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An Uneasy Alliance Needs Work

Most educators care deeply for their students. Parents need to believe that and help them to help their children.

September 17, 2000|NAN CANO | Nan Cano teaches at Agoura High School

Her voice quavered over the phone. "I hate to bother you. I know how busy you teachers are. My son didn't want me to call you at all. He's afraid you'll hold this against him. You won't, will you?"

Embarrassment. Fear. Teachers and parents, adults clearly dedicated to children day and night, eye each other warily, circling carefully, meeting in uneasy alliance. Each is hesitant to call the other. I've never understood that.

Soon moms and dads will rush home to an early supper, turn around and drive to their children's schools for back-to-school nights all over the San Fernando Valley. These nights really do matter. When I try to sum up my goals and hopes for the year to a classroom of concerned adults, I want to tell them more than about grading scales. I tell them what a wonderful job they have done.

They deserve A-plus for the loving years of soccer practice, team treats, piano lessons. For clearing the kitchen table to do spelling. For letting rock music shake the house. For ordering pizza and getting to know all the teenage friends.

Last week, my seniors read Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis." In the story, a hard-working office clerk, trying to pay off family debts, awakens one day as a cockroach. A big one. His family does not know what to make of him: His mom is mortified; his dad is angry and throws an apple at him. Only his sister struggles to help him, finding new ways to slip him food and protect his privacy. No one wants to ask for help.

I asked the 17-year-olds if they had ever felt like that strange bug. One boy likened this to what's going on between him and his dad. "He, like, totally ignores me. He hates how I look. He tells me to get out. And I don't think he loves me anymore."

I can't teach literature without real life, and the kids who sit in front of me, some with pink hair, some with studs in noses and tongues, some in preppy shirts, all want to be treasured. The great gaps in their souls occur when things aren't right with Mom and Dad and them.

Every teacher sees the looks, hears the quiet worries of students trying to do schoolwork while unsettled about life at home. We never intended to become therapists, family counselors, social workers, but more and more we are drawn in to help so we can teach.

When I talk to parents and hear about a teenager slamming a door and disappearing into a bedroom, I can feel the parents' relief when I tell them I have heard hundreds of stories like theirs. I may be the first outsider they confessed fears to. They are not unique in their confusion, and I can direct them to the help their family needs. They are not failures. There is no shame.


Most teachers care deeply for their students, and parents must believe that. So tell teachers stories that may explain why Darren can't sleep or eat, why Amit is lonely, why Teresa is angry. We see your children all day, in class, on campus, at games. We know that more walks into our room than a kid with homework. Home is there too. Our students are works in progress.

Sometimes, I take the initiative because I need the parents' help. When a teacher calls home, it is not to castigate or "fail" parents. It is to find answers together for the young person we find so important. We can give each other encouragement and a sympathetic ear.

If you need help, ask for it, but ask in kindness, not anger. Don't attack overworked teachers trying to maintain relationships with nearly 200 students in several classrooms. Let's trust each other.

That kid stuffing a muffin in his mouth as he bangs out of the kitchen tomorrow morning is the reason I get up every day. Tell me whatever you want me to know about him, listen to me in return, and I'll send him home full of good things.

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