Why America Demonizes its Teachers -- Part 4: The Role of the Home in Student Learning

One powerful influence on student learning, which federal and state governments refuse to acknowledge, is a student's home life, over which teachers have no control. Students who come from homes conducive to learning usually do well in school, while those who don't come from such homes, generally do poorly.

There are many parents today who do a wonderful job in raising their children in ideal home environments, with the result that their children flourish in school. Would that there were more of these parents!

There are also parents who don't provide such homes, often resulting in problems for their children in school. It is hard to teach children from homes where the life of the mind is disdained or neglected; where there are no books; where parents don't read, or read to their children, or encourage them to read on their own; where a child's curiosity is never piqued by a parent's questions, or by parents discussing ideas within their child's hearing to suggest a larger world outside the home.

It is hard to teach children of helicopter and snowplow parents who infantilize their children by making it impossible for them to grow up, become their own persons, and live their own lives; parents who instill in their children a gargantuan sense of entitlement; parents who refuse to set limits on their children's behavior, wanting to be their friends instead of their parents; parents in denial about their children's behavior, eternally making excuses for them, enabling them to become more uncontrollable year after year, and thereby disabling them to function later in life as mature human beings.

It is hard to teach a fatherless or a motherless child who feels cheated by a parent's absence or loss; a lonely child who feels uprooted by a parent's frequent job relocations and no longer bothers to make friends at school; a child shattered by a parent's drinking or drug problem; a spoiled child bribed by parental guilt-offerings for time and affection rarely bestowed; a defeated child who knows only rejection and has nothing to live for; a frustrated child who can never measure up to a parent's impossibly high expectations; an angry child who lashes out to prove he exists and will make the world pay for his pain.

It is hard to teach children from dysfunctional homes and emotional wastelands; where parents endlessly preach to their children, instead of being role-models after whom children want to pattern their lives; where parents are too busy to do what parents always found time to do in the past, like being parents who explained the world to their children, answered their questions, talked them through the problems of life, taught them wisdom about how to grow up, showed sympathy with their defeats and sorrows, and interest in their dreams and successes, and were always there to love and protect them.

It is hard to teach children from homes where marital strife and impending divorce convulse their sense of themselves; where children are physically or emotionally abused; where little parental concern is shown about them at home or at school; where children aren't taught the difference between right and wrong, or the importance of old-fashioned values like responsibility, self-discipline, and a solid work ethic.

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These are but a few examples of the home lives of children, some of whom have been so deeply affected by their experience that they may never be reached. These home situations weigh heavily on teachers when these innocent children arrive at school already maladjusted, troubled, defeated, or broken. Teachers never give up on them, however, so that they can experience some human contact, understanding, and comfort.

There are so many lost children in our schools today that one wonders whether they are the canaries in the mine shaft of American culture, signaling that there is something terribly wrong in our country. Many of the problems that afflict inner-city children discussed in Part 1 of this series affect many children at all levels of our society no matter where they may live.

Children come to school hungry, malnourished, unhealthy, troubled, and, in some cases, so irredeemably scarred by hopeless home situations that massive interventions are needed.

Many schools, however, cannot provide them due to the loss of school nurses, psychologists, and social workers, increasingly disappearing from public schools because of budget cuts and funding diverted to charters.

Teachers have neither the time nor expertise to deal with these problems because they must teach. The result is that many schools have become warehouses for children whom America has written off as expendable.

Education "reformers" claim that there are no such things as bad home situations, or that, if there are, they are only "excuses" for children's not learning.

If you want the response to such claims, simply ask any school nurse, psychologist, or social worker, if you can find one, about what many children endure in their homes and its effect on them.

And yet teachers are being held accountable for the academic progress of these blighted young lives, who, given their home situations, are too traumatized to learn or simply shut down.

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Children need a sense of security, a comfort zone, and parental love to understand why learning even matters. Children are not inert objects, but fragile creatures in need of gentle rain, sunshine, air, and a nurturing home.

