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Q&A with author of 'I'm Your Teacher Not Your Mother'

By Samuel Reed III on Feb 26, 2014 04:24 PM

Why are so many students performing poorly in schools, and who is accountable for students’ success? The debate about these  questions looms large in educational reform arenas. I recently read I’m Your Teacher Not Your Mother, a self-published book by first-time author and veteran teacher Suzette Clarke, who taught middle school English and social studies in New York City public schools for 15 years. What follows is a frank discussion with Clarke, who urges parents to recognize their responsibilities.

Sam Reed: Suzette, in your book, you urge that the finger-pointing be stopped and that teachers not be solely blamed for student failures. So, why are teachers not responsible?

Suzette Clarke: Students, parents, and teachers must all do their part in order for children to be successful in school. Teachers can do but so much. If a student continuously fails to meet his responsibilities, then it is up to his parents to be involved on a daily basis to make sure the child is doing everything he is required to do. It has to be a partnership. So many children fail because they are left to monitor themselves. They are left to choose how much to devote to education. 

We must deal with reality. Each parent must be responsible for their children. The misguided belief that teachers are the one solely responsible for the ultimate performance of all of their students has allowed many parents to absolve themselves of their integral role in their children's education. This is the biggest problem in education. Many parents do not understand that, ultimately, they are the ones with the power.

Reed: The quantitative and qualitative data are convincing -- many black and brown kids are not doing well in schools. How much is this failure due to the generational legacy of poverty? Does poverty matter?

Clarke: It doesn't have to. Ignorance is a choice. The main advantage affluent parents have is that they can pay people to do their parental duties. They can pay people to monitor that their children are living up to their expected standards. Less affluent parents just have to commit the time. They must have the same high standards and see to it every day that their children are living up to those standards. That's the key. It doesn't take money to have high standards and high expectations. It doesn't take money to devote time each night to overlooking your child's work and to make sure he is staying on task and accomplishing the goals you've set out for him. The mindset is what's important. Not the income.

Reed: Kids don’t control who brings them into the world. In your book, you provide an illustration of one girl who repeated the 7th grade three times. She realized that her mother had not been doing her job as a parent. So, how do we explain the resilient students that overcome poor parenting? 

Clarke: This happens often. Just not often enough. It can be a number of factors that motivate children who do not get parental support to do well in school. Maybe they have another adult in their lives who takes the time to encourage them. Maybe they are inspired by the right movie, or reading about a famous person who overcame the odds. Maybe they finally have a teacher who gets through to them. Maybe it's God. Maybe it's maturity. A lot of children aspire to achieve greatness in life, even when surrounded by mediocrity. It's just sad that many children are products of their environment and don't get the chance to break the cycle.

Reed: What do you say to the critics and reformers who say what happens in the classrooms is more important than the effects of poverty? Shouldn't teachers be held accountable for what happens in classrooms? 

Clarke: I'm not saying that teachers should not be held accountable. However, if a teacher can prove she's done everything humanly possible a teacher can do, nevertheless, the students who do poorly simply are not doing their share, then it is not the teacher's fault. If many other students are doing their work and are motivated to do well, then the teacher is competent. The reason many students do poorly is because they do not put in the time and effort needed to do well. If that is the issue, then we must turn to the parents for help. If repeated efforts made to involve parents have gone ignored, then the child has been educationally abandoned by the parents and that's the reason for failure. Children are children. They need to be supervised or they will take advantage of the freedom.

Reed: What drives success? Do you buy in to the notion that certain groups have an advantage over other groups because they have a superiority complex tempered with insecurity and impulse control? How do the complexities of cultural identity play out in classrooms in New York City?   

Clarke: The only advantage one child has over another is the parents he is blessed with. Parents can build, or parents can tear down. Children who succeed have parents who guide and help shape them into successful students, which in turn leads to successful adults. It starts from infancy. Encourage, believe, and help your child succeed. Regardless of circumstances. 

Reed: Should local districts invest more in parent engagement programs or blended learning programs where students can learn both at home and school? 

Clarke: The educational system must hold parents more accountable. However, the fact is that some will not live up to their responsibilities. I think the investment should be in universal afterschool programs. Children need to be supervised. If parents do not reach home until the evenings, we must have a safe place where all children can go to stay out of trouble. Homework can be completed, tutoring can be offered, as well as extracurricular activities. Of course, more parent engagement programs are always a good idea. But it's hard enough getting parents to come to parent-teacher conferences.

