I’ve written before about how I feel my hands (and tongue) are tied as a parent when it comes to offering suggestions or constructive criticism to a school teacher or staff member. Because, of course I get my inside information from my children–it’s they who tell me when a teacher is insensitive to a student, when a kid is doing naughty things behind a teacher’s back, if someone is consistently a slacker in group work, or if a student genuinely needs extra support but hides this from the teacher. Any time I even hint that maybe I can take an issue up with a teacher or staff member, just to bring something to their attention so as to improve the classroom experience for students, my kids recoil in horror and threaten never to tell me anything again. For of course they don’t want anything to reflect poorly on them, or create any bad feeling between them and the teacher. Because, surprisingly, some teachers frown on students who are the offspring of people who want to have a say in what goes on at school, who challenge them–can you imagine? There’s the sense that someone has tattled on them, or maybe didn’t follow the protocol of going directly to the source. Kids feel that, and so they place that gag order on their parents. But really, what kid even up to high school is ready to show that kind of maturity, or shoulder the burden of being the critic, of rocking the boat, drawing attention to him or herself? A few, thank heaven–I rejoice when they turn up–they are ahead of their years, beyond the standard lessons we have taught them, expect a response better than what most of our kids have been led to expect.
But so that students’ valuable feedback might not be lost, I suggest we install a Suggestions Box in every school (or the electronic equivalent, but I’m skeptical about putting that kind of data out there to be hacked). For students, to be sure, but even for parents who feel they need to pass on their own or their students’ observations. Signing a name or tag, such as “Mom,” “Community Member,” “Seven parents of sixth graders” would be optional. Heck, you could put a whole anonymous petition in there if necessary, with code names. The rules (trust system) would be only that people try to be helpful. Or maybe a rubric could be created along the lines of, Is this comment true, kind, and necessary? Am I remaining anonymous only to protect others from negative repercussions? Here are some examples that have come into the range of my experience:
So-and-so is gaining a reputation among classmates for riding on the coattails of other group members during group project time.
My student has noticed that so-and-so is having trouble with reading at grade level, and is too embarrassed to get help.
I really, really need to be able to work independently more. I work better that way.
I just wanted to let you know that both my graduated and presently attending child feel that Ms. So-and-so is the best teacher they ever had, because she treats students like intelligent beings and gives them autonomy when they can handle it, yet is good at a more “parental” approach with less mature students.
And now, what about the charge that people will abuse a suggestion box? Immature people who stuff obscenities and death threats in there, or colleagues who anonymously offer feedback they are too cowardly to say in person and too insensitive not to say at all? Administrators who intercept dirty classroom laundry, or deposit comments themselves? Or just the backfiring of good intentions, the potential for real hurt or creating an atmosphere of Big Brother is watching? All that’s a reason to keep things in the open, sure, but there area parallel set of problems with that (see above), so what is to be done? Do we just lend a sympathetic, lips-are-sealed ear to our kids’ tales, or if there’s a real problem, tell them to take it as it comes, suck it up, or handle it like so? “Yes, dear, maybe you should go to the teacher in confidence and…,” “Have you talked to that student and told her to speak more respectfully?” Or maybe the old-style, “Pinch him back–harder!” I haven’t had much success with that approach, though I still chalk it up to possible future utility in their lives. The discussions we have can lead to more understanding, more sensitivity, at least in the sense of my kids growing up to be aware of dynamics they can expect and how to anticipate or avoid them. Especially if any of them decide to be teachers.
And who gets to read what from the box? Does one address and seal notes, then someone distributes them? Is there a curator/screener?
Or, should the idea be piloted, perhaps permanently parked, within each classroom? Then things get to the right people, and everyone knows it. Issues that reach outside can go to the To Staff box.
Some folks are of the mind that no one should ever complain or say anything within a community that the recipient might find difficult to receive. Except we expect that from Other People in the Real World, for which we are preparing our children. Not that any of us wish to know these Other People in person or by name, except at a distance such as politicians critiquing one another. For us to actually participate in those Real World activities such as disagreeing, opposing, critiquing, or failing to support, is off the agenda. For example, a few times on our neighborhood website slightly critical or questioning comments have been posted. Invariably there is a backlash of outraged niceness from a certain neighbor and sometimes a string of others, who say things like, “I can’t BELIEVE ANYONE would complain/criticize/see things in such a light!!!!! (always lots of exclamation marks) SOME PEOPLE have no idea!!!!” Which of course has a chilling effect on further less than affirming comments, but does not prevent private agreement with the negative comments, which sometimes even have the desired corrective effect.
On the other hand, thank heaven for nice people. The genuine ones, I mean, who truly see the good and whose speech contains almost entirely affirming, encouraging, agreeable phrases. I know several of these people, and though sometimes I think that they have their head in the sand (can you tell I’m not one of them?), I know we need, need, need them to exist in every sector of our society. But I’m making a small, ineffectual plea for a medium by which people who see something that is not right can offer a corrective, take it or leave it.
I don’t know, maybe it would require a Training, or several. More teacher training, more student assemblies (Bully Proofing at the Suggestion Box?), maybe we could add testing too, and, well–anyone else have any better ideas?