Here are more words of wisdom from Anne Williams-Isom and Jennifer Jones Austin, authors of “How To Choose the Best School for Your Son” (GCP, February 21, 2012). In this post, Anne and Jennifer tackle the sensitive and important subject of what to do when your son’s school alerts you that he is having difficulty with some aspect of school. How parents handle this with the school can positively or negatively impact their son’s progress. Anne and Jennifer offer helpful advice below on making the impact a positive one.
We have to admit that when we learn that our sons have hit a bump in the road at school we usually are not our best selves at first. Like most parents, we have an instinctive, fiercely protective reaction to the notion that our child is in trouble, or struggling, or experiencing some type of injustice. Unless there is a great deal of trust between you and a school and/or a teacher, one of the things that may cross your mind when issues arise is that your child is being treated differently or being judged unfairly. This most certainly comes up when the school is predominately white and could happen even if your child’s in a school that is primarily made up of people of color.
Recently, a good friend of ours who is also African-American learned that her son’s teachers were concerned about something related to her son, and they asked to speak to her and her husband. She told us that just being asked to meet stirred up feelings of fear, anger and anxiety. In an attempt to be supportive, we told her to take a deep breath and to ask herself what she was feeling and why. We suggested she slow down and process her feelings and the facts – was it a legitimate fear that her son was being treated unfairly? Or could her perspective be clouded by an unwillingness to face the possibility that an actual issue might need to be addressed? Many parents of color are constantly torn between wanting to trust their school administrators and feeling like trust may leave their sons unprotected. Too often Black boys are targeted as being in need of special services with no great results. Our friend was able to pull herself together, realizing that she needed to have a clear head. She did not have the time or the luxury to let her fears and anger stand in the way of advocating for her son.
Here’s what we told her to remember:
• You are the first educator in your child’s life. You are in the driver’s seat. It may not always feel like it but never forget this.
• Don’t let fear paralyze you. Don’t wait. If you have something that is really bothering you address it as soon as you can. You can send a note or an email to the teacher, and/or request a meeting.
• Understand the culture of the school and how issues are discussed between parents and teachers.
• Prepare your questions for the teacher in advance.
• Be clear about what you are feeling and what you want for your child. Nerves and/or anxiety can make you forget.
• Make sure you know who your allies are within the school. (Make sure you cultivate allies when you first come to the school, so you have people to run your thoughts and experiences by, as well as people who will help make sure you don’t come off too angry or too nervous in challenging situations.)
• Take notes during your meeting with the teachers. You might be emotional so you might forget something they say. It is also great just to have a record of the conversation.
• Make sure the teachers and administrators explain their answers in a way that is understandable to you. It does not matter how long it takes. This is important so you need to be clear. You have to be informed so that you can problem solve together.
• Leave the meeting with a clear plan in place. Make sure that everyone is clear about what their tasks are moving forward and that they understand the next steps. Do not assume that everyone is on the same page.
• Make sure to schedule another meeting to check in on how the plan is working. Most plans fail because they are not fully executed. You have to keep everyone focused on doing what they said they would do.
• Remember why you chose the school. There was something there that you wanted for that child. Don’t make it all bad if it really is not.
• Remember that respect goes both ways. Teachers are human. Try to listen to their sides and perspectives.
• Always know that you can take your issue up the line (i.e., speak to a supervisor or ultimately, the head of the school) if you are not satisfied or feel you are not getting what you need.
It is your job as a parent, your son’s first teacher and his best advocate to voice your concerns in order to ensure that he is getting the best that all of the adults in his life have to offer. Parents who speak up clearly, strongly and rationally for their sons and understand everyone’s role in his progress will help make the entire school community stronger and a better place for all of the children.
As we noted earlier, the odds are great that over the course of your son’s K-12 school life he will encounter several bumps along this road, and you will need to help him figure out how to navigate them. As is the case with almost every facet of parenting, how successful you will be in resolving these issues is often unknown at the time you take action, and it is sometimes hard to keep a clear head under the circumstances. If you follow the advice we outlined above, however, you are more likely to be able to successfully make your way over the bumps and get back to smooth road.