Reed: How do we get your message out to disenfranchised parents? 

Clarke: This is my mission -- by any means necessary. Word has to spread. Parents have to realize that it's time to wake up. If their children are failing, then they are failing as parents. We must shout this message loudly until everyone hears it.

Reed: I see you attended Clark Atlanta University. I went there for graduate school. Are HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) still relevant? 

Clarke: Always. The sense of community. The common struggle. The comfortability. The feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood is an important way to develop future leaders and role models. HBCUs will always serve an important purpose. 

 

 
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Comments (22)

Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on February 26, 2014 7:36 pm
Sam---Great Stuff. Hope all is well with you guys--Say hello to all---Joe K.
Submitted by Peggy Marie (not verified) on February 26, 2014 9:07 pm
Sam great Q& A session. As a thirty year veteran teacher I see the decline in confidence & self worth in some of today's students. Regardless of their "situation" students need to develop a sense of awareness , responsibility , and confidence . Students need to learn how to "help" themselves. Poverty can be an issue for some to hide behind but it shouldn't . Come to school everyday and on time you can eat breakfast and lunch for free. There's no "stigma" attached because the majority of our schools are universal feeding schools. I also believe strongly that students need some type of training to be an athlete . Coaches and athletes don't walk around blaming others. They look at tapes , analyze them again and again and again. In the analysis performance and attitude improve.If a parent(s)/ guardian(s) give up on their children it is not for the educator to do the same. We praise students , offer advice and suggestions in the hopes that children will internalize this strategy and begin believing in themselves. I agree I am not their mothers but I do resemble a really cool ,caring , consistent Aunt!
Submitted by Samuel Reed III on February 27, 2014 6:06 am

Aunt Peggy :)

 

Thanks for joining the conversation. I like your coach / sports reference. You should check out this Harvard Graduate School of Education talk " What the NFL Can Teach Teachers" . I am always telling my students lets put your work on "tape". Sometime the sports analogies work with students, sometimes is doesn't. Often many of my young male students think they are going to be the next Lebron James. They get the importance of practicing the sport they love, but the "practice to get better" does not translate to them trying harder in school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 26, 2014 11:17 pm
A good exchange with some thought provoking discussion. I do wish she had gone into the inequity of funding more. Politicians will turn this into a blame the parents thing and try to take the attention off of themselves and what they have created in the schools through lack of funding.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 9:42 am
Blaming parents will assure current politicians will be tossed out of office by those voting parents.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 11:13 am
you mean the same parents who voted them IN and keep RE-ELECTING them?
Submitted by Sydney Coffin (not verified) on February 26, 2014 11:57 pm
Sam, I'm a teacher, and not a parent, so I don't know how challenging parenting really is. I do know how the after school program at my current school serves a crucial role in the period between school ending and parents returning home, and unfortunately I also know how difficult it is to motivate students when the same motivation is not coming from home. I've felt that one reason I get an average of 7 parents on back to school night every year is because of the way we (don't properly) schedule the event for parents, just like our society doesn't make election day a holiday so it's easy for citizens to participate (don't get me started...) Nonetheless, the more our society at large emphasizes education as simply a means to a better income, and not also as a reason for existence, as an internally rewarding experience, and as a valuable way of learning about who we are, where we are, where we have been, and where we might go, then we are not the society I believe we should be. I believe in lifelong learning, and that I earn in order to learn, not the other way around. When we begin to see learned people as our idols, not ignorance as bliss, and, maybe idealistically, that we are in this world together, not against each other, then maybe I will be able to rest more easily. Parent or no parent, I believe my kids are trying to figure out what's going on, and we need to clarify the message(s) we're sending them, as adults, and as a society.
Submitted by inthetrenches (not verified) on February 27, 2014 3:36 am
I agree with you in theory but in practice, education is connected to "a better life" which, in the U.S., is often translated into more income. When I told my parents I wanted to go to college, the only "rationale" reason was to be able to get a "better job." At the time, teaching was one option to ensure college resulted in "a better job." I believe this is the reality for most people of working class backgrounds. It was certainly what we were told in my low income / working class public high school. Teachers had "made it" because they were not tied to farm work or a lumber mill. Yes, lifelong learning happens in many places and takes on many dimensions. Formal schooling is one piece and place for learning. Nevertheless, formal schooling is also about "learning in order to earn." I'm writing this as a parent and someone who did more than "learn" skills, content, etc. in college but certainly would not have gone to college without assuming I'd get a job to pay for it.
Submitted by Samuel Reed III on March 2, 2014 4:17 pm

