Saturday October 25th 2014

Free Curriculum: Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Fahrenheit 451


Get the free download of all three Units when you subscribe to my newsletter below.
* indicates required

An Overdue Letter to Parents

Dear Parents,

We’ve had this conversation before, so this time I wanted to write it down with the hope that next time you have the same question, I can simply refer you to this letter. It is an important letter because it seems to carry in it information vital to your student’s success that has eluded you up until now. Maybe you can put it on the fridge with some of those little magnets shaped like letters.

I know what you’re going to say, and I know what your worries are. Yes, your son isn’t doing so well in high school. He has a 23% in my English class. Yes, that is an F, and he has that same grade in all his other classes as well. He struggles to do any classwork, he doesn’t do ANY homework. He isn’t any good at groupwork. Even his footwork rarely gets him to class on time, if at all. You don’t know what to do. You’re at the end of your wits, you work two jobs, and you don’t understand why the work ethic you and your husband have hasn’t rubbed off in any way, shape, or form on your children.

So you ask me.

And my answer is always the same. It will always be the same, and it is kind of a running joke around here because it seems like common sense. It might be the easiest thing in the world. The teachers around here shake their heads and laugh when we tell our own stories about it. It is kind of like when a student doesn’t bring a backpack, paper, or pencil to school. We laugh because we don’t know what else to do. But the answer to your problem is so simple because it is so obviously related to your son’s lack of success. So I ask you, what is the problem?

And of course your answer is always the same. “He comes home and all he does is play video games. He’s always texting on his phone, he’s on Facebook all the time staring at the computer. And then he lays down in front of the couch and watches five hours of television. I don’t know what to do.”

Here’s what you do, for the nine hundreth time: YOU TAKE AWAY HIS CELL PHONE. YOU TAKE AWAY HIS VIDEO GAMES. YOU TAKE AWAY THE COMPUTER, AND YOU BAN TELEVISION.

That’s as clearly as I can say it, but I made sure to put it in all caps so that you can refer to that section in particular next time you feel like giving me a call. You might want to highlight it, but according to your son you don’t have highlighters at the house. This is always my answer, and is the same advice you will get from the rest of my colleagues around here.

You’d be amazed at the things a kid will do to get their cell phone back. You might be surprised at the amount of homework your son might consider trying if he couldn’t play his video game until it was done. Cell phones are particularly effective when trying to change the behavior of a teenager because they are so inextricably, emotionally linked to their phone. It truly is a part of their body, and the idea of it not being there creates panic, fear, and even anger. I should know. I tried to take your son’s cell phone the other day because he was texting in class. He felt so strongly about keeping it he threw his desk at me, called me a “Fucker”, and ran out of class. You remember that? That’s why he was suspended for half a day—all because of a cell phone. You’re lucky he wasn’t expelled, but at this school, when you assault a teacher it’s not that big of a deal.

Wait, wait, I know what you’re going to say next. It will sound something like this: “I can’t take away his phone or video games. I just can’t do it, it belongs to him.”

And even though this is a letter, I want you to imagine that I’m shaking my head slowly and sadly right about now. Because my response is always the same, and laced with just a little confusion and frustration about what you think your role is as a parent. Because I always ask you, “Who bought the video games? Who bought the cell phone? Who pays for the cell phone bill? How much does the data and texting cost you a month?” Because those things do not belong to your son, they belong to you. You bought them, you paid for them, and you are the one paying extra every time he goes over his text limit.

And the answer is “NO,” before you even ask. No, they are not allowed to padlock the door to their bedroom. The house belongs to you as well.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you called me back. It’s only been three months since my last message. I gave up calling after my 10th message because I never received a response. Plus, I’m so busy over here it is hard listening to three and a half minutes of Lil Wayne’s Lollipop song every time I want to leave a message on your phone. I was beginning to wonder if you got the messages at all. Now I see you were just being patient.

If you are really serious about getting your son to do some actual work, and maybe pass a class or two, just take away his phone. See if I’m not right and he gets out a homework assignment and scribbles down some actual answers. You might be amazed at how much power it will give you when you feel powerless.

And please don’t tell me you can’t do it, because what you’re really telling me is you can’t be a parent. And if you are not a parent, then I have to get back to work, because I don’t take calls from FRIENDS of my students.