They need to be accepted by their parents for who they are, not for who their parents want them to be; made to feel valued and special by them in order to believe that they are special, little of which occurs in these homes.

Schools today must care for these children who are sick-at-heart with undiagnosed problems and emotional issues. Teachers try to get through to each of these children because teachers are often a child's only hope.

Given the plight of many children today, teachers are understandably more concerned about these children as human beings than as students.

Teachers don't teach subjects. They teach children, and therein lies the challenge of teaching in today's America.

Anyone can master a body of knowledge, but imparting this knowledge in ways that enable children to grow and see the world differently; that inspire them to re-imagine who they are and what they still may become; that show them how to transform learning to discover their dreams and to realize them -- this is the lifeblood of teaching.

Teaching today is dealing with the collateral damage of young lives adrift and bringing them back from the edge.

Teaching is about taking children from wherever one finds them, moving them forward, and, hopefully, returning them whole to themselves. Teaching is about listening, mentoring, and, perhaps, even healing.

Teaching is not about preparing children for relentless test-taking, which has nothing to do with what children need in their formative years.

How does one even begin to teach children from homes that are themselves the source of their problems?

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However, there is still something else that is having a corrosive effect on the American classroom. More parents than one would care to imagine have simply abandoned their responsibility for raising their children and expect the school to raise them, instead.

When their children do wrong, these parents invent any excuse for blaming the school for their own dereliction of duty. In the past, one could assume that the children who came to school had been properly raised, but this is today no longer the case.

These parents simply desert their children lest raising them interfere with their careers and personal lifestyle, or they give in to their children rather than being their parents, which requires time and hard work.

The result is that too many schools have been turned into emergency wards for neglected children; triage centers that struggle to instill basic standards of civilized conduct which should already have been taught in the home.

Schools cannot take the place of the home, nor can teachers assume the role of parents. Teachers expect -- indeed, society expects -- that parents will teach their children that they are not the center of the universe, and that they show to others the same respect they wish for themselves.

If parents do their job so that teachers can teach rather than being surrogate parents, children are the winners, and the school can proceed with its mission of teaching the young.

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As mentioned above, there are many parents who do an excellent job in raising their children and creating homes that are conducive to learning. There are also parents who show little interest in their children or their academic progress. It is vital that these parents play an active role in their children's education by working closely with the school.

Teachers cannot educate children alone, but rely on parents to support the school's efforts. Children should sense continuity between the home and the school, not contradiction.

Parental expectations are a force of nature, and their children will take school seriously when their parents do. Everything in this world is attitude. If parents encourage their children to do their best, their children will rarely disappoint them.

The climate of learning in which children thrive should pervade the home even before they enter the school. Learning never takes root unless the soil that makes children receptive to learning has been prepared in the home.

Everything about becoming a human being begins in the home. It is society's great civilizer, the molder and shaper of children's hearts and minds, their characters and values, their behaviors and attitudes, their views of themselves and the world.

Raising a child during these magical years is an awesome responsibility, for parents are fashioning their child's very soul.

A child is something sacred, someone to be approached with great reverence, and being a parent an act of faith, hope, and love that will endure a lifetime, and it all begins on holy ground, called the home.

While nurturing the body, parents ought never lose sight of the child's mind and spirit, but devise all manner of experiences that will stimulate the child's innate curiosity and playfulness, imagination and creativity, mental development and the love of learning.

Teach the child to look at everything in different ways, sympathizing with all points of view, even seeing things through the eyes of animals.

Expose the child to Beauty in all of its manifestations by listening to all kinds of music and looking at all kinds of art.

Have the child look for Truth in stories, all kinds of stories -- fairy tales, folktales, and the wisdom fables of Aesop.

But, most of all, allow the child to soar into unexplored realms of inspiration and wonder, and do everything you can to keep these twin-companions alive, for they are your child's only true teachers.

(This piece is an expanded version of an article published in the Times of Trenton in 2013.)