Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thank You, Ms. Kaye

A Parent's Place

I stood blinking, a silly smile feebly shielding the conflicting emotions I felt inside.   Me, Ms. Articulate, at a total loss for words. Holding onto my wiggly little one, smiling politely at Ms. Kaye, I did my best to corral my thoughts. At first they wouldn’t come at all; finally, thankfully, they did—though not with as much clarity of articulation as I’d hoped. Ms. Kaye, our wonderfully capable and loving home day care provider, had been caring for my two toddlers for the past 5 months. We (my son, now 4, daughter, now 3, my husband and I) were still fairly new to her.  She’d been highly recommended by a friend, who’d vouched for her patient disposition and character-building, inquiry-based learning environment.  She expressed genuine love for all her students, gave detailed feedback about students’ socio-emotional development, and incorporated authentic learning into all that she did. I was grateful beyond measure for her.   It’s just that I couldn’t shake the sense that she had little respect for me as a parent.
            Her statement really had been simple enough: “I wanted to let you know that this week I started potty training with Nyla. I’ve been putting her on the potty a few times a day—no big deal, just giving her the exposure so she gets used to it.  I find that if you wait too long with girls, it just gets harder. You’re welcome to join me and do the same thing at home.  I just wanted to let you know that this is what I’m doing here.”  As she spoke, the air seeped out of the room.  There was so much I wanted to say: “What?!  This, my second of two in the now-shut baby factory, and my only girl, to boot--and this is how I learn that you’ve chosen on your own to start potty training her? No conversation? No “we” plan, no permission to begin what for a mom and her daughter is a very beautiful, but fleeting, experience? Then I have to find out on a Friday that it’s been your project all week—but now you’re inviting me to join you in the process??”  But none of those words came.  Ms. Kaye’s declaration had rattled my every sensibility about the power of the parent and the sacredness of the moments that working moms miss.  Never mind that guilt; never mind the fact that Ms. Kaye was work-at-home mom who knew nothing of this life I lived, apparently, even after four kids of her own.  I respected and admired her choices.  But my plastic smile hid confusion--why it hadn’t occurred to her to respect me for the life I was living, this working mom grind?  In that moment, I felt all my hard-earned self-respect as a mother dancing shakily on a corny, unsure reply: “Granted, I’m new to this child care thing—but isn’t that something that’s usually a conversation with the parent before it’s begun?” I don’t even remember her answer, and I’m not even sure it mattered.  My chance to choose how and when this special rite of passage would commence was forever gone, and I had to deal with it.
            This wouldn’t be the only time that I’d felt undervalued and slighted by the way Ms. Kaye engaged me as a parent.   In another instance, Ms. Kaye had volunteered a report on our son’s progress, a pleasant recounting of his growth over the course of his first year working with her.   In her three-paragraph statement, the second and third paragraphs spoke glowingly of sonny having made great progress in social skills and emotional awareness, academics and as a future young leader, under her care. Unfortunately, my mind never made it past the first paragraph’s account: sad baseline data about how my son had entered her program without knowing his letters, colors or numbers.  By her assessment’s standards, before being graced with her golden touch, the kid knew nothing.  Yet more than the inaccuracy of this conclusion stung me—the presumptions packed the punch.  Nate had entered knowing plenty, and I was convinced that a sensitive assessment and observer would have discerned not only what he knew, but his advanced understanding in many areas.  However, in an all-or-nothing world, plenty is never enough.
            It was clear where this kid was headed.  From the start, he was highly verbally advanced with an abstract logic beyond his years, and had wowed adults since infancy with his level of perception, social ability and musical prowess.  His mother had been identified gifted in 2nd grade, and I’d seen the signs in him—but I also know the pros and cons of the gifted child’s experience.  I had deliberately chosen not to overly emphasize the typical parent track of academic fact acquisition with him.  Instead, in his first two years I had focused on non-academic skills—things like problem solving, conversational skills, reasoning, and treating others well.  I was exposing him to real-world learning and things like letter and colors, for sure—but just in a more context-imbedded way than friends I knew who followed the traditional flash card curriculum. His strong sense of memory and connections among ideas, I knew, would serve him quite well once I dove deeply into letter recognition and other academic content knowledge.  By the time he began to understand what his mind could truly do, his social-emotional maturity would be ready to match the academic knowledge that would no doubt come easily for him. What mattered more to me was that my perfectionistic, driven, sometimes bossy child have opportunities to practice character development that could give him a strong inner foundation.
Nate is the kid who now, at 4, knows his letters and their sounds, and writes many of them; he learns sight words easily, reads simple books with self-corrections and reading behaviors; helps me write messages; and uses numbers, colors and number sense in higher level ways. He can find 10 states on the U.S. map; creates music and is learning musical scales; is learning chess, and is advanced beyond his years in understanding and reasoning.  In our own fun ways, I had started working with him more explicitly on home academics when we moved him and his sister from their granny’s care to the home-based learning center.   These things were deliberately timed. Yet Ms. Kaye didn’t seem to realize this or recognize that I even had a plan that she maybe should tap into…nor did she realize, apparently, the extent of content knowledge my son brought to the table.  Why couldn’t Ms. Kaye see or acknowledge any of this?   The moment this question flooded my mind in a meaningful way, I realized that I owed Ms. Kaye a thank you.  She had uncovered something in me that I had never seen.
            I am an educator.  I have been teaching for 16 years—including my most recent five as a literacy specialist.  Currently I serve as an instructional coach with elementary teachers in a high-poverty environment.  I have had some amazing professional development opportunities, including National Board Certification.  I know a little bit about education.  But if even I have felt the sting of feeling underestimated as a parent, what might less confident parents experience in their children’s schools?  What must it be like to not be a parent educator who knows the teacher jargon, where to access “the research” and has knowledge of the major players in the education game?  How must it feel to have painful memories of one’s own experience with the institution of school, perhaps, and have no one giving you the benefit of the doubt or assuming you know more than you may let on?  I realized that everything I ever felt underappreciated about in my young children’s short experience in the care of this otherwise fabulous teacher, the parents I serve must have felt a thousand times over, in their public-school parenting journey.

