The Three-Legged Stool

Year after year, at back-to-school nights, open houses, parent involvement days, and school events, I preach, or at least allude to, the same sermon: the teacher, the student, and the parent must work together to properly educate a child. It takes teamwork.

I illustrate my point to the parents I’m talking to by asking them to envision a one-legged stool. How does it stand up, I ask. It doesn’t, they reply, usually with knitted brows. Exactly, and neither can a child be educated if only one of those three parties is working. If only the teacher is working, but not the student and the parent, not much good will come. Likewise, if it is only the parent, or only the student. A one-legged stool cannot stand.

Next, I ask them to envision a two-legged stool. Can it stand, I ask. No, they reply, usually after thinking about it for a moment. The only improvement with a two-legged stool is that it will fall in only one of two directions, not willy-nilly in any direction like the one-legged stool. But fall it will. This is the situation if only two of the three parties are working: teacher and parent only, student and parent only, or teacher and student only.

Finally, we get to a three-legged stool. Can it stand, I ask again. Yes, it can.  And moreover, those three legs can be arranged in an array of patterns and constructions. There isn’t only one right way. This is what happens when all three parties are working, and when all three are connected to each other with sure supports.

For the paradigm of education to succeed, all three – teacher, student, and parent – must be in place. Teachers must provide instruction, assignments, opportunities, and tutoring. Students must receive instruction and do their assigned work. Finally, parents and guardians are there to ensure that their children study, do their homework, and get adequate rest.

Yet, just imagine the potential for a student’s education if that stool had four legs. With his or her community, neighbors, extended family, and close friends also asking and insisting, a student could hardly fail if, everywhere that student turns, the value of education is reinforced.

Now, imagine if that stool even had a fifth leg. If adequate resources, staffing, and facilities were added to solid instruction, student effort, parental action, and community support for every child, that student’s only limitations would be the ones placed there by God Himself.

First must come the hands-on, daily support from people in that child’s life. I’ve learned from being both a teacher and a parent that children don’t do what we say— they do what we do. And when a parent or guardian only pays attention to the child’s schooling on report card day, the child learns two lessons at home: education and learning don’t really matter in daily life, and I only have to work hard enough to bring home letter grades that keep me out of trouble. When the marks become more important than what they symbolize, that report card is not a representation, but a facade, and education becomes not about learning, but about jumping through the proper hoops.

I know that many parents work long hours, struggle to get through each day, and don’t have the time to volunteer, to chaperone field trips, or even to attend monthly PTA meetings. But that isn’t the form that every parent’s support needs to take. (If every parent volunteered at the school, we’d be overrun!) Here’s what any parent or guardian can do: ask your child each evening what he or she learned that day. Don’t ask about grades or tests or deadlines— ask about learning. Parents who do that will know what their child is learning in school; they’ll know if the teachers are performing up to standard; and they’ll know that their child will be prepared for real life.

Asking questions about their studies shows children that they should care about learning. Educators call it “formative assessment.” It tells us, before it’s too late, what the child does or doesn’t understand or know. Ask your child what he is doing in math, then ask him to show you an example. Ask your child which book she is reading, then ask her, “What’s it about?” Ask your child what he or she is studying in history, then ask, “When did that happen?” If a student can’t respond the second part of those questions, a parent should worry. The answers to those questions will tell a parent more about a child’s education than any A, B, C, D, or F ever could.

It takes teamwork. I remind my students periodically that my job title is “teacher,” not “grade giver.” So, if I’m there to teach, then students should recognize that they are there to learn. Thus, parent involvement – the third leg on that stool, the one to ensure that it can stand – should center on the expectation of teaching and learning, not on periodic concerns over scores and letter grades on data sheets.

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