Sincerely,

Mr. Amaral

Reader Feedback

26 Responses to “An Overdue Letter to Parents”

  1. My greatest respect to all you teachers out there! So sorry that many in our society have no common sense and when their kids are not doing well they blame you! Much thanks for all you do!

  2. Adele Trout says:

    I agree with every word. I worked with far below basic kids for 25 years. The problem I see is getting a parent with the attention span of a turnip to read your article. They would rather be on their cell talking or texting.

    Adele

  3. Jen says:

    My kids are still pre-elementary, but I pray we will NEVER reach this point. Keep sharing a simple common-sense message. So many parents need to hear it. Thank you!

  4. Susan says:

    What do you do when they don’t care if you take their stuff away?

  5. Jackie T says:

    After teaching for 34 years and loving, most of it… I can now say, parents you are so failing your children, just as your children are failing classes. They want a stable home, someone to ask “how has your day been”, someone to be a parent, not a friend, they have enough friends, and they need to be taught social skills. I can now say, after 34 years of teaching, first I teach social skills, parent them, then I teach computer skills…and sadly to say, some technology (cell phones) has only made things worse.

  6. pmacfar says:

    Reading this:

    You’re lucky he wasn’t expelled, but at this school, when you assault a teacher it’s not that big of a deal.

    I can detect a strange symmetry failing two sides of these students. It’s sad, really. Nobody wants to hold these kids to account. Yet it’s not so hard to do, really, and doesn’t have to be so painful, either.

    Sometimes I wonder if the parent’s ego might be involved, too, in that some parents might not feel good about themselves if they weren’t demonstrating (to whom?) that they can provide their kids with luxuries, something that they themselves didn’t have when they were kids.

  7. Hey Matt,

    This letter couldn’t come at a better time with 4 weeks left in our school year. I’m dumbfounded by how many parents are just now starting to call and leave messages at the front office for me, asking why their kid is failing my class. On top of this, our school district utilizes an online grade/assignment/communication/event tool for everyone to access. We are millenial compliant, but unfortunately, most of my students and their families are not. Our local cable/internet provider in the community even offered a $9.95/month internet access fee for families who qualify. You would think that these kids would be begging their parents to sign up for this generous offer. I’m not sure what the final numbers are, but I do know that out of at least 50 student families that would have easily qualified, only 2 signed up.

    So what’s next? How do we get these parents involved? Do I have to invite each and every one during the first week of school and have a sit down meeting with them to communicate middle school expectations? I know that our Back to School Night numbers are pretty low, the perfect opportunity to meet each and every teacher, hear what they’re all about in their classrooms, ask questions, find out how their child can be successful. This is a tough area to tackle in the low-income communities. Does the Dept. of Education ever talk about this? Do they have any effective programs to offer? Bottom line, it’s the teachers and administrators who have to educate these families. Where’s their sense of pride?

  8. A Dad says:

    Awesome advice!!! Parents need to be parents! Kids don’t need us to be their friends. They have friends. What they need us to be is parents. Better to have them hate you now and succeed in life than to be their bestest buddy and have them wind up as miserable failures because you failed to be a parent to them. They will get over the pissed off. If you’re genuinely afraid of your kids, you’ve already failed and might as well just lock them up now because they are not headed to a good place in life.

  9. A Dad says:

    You keep taking their stuff away until they are staring at four blank walls with nothing but school books to keep them company. To be a good parent you need to be willing to go toe to toe with your kids and out-stubborn them. You need to be willing to be a drill-sargeant-hard-ass if need be to get the job done. If making them clean the bathroom floor with a toothbrush is the only way to get something through their thick skulls then you need to do it. Parenting is not supposed to be easy. If it were everyone would have perfect children who always listened and never disobeyed. Since we don’t live in that particular fantasy land we need to “man up” and lay down the law for our kids until they submit to OUR will. For God’s sake, who is the parent here, you or the kid?

  10. NJ says:

    How do you get parents to parent? Why, more testing, of course, and value-added measures to justify firing teachers of kids who don’t ring the bell on all that testing.

    Don’t forget all the ENABLING rules like the minimum marking period grade is a 60 or all lates/absences, even when it’s north of 50% of school days, are excused if a parent writes a note. Just like the post-HS world…NOT.

  11. Owen says:

    I don’t question the situation and the conditions that you describe. And this has been going on long before cell phones.

