My Parents’ Perspective: Choosing Innovation, Collaboration and Engagement

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My parents strongly believe in public education and its role in creating and sustaining a healthy society. As a result, they were deeply involved in my education and the education of my peers. I had a strong public education in large part thanks to their advocacy and leadership at the school and district levels.

Sometimes I take for granted the exciting experiences I had at school, especially elementary and middle school, both magnet programs. My elementary school was considered a Professional Development School (PDS) in partnership with the Baylor University School of Education. My middle school was designed specifically to cater to the development of early adolescents, in addition to a greater-than-usual focus on technology.

In elementary, I participated in mock elections (elected President of the United States in the fifth grade!); starred in my first (and only) musical, written and directed by my classmates and me; and was surrounded by older and younger friends because our learning environments weren’t constructed by grade levels. I was part of a reading group that engaged my strengths by allowing me to read out loud rather than silently, and I remember often working with two or three adults at a time during the school day.

Then in middle school, teachers formed our work around 9-week odysseys, designed to help us creatively engage with our required subjects and standards. In the sixth grade, during the Sports Odyssey, one of our assignments was to invent a sport. I created “Skandem.” Tandem skiing. Realistically it would have been a nightmare, but I had it all figured out—the calculations of the appropriate ski length, a full set of detailed rules and instructions on how to play, the marketing campaign that would launch it to its rightful place as an Olympic sport.

As an adult, I talk often with my parents about education systems, education policy and high-level issues that intersect with public education. I recently realized though, that I hadn’t yet asked them what, from a parent’s perspective, they understood about the importance of the experiences I had at school. What did they appreciate about the day-to-day of my educational experience and the teachers who guided me?

It turns out they remember many of the same qualities of my teachers and schools just as vividly as I do.

My elementary school was a magnet school. You could easily have kept me in our neighborhood school. Why did you decide to enroll my sister and me in the magnet program?

Mom: The magnet school was untried in Waco, so that was a little risky. On the other hand, at the time the neighborhood school you were attending wasn’t the best option for you. So we thought we’d give the magnet school a chance.

Dad: I was attracted to the deep engagement with the Baylor School of Education.

Mom: It was the idea of having master teachers and teachers-in-training in the same classroom. Baylor professors were often on campus. It was innovative. It was something new that felt more up-to-date, which was exciting for us and, we hoped, for you.

I remember you both being very involved in my schools growing up—especially in elementary and middle school. What did you appreciate about how teachers in my schools interacted with parents?

Anne Olson interviews her parents about their advocacy in her public education and belief in its role in creating and sustaining a healthy society. Mom: The teachers saw the parents as partners and collaborators in their own child’s education. Teachers saw the parents as the ones who knew their student the best. I remember parent-teacher conferences were different than what I had seen in the past. They were less about the teacher reporting to the parent and much more of an opportunity for us to tell them about our child. The conferences had a “give and take,” conversational feel.

At your elementary school, that was partly because it was a new school, but they also really wanted to know about your interests. They’d ask: “What’s her personality like?” “What kind of books would she like at the library?” “Is she a morning person or a night person?” They wanted to know the whole child so they could know better how to capture your interests.

That emphasis on the whole child– and not to the tests you would still have to take– was really interesting to me. If they had a child who hated math, they would help open the world of math by tying it to things that were of interest to them. So you were challenged, but also engaged.

What do you remember most about how teachers engaged with me and with my classmates?

Dad: I remember a deep enthusiasm for learning and for teaching. There was a lot of creativity in your projects and in the methods used by your teachers. The best teachers always had high expectations for all their students, and a willingness to work to help each and every student meet those expectations.

Mom: I would say the same. There was also a great level of respect for the students—an understanding that they could all learn and that there are different types of learners. Especially for students who are used to excelling, it was good to have an education that included things you couldn’t always excel at. It was good for you to work it groups. It was hard to work in groups, but it was a good lesson for life. They gave you assignments that would be hard for you.

I remember that teachers were allowed to teach each other too. In elementary school, master teachers were given more planning time to help coach the first-year and pre-service teachers. They were given the time to not only teach their students, but coach the other teachers too. There was space and respect for educators to be professionals, and it was reflected in the instruction that you and your sister received. It would have been a lot easier to just fit everybody in a mold, but your schools weren’t willing to do that.

This is the first in an ongoing series of conversations I’ll be having with my parents about education.