ways. The best way to communicate with teachers and administrators is in person. Set up and schedule a conference through the front office secretaries.

Julia Anderson
Julia Anderson

I have always thought that that the school should have a policy that a teacher give some response (even if it simply to let you know they will be answering within the next week) within 48 hours. As a room mom it is frustrating to ask questions and have a teach reply two weeks later saying 'sorry it took so long to get back with you but our dept was trying to decide what day class party will be'. Fine but at least let me know you got the email before two weeks. This delayed response has been consistent for every year except the year the teacher never once replied. I always had to go in to get a response. The teacher this year never would tell us what things she would like us to buy with extra class funds.

betsy775
betsy775

We are lucky that in the beginning of the year, our teachers clearly communicated that they prefer email. I can't imagine a teacher preferring a face to face meeting? That seems crazy to me when an email gets the job done in a fraction of the time and hassle.

kaelyn
kaelyn

Great tips (number three is my biggest problem). Beautiful children. Congratulations!

Ralph-43
Ralph-43

Good work Maureen.  I don't think United States public education has ever been under greater attack than now.  I hope you will stay on the job and continue the investigation.

redweather
redweather

#3 speaks to something that happens in every industry, not just the schools. Lots of people seem to think that acknowledging an email is optional.

DrProudBlackMan
DrProudBlackMan

Good job Maureen and congratulations to your kids! Please ignore the negative comments from the usual deplorables.

davidhoffman5
davidhoffman5

Narratives? This is the age of fill in the bubble testing and test numbers. It has been that way for at least 44 years in public schools. Time consuming discipline problem people. About 10 percent of the students at your children's schools probably took up 90 percent of staff discretionary time with their problem behaviors. Narratives are nice to do when you do not have to feed the fill in the bubble testing monster and can permanently remove persistently problematic people from your classes.