Inthetrenches & Sydney;

I appreciate both your lines of conversation. As mentioned at the end of the Q & A, I attended a HBCU, Clark Atlanta University for graduate school and Cheyney University for under gradaute school. At these HBCU's we learned that the purpose for education was not "only learn how to make a living, but to learn how to live".  I try to instill these same values into my students . I think it's a worthwhile message.

 

 

Submitted by Susan Roth (not verified) on March 3, 2014 9:31 am
As a parent and a retired teacher, I totally agree with the author of this book. Even the worst schools, with the least resources, produce successful students. Why, Good teachers are certainly a piece of their success, but I guarantee almost all of those students have parents who make sure they do homework, make sure they go to school prepared and are involved in their childrens' schools. Great interview, Sam, thanks for sharing! Peace, Susan
Submitted by Susan Roth (not verified) on March 3, 2014 9:33 am
As a parent and a retired teacher, I totally agree with the author of this book. Even the worst schools, with the least resources, produce successful students. Why, Good teachers are certainly a piece of their success, but I guarantee almost all of those students have parents who make sure they do homework, make sure they go to school prepared and are involved in their childrens' schools. Great interview, Sam, thanks for sharing! Peace, Susan
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on March 3, 2014 9:28 am
You've nailed something really important that was left out of the exchange between Sam and the author, expressed perfectly in these lines:
I do know how the after school program at my current school serves a crucial role in the period between school ending and parents returning home, and unfortunately I also know how difficult it is to motivate students when the same motivation is not coming from home. I've felt that one reason I get an average of 7 parents on back to school night every year is because of the way we (don't properly) schedule the event for parents, just like our society doesn't make election day a holiday so it's easy for citizens to participate (don't get me started...)
It's very difficult for many of the poorer parents of my students (and I'm in an academic magnet where the parents or guardians, by definition, cared enough to get them in) to devote the kind of time that Suzette is talking about. The reality for most of these people is that they work very long hours (multiple jobs too, if they're lucky enough to have them), involving most or all of the adults in the household. They rarely have time, much less energy or motivation left, to do anything other than the basics of minding their children's educations. It's not that they don't care, in many cases, it's that they have very little ability to do anything about it, just as they can't do much about being unable to take time off on election day to vote. Our entire society is structured to make impossible the very things we demand from those at the bottom (and by that, I mean the bottom 50% of household income). Until we fix that, we won't have what we need for a fully-effective public school education in every school, no matter what we do otherwise. Poverty is not an excuse, but it is a cause that we are negligent in not recognizing.
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on February 27, 2014 12:18 pm
Students spend something like 13% of their lives in schools from birth to 12th grade. The other 87% of the time is spent in their communities. Do the math. Connect the dots. Those damn teachers:-(
Submitted by Mattie Davis (not verified) on March 2, 2014 10:06 am
Mr. Reed, this post is simply awesome! I plan to purchase Ms. Clarke's book in order to share with the parents of my first graders. A few of us have already had quite emotional conversations regarding time at home for educational opportunities. This book should help the flow of dialogue to remain positive.
Submitted by Sally M. (not verified) on March 2, 2014 11:50 am
In the Philadelphia School District, the policy seems to always be "hands off parents." Parents and students are treated like they are all handicapped. Income level and the color of skin does not make a person handicapped. The students in the PSD will be competing in a global economy. With overcrowd classrooms, lack of supplies, little to no support, and constant behavior issues, teachers are doing all they can and bordering on burn out in this district. Students and parents need to be held accountable for behavior, attendance, lateness and homework. One way or another, being a parent is a choice. That choice comes with awesome responsibilities. Getting your children to school on time is part of that responsibility. The SDP does not address lateness at all, even if it happens daily. Students can be absent an unlimited number of days as long as parents write notes. Why does the PSD allow this? It's a mystery. The students aren't learning if they're not in school and the teachers get blamed for their failures. The people at 440 get paid big bucks to sit around and decide how teachers should write objectives on the board. Then the teachers have to spend hours in professional development learning how to write these objectives (even though "the new way" turns out to be the same format as was done several years ago). Then the administrators in schools waste more time going to each classroom making sure these objectives are posted correctly. But the people at 440 and administrators in the schools don't address attendance. It is ridiculous! No wonder this district is failing. Their priorities would be laughable if they weren't downright pathetic.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 2, 2014 3:09 pm
