Michael Gaskell is the principal at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
I survey parents, students and teachers all the time about their school experience. I survey them about their perceptions of our school community, how we can help students learn better and what we can do to help address student mental wellness.These surveys help me gauge my school communities' views on how we are managing our job of educating children.
It might be time to do a survey soon, with the changes we have endured over the past several weeks, since the toll of the pandemic has transformed the busied hallways of schools to computer screens in the home. My anecdotal thoughts on the dozens of parents who have reached out of their own accord to express their gratitude on behalf of teachers and our schools in the pandemic may provide a vehicle for all of us to step back and regain an appreciation of something that was for a century considered a given — education for the masses, designed to provide an opportunity for all is guaranteed.
Our educational institutions are far from perfect. We still have equity issues, such as racial disparities in discipline that seem stubbornly hard to shed for good. Yet, what parents have expressed to me and my faculty over these past few weeks is an undying appreciation of what teachers do, everyday, to teach, nurture, support and guide their children.
Parents are now on the front lines of this challenge, and many realize that despite the digital learning bridge created by schools in a short, sudden flurry that enabled schools to continue providing some form of instruction, they are faced with many of the in-person duties of insuring that their child completes assignments, fulfills requirements and understands the material.
That can be a difficult task, and parents are recognizing this.
Taking a consensus approach
We don't know if there will be a return to our school building this year, and that seems to be dimming by the day. Yet whenever we return, this newfound appreciation by our parents of "all that your teachers do, everyday," has armed us with the opportunity to build stronger bridges, connections so vital to providing for the revitalized vision that it "takes a village to raise a child."
Parents and educators working together — there is no greater power in providing the support and guidance needed for our children. The winners? Our children, our students. They see a consensus approach to raising and educating them. Like a loving household with caregivers that show continuity, even in times of conflict. There is no greater gift we can give our children.
They are living through a landmark time in history, one that is often marked in generations. The Great Depression, World Wars I and II, 9/11, the pandemic — these are all times of conflict, of challenge, of something happening larger than social media disagreements, misinformation and parent-teacher battles.
I recall a cartoon frame that showed a parent and child engaged in a discussion with the child's teacher in which the refrain was, "What did the child do to create this issue?" The scene was from a past generation, something often cited by teachers nostalgically. A second frame shows a modern day poke at today's challenges. The parent and child engaged in a discussion with the child's teacher in which the refrain was, "What did the teacher do to create this issue?"
You can see the two very dichotomous versions cited in stark contrast — an illustration of what was and what is, and the conflict often laid out on the battlefield between then and now. Yet caught in the middle of these two illustrations is a child, lost in confusion at seeing adults battling it out over what they believe is in the best interests of the child. This is unsettling for a child and is not the best way to develop a child's mental wellness.
Instead, what if there were a harmony, a sensitive, thoughtful and open-minded approach from both sides? What if there were no "sides?" I have written previously on just this point. Eliminate the gap between these two destructive contrasts and we can really get to the business of teaching the child.
Seize the opportunity
Parents and teachers have the same interest at heart — helping a child learn and grow. The trust gap that has perpetuated in modern education may have taken a good punch to the gut in our current circumstance. That is a silver lining I am not only willing to live with, but that I am hoping to capitalize on for the benefit of every child.
When we return to school, to parent-teacher conferences, to back-to-school nights, to phone calls about student progress, to emails at the end of a busy day, I wonder if our educators, parents and school communities will seize this opportunity. It would be a loss to our children if we don't.
We have a responsibility to use appreciation for what we educators do to cultivate relationships that foster a healthier, happier, more engaging and productive learning experience for our future — our children. This is an opportunity that allows us to close the trust gap often separating parents from their child's teacher. The benefits are too high to ignore — helping every child learn in greater harmony, so they can flourish now and when they return to school.