Over the years I’ve asked many parents and educators, “Who is responsible for our children’s education?” We’ve had some lively discussions, let me tell you. I’ll admit right up front that many people on both sides of the IEP table disagree with my opinion. Nonetheless, I still firmly believe that my position provides the most benefit for our children and families.
A lot of people start out this discussion with moral declarations. “The teachers should be responsible because they get paid to do it. They’ve had the training and I haven’t. It’s their job and I shouldn’t have to do it for them.” My response to that is “shoulds” don’t count in the real world. “What is” counts.
If you think your child’s teacher is doing a bad job there are a lot of constructive actions you could attempt to change the situation your child is in. You could educate yourself on your child’s disabilities and share ideas with his teacher on things she could do differently. You could help find your teacher more resources. You could complain to the teacher’s boss, going up the food chain as far as you need to in order to get the results you want. You could help pass state and federal legislation that changes the requirements placed on educators and school systems. You could get an advocate or lawyer. You could get your child moved to a different classroom. You could move your child to a different school. You could move your family to a different state or country where you think they would do a better job teaching your child. You could get a tutor. You could homeschool. You could go back to school and learn how to be a teacher yourself. Obviously, not all these actions are available or practical for every parent, but my point is that they are constructive actions that parents can and do take that can have a significant positive impact on their child’s education.
What actions are not productive and helpful for our children? Yelling at the teacher. Calling her incompetent, uncaring, or lazy. Complaining to your family members and neighbors. Complaining on message boards. (Using message boards to get support or information is one thing. Just complaining is different.) Telling everyone how things should be but not taking any action ourselves to help make things change. These activities may be rewarding and your opinions may be absolutely true, but they don’t do anything to actually help our kids.
To illustrate my point, here’s a game I play with the teens, young adults and parents in our Open Doors Now programs. It’s called “True vs. Helpful”. Imagine you’re driving on a little-traveled mountain road in the middle of a snowstorm. (This is actually how I got to school in the wintertime when I was 16 years old. We lived in a small town and if high schoolers missed the bus, they drove for an hour to get to school. If it was snowing the trip could take up to four hours. This is still how hundreds of thousands of teenagers get to school in remote areas in the US.) You’re driving along and for whatever reason your car slides off the edge of the road and travels 100 yards or more down a steep mountainside and into a bunch of brush, bouncing off a few trees along the way. (This does happen where I grew up, with unfortunate frequency.) Your car is not visible from the road. You’re still conscious but you are injured. You can move but it’s going to hurt. It’s still snowing and long before anyone else drives along the road above you, the snow is going to cover your tire tracks and no one will be able to see that your car went off the road. There is a real possibility that no one will find you or your car until springtime and maybe not even then.
Then I make some statements and ask the kids and their parents if the statements are true and/or helpful.
“Someone ought to come rescue me.” True? Yes. Useful? No.
“It’s the highway patrol’s fault for not closing the road before I got on it.” True? Maybe. Useful? No. (You get the idea.)
“Someone needs to build more cell phone towers around here so my phone will work.”
“My parents should have put better tires on the car.”
“I should have put snow chains on the tires.”
“I shouldn’t have tried to drive home.”
“The weatherman should have told me it was going to snow.”
“It’s the search and rescue team’s job to come find me.”
“No one ever trained me what to do in this situation.”
“The search and rescue team has been trained to deal with this situation.”
“I don’t like being here.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“This is too hard.”
Are all those statements true? They very well could be. But are any of them going to get you home safe? No. What statements might?
“If I want to live, I better find a way to get back up to the road.”
“Since it’s winter and snowing, I keep a blanket and food in the car.”
“I can try to stop my bleeding.”
“If I find something brightly colored in the car that I can put on the roof, it might make the car visible from the road.”
“I need to stay calm.”
“I need to remember what my parents told me about surviving in the snow.”
“This happened to my neighbor two years ago. She survived. So can I.”
Are these statements true? Maybe. Are they useful? Yes. Concentrating on doing the things within my power that might help my situation is much more productive than talking about what should happen or who is to blame.
So here’s the question. If we’re stuck at the bottom of a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm who is responsible for getting us to safety? The answer is – it doesn’t matter. If we want to live, we better find a way to make it happen. We need to use all the tools and knowledge at our disposal, make it easier for other people to help us, tuck our emotions away until we can afford to let them out, and not give up. If we don’t, we become a statistic.
Now, in that light, let’s tackle the question of who is responsible for our children’s education. My answer is that we all are. The teachers need to do everything they can, we parents need to do everything we can, and our children need to do everything they are capable of, too.
Remember that our kids are not potatoes rooted in the dirt, waiting to be watered and fed. They have capabilities and need to be held responsible for doing the best they can. Teachers and parents absolutely have to present the best education to our children we can, and have realistic expectations, but the kids have to decide to attempt to learn. We can teach a kid to read, we can give him books, we can tell him to read the books, we can offer him all the help he needs, we can provide a good environment, we can present him with rewards or punishments that he will earn depending on his actions, we can encourage him, but he has to decide himself to pick up the book and open it. Our children definitely have a responsibility in their education, and the older and more competent they get, the larger that responsibility is, until eventually, it’s completely on their shoulders. Moms, if you think your child’s college or job is going to let you follow him there and set out his pencils for him, you’re sadly mistaken. Our job as parents is to teach them how to take over their lives to the best of their ability.
All of the above reasoning is typically not what people disagree with me about on the subject of responsibility. It’s the following. I believe that my child’s education is my responsibility and schools are one of the tools I use to provide it. It’s not my responsibility because I’m the parent, not because I don’t believe in modern public or private schools (I do), and not because I think my child is incapable of taking on the job himself as he matures (I don’t.) It’s mine because if he doesn’t learn the social, life and vocational skills he needs along with the necessary academics, it’s my couch he’s going to be living on for the rest of his life, if he doesn’t end up in jail or institutionalized. I need to do everything I can to provide the best schooling possible, to develop his skills myself, and to motivate him to become as capable as possible.
How successful will I be? I don’t know. I’m making this all up as I go along. I have no training, background or roadmap to help me. But I do know that I’m darn well not going to sit at the bottom of a mountainside, complaining until I freeze to death – not if my child’s future is at stake.