This is the staff development they want because this is how they want us to teach the kids. They want obedient and unthinking workers. http://tinyurl.com/l62haz2
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 2, 2014 4:42 pm
Unbelievably insulting! Coming soon to a SDP school near you… Thanks for sharing.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 14, 2014 2:13 pm
Sally, Your response resonates with me. We are seeing more and more parents in our school who are not doing their jobs, to the point of DHS removing children from their homes because of neglect. Our school is a few blocks down from a charter school. Many of the students who would have or have attended our school go there. Their expectations for the parents are MUCH higher and the parents live up to them! In the SDP, the expectation of parents is so low and there is no accountability if a parent does not live up to those expectations. We have many children failing, whose parents we can't even get in touch with to show up for an intervention plan meeting. I am a parent of 4 biological children AND 4 foster children. I work full time as a teacher leader and have a husband who works full time in the evening and a lot of overtime during the day. We have managed to get all 8 children to every appointment, do all homework, projects, etc. and have them involved in church and community activities. Am I Superwoman? NO! I just put the children's needs first. I know my priorities! As for some of the policies, such as lateness and excused absences: They have to be addressed by the state. There are no laws pertaining to anything other than unexcused absences, so the district can not enforce laws that don't exist. We need to get to the politicians on this one! It is an outrage that a student can put their foot in the classroom to be marked present for the day even if they have missed the entire literacy period by being tardy or have an early dismissal for the day at 8:45 A.M. Whatever happened to half-day absences? The charter school does them (after 9 A.M., you are absent for the morning). Teachers can take a half-day absence. These are policies that can be changed.
Submitted by Cheeway (not verified) on March 3, 2014 10:25 am
Very useful topic to discuss. How to engage parents to be more involve in their children's education? In my opinion, theres an amount of percentage coming not from parents but as well from teachers. Many teachers do not know how to cooperate with parents and therefore the way they do things some how demotivates parents from involving and probably offenced some parents. This is a very difficult topic because the problems with children not doing well in school can come from different areas. Such as: were they prepared for school when they were in the kindergarten? If mot, it is.really a big problem. If they went prepared for school psychologically, it does effect them through out their adultjood even due to the stress at school which cause emotional discomfort. I think firstly the school has to make sure children are ready to.attend school psychologically, cognitively, physically and intellectually. The school has has the responsibility to educate parents to show they care about them and of course the school should provide some professional development for teachers. Teachers are not perfect and thats not their fault but they need to.learn how to provide good cooperation skills for parents.
Submitted by Cheeway (not verified) on March 3, 2014 10:14 am
Very useful topic to discuss. How to engage parents to be more involve in their children's education? In my opinion, theres an amount of percentage coming not from parents but as well from teachers. Many teachers do not know how to cooperate with parents and therefore the way they do things some how demotivates parents from involving and probably offenced some parents. This is a very difficult topic because the problems with children not doing well in school can come from different areas. Such as: were they prepared for school when they were in the kindergarten? If mot, it is.really a big problem. If they went prepared for school psychologically, it does effect them through out their adultjood even due to the stress at school which cause emotional discomfort. I think firstly the school has to make sure children are ready to.attend school psychologically, cognitively, physically and intellectually. The school has has the responsibility to educate parents to show they care about them and of course the school should provide some professional development for teachers. Teachers are not perfect and thats not their fault but they need to.learn how to provide good cooperation skills for parents.
Submitted by Tamara Anderson (not verified) on March 10, 2014 8:53 pm
Schools are also dealing with generational and cyclical low parental involvement. Many of the parents that are disengaged did not have a positive educational experience themselves and many of their patents were not involved either. And since poverty continues to be more and more isolated mixed income communities are rare. Which can provide examples from within the neighborhood. This is a great start but if it remains surfacial or makes comparisons between those who do and those who do not. Authors like Kozol provide more in depth answers to the why. And there lies some possible solutions.
Submitted by Loving Teaching (not verified) on June 20, 2014 12:33 pm
Great post! Been reading a lot about different philosophies on teaching. Thanks for the info here!

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