I was mid-lesson when a knock at the classroom door interrupted my flow. Interruptions were not unusual, but instead of a security assistant asking to take a student to the office, I was surprised to see a man I did not know standing outside my door.
“Is Carlos Junior here?”
“Um, yeah, but I’m sort of in the middle of a lesson here, you are …?” I trailed off looking for some explanation of this visit. Something about the man was unkempt, off-center somehow. There was the oddness of a visitor I didn’t know, and the knock in the middle of a lesson, and yet I had an anxiety which I couldn’t exactly trace.
“I’m his father. I got a call about his grades.” Any apprehension I had at the time was relieved. It made sense. My team of teachers had made some calls to the homes of students who were struggling academically. Here we were, the next day, and a father was standing at my door. Pretty good response time, all things considered. He just didn’t call ahead for an appointment. Still, I wanted to check with Carlos.
I asked the man to wait a second in the hall and I pulled the door shut. I turned, planning to ask Carlos if this really was his father. Carlos was already three strides across the room towards me and the door. He had a look of resignation on his face.
“Hey, um, your dad …” I started.
“Yeah, I got this.” He walked into the hall and shut the door behind him. I resumed class.
A couple of sentences into the lesson, several students’ heads turned toward the door as a heavy thud resounded in the hall, followed by loud profanity from Carlos’ dad.
I quickly opened the door and stepped out. The man had grabbed Carlos’ shirt with both hands and had him pressed up against the wall across from my door. He was mumbling threateningly into Carlos’ face. I made out profanities and school-related words like ‘homework’ and ‘grades.’
“Sir, you can’t do that.” I put my hand on his shoulder, unsure what I was going to do next. He was several inches taller than me, and 40 pounds heavier. Without looking at me, he shrugged my hand away, leaned in, and spat a final threat at his son. He then stepped back and twisted his hands, throwing his son to the floor. Carlos slid on the floor to my right, his left hand on his cheek, then propped himself up with his right hand on the ground. His father was to my left, standing off-balance.
Now, in his struggle to maintain balance, I saw what I had missed earlier. He was drunk. As he took another step toward his son, cursing his poor grades, I stepped in between and the man bumped into me. Behind me, my student said, quietly, “Mr. Jose, you don’t have to…”
At the very moment when I realized I was going to be unable to hold him back, Carlos senior thought better of his actions and stopped leaning into me. He gave me a perfunctory pat on the shoulder that landed more like a shove. “There you go,” he said to me, but not taking his eyes off his son. “You won’t have any more trouble with him not doing homework.”
He spoke past me, “Isn’t that f—ing right, Carlos?”
Not waiting for an answer, he turned and walked down the hall.
Carlos wasn’t going to learn much English that day.
Violence at home rarely is this visible at school. However, incidents of violence are prevalent in American homes. The Centers for Disease Control recorded 683,000 reports of abuse or neglect against children in 2015, with more than 1,600 deaths[i] attributed to neglect or abuse that year. Related studies suggest that as many as 1 in every 4 children experience abuse or neglect at some point in their lifetime, indicating that many cases go unreported.
Abuse and neglect are two of the types of incidents that are collectively referred to as “ACEs”, or adverse childhood events. These experiences contribute to the likelihood of a series of negative outcomes for the individual involved. The negative outcomes can include increased chances of addictive and self-harming behaviors as well as physical conditions including heart and liver disease. Ultimately, an accumulation of ACEs correlates to an increased chance of early death. Needless to say, ACEs can interfere with a child’s learning and academic progress.
Tackling ACEs is the work of communities and schools together, and the focus of many books and blog posts already published and yet to come. There is a lot to learn, and many specific steps to be taken to address this growing body of knowledge.
However, individual teachers in their classrooms need strategies for handling situations that might trigger ACEs.
In that moment, in the hallway, I believed Carlos Senior was the enemy.
Later, it occurred to me that he was an ally – of sorts. With a phone call home, I could get Carlos swift and strong consequences, or more accurately, punishments, for his performance in class. Now even the threat of a phone call home might serve as a sort of motivation for him to improve his behavior in class.
This is the decision that some teachers are comfortable making. Hanging this phone call over a student’s head for misbehavior in class makes the threat of physical force a reality. It puts this tool “back in the belt” of a teacher; she can now wield force indirectly. Some teachers might find this power tempting.
However, teachers should never place a hand on a student to do anything other than to greet, console, or encourage them. Corporal punishment is against the law in Ohio (in public schools) per House Bill 1, passed in November 2009, and in 30 other states[ii], for sound moral and educational reasons. Physical consequences often sever, rather than strengthen, the relationship between child and caregiver. Worse, they muddy the real consequence of an action, leaving a child to guess what the adult might find to be important, rather than to understand the significance of a missed assignment or a single poor grade.
Teachers should not cause harm to students, even if they do it indirectly.
The question teachers have to answer is this: if you are reasonably certain that your phone call will lead to a child being hit, should you call? That is, what do you do when a phone call home will hurt, rather than help?
This question places a teacher in an almost impossible place. Parents are, of course, the most important figure in the life of a child. Decisions made by the parent are legally and unquestionably binding on the child, from a quick swat on the rear to the edge of what might be rightly considered physical and emotional abuse.
