Nancy Gedge, author of the popular blog “The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy” explores the complexities of parental engagement in schooling
When I had a baby, Daddy and I decided that I would stay at home with it while it was little, so I gave up my job as a primary school teacher. When it turned out that that baby, Sam, had Down Syndrome, all thoughts of returning to the job I loved, with all the commitment to other people’s children that it entailed, kind of flew out of the window. I missed it, I desperately missed my lovely colleagues, so when Sam started school I thought, ‘hurray! I’m part of the bigger team again!,’ because I’ve always loved working in schools. I didn’t always like attending one as a pupil, tortured adolescent that I was, but I’ve always enjoyed playing an adult part in a school community.
Unfortunately, it seems that I’m better at being the teacher because I’m not very good at being the kind of parent that schools like. For a start, I’m rubbish at helping in class. I don’t want to sit at the back (or even worse, out in the corridor in the cold), listening to readers; it returns me far too well to the clock-watching days of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours and I get palpitations. I can’t sew costumes for plays and pageants. I’m not the best at going on trips either because I always worry about my three children. What do I do with the baby? What if we aren’t back at school on time? Who will pick the others up while I am stuck in a coach in a traffic jam on the motorway? Until recently I have had no family nearby upon which to rely for the odd day of childminding.
I always thought I would be the sort who got involved with parent groups, but it turned out rather differently. Apart from the fact that fundraising isn’t really my thing, I never seemed to have the time to go to meetings; as with helping on trips, or Art Weeks, or readers, I was always slung about with children I couldn’t hand over to someone else, and there never seemed to be a crèche.
Maybe I could have gone for Governors, but that would involve me having to stand for election, and how would I deal with it if I didn’t get in? No matter how democratic we think these things are, they come down to a popularity contest, and I, for my sins, have no desire to find out just how unpopular I really am. Talk about reliving the worst of my teenaged years. And to be honest, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen the level of commitment and meeting-hood some of these governors put into their role, and I just don’t have the energy. When Sam started school I was pregnant, and for the next four years I was permanently exhausted. When Baby started school I went back to work and continued to feel exhausted. And, although I do tend to downplay the Special Needs Aspect of my family life, I have to admit that it is exhausting too.
And homework. Leaving aside the fact that I object on all sorts of grounds on to the giving of homework to children who are really still babies and that I have a conscience that makes it impossible for me to force my children to do things that I seriously disagree with, finding a ‘quiet place where I can help my child with their homework, free from all other distractions’ is a serious challenge. And I’m a white, middle class, well educated, professional mother with a lovely husband and a comfortable home. If I find it difficult to create the ideal conditions for homework, what must it be like for those parents who do not have my advantages? What must it be like for parents who are going it alone, or who don’t speak the language, or who share their home with another family, or who experience domestic violence, or drug abuse, or money worries along the lines of where the next meal is coming from? What must it be like for them?
The other thing that I’m really, really bad at is finding the right time and the right way to speak to one of my children’s teachers. I’m always getting it wrong. I can’t pop in first thing in the morning because everyone is too busy getting the work started. I struggle to stay after school because I have three tired, demanding children, one of whom ran off once and I had to break off my conversation to conduct a search. If I stop to chat to teacher in the playground (if they are in the playground at the end of the day), I have to do it with everyone else listening in. Maybe I could bring it up with the head teacher, but what if it’s only a small thing that I don’t want to turn into a big deal by going to see the boss? What if the boss misinterprets what I say and tells my child’s teacher something that upsets them, and colours the way they treat my child and me for the rest of the year, and the subsequent children following along after?
And if I keep my distance, swallow the small things, remind myself that we are all only human and we can’t do it all, does that make me disengaged? According to this set of rules, maybe I am. But I have just spent two hours this afternoon at a disability sport’s club. I have encouraged one child to do his music practice and discussed stories with nother. I have checked wounds and allergies and attended countless hairdressing appointments, blood tests, eye tests, hearing tests, sat up all night and watched oxygen SATs dribble up and down. Bearing those three children almost killed me. I am interested in everything that they do.
So when I come to see the teacher and everything is not quite right, or I’m worried, or I want some information that isn’t convenient, it’s not because I’m disengaged or disenchanted. It’s because I care very much that the people who are teaching my children are doing a good job. When I question actions that the school have taken, it’s not because I want to be awkward, or make someone else’s life more difficult, it is because my child, my children don’t get a second chance at their education. When I don’t like the assembly, or make a suggestion about sport’s day it’s because I care, it’s because I want it to be even better.
I wonder if we oughtn’t to change the rules of parental engagement. I wonder if we shouldn’t find the time to damn the tick boxes and open the doors, unlock the gates and build relationships that allow us to speak when we are finding things hard, teacher or parent, and to celebrate when things go well. I don’t want to feel like a second class citizen when I know full well that I am, special needs or not, the biggest educator in my family. I am the one who really does know my children best. And I’m more than happy to share my expertise.