Struggling to Engage Parents 


(Part 1 in The Living Water School School's “Transparency” Series) 

It is late. I have just fed my dogs. Everyone is asleep and like most nights, I am the last one up and I’m usually thinking about the school. Tonight, I am thinking on parents who send their kids to the school and still struggle to embrace our philosophy. There is a lot of questioning. There is a lot of challenging why we do what we do the way that we do. There is a lot of advice about how we need to do this or that. I am reflecting on those times when parents and I have these discussions.  I usually walk away asking myself, “Have they read FREE AT LAST or any of the articles I’ve sent out to the school community?”  Actually more than half of our parents won’t attend our quarterly Assembly meeting where we not only vote on school matters, but we also have discussions on these texts that support the philosophy. A small handful read the literature we share so they can participate in discussion. There is just this refusal to let go of the old way, and yet they see how much their child loves the school. They even see lots of changes happening in the child right before their eyes, but because they may not see as many “academic” changes going on, they begin to worry.

I remember one time being so excited that a student had been able to control his anger in a conflict.  JC (Judicial Committee) somehow gets students to stop fighting, fussing and yelling, and they begin to handle conflict rationally and more calmly.  When he was picked up from school, I ran to the parent overjoyed and said, “He had such a great day today….” and I proceed to tell her how proud I was of him being able to handle conflict in such a healthy way. The parent looks at the child unmoved and asks “What kind of work did you do today?”  My heart sank. The student’s face that once beamed with pride became grim. I thought to myself, “She totally is missing this!”

The one question that keeps coming to me tonight as I am sitting here in the stillness of my home is this: I wonder if parents are realizing that I came to the Sudbury model AFTER over 20 years in traditional education…in public and private schools.  I have been a teacher and an administrator…even worked for the university as a supervisor of student teachers in a local public school system.  I KNOW the system. I know traditional education. It was my every breath for so long and then somehow I wanted to leave it all behind after one visit to Fairhaven School. One very short visit. Why?

Well, I’d been unhappy with traditional education since my first week as a teacher began back in 1995. I remember sitting in my classroom the week before the students would come into my class and thinking “This is horrible. I went to school 4 years for this?” I immediately became aware that there is no way 30 kids can learn with one teacher. I was acutely aware of children’s differences and wondering how to meet all those differences. I remember looking over my list of incoming students and all the notes, folders, IEPs, etc. about each one and wondered how in the world do I teach 30 students at all different reading levels how to become good readers in 10 months?  Like HOW?

For the next 20 years I tried to solve that puzzle and the solution never came. The one conclusion that a fellow veteran teacher told me once as I sat in the teachers' lounge (which by the way is a gossip pit) frustrated about not being able to reach this one particular student, was this (in her own words): “Oh don’t you know? You are not going to reach all of them. Some are going to fall in the cracks.”  That was supposed to be the solution to the puzzle, to just let them “fall through the cracks”.  For 20 years I wrestled with this type of thinking and so I began to deviate from what the administration wanted a little, just trying to reach students with a heart of compassion and to give them the freedom to be themselves. Parents loved it, students were happy and soon principals started placing struggling students purposely in my class. But there was still not enough room and space to really give children freedom to be whoever they were in their educational journey. 10 months is not enough for most kids!

So what brought me here after 20 great years in public and private schools? My son. I knew that if I kept teaching where I was, one day my son would not have me as his teacher. There was no way for me to follow him through all of his grade levels to make sure he was treated fairly and respectfully as he figured out his educational journey.  One desperate day, I visited Fairhaven and that was it.  After that one moment of revelation, I could not go back to what I had known was wrong for 20 years. I realized that I wanted “this” for my child and every child that I can reach.

So when a parent refuses to understand my context or when they begin to share with me what some other school has done, although I must be kind and patient it is hard for me not to say, “Listen!  Been there and done that! Not doing that again!”  My hope and prayer is that the few parents who willingly read the books, the articles, research for themselves and go through this process of tearing down all they thought they understood about education, will grow into a unanimous effort of the entire school community to embrace FREEDOM in how their child is educated.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.