    What I do question is why people would choose to become parents and then turn around and practice a form of benign neglect more or less.

    I say benign neglect, because true neglect would be not feeding or sheltering their offspring. Or even worse outright mistreating them.

    My theory is that parents don’t really value “education” that much. If they did, they would as you say, make their children do their homework before allowing them access to the Xbox.

    My advice, take it or leave it would be this. Some parents, you’re just never going to reach. They value the education you’re trying to convey at near zero. But a fraction of them might be persuaded that maybe it’s something to be valued.

    I don’t know.

  12. Owen says:

    Also begs the question – if they not learning anything (or at least demonstrating that they’re learning) and nobody has the power or the will to persuade the student to learn – why are they in school at all?

    Wouldn’t it be more pleasant for everyone if the student stayed home and smoked weed and the teacher didn’t have to teach someone that didn’t want to be there? Definitely would be cheaper for society. If they’re not going to learn, they can not-learn at home just as easily as they can at school. Easier even. And cheaper too.

    It reminds of the level of insanity of the financial markets a bit – selling something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it anyway.

    How much of our society is predicated on utter madness if you step back and really look at it?

  13. A Dad says:

    The problems are at a societal level. The stratification of our society has become so rigid and systemic that virtually every institution of government, including public education, is designed to ensure that the majority fail so that the elite minority retain their power.

    Testing standards are such that they guarantee that a large percentage of students fail because there is nowhere near sufficient time or resources for teachers to teach more than basic facts. The skills required to apply critical thinking to subjects are not taught because critical thinking is not part of the approved curriculum and there is no time to add lessons focused on it to the lesson plans.

    The end result is that pretty much only the kids with college educated parents learn those skills (at home)so come test time, they are the only kids able to complete the portions of the tests that require critical thinking skills to be applied. It is designed to make the children of the uneducated fail. To break the cycle you would have to include critical thinking training in the school curriculum early and continue to integrate it into learning throughout the children’s school careers.

    That will likely never happen though because the powers that be don’t want our society to be overly educated on the whole. Hierarchical social structures based on minority control require a certain level of blind obedience by the masses. If you teach the masses to ask probing questions that expose the reasoning behind the actions of the leaders, the leaders lose that blind obedience. Much better, from a maintaining the status quo perspective, to control the masses using media manipulation reliant on unthinking consumers of the information being controlled and disseminated by the elite minority.

    The people that make the decisions about public education policy and funding in this country have a vested interest in only a small minority receiving a high quality education. A highly educated and critical thinking majority would be too difficult for the elite minority currently in charge to control.

  14. To Dad: I agree with your logic, but it does not apply to this particular situation that Matt has presented. Coming from another teacher who also deals with the same type of population he does, we do not expect these parents to be mathematicians nor literature scholars, we just want them to show up when they’re supposed to and call to check in when they see their son/daughter’s report card shows 90% failing grades and ask what they can do to help. At the secondary level we have on average a load ranging anywhere from 100-160 students; we try our best to make phone calls to as many as possible, but it is a difficult task to accomplish with the other demands on our plates. I would rather keep kids after school and tutor them for half an hour and know that they are safe and getting my math homework done correctly, than talk to 3 uncooperative parents who expect me to fix all their problems at home and at school.

    Thank you for your intelligent words about our current policy, it seems to be the way the government is heading and it’s a very scary situation. I don’t appreciate being mocked upon when kids are failing when the system has already been set up this way.

  15. A Dad says:

    Katrina,

    The problem is that you’re mainly talking about a segment of the population that has already been conditioned for generations to expect mistreatment. They have been for so long marginalized that they assume unfairness even when none exists. They assume that teachers are out to get their kids and therefore disregard the concerns of the teachers. You could subsitute “the man” for “the teacher” and you would see similar attitudes in the discussion.

    We see it in our son’s school and he is only at the elementary level. The parents assume that the teachers are either lying about their kids’ behaviors or are somehow on a personal vendetta agains their child or their child’s ethnicity in general. When you’re up against that and underfunding, testing standards that are designed to fail the majority, and class sizes that all but ensure inidividualized education is a thing of the past, you’re beaten before you begin.

    My point was that the parents are only part of the problem. They have been pretty much generationally conditioned to act in the manner they do when it comes to their kids. It is compounded by the number of children having children in inner-city communities. People without the maturity level to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner are raising kids and their children are modeling their bad behavior. When you have 3rd and 4th generation gang members and welfare recipients, you have created a virtually permanent underclass that are all but impossible to reach using logic and reason because those concepts are completely foregn to them.