The Ugly Truth

What I discovered about myself, thanks to Ms. Kaye, I did not like--but needed desperately to see. See, in America we have this strong meritocracy concept that penalizes those who have not for not having, and rewards those who already have for what they have.  I have participated in it.   And so, in this journey of constant growth and reflection, I realize that I owe many of my prior students’ parents an apology.  An apology for assumptions and for questions never asked…for benefits of the doubt not given and presumptions of best intent not applied. 
As I found myself pushing back against what seemed to be Ms. Kaye’s assumptions about my family, I realized that I probably have more in common with many of my students’ parents than I’d realized.  I was reminded that my natural default approach to people who expect little of me or think small of my abilities, is to resist the double-tax of having to work hard to prove wrong judgments I never deserved in the first place.  In other words, negative expectations of my core abilities and intentions have a reverse effect on the positive outcomes I display.  Once I perceived that Ms. Kaye saw little in me, I resisted letting on that there was much more to see.  This is much like the resistance we see in schools by students and families in my environment.  It’s not that I didn’t continue teaching my children at home and pushing towards that awesome vision of the balanced and respectful people I am shaping them to be.  It’s just that laboring under the cloud of low opinions, I find myself unable and indeed, unwilling, to try to impress Ms. Kaye.  I suspect that this is many parents’ subconscious story. 
            I have been taught that education is the great equalizer.  I have believed it to my core, and this idea continues to be a motivator and hope-builder.  Yet I realize on this end of things that so much about my stance towards social justice has been about my physical presence.  I thought that I realized how important it is for me to genuinely see myself as a partner with, an ally of, parents and to be clear that I am no better than them and express this in all the ways that I treat them.   Apparently, I had much more to learn.
As much as we as educators love and value the rescue narrative (which relies on an idea of us as the collective fount of knowledge), I'm now inclined to believe a more robust narrative not only exists, but could thrive, if we could embrace it.  The story I like to tell these days is built on a view of parents as powerful and admirable human beings.  What I believed was my due as a parent—a certain kind of respect and curiosity and opportunity to be acknowledged for my contribution, is what every parent deserves from those of us who educate.  What else are we doing if we can’t even begin with that basic right?  How discerning and skilled and motivational are we if we don’t know how to look beyond the deficits we see and find some strengths to draw on?  And so, this next school year I will begin with an entirely new set of questions on my lips for every parent, and I expect a new set of learnings to follow.     
What I realize now is that sometimes it’s not the outward expressions of respect and support that mean the most, but the internal attitudes or thought patterns.  I’m asking myself questions like, what does it communicate if the only time I ask questions of parents is when inquiring about assignments I’m giving or things I want done?  What message am I sending when my students never see me expressing the humility to let their family members teach me about who they are?  If I start our relationship by talking, and don’t first find some way to allow myself to be teachable, what does this say? Even with all my pedagogical knowledge, amassed over these years, how could I possibly be the expert on this child whom I didn’t birth, whose stories I don’t know and whose gifts and treasures I have yet to uncover? Even more telling, what if the child comes from a background, experience, reputation or demonstrated pattern of a seemingly bankrupt strengths account?  What level of expectation does that child get from me? Do the expectations of what is “typical” take over in my mind and even in a benevolent way; render me literally blind to what I can learn from that family?  I’ve had to unpack and unearth literally dozens of assumptions and questions in this process of identity exploration.  

The Conversation

I believe that some of the social disparities in the United States have been waiting for a long time to be addressed.  But in this hour when social justice questions loom above us in very painful and obvious ways, this conversation I’m having with myself is one I’ve committed to take further, in my daily work with students and families.   From now on, my very first conversation with any parent will be a chance for me to prove myself teachable, by asking questions that encourage families to share things that I should know.  I’ve narrowed down my wonderings to 5-10 major questions that I’m hoping will open conversations that can change the game.   As I examine my experience as a parent, overlapped with the life of a teacher, I want to share 5 major points of inquiry here that will guide my learning of students’ families:
o   Who is your child?
o   What hopes or plans do you have for him or her? 
o   How is your child most like you?
o   What’s something important you want your child to know about life?
o   Is there anything you want me to know about what life looks like outside of school that will help me understand or connect to your child?
From this year forward, no first contact with parents begins without some iteration of this theme…and I will purposely weave it into every conversation with every parent.   The questions themselves are not remarkable; for me it is the mindset that says, “These particular kinds of questions matter”, along with a truly compassionate and humble-curious response from the teacher, which seals the deal.
What if we all, we teachers, we content experts with loads to learn about the content of our students’ character, became curious seekers when it comes to our charges?    What if we embraced the truth that we are fibers in a bigger fabric of community, home, school and other institutions, and that with all there is to know in the world, we know only a piece of it? If our collective conscience would allow us to believe such a thing, it could take us to a place where we realize that our experiences as teachers at-large may be somewhat limited--that, as writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously notes, there is not one “single story” to be told. What if we truly slowed down to look for the gold nuggets in every child’s experience, and determined to believe something good or redeeming about every family?    This is where I want to live, and I can only thank Ms. Kaye for even showing me my need to find it.  We must find it.  We, after all, are “them.”