How Crazy are Jewish Parents?

A Re-Thinking of Jewish Family Education

A long, long time ago (think fairy tale) I wrote a book called Jewish Parents: A Teacher’s Guide. It was designed to be a practical guide for Jewish teachers to make their classroom process more family friendly. It was written in an era where the first clunky cell-phones were out there, but when no one had e-mail yet. It has long fallen into the past. Yet, somehow this year, I’ve had a lot of requests to do workshops on the book. It was as if this was suddenly a hot topic. The other thing that happened is that during these workshops teachers seem to transfer their anger towards parents to me when I told them that working with parents is not that difficult.

From those experiences I learned several of things: (1) that teacher’s seem to having a lot of difficulty with parents, (2) that the difficulty may be more intense than it was in the past, and (3) Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of a Skinned Knee is not as popular as it once was.

I began asking questions.

* From a public school teacher I learned that parents now call the district office and threaten law suits more than they used to.

* I learned from a college professor who has started getting calls from parents complaining about their child’s grades. He tells them, “I am your son/daughter’s teacher, not yours!”

* From Jewish educators I learned that parents are now more demanding about the kind of schooling they want or don’t want for their children. This means that the complaints are more systemic and less about a specific problem situation.

* From my business partner Jane’s bookshelf I learned that there is now a well selling book called How to Handle Difficult Parents: a teacher’s survival guide.

* From the internet I learned that there are dozens of websites that give you lots of lists on how to deal with difficult parents.

Parents have some new tools and some new intensity. There is a more assertive consumerism to their approach, but they are still parents. In a workshop for teachers I suggested that teachers need to be in communication with parents. I got screamed at by a teacher now reacting as a parent, “I don’t care who my daughter’s replacement swimming teacher is, don’t contact me unless it is important. I get too much e-mail.”

I believe that while Batman may need to swap some of the tools in his utility belt (in order to face off with the parents of today) the same basic physics of parenthood still apply. What is important to remember is that in order to build the best possible Jewish future we still need a partnership between the classroom and the home. In the book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, authors Steven Cohen and Arnie Eisen state,

“….powerful memories and meaningful moments are shared by those on they journey with them – primarily members of their families….. parents are almost always seen as positive role models of Jewish commitment for the children.”

And in his report, Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today, Jack Wertheimer states,

“Parents see themselves as the primary agents of Jewish developmental influence. They discuss their family rituals as setting norms for, and sending messages to, their children. … Parents also self consciously understand the importance of their own roles as models of engagement when they discuss their community involvement, volunteering, synagogue leadership and activity, and other Jewish pursuits outside of the home.”

Years ago I used the metaphor of the locker room of opposing teams. In the parents dressing room one hears, “My kids would get a good Jewish education if it wasn’t for the teacher, the educator, and the system.” While in the teacher’s dressing room one hears, “We could succeed at what we do if the parents didn’t undermine everything we try to accomplish.” One hears the lament, “If only we were soccer…”

The simple truth is this: Jewish Family Education is higher on the importance chart than ever before and we have cut teachers, the most important part of the equation, out of the game. Family programs are mainly independent programs actualized by synagogue staff. This leaves parents undervaluing teachers and teachers afraid and angry at parents. The necessary partnership has not been built.

What is being forgotten is this:

* Parents and teachers both want the best possible experience.

* Each wants to be known and respected by the other.

* Parents care that teachers know, understand, and like their kids.

* Teachers want parents to know they are invested in their children’s success.

One can keep adding to this list but what needs to be created are new ways of communicating, sharing of goals, hands-on partnership and other opportunities for those who are “hands-on” representing the school to work directly with parents who are the ones most vested in the school’s success.

Times are difficult and challenging. There are lots of tidal forces. But, now, more than ever, it is critical to link parents with those who work with their children. We can try to mastermind and imaginer the nature of the educational process, but if the real partners are not brought together, things will not get better. We need to focus on ways of communicating between the classroom and the home, we need to allow for conversation that preempts anger and frustration, and we need to develop the clarity of the joint stakes in the endeavor’s success. Parents and teachers can be friends.

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