I am in good health and don’t want anyone freaking out, but I have been wondering what to say to my children and grandchildren on my deathbed. Old people ruminate on such stuff occasionally, and it has inspired a new thought about school visits.
When I am about to go I want to tell my kids and grandkids how much I enjoyed watching them in action — talking, writing, building, playing. It helped me understand the essence and individuality of their lives.
But I have relatively few memories of them in school. Our education system does little to encourage parent observations. The few times I was allowed to watch my children in class taught me things and left vivid recollections. I wonder why schools don’t try harder to make that happen.
Many educators have the view that parents can be nuisances and their school contacts should be limited. Usually there is just one back-to-school night a year. Parents sitting and watching in the back of a classroom doesn’t fit ordinary school culture. Organizations tend to avoid practices they haven’t tried before.
Alyssa Rafa, policy researcher for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, was able to find for me only two states, California and Washington, that have given all parents the right to observe classroom activities. Some states have rules allowing parents of certain kinds of children, such as those with disabilities or disciplinary problems, to watch classes. But that’s it.
Not all parents want to observe, but those like me who do are at the mercy of varying local laws, guidelines and habits. Even the schools that allow parental observations rarely publicize or encourage them. This goes for public and private schools.
What of those few schools that welcome parents into classrooms? At Breakthrough Montessori, a public charter school in Northwest Washington, “We strongly encourage family members to observe their child’s classroom at least twice during the school year,” said spokeswoman Emily Hedin. They can come more than that if they like.
This is part of Montessori’s 110-year tradition. All of my kids attended Montessori schools in their early years. My wife and I were encouraged to observe, although we were bothered that our older son spent all his time on practical skills and never wanted to trace his letters.
Some schools have told me they consider such visits disruptive and a drain on teachers’ time and energies. I asked Hedin about that. “We work closely with families to establish guidelines and expectations for their time in the classroom,” she said, and limit each visit to 30 minutes. Classroom visits do not have to be like school musical performances, where there are often more cameras lit up than at White House news conferences.
I don’t put parent observations in the same category as parent volunteering. Schools seem more comfortable having parents do chores in classrooms. It is a fine way to save money and keep families involved, but it is different from being able just to sit and watch what the children and the teacher are doing.
This has become a contentious issue for the parents of children with disabilities, who are sometimes told that the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act bars them from observing in school because that would violate the privacy of the other children there. Attorneys in the field say that is a misreading of the law. Schools can set guidelines but cannot keep parents away.
Schools’ resistance to observations is even stronger when parents ask to sit quietly in a classroom before they decide to enroll their child. Schools often tell me they can’t handle the demand for such observations, but then admit they haven’t ever determined how many parents would request them.
Breakthrough Montessori in the District invites parents just curious about the school to sit and observe. Schools should remember what parents often tell their children: perhaps you should try something that might be useful before saying you can’t do it.