The relationship between a parent and a school is crucial to the success of the student. A parent who feels the school is supporting their child and providing a safe and rigorous learning environment, matched to the needs of their child, will go to great lengths to reinforce the schoolwork and schedule, and will be a crucial ally in the formal education of their child. Also, the parent needs the teacher as a partner in the growth, development, and socialization of the child. This is an important bond that must be strengthened by the teacher and administration.
So we must avoid the temptation as teachers to call the parent and use the parent’s disciplinary consequences as an extension of our own.
Outsourcing the consequence to the parent is similar to asking another teacher to provide the discipline in your classroom. This abdication of your authority sends an important message to the student that is the opposite of the intended message. It doesn’t say that you are strong, it says you are weak. Over-reliance on this tool will also send a message to the parent that you can’t manage your classroom or their child, and will make the parent more likely to believe their child when they blame the problems on the teacher instead of themselves.
On the other hand, we must also avoid the simplified response of refusing to call at all. This prevents the physical harm, of course, but it remains our professional obligation to communicate with parents. Balancing our obligation to call with the needs of the child is a challenge we must master.
Here are steps you can take in this situation to reduce the likelihood of a child being hit, emotionally abused, or neglected, while still reinforcing the parent/teacher/student triangle.
Establish clear and consistent classroom procedures
First, the teacher must work to develop a strong bond of communication and trust with the student. Clear and consistent processes in the classroom, communicated and reinforced multiple ways, will help a student feel comfortable with the routines. Setting a single way to hand in work, and a specific day and time to have the work completed, will increase chances of the work being completed and turned in on time and in the right way.
Additionally, the teacher must provide a way for students to make up work or catch up independently. This allows students to take ownership when the inevitable happens. Students will miss an assignment. A busy morning will leave a student at school without the work they already completed. This, in fact, happens to human beings. Having a fair and consistent way to address common human mistakes helps a student be confident in their ability to make up the missing work, and less likely to need parental intervention.
Establish clear and consistent communication with parents
It is easy to fall into the trap of only calling home when there is a specific behavioral or academic concern in the classroom. Phone calls home can be time-consuming and quite a chore, especially when everyone involved knows that the phone call is bad news.
A common solution suggested to teachers is to also make positive phone calls home.
That is the life of the educator. Doing more work didn’t fix the problem? Double the work! That should do it!
Sure, positive phone calls home are helpful in strengthening the triangle of parent, teacher, and student, but more work is not always the solution. Working smarter is the answer. Chances are, your school already offers lots of indirect ways to engage with families. Open house nights, ice cream socials, sporting events, and conference nights are part of the life of a typical school. Teachers are often required to be at these. Use these opportunities to ask questions of parents, just as you would a student who was new in your class. What do they do for a living? What do they like to do in their free time? What was their favorite class in school? Making a personal connection will come in handy when you need to leverage the relationship to deliver helpful information about their child.
Before involving the parent, talk with the child
Most often, big problems in the classroom start as small problems in the classroom. A failing grade is not caused by one missing assignment but several over time. The teacher’s patience is worn thin not by one misbehavior but by days of repeated disruptions or disobedience. It is wisest to first address this individually with the student.
Asking a student to identify the source of the problem is almost always the quickest way to a solution. Responses can range from an admission of wrongdoing, “I just didn’t finish my work last night,” to awareness of an emergency at home, “We were at the ER with my little brother until really late, and I didn’t get any homework done.” Sometimes these conversations reveal a student who is struggling to complete work independently and who needs advice on setting up a schedule, study area, and self-discipline.
Sometimes, as in the case of a student like Carlos, a parent has demonstrated a frustratingly limited approach to motivating their child. The teacher must, in this situation, develop a connection with the student in order to create an internal sense of motivation. Building a caring relationship, and smoothing the pathway to academic and personal success does not mean eliminating expectations. It means helping the child prioritize challenges in their life, put school as part of the solution, and take the necessary steps to navigate their precarious position.
When making a call home to address misbehavior, be very precise
Despite our work as a school to provide a positive vision for a child to grow into, I still have teachers approach me and say about a child, “He never …” Regardless of how that sentence ends, it is not true. This is the kind of sentence that drives a wedge between student, teacher, and parent. Rarely is the phone call home intended to fix a mortal flaw in a child’s character. The call that includes this sentence reinforces the idea that the teacher sees the child in a sort of irreparable state of unsuccessfulness. It can only go two ways from there, and both are counterproductive.
If the parent agrees that “He never…”, then the parent and teacher have formed a sort of belief system aligned against the growth and learning potential of the child. An adolescent is already predisposed to feeling attacked and to severing bonds from their parents, so this alliance will only reinforce ill feelings within the child, rather than fostering a sense of problem-solving and improvement.
If the parent disagrees with the statement, then the teacher finds herself on the wrong side of the growth equation, seemingly resolved to the idea that the child cannot learn. Being perceived by a parent as believing their child is unteachable or inherently problematic undermines the teacher-student relationship completely. The adolescent, so eager to prove her independence, will nonetheless cling tightly to a parent who is allied against a teacher and a bad grade. This develops in a child a skill set to avoid consequences and externalize control over grades and other life outcomes. This is completely counter-productive to the goal of education.