    I feel for teachers in our public education system because you have a virtually impossible task. You are expected to overcome centuries of inequities and mistrust while emparting information and life skills to an unreceptive audience with no support from either the government that makes the rules or the parents whose children you are trying to help.

  16. Very true dad, very true! Thank you for being an exceptional parent for your son’s education! And most of all, thank you for appreciating what we do :-)

  17. A Dad says:

    Thank you Katrina and all the teachers for what you do! It is a thankless job more often than not and a profession too often scapegoated for the failures of our government to serve the people in terms of education equity.

    Keep up the good fight and try to encourage your students to ask “why”. “Why” is the cornerstone of Socratic reasoning, which is the foundation of critical thinking. Real change can only be achieved if more people demand a detailed answer to the question “why” when their leaders speak of their plans for the future. Introduce the kids to fallacies, straw men, and circular logic and you will open doors for them that the power elite desperately want to keep closed.

  18. Duane Swacker says:

    Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt (said in my most frustrated teacher voice.),

    “Here’s what you do, for the nine hundreth time: YOU TAKE AWAY HIS CELL PHONE. YOU TAKE AWAY HIS VIDEO GAMES. YOU TAKE AWAY THE COMPUTER, AND YOU BAN TELEVISION.”

    These simplistic solutions don’t always work the way we want them. As a parent who had a “difficult” child (not sure where he got that but I’m a certified Mr. Teachbad “difficult” teacher). My oldest decided that he didn’t like school and there wasn’t anyone or anything that was going to change his mind. We did all the above and more-counseling, alternative schools, after school meetings, etc. . . . And he dropped out. I kept telling him that he needed to look at his decisions and actions and that eventually he would “figure it out”.

    He finally decided that he wanted to help out his aunt who had moved to CT and needed someone around the house as a caretaker. That got him away from his “friends” which helped quite a bit. He got his GED, found work and did fine. He had always talked about being a chef and now he has completed the chef schooling and has a good job being a dessert and salad chef-you know the kind of dishes that are too pretty to eat (and too expensive on this teacher’s salary). But I knew he had “figured it out” when a couple of Xmases ago after about two months of chef school he made the statement: “I can’t believe these idiots I have to work (in class) with. They don’t follow directions, they’re late or don’t show up after paying all of that money.” Yes, he finally got it, got it together and is doing what he likes and wants.

    Be that as it may, I thoroughly understand your frustrations with some of our students but things are not always the way they appear and I hope that, from a very personal example, you understand a little more.

    • Duane,
      Whether you realize it or not you’ve actually made my case here even stronger. Don’t you see, your son eventually got it because you were the type of parent that talked to him, encouraged him, had consequences, sought counseling, and worked your tail off. Yes, they don’t always get it as teenagers, but your son WENT BACK TO SCHOOL. You’re a perfect example of why you need to have rules and consequences (or at least try having them), that’s also why this letter wasn’t addressed to you. This letter is for parents who DON’T do ANY of these things. They don’t have rules and they sure as hell don’t have consequences. I am perfectly willing to admit that even their kids might at some point “figure it out” as well, but I would argue the likelihood of that decreases dramatically if you don’t try to do things like demand homework and take away privileges, and I would further argue it will limit their options when they finally do enter into the adult world.

      Had your story gone something like this then maybe your case would be stronger: I let my son do whatever he wanted when he was in high school, he played video games whenever he wanted, he didn’t have a curfew, I didn’t try any alternative schools or counseling, I didn’t talk to any of his teachers, and he ended up great! Then and only then would you have a point.

      The alternative is writing a post on how television and cell phones and facebook is just fine for students who are failing all their classes and when their parents come to ask me what they should do I encourage them to buy more video games and don’t worry about the homework because everyone “figures it out” eventually and it will just be a matter of time. There is nothing simplistic about suggesting parents do some parenting, however the reason this post is so popular is because my readers can’t understand how it is there are so many people out there who don’t get such a simplistic concept of consequences. Clearly taking away these three things does not guarantee anything, and with most of the kids I teach will hardly do a thing unfortunately. But it is a starting point for parents to realize that sometimes they have to be an adult, and whether you realize this or not, many many parents do NONE of the things you listed. So save your frustrated teacher voice for someone else, where I teach and live there are too many adults who unlike your son never “got it”. In fact, the dirty little reality about poverty in this country and in this world is that most people don’t.

