Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Booknote: _How to Deal with Parents Who are Angry, Troubled, Afraid, or Just Plain Crazy_ 2nd ed. (2005)

I picked up this book from our new books cart with some interest. I was a secondary school teacher at one point, and I had to deal with my share of parents who fit the descriptions in the title. My initial cursory look over the table of contents was not encouraging. Under Reason #2, "Educators Do Things that Upset Parents," one finds a laundry list of peeves that "make parents upset." Some of these issues include, but are not limited to: intimidation, control, power and blame. I have to wonder about these given my experience as a teacher since more often than not I was the one being intimidated by parents that always saw fit to remind me of their higher status as lawyers and such, who wanted to control my classroom for the sake of their kid, take away any sense of power I may have had, and then blame me for their problems. Another issue the author lists: rudeness. Now here is something I can definitely disagree with. In my time as a teacher, I was never rude to any parent, in spite of the fact that a few of them likely would have deserved some rudeness on my part given their begavior. I just figured there was no sense stooping to their level. As for the issue of respect, in my book, that is something you earn. You are not automatically entitled to it. You are entitled to be treated with dignity, but respect is earned. However, I will say I more often displayed respect than I ever received. My point from this is that so far, the book seemed nothing more than a treatise on parent appeasement. After reading through the book itself, that is not far from the truth. I did however do my best to read the book and give it a fair chance. The author notes that the book is designed for administrators and teachers, but the teachers referred to are mostly the ones looking to leave the classroom and become administrators.

I also read the note provided about the author. Elaine K. McEwan is a former teacher, principal, librarian, and assistant superintendent who is now a partner at a consulting firm. She has her own website, which I actually took a few moments from my reading to look over. It mostly provides a promotion for her workshops and other resources she and her firm produce. I did try to see if there was actually any price listing for the workshops, but you have to e-mail for a quote. However, if it is anything like the consultant my school district once brought in, it is probably not cheap, and given that I can't recall what the heck that consultant was brought in to speak to us about, I am guessing about as memorable, but very nicely packaged. Of course, I will add, this is a guess, but probably an educated one I am sure a few other teachers out there will identify.

In other words, she is one of those educators that got the classroom experience and went into the business of educational consulting. While I have nothing against good old fashioned capitalism and making money, I do wonder about people who leave a profession to then tell the professionals from the outside what to do within the profession. Thus I have a suspicion about businesspeople who charge huge fees to tell teachers things that teachers likely know already, or that teachers could be teaching to each other. If you want a good model of teachers teaching teachers, you may want to look over concepts like the National Writing Project. Unfortunately, consulting happens to be one of the few advancement options available to teachers who may want to actually make some money out of their training and skills. However, this makes some consultants at least to look like Stephen Covey. Nothing wrong with Mr. Covey, if you like that sort of thing. It is a sad commentary when teachers have to leave the job they likely love in order to get either better pay, better benefits, or just some respect. Ironically, when I was starting out as a secondary school teacher, someone jokingly told me that I could write a book someday about my experiences as a student teacher and then go on a lecture tour, you know, sort of to give some guidance to those coming behind me. I never gave it further thought, but I will note it has been done by others, in much better fashion than I could have likely. I may still write a book someday, but in the meantime, I am not quite ready to leave the trenches yet. And though I am not in a high school anymore, being an Instruction Librarian in an urban university means I do a lot of work with students. I just do it differently. And speaking of Mr. Covey, Ms. McEwan uses a quote of his as an epigraph in her first chapter.

I noticed as I read through that first chapter, that in a two page passage, out of six citations to outside resources, three were to previous works of hers. This may be picky on my part, but I get leery when people start citing themselves a little too much. If you said it before, why recycle it again?

As I read through the first chapter, all I saw was a litany of how poor parents are stressed out by today's society and its workings, and as a result, it is acceptable for them to be angry and disrespectful to teachers and administrators. The book is basically too apologetic to parents. Here is an interesting line: "Education is characterized by broad swings of philosophy and methodology, a steady stream of innovations that often demand logic. . ." (7). I would simply say that much of those "broad swings" are due to outsiders trying to tell the professionals what to do, even though they themselves would never dare to put a foot in a classroom. Usually, these outsiders are "educated" parents (yes, Ms. McEwan has a very high regard for parents who are well educated and thus likely know more than the teacher. Read the book if you think I am making this up. The tone is quite condescending coming from a former teacher). At any rate, these "educated" parents and legislators and assorted types come up with all sorts of fad initiatives which they push upon their boards of education to implement. If they work, they take the credit, but if they fail they move to blame the teachers. Also, this first chapter, as I mentioned, is nothing more than an excusing of parent behavior. I definitely have to disagree on this one. Regardless of their good intentions, or their knowledge (I am sure some parents may know more than I do, I would only hope they would share some of it with me so I can learn something), parents who behave rudely or "crazy" simply lower their own respectability and credibility the moment they abandon reason in favor of intimidation and threats. Civility, courtesy, and calm reason are good values to have. Parents should be called on this when they misbehave, not simply excused for it because they may be "stressed." The rest of us may be stressed as well; it does not mean we go and take it out on someone else. In addition, what kind of message does bad behavior from parents send to their children? For one, it sends a message that one does not have to take responsibility. It also sends the message that one does not have to be able to discuss issues in a calm and reasonable way. It basically says, "if we don't like the teacher, and we yell loud enough, the school will get rid of him or her." Is that really what parents want to transmit to their children? I would hope not, but I have seen it happen often enough that I have my doubts.

This is all on the first few pages of the book. On page 8, she makes the following statement, as if to make up for what's coming ahead: "Before you [teachers] get defensive and start making excuses, try to understand these parents." With such a preamble, one has to brace himself for the landry list of "bad teacher deeds" that follows. I understand the parents she describes alright, but unlike her, I am not willing to give them a pass on their bad behavior, especially since I am one of the teachers who, in her words, "may not be guilty of doing any of the things listed here. . ." Actually, in my case, I am not guilty, without the "maybe," which as a choice of word seems to doubt that teachers out there may actually be more civil and intelligent about how to deal with the parents of their students. There are other passages I could point to, but this note is already getting lengthy.

In spite of the apologetic tone of Chapter One, the rest of the book does provide some useful tips for defusing and disarming tenst situations. However, the advice is mostly along the lines of remaining calm, patient, and to use active listening. I think I learned about active listening when I was in grade school. Overall, what little the author offers can be found by anyone who is really interested in other places and in books that are much better written. A lot of the advice given I have seen before in other texts, or I had to learn it along the way. The book, like many books written by educational consultants, has a recycled feel to it. To make this particular book worse, it has a condescending tone towards teachers and an extensive excusing of parent bad behavior, making it simply something teachers have to cope with. This book is definitely not recommended for teachers seeking something new and insightful on the topic at hand.

I will leave with a final remark from the book that exemplifies what I mean when I say the author just let's parents off the hook. She writes that "after my years in education, I have come to believe that if parents could, they would. They want to, but they don't know how. They would like to, but they don't feel qualified" (107). Hmm, so, very often these parents are "educated" and know more than teachers, but they are not qualified? I detect a little contradiction. But more importantly, statements like that eliminate accountability and the potential to actually do something. If someone wants to do something, they will find a way, and parents who want the best for their children I am sure will if they can, and if they don't know how, will find out how. My parents did it, and they never insulted or disrespected an educator in the process, and I am sure many more parents do it as well. Too bad from this book, you don't get to see the few good parents or are even reminded they exist.

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