Instead, the home contact addressing poor performance should be very precise. This means that the observed behavior, be it failure to complete work, poor work quality, or disruptive or disobedient behavior, should be described within specific guidelines. The teacher should include a description of the observed behavior, when and where it occurred, and how many times. Then the effect of that misbehavior should be explained. Suppose that there have been seven homework assignments, and the student has not turned any of them in. Instead of saying, “he never does his homework,” it is more accurate to say, “we have had seven homework assignments, and he has turned none of them in. As a result, he currently has an ‘F’ in class.”
When making a negative call home, offer a specific solution
The call is not over when you have described the misbehavior. A parent might not know exactly what to do with this information, leaving them frustrated in their desire to help their child be successful. Leaving a solution fully in the hands of someone who does not understand the workings of your classroom and gradebook does not make sense. This is equivalent to your doctor saying, “Looks like you have a stone there, on your kidney. That’s going to be uncomfortable.” As the educator, it is important to tell the parent a specific solution to the misbehavior.
In the homework example, the teacher might continue, “as a result, I have assigned your child a detention with me Tuesday after school. He can make the assignment up there, and maybe finish Tuesday’s homework too.”
By providing a specific solution, the teacher makes sure the parent does not feel responsible for providing the consequence. No additional stress or responsibility, just information. It helps in this situation to be able to add information from the conversation with the student. “In fact, when I spoke with your son, he said he couldn’t stay after school on Wednesday because you work late that day, so he and I thought maybe he could stay Thursday with a different teacher.” The effective teacher prefers to accomplish this consequence in person with the student, to address the misbehavior and repair the relationship. However, this teacher makes exceptions and accommodations to allow the child to experience control and personal efficacy.
Help frame the student in a positive light in the parent’s eyes
Parents react so strongly to their child’s struggles because we identify closely with our children. We get angry when they struggle just as we celebrate when they succeed. School is a place where “winning” and “losing” is often framed – and perhaps accurately – as a metaphor for future success in life. No parent, not even a teacher or a principal, is above this identification with their own child. The stakes are breathtakingly high.
Calling a parent to indicate that their child is exhibiting signs of academic failure can trigger a strong reaction in the calmest parent. How much more so if the parent displays passionate reactions? This passion is not a weakness or a failing of the parent, and should not be regarded as such. This is an area to capitalize on.
Use each conversation to explain the strengths of their child. Seeing their child in a positive light prompts a reaction of pride and cooperation within the parent. They can see the good there too. Creating a shared vision for what is possible with their child is a powerful groundwork for a conversation.
Doing this over a series of conversations sets up the opportunity to walk a parent down from the edge of an intemperate response. If the parent accuses the child of being irresponsible or worse, the teacher can provide a different perspective. “Well, I agree that he should have done the work at home. His willingness to make up the work after school shows that he is growing in responsibility.” Without minimizing the concern about the misbehavior, a teacher can re-frame the frustration.
If violence is proposed as a solution, speak out against it.
Finally, the strongest step a teacher can take in this situation is to speak out against violence. If they offer, or threaten, to strike their child to create a change in their behavior, you have to advocate against this. In fact, teachers are mandated reporters of physical abuse; it is our legal obligation to protect students. Informing the parent that striking their child is unacceptable to you, and counterproductive to your shared goals, can possibly change their actions, and serve to make a child’s life remarkably better.
This is challenging. Sample phrases can lead you in a direction that is comfortable for you. One approach would be to state your preference that the punishment not be related to your call. “Mr. Wilson, I really wish you would not do that. I would hate to think that my call home got Carlos hit.” Or you can provide information, such as informing the parent, “You know, the reason they outlawed striking students in school is that they found that being hit actually harmed their academic performance.” Or simply repeat the solution you arrived at earlier. “Mr. Wilson, you know, we have already scheduled a make-up time. I know you are frustrated, but let’s see if that works.”
On occasion, it is necessary to make a stronger statement to the parent. In a personal conference, rather than a phone call, we can assert our position and our shared values. Life is precious. The child is precious. Hitting a child, or using profanity and psychological abuse as a motivator, devalues that child. It undermines our work as educators, and it uses fear as a motivator, which, as Kohlberg demonstrated is the least advanced reason to do a given action.
Ultimately, a parent will do the best they can do in a given situation. Giving them, and their children, the tools to find their way to success without resorting to abuse will lead to better results. And the evidence shows that making this change can lead to a longer and more successful life.
As teachers we are obligated to work in the best interests of our students. Tackling these sorts of problems makes the difference between teaching only the students who arrive ready, and making every student ready. When we persevere and solve these problems we distinguish ourselves, and send a message of faith in the students who most need to hear that message.
[i] Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed November 10, 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/index.html .
[ii] Valerie Strauss, “19 States Still Allow Corporal Punishment in School,” Washington Post, September 18, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/18/19-states-still-allow-corporal-punishment-in-school/?utm_term=.0bcca744cfa0 .