ALL THE WRONG MOVES

2/1/98

Recently, a small group of some twenty parents from the Mattlin Middle School wrote a letter to the Superintendent of Schools critical of the English program at their children's school. Their complaint, as it was relayed to the staff (To date no teacher has seen a copy of the letter.), appears to have been that the course offerings in 7th and 8th grade English are not, in their view, sufficiently academically rigorous. For reasons that are almost impossible to conceive, the Superintendent granted them an audience during which, according to some who were present, the meeting degenerated into a free-for-all teacher bashing session in which teachers in many departments had their names sullied by parents who in many cases had never even met the teachers they were criticizing, relying for their information on the reports of their children. This series of events is a case study of how not to run a school district and parent involvement run amok.

Following this meeting, the Mattlin Middle School was in turmoil. A hard working, creative teaching staff, proud of their new interdisciplinary teaming approach to the curriculum, found itself in the midst of a flurry of administrative questioning, the import of which was that they must be doing something wrong. After all, twenty parents of the over six hundred children in Mattlin were complaining. That they might not be doing anything wrong never seemed to occur to anybody in authority. That the overwhelming number of parents with children in Mattlin are more than satisfied with the education their children are getting never even seemed a possibility. That students graduating from Mattlin are at least as successful in high school as others in our district and state never received a moment's consideration. Twenty parents said there was something wrong; therefore, there must be something wrong.

By the end of the semester, when word had leaked out to other parents that this fiasco was in progress, the easily foreseen reaction began to set in. In phone calls to the school, in parent/teacher conferences and in student interactions with teachers and counselors, parents and students who like what is happening at Mattlin began to make their thoughts known. Officers of the PTA we quick to tell their PCT counterparts that their organization had nothing to do with the complaining parents, that they were supportive of the school's program and do not like the way in which these parents went about voicing their concerns.

In the end, the success of these parents was very different from what they intended. The Mattlin staff feels itself unjustly maligned and unappreciated. They are furious with a district and building administration that did nothing to stand up for them and the wonderful work that they do. Teachers are more leery of parents and are thus less likely to have the kind of alliance that we know is necessary for the academic success of children. Our students are fearful that their new and exciting program at Mattlin will be changed to one that is more routine, dry and uninteresting. In all, a tremendous amount of energy was expended to tear the school down when it should more appropriately have been devoted to its improvement.

If only these twenty parents had thought to take their concerns to their children's teachers. They just might have heard highly professional people explain what they are doing and why they are doing it. They just might have learned that they have a group of teachers of whom they can be proud and a program that is the envy of parents and staff in many other districts. Instead, they and the administrators with whom they met made all the wrong moves.

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