A student works on an assignment during Chollas-Mead Elementary’s summer enrichment program. / Photo by Dustin Michelson
A student works on an assignment during Chollas-Mead Elementary’s summer enrichment program. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

For me, the COVID-19 close-out of schools feels eerily familiar. I teach in southeastern San Diego, in the Chollas View neighborhood. I’ve been there since 1999. On Sept. 11, 2001, I arrived at school and saw that my students were as confused as I was. That night, I phoned every parent and did something I didn’t usually do on phone calls to homes: I just listened. In 2007, I watched the smoke from the fires fill the air in San Diego. As I drove from house to house delivering supplies to kids stuck in their homes, I spoke with parent after parent. Without my grade book or behavior reports, I had little to talk about, and so instead of doing the talking, I asked the questions: How are you doing? What things can I help with?

And now here we are, closing our classes, sending children home for perhaps much longer. And as I had before, I’ve reached out, checking in to crack a toilet paper joke and to see how the kids and their families is doing. This time again, it struck me. Parents have a lot to say. And we all have an opportunity now to listen.

This week, a single mother of three told me, “My children are zombies right now. I think they’re just happy to be on their devices!” When I asked her what I could do to help, she laughed and joked, “Yeah, can you come and pick them up and take them to the park!” When the joke was over, she told me how much our PE program meant to her son. In fact, most of the parents I spoke with lamented their inability to help their children do the things we’d be doing at school. Many cannot afford extra-curriculars like dance, gymnastics, music or sports. And just like I heard in 2001 and 2007, it isn’t just the academics. Some mentioned the student newspaper, while others talked about the talent show practice. Some brought up our exploratory music program and what a shame it was to miss the second quarter performance. Jhazlynn takes her art seriously and wants to finish her portfolio. Roman and Alivia wanted to lead our basketball team to another trophy. Even my own daughter is upset that she isn’t helping her second-graders in her role as “playground patrol” and student council vice president. At each moment in the talks, I felt myself sliding closer and closer to discussing the reading and math I had sent home. And then Roman’s mother and Alivia’s dad reminded me that there was a lot more to school for them and for their children.

The calls once again left me with a profound sense of what parents want, above and beyond grades.

They want health and PE classes, rich subjects, and opportunities for their kids to learn. Through these conversations, I was reminded of what made me excited to be a teacher in the first place ― a school should be a place that children will miss.

Parents want teachers to teach beyond the standards and provide room for growth, socially and personally, for their children. They rely on us to establish social norms such as cooperation and service above self. And so in the spirit of that, I put aside my agenda and instead talked about how Hiram and his little brother love to watch cartoons together, and how Lilliana and her mom do art every weekend. I was reminded again and again that my students are far more than the sum of their grades to their moms and dads and guardians, and that they should be all of that to us as teachers.

We can all use this opportunity to learn. Let’s start by listening to the parents of our children about what they need and want from our education system. And when this crisis is over, and the children are back in school, let’s do something about it.

Thomas Courtney is a fifth grade teacher at Chollas Mead Elementary School in San Diego and a 2019-20 Teach Plus California policy fellow. 

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