October 24, 2017 - Volume 37 Issue 11










“Search for the truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.” - Anne Louise Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad who influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 19th century.

Erica Marks

By Erica Marks

Most of my career as a classroom teacher was spent working at private schools where students drove much better cars than teachers. Now I work in Pocahontas County schools, and there are some striking differences that go beyond the parking lot.

They might not be the differences that you would expect. The teachers here are just as skilled and caring as the ones at the fancy schools. The students have similar aptitudes and similar capacities for being goofballs. Class sizes are comparable. The buildings aren’t remarkably different either, believe it or not.

The main difference I found at a private school is the pervasiveness of the High-Expectation Parent. The High-Expectation Parent is a force like no other. He or she feels entitled to know what is going on with his or her child socially, emotionally and academically while at school. The HEP probably has the teachers, principal and superintendent on speed-dial. The HEP expects to be welcomed into the school.

The HEP expects frequent, prompt and detailed communication between the school and the family. He or she expects that his or her child will be known and educated as a unique and special individual. Beyond getting good test scores, the HEP expects children to be prepared to compete with students from around the globe.

My first years as a teacher, I was both intimidated and resentful of them. I mean ... I was fresh out of college, full of ideas and theories, and I knew what I was doing, right? Perhaps I rolled my eyes while talking to HEPs on the phone at night and maybe I even gave them some unflattering nicknames. I’ll never tell.

But then I got more experience in the classroom, and then I became a parent myself. And then I realized what a resource an HEP could be. When I wised up and teamed up with HEPs, great things happened in my classroom.

Imagine the advantage that children who go to these expensive schools get with advocates like that! Our kids — all kids — deserve the very same kind of advocacy, the very same respect, the very same level of involvement. A good K-12 education is our best shot at prosperity.

Fellow parents, the Pocahontas County school system is our private school. And all our kids got full scholarships to attend. We get to be HEPs without footing a hefty tuition bill! We can have a real impact on the culture of the school, on the way our children are learning, and on how much they can achieve.

Let me be clear. There are some amazingly involved public school parents. There are some deadbeat private school parents. I admit that I am making this unfair generalization to illustrate a point — which is, I think, that when parents pay for education (beyond their taxes), many get an amped-up sense of entitlement to an opinion about that education.

But I want us all to feel the pervasive sense of ownership of our schools that I witnessed as a private school employee. Our public schools are ours. We are entitled to help create them to be the schools of our dreams. (Do other people dream about schools or is it just me?)

This is not to let “the system” off the hook — the one that allows for the gross injustice and inequity of having different funding for schools depending on the wealth of the community they are in. This is not to dump all the responsibility for good schools in the laps of the parents.

This is a call to action for us to chip away at the inequality that, unfortunately, is all too real in public education. This is realizing that We the People really are “the system,” and if we want to change those big structures, it might help if we have our act together locally.

Having been on both sides of parent-teacher conferences, I offer some tips for being an effective High-Expectation Parent. (Hint: It’s not the same as being a Squeaky Wheel, a Helicopter Parent or a Highly Obnoxious Parent.)

1. Be kind. Recognize that you are talking to a whole person who may have struggles that you don’t understand. Give teachers and administrators the benefit of the doubt — they are in this profession because they care about children and learning. Always be polite and respectful. Offer your support and mean it.

2. Listen. Listening is such an underrated skill and underrated activity. Do you know about active listening? If not, Google it. Listening can change everything! Listen to your child. Listen to the teachers. Listen to administrators. Listen to other parents. Show them you are listening. Your response will be much more on target if you’ve been a good listener.

3. Ask questions. If something doesn’t make sense to you, take the next step and ask about it. Ask follow-up questions. There is no such thing as a stupid question. (But even if there is such a thing, be bold enough to seem stupid once in a while. People will get over it.)

4. Show up. Emails are good. Phone calls are good. Being there is the best. Ask how you can volunteer in the school. Go to PTO meetings. Ask for a conference. Ask if you can observe a class. (It seems weird, but I’ve had parents in my classrooms and it’s kind of great.) Step outside of your comfort zone and offer to lead an activity that you enjoy — cooking, gardening, sewing, computer programming, art, carpentry. Dare to run for the school board.

5. Follow a chain of command. Want to build resentment? Go over someone’s head with a concern or a complaint. That is not going to foster a healthy relationship between you and educators. It’s always best to address the person in question first and give them a chance to explain something.

Still unsatisfied? Proceed up the chain (remembering Rule No. 1.) You can make an exception to the chain-of-command rule when expressing gratitude. (See Rule No. 6.)

6. Show gratitude. We all know that our schools are under-resourced. We know that teachers often pay for things out of their own pockets. It’s true that almost everyone employed in by the school district has to volunteer hours of their time to get the job done well.

Education isn’t easy. A lot of good things are happening in our schools right now. Pay attention to things that are going well, and say thank you. Notice how clean the school is every day, and say thank you. Appreciate the extra activities, the extra notes home, a small improvement you see in your child, and say thank you.

Let a supervisor know you are grateful for someone’s efforts. Write thank-you notes. Bake thank-you cookies.

7. Be persistent. Change takes time. Perhaps our schools are not accustomed to the degree of involvement I am suggesting. Sometimes we’ll need to be patient. Play the long game. Imagine rich learning environments in a school system that is a joy for families to be a part of. We’ve got what it takes to do this.

Being a High Expectation Parent takes courage, especially if you haven’t experienced or seen this kind of advocacy before. (It’s intimidating to me, and I have spent a lot of time working in schools.) It takes having a thick skin. It takes pretending like you are a mature, competent adult, even if you don’t feel like one all the time.

But we can do it. We owe it to our children to do it. And it will be easier if we can get others on board to do it, too. (HEP strength is in their numbers, not in their wallets.) And if we do it right, our kids will know how it’s done when our grandkids are in school.

This is how we grow as a community. Who’s in?

- Erica Marks is a mother, part-time teacher and environmental educator at Yew Mountain Center in Pocahontas County (www.yewmountain.org). This essay first appeared in The Pocahontas Times and is reprinted with permission.