Monday, February 4, 2013

Parents and Teachers - Defining our Roles

The other day, a student in my school was talking rather incessantly throughout tefilla (prayers). When one of the teachers approached him afterwards about it, the student, dismayingly but matter-of-factly, responded that he did not see the problem. After all, his father routinely talks throughout tefilla, so he could not see what was wrong with it.

A second vignette, seemingly unrelated. Actually, this is more of a conglomeration of many vignettes. As a Talmud teacher, I routinely speak to parents who inform me that they are unable to help their children study Talmud at home, as they themselves did not study it in school. A more extreme version are the parents who complain that it is unfair that some parents are able to study Talmud with their children while others are not, thus putting their kids at a disadvantage (parenthetically, no one ever complains that the doctor's kids are at an advantage when it comes to studying science, but that is for another post I suppose).

What do these two stories have to do with one another? They have helped me clarify the respective roles of parents and teachers on the education of a child. More and more we speak about wanting a partnership between the school and the home, but so often we bring that point up when we have a child who is struggling or in trouble and the school wants to make sure that the parents support their approach to discipline or the parents want to ensure that the school is aware of some extenuating circumstances that lie behind the child's difficulties.

However, the school/home partnership is present at every moment in the education of a child, which each one playing a crucial role. If I were to boil it down to its barest essentials, I would say that the role of the school is to teach material and skills, while the role of the parents is to convey the message that those lessons are worth learning.

Think about that for a moment. Teachers are skilled and trained professionals, experts in their subject matter and in methods of effectively conveying that material to children. However, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to convincing kids to want to buy their product. After all, the teachers are heavily biased, both because they obviously like the material that they are teaching and because their livelihoods depend on their being able to teach it. As consumers, they are not the objective critics that kids might turn to to decide whether or not Chumash or history or math or Gemara is important.

On the other hand, parents may not necessarily be so good at a particular subject or at teaching material to their kids. But their kids do trust them for a wide range of decisions, from clothing choices to breakfast cereals to which sports team to root for to the best place to go for vacation. It makes sense that kids would also look to their parents for clues and cues as to how important all of this stuff eyeing done in cool actually is. If the message coming from parents is that davening is important, the kids will assume that it is and will allow their teachers to guide them as to how best to do it. However, if parents, overtly or subtlely, convey the message that tefilla is synonymous with free time and science will never be necessary in life, then their kids are likely to internalize that message and effectively block out teacher attempts to educate them.

So parents, don't worry if you are not an expert in every subject that your children bring home. We don't expect you to be and your child's work is not for you to do. Of they are having a hard time with it, that is what they have teachers for. Instead, focus your efforts on instilling in your children a sense that their education matters, that davening matters, that learning matters. That is the best partnership that you can offer your children's teachers, and ultimately your children as well.

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