Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When Good Teachers Make Bad Choices

As a teacher by profession even when I was staying at home, I have always been averse to being That Parent. You know That Parent, the one who drives the teachers crazy by complaining about everything that goes on in the class when That Parent isn't there to protect their delicate flower--I mean child.

I have had 11th grade teachers tell me that parents complained that their teenager was asked to read The Crucible because "it's about witchcraft."

This type of parent annoys me because they are not well-informed. I think it's safe to say that The Crucible is not pro-witchcraft; it's simply anti-witch hunts. I can't be sure without a copy in front of me, but I'm pretty sure that there is nothing definitely supernatural in the play; there are merely accounts from eyewