Your Thoughts on Parent-Teacher Conflicts

For most of the 80s, my job was to link the community with the school in an old, working class neighbourhood in Calgary, Alberta. The school and community were the oldest in the city. Most of the parents worked for the railroad, the brewery, chicken packing plant, or waitressing or pumping gas. Their memories of school were often brutal. Needless to say, they were very conservative, and very touchy about any hint of inferiority. They often saw no need for change. The school also served a vast number of immigrants, many of whom had minimal English. Pulling this together was no easy matter!

One essential was an Advisory Committee, made up of parents and service providers, including the police. This allowed issues to be brought up and addressed. Usually, the community was concerned about non-essentials, such as girls not wearing bras. The most important thing, though, was to develop a school that helped the children and made them want to be there. Access to art, drama, and dance made huge differences. We were fortunate to have a marvellous phys ed teacher who ran a dance program. One year we mounted a monster production of “The Wizard of Oz.” It ran for two shows because we could not fit all the community into the gym at one go. I ran a video program and art. The third grade teacher had me work with the kids to make a film about dinosaurs. Parents were invited in to watch and sat in awed silence as their little people demonstrated how tv worked, pronouncing words such as coaxial cable correctly. This was practical knowledge they could respect. The school developed a reputation for dealing with difficult situations in a positive way. A good principal was essential.

Another popular activity was having the gym open a night a week (we had to contend with the caretakers’ union) mostly for teen boys. One day the police zone sergeant plunked himself down in my office and told me that was his favourite night of the week because there was no crime those nights. The cops would come in to play against the kids sometimes.

We borrowed a program from another school to address discipline. The first week of school the teachers had the kids put together the rules they, the kids, thought were necessary. We held an assembly where the kids could look over these rules and decide which they thought were important. From this we put together a list, which the kids voted on. Amazingly (or not) the kids were concerned about the same things as the adults. They, too, wanted a safe, orderly environment. After this, the number of kids sent to the office dropped to almost nothing. The kids felt that the rules were theirs, so they followed them.

I would suggest that the people who learned the most from this were the teachers. Generally teachers come from the middle class. They were themselves the middle students with a university degree in educational theory. They, as a rule, had no idea what their students were living with. Educating them was essential. We also addressed social issues. We started the first subsidized lunch program in the city. Hungry children don’t learn. Of course, this was a program that caused controversy, as some thought parents should feed their own kids. Sometimes you just have to ignore complaints. Having someone in my position gave the school a free agent to coordinate with various services, sit on the phone to children’s services, attend funerals, and hear complaints.

It was a wonderful, provincewide programme, destroyed when the loathsome “greed is good” agenda took hold. You get what you pay for and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As long as it lasted it greatly changed the view of the community. Kids were happier and did better in school. Parents felt listened to. It was relatively cheap with huge consequences. Ultimately, if you want people to feel positive about a service, they have to see themselves as being part of it, and that it meets their perceived needs.

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