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Teachers often blame parents for problem students

I figured that teachers wouldn't let me off easy — even though my Saturday column took their side.

I wrote about the recent classroom scuffle between a teacher and student at Santa Monica High, defending the teacher and listing the forces that make teaching so hard — including spineless administrators and unruly students.

Still, many of the teachers I heard from last weekend had the same indignant response:

What about the parents? If parents raised their children right, we wouldn't have problems on campus.

Good parenting skills are "indispensable to quality education," insisted Andy Ligeti, a Glendale Community College history professor and former high school teacher.

"When students become a problem in the classroom, 9 [out of] 10 times, the root of the issue is a lack of parent support and responsibility for children's educational welfare," Ligeti's email said.

I hear some version of that from teachers whenever I write about any problem involving public schools.

Blame them, not us, they say. Teachers can't work miracles or undo parents' failures.

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It's not fair to presume that any child who frustrates adults is a product of derelict parenting. Teenagers, particularly, tend to break rules, challenge authority and test their budding autonomy in unhealthy and embarrassing ways.

Depending on the child, the teacher and the moment, I may have been lumped in with those "irresponsible parents" by a teacher or two as my three daughters moved through school. Maybe that's why I'm sensitive to the claim that parents are almost always to blame for a kid's boneheaded move.

Still, I understand that teachers are frustrated too. They are expected not just to teach, but to tend to the social needs of children warped by instability, poverty and family dysfunction.

There are indeed bad parents; some are selfish, absent, neglectful or cruel. But others are just overwhelmed or failed themselves at school. And compounding that is a cultural shift that has reshaped the relationship between parents and teachers.

Today's parents grew up in an era when challenging the powers that be was an honorable thing. We tend to bring to child-rearing more pride in self-expression and less respect for authority.

Kids mouth off at school because they are allowed to at home. "Our children are made to believe that they are above the schools and the teachers," Riverside's Vincent Hoang wrote. "And the parents are made to believe that the rules apply to everyone else but them."

Some parents behave like schoolyard bullies, belligerently taking their children's side in any dispute: Junior's being picked on. The teacher's not fair. The classroom rules are stupid.

In some neighborhoods, they threaten lawsuits. In others, they show up on campus, shouting and ready to brawl. That's contributed, teachers told me, to a climate of fear. School officials back down, parents gloat and teachers privately fume.

Children take a lesson from that. "These misguided parents believe they are being a good parent by protecting their child," said Ventura County teacher Charley Bensley. "The result is we are educating a significant number of students that there are no consequences for their poor behavior."

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My problem with the "blame the parents" mantra is that it doesn't move us forward. When teachers believe that poor parenting blocks students from success, I imagine them writing off chunks of children they have already deemed failures.

It's a societal shame, but the campus might be the only stable space in a struggling student's life.

That's why schools need support teams: counselors, librarians, nurses and classes small enough that no child gets left behind. That's why what happens in the classroom has such life-changing importance. And that's why the relationship between student and teacher matters so much.

When teachers care enough to reach out to a problem student's parents, they often see more clearly why things are going wrong in class.

"The struggle with disruptive students is constant," high school science teacher Fred Lammers wrote. "I cannot tell you how many parent conferences I have had, via phone or face-to-face, and have had a parent say to me 'I can't do anything. I don't have any control over him (or her).' "

When discipline problems get a student bounced from Lammers' classroom, the child can't return unless a parent agrees to a conference. "I want to clarify with the parents the unacceptable behavior of their son or daughter and receive assurances that this is being dealt with in the home," he said.

Does that stop the problem? Not always. "Some students still will refuse to work and create disruptions," he said.

But it does remind the parents that what they say and do at home is important to students' success. In fact, research shows that the biggest contribution that parents make to lifting academic achievement is by communicating to their children the value of education.

What better way to do that than by partnering with teachers?

Teachers need to understand and accept the challenges that parents face. And parents need to be aware of and held accountable for their children's conduct in the classroom.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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