What High School Teachers Want Parents To Know

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Mrs. Thompson sat down across from me, awkwardly situating herself in the desk before she began, “Thank you for meeting with me, Mrs. Mackle. I just wanted you to know we’re doing everything we can at home to deal with Ella’s attitude.”

Attitude?

Ella?

“I imagine she’s been talking back and giving you fits all year and I just wanted to say we . . .”

“Mrs. Thompson,” I interrupted, “I’ve never had the slightest bit of trouble out of your daughter. She’s actually quite delightful.”

I wish I could say this interaction was the first of its kind, but over my years as a high school foreign language teacher, an exchange of this sort was totally the norm—parental presumption of the way their student behaved in class, interacted with peers, or demonstrated (or didn’t) respect for authority. Sometimes parents were a little off in their suspicions, but oftentimes they were just dead wrong.

As I did my best to reassure the Mrs. Thompsons of our school, I found myself wanting to broadcast a message of hope to its parents: YOU’RE THEIR SAFE PERSON. OF COURSE THEY’RE GOING TO TREAT YOU TERRIBLY. It’s completely backwards—it makes no sense, and it’s very, very sad. But why do children, teens, and me, myself, and I, exhibit the least amount of self-control in the treatment of those closest to us? I wish I had the answers. But maybe there was value in my response to the Mrs. Thompsons. Maybe they just needed to hear a teacher vouch for their kiddo—an outside voice reassuring them to stay the course, keep up the good work of the loving nurture and admonition of these children, and encourage them to hold steady in preaching the gospel to their kids. I hope I gave enough reassurance. And I trust by God’s grace he was cradling all the Mrs. Thompsons in the palm of his hand, just like he was their “sass-mouthed” children.

Reflecting on this memory made me wonder: what would other high school teachers want parents to know? So I asked a few of my friends, and here’s what they had to say. In no particular order, here are the messages we teachers wish we could blast over the parental PA system:

On boundaries

Students are under enormous pressure to get good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, do volunteer work, earn money, and have a social life.  The constant demands on their time would be crippling for an adult and they have less ability to set their own boundaries and say no.

On the point of it all

Students internalize from their parents that school is all about grades and grades are all about future earning potential. The constant emphasis on grades and points misses that education is about learning to think.

On empathy

When I think back on my own life, I went through some of the most difficult circumstances I would experience by the time I was 18. Adults aren’t the only ones who suffer, and unfortunately a lot of parents and adults in general dismiss the suffering of teenagers as a phase or angst. Even if the circumstances that cause the turmoil don’t seem like a big deal, the pain they feel still can be. Plus, for teens everything feels catastrophic because they have limited experience, perspective, and coping skills. This doesn’t mean their pain should be minimized and dismissed, but rather listened to and believed.

On method

Parents need to understand that education and indoctrination are two different things: one is telling what to think; the other how to think. If parents indoctrinate out of fear that their students will think differently about the world than they do, those beliefs will be borrowed and won’t hold up under scrutiny, particularly scrutiny that is accompanied by suffering.

On examining ourselves

As a Bible teacher in a Christian School I had the opportunity to have many soul-deep discussions. Often those were at the crossroads of what we were reading in Scripture and what they had learned at home. Confusion was not unusual. When we looked at Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount I could sense their confusion. I asked them what they thought about this teaching and one student boldly told me this goes against what his parents told him to do. When I asked if their parents had ever taught them to turn the other cheek, not one answered in the affirmative. My students walked away frustrated that day, some because they liked their parents’ teaching better, others because they preferred the teaching of Scripture. High school students are at an age where they are looking for contradictions and they will see them clearly in the lives of any adult who have handed them the Bible and then taught them something else entirely.

On brain development

Adolescents are physically incapable of consistently making good decisions. Yes, they may look and speak like young adults, but scientifically speaking, their prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for reasoning and good judgment—isn’t fully developed until age 25 to 30. Ideas that are obviously bad to those of us over the age of 30 may sound pretty good to those in their teen years. I once taught a student who was old enough to drive a car and old enough to get drafted, but apparently not old enough to know that he needed to keep his pants on in class. So the next time a high school parent looks at their teenager and says, “What in the world were you thinking when you did that?” I want them to know the answer is that their child wasn’t thinking, because they couldn’t think in that way. Children and teens must be guided in their decisions by the trusted adults in their lives so that their prefrontal cortexes can fully develop and they can grow into responsible grown-ups who keep their pants on at all the right times.

It’s too much, isn’t it? The advice of all these teachers—it’s too much for a person, a parent, to juggle and manage and remember and synthesize and, and, and . . . . Any time I get to this place I realize I’m carrying a load I wasn’t intended to carry, and that is very, very good news for those of us who know the God who asks us to bring him our burdensome loads. In essence, all of my teacher friends did one thing in their responses: they vouched for the burdens our teenagers feel and operate from each and every day. Parents, we know overwhelmed—likely we live it. And living it makes us not entirely different from our teens, perhaps even the Ella Thompsons of our lives who are responding to lives under pressure they can’t adequately process and express. As believers in Jesus, we are equipped to point our children to the One who invites us all to cast our anxieties on him. (1 Peter 5:7)

I pray the wisdom of these teachers will help us consider, rethink, or even reassess some of our own practices. But far beyond that, I hope they help us all to remember Who cradles us in the palm of his hand and respond by bringing our burdens to him, likewise inviting those we love and shepherd to do the very same. If ever there was a starting point to relate to and empathize with the Ella Thompsons in our lives, maybe overwhelmed is a great spot to start.

That’s what it’s all about in the end: realizing that we, too, as parents need just as much grace for daily living as our children do. Let’s allow that truth to make a change in the way we respond to them.

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