The new movie “Won’t Back Down” is an engaging story about a single mother trying to find a better school for her dyslexic daughter. Clearly, it has hit a nerve. The country’s teacher unions are in full outcry. Despite their indignation, unions are not the issue here. The real issue raised by the film can be put very simply: When a child is trapped in a school that is failing her, she is in a failing school and responsible parenting means finding a better alternative.
A few nights ago, I went to see “Won’t Back Down”. It focuses on a dedicated teacher who shows her fellow teachers that things can improve and that they can be more effective as teachers if they partner with parents. Collaboration truly can change our schools, combined with the ability to choose your child’s school.
Parents and children must have school choice freedoms. Open enrollment, the ability to enroll in a school outside residential boundaries, allows parents to make a deliberate, thoughtful decision every year about where each child should go to school. Children should no longer be held prisoner by a street address. They must have the option of enrolling in the school that best meets their learning needs, whether that school is a traditional brick and mortar public school, a private school, a charter school, or a full-time online school.
No matter the option chosen, parental involvement is critical to school success. Our part in raising the bar for both teaching and learning begins with raising expectations and working together respectfully with school professionals. That kind of collaboration can improve the learning environment for children. This requires that professionals be open, responsive and equally respectful of parents and their concerns.
Unfortunately, in many schools, when parents ask for a change to help their child, they are too often treated like unwanted interlopers instead of potential partners. So like children, parents don’t want to “go to the principal’s office.” Parents feel like outsiders there.
When parents ask for changes, parents become a “problem.” When we say “what you are doing for my child isn’t working,” we aren’t thanked for our insight or commended for our courage. We are soothed. We are patronized. We are contradicted. And we are told that we just don’t understand.
There is also sincere fear of retaliation. “Won’t Back Down” includes a scene where an angry teacher locks a child in a janitor’s closet. Fear of retaliation too often freezes parents. While physical retaliation like the incident portrayed in the movie is rare, parents are just as intimidated by teachers’ complete power to single out children in class or give undeserved low grades.
It’s time to change “the principal’s office” syndrome. Parents asking for help need to be heard and respected. We must also have the information and access required to help our children do their best. Collaboration requires earnest cooperation on both sides.
Educators say parental involvement is vital to a successful school. More learning will happen when that means more than helping with homework and showing up for parents’ night. Our schools need us to be more than PTA cheerleaders. Parents need a forum where we can provide feedback on instruction without fear of reprisals.
We don’t need to take over schools. But we should be as welcome when we question as when we praise. And we should step up and do both.
High quality education requires parental collaboration with dedicated teachers and options that give us alternatives when our local school fails to meet our child’s needs. Whatever choices parents make about where and how children are to be educated, they have a right and responsibility to be part of the process. On that we should take a lesson from the new movie title and each resolve that we “won’t back down.” Our children need us to work together.