  19. A Dad says:

    Sometimes people do need to fall on their faces to find their way. It sucks but it is true. I had to become homeless before I “got it”. Some never do find their way. As parents we should be strict and teach our children discipline because if we don’t nobody will. That being said, you can only direct someone else’s actions so much. They do have to take some steps on their own and we are all individuals with our own tolerances for adversity. Some “hard headed” kids are only going to learn from massive personal failures that put them in situations they are desperate enough to get out of to actually change their behavior.

  20. NJ says:

    Amen, A Dad. A former colleague called what we’re doing “learned helplessness” – kids get accolades for breathing, minimum marking period scores of 50 or 60, and endless chances to re-do missed/ignored work, etc. Personally, I’ve had kids who screwed up royally come back 1-3 years later and acknowledge it, and I’ve seen huge turnarounds. Sadly, I’m talking less than a half-dozen students in the past 5 years. I even ask them how they turned around. Typical response is “I realized my success is up to me, and that [arguing and not doing work] wasn’t part of that success…I just woke up.”

    Here in NJ there’s a huge push to peg our careers to how students do on standardized tests, regardless of how often they show up, what effort they make, or if they just arrived from [insert favorite country here] speaking three words of English. ’nuff said.

    Matt: please keep up the good work. I’ve shared your Letter with peers and they love it. I wish administrators had the BALLS to actually send it to ALL students.

    • It is crazy that my letter can resonate from California all the way to New Jersey. Thanks for the thoughts NJ, what you guys need to do is get rid of Chris Christie. If it was up to him, there wouldn’t be a middle class. Everyone knows that if you look at the rise and fall of the middle class on a graph over the years, it is identical to the rise and fall of unions. Anyone who doesn’t understand that isn’t paying attention. And anyone who thinks unions are the reason we’re in this recession is just dumb. Unfortunately, your governor seems to be both. Keep working hard.

  21. NJ says:

    He’s loved by the conservative/winger base and some independents who like his swagger, and he’s got a long track record of being incredibly obnoxious and unprofessional, including suggesting that someone “take a bat” to a local politician, calling people at Town Halls “idiots,” telling constituents to “mind your own business!” or telling “are you stupid?”, and actually hurling the double entendre that a woman “go down.” http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/01/09/chris-christie-responds-to-female-heckler-at-romney-rally-with-lewd-comment/

    Chris Christie is a protégé of sorts of union-busting Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Christie paid WI a visit not long ago (to trade tactics, I’d guess). Christie will be keynoting the Rethugnican convention later this summer.

    After slashing public education funding in the middle of the 09-10 school year (which cost me a job), he continued to choose not to fund teachers’ pensions (despite what the silly laws said), and when he slightly boosted education spending the following year, made himself out to be a hero. A legend in his own mind, he is.

    To go off on an economic tangent for a moment, busting unions makes sense. Citizens United opened the door to unlimited funding of campaigns. Since this applies to unions as well, the Koch brothers (et al.) need to bust the unions so they can operate unilaterally/unopposed. This is war, after all.

    Anyway, as with so much in politics, *especially* here in NJ, it’s all about the money. Christie and his just-confirmed Commissioner of Education have a long history as lobbyists together for private education. It’s embarassing that Chris Cerf was confirmed – unanimously, no less – despite the fat jacket of conflicts of interest. It’s some tale:

    http://my.firedoglake.com/dswright/2011/04/18/cerfs-up-how-privatization-will-wipe-out-public-education-in-new-jersey-part-1/

    and

    http://www.bluejersey.com/diary/21374/the-chris-cerf-story-prejersey

  22. A Dad says:

    Part of the problem is that the current crop of “left” is no better than the current crop of “right” in the political arena.

    Arne Duncan is no better than Chris Christie. They both come at education from an elitist social Darwinism that believes that most should fail so that a few can excel. Race to the Top is just as much of a problem for less fortunate people as No Child Left Behind. Both programs are designed to make the majority fail and then lay the blame at the feet of teachers instead of parents, unfunded mandates, or socio-political elitism (all of which are in part to blame for the current educational crisis in America).

Leave a Reply