This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Why are so many students performing poorly in schools, and who is accountable for students’ success? The debate about these questions looms large in educational reform arenas. I recently read I’m Your Teacher Not Your Mother, a self-published book by first-time author and veteran teacher Suzette Clarke, who taught middle school English and social studies in New York City public schools for 15 years. What follows is a frank discussion with Clarke, who urges parents to recognize their responsibilities.
Sam Reed: Suzette, in your book, you urge that the finger-pointing be stopped and that teachers not be solely blamed for student failures. So, why are teachers not responsible?
Suzette Clarke: Students, parents, and teachers must all do their part in order for children to be successful in school. Teachers can do but so much. If a student continuously fails to meet his responsibilities, then it is up to his parents to be involved on a daily basis to make sure the child is doing everything he is required to do. It has to be a partnership. So many children fail because they are left to monitor themselves. They are left to choose how much to devote to education.
We must deal with reality. Each parent must be responsible for their children. The misguided belief that teachers are the one solely responsible for the ultimate performance of all of their students has allowed many parents to absolve themselves of their integral role in their children’s education. This is the biggest problem in education. Many parents do not understand that, ultimately, they are the ones with the power.
Reed: The quantitative and qualitative data are convincing — many black and brown kids are not doing well in schools. How much is this failure due to the generational legacy of poverty? Does poverty matter?
Clarke: It doesn’t have to. Ignorance is a choice. The main advantage affluent parents have is that they can pay people to do their parental duties. They can pay people to monitor that their children are living up to their expected standards. Less affluent parents just have to commit the time. They must have the same high standards and see to it every day that their children are living up to those standards. That’s the key. It doesn’t take money to have high standards and high expectations. It doesn’t take money to devote time each night to overlooking your child’s work and to make sure he is staying on task and accomplishing the goals you’ve set out for him. The mindset is what’s important. Not the income.
Reed: Kids don’t control who brings them into the world. In your book, you provide an illustration of one girl who repeated the 7th grade three times. She realized that her mother had not been doing her job as a parent. So, how do we explain the resilient students that overcome poor parenting?
Clarke: This happens often. Just not often enough. It can be a number of factors that motivate children who do not get parental support to do well in school. Maybe they have another adult in their lives who takes the time to encourage them. Maybe they are inspired by the right movie, or reading about a famous person who overcame the odds. Maybe they finally have a teacher who gets through to them. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s maturity. A lot of children aspire to achieve greatness in life, even when surrounded by mediocrity. It’s just sad that many children are products of their environment and don’t get the chance to break the cycle.
Reed: What do you say to the critics and reformers who say what happens in the classrooms is more important than the effects of poverty? Shouldn’t teachers be held accountable for what happens in classrooms?
Clarke: I’m not saying that teachers should not be held accountable. However, if a teacher can prove she’s done everything humanly possible a teacher can do, nevertheless, the students who do poorly simply are not doing their share, then it is not the teacher’s fault. If many other students are doing their work and are motivated to do well, then the teacher is competent. The reason many students do poorly is because they do not put in the time and effort needed to do well. If that is the issue, then we must turn to the parents for help. If repeated efforts made to involve parents have gone ignored, then the child has been educationally abandoned by the parents and that’s the reason for failure. Children are children. They need to be supervised or they will take advantage of the freedom.
Reed: What drives success? Do you buy in to the notion that certain groups have an advantage over other groups because they have a superiority complex tempered with insecurity and impulse control? How do the complexities of cultural identity play out in classrooms in New York City?
Clarke: The only advantage one child has over another is the parents he is blessed with. Parents can build, or parents can tear down. Children who succeed have parents who guide and help shape them into successful students, which in turn leads to successful adults. It starts from infancy. Encourage, believe, and help your child succeed. Regardless of circumstances.
Reed: Should local districts invest more in parent engagement programs or blended learning programs where students can learn both at home and school?
Clarke: The educational system must hold parents more accountable. However, the fact is that some will not live up to their responsibilities. I think the investment should be in universal afterschool programs. Children need to be supervised. If parents do not reach home until the evenings, we must have a safe place where all children can go to stay out of trouble. Homework can be completed, tutoring can be offered, as well as extracurricular activities. Of course, more parent engagement programs are always a good idea. But it’s hard enough getting parents to come to parent-teacher conferences.
Reed: How do we get your message out to disenfranchised parents?
Clarke: This is my mission — by any means necessary. Word has to spread. Parents have to realize that it’s time to wake up. If their children are failing, then they are failing as parents. We must shout this message loudly until everyone hears it.
Reed: I see you attended Clark Atlanta University. I went there for graduate school. Are HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) still relevant?
Clarke: Always. The sense of community. The common struggle. The comfortability. The feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood is an important way to develop future leaders and role models. HBCUs will always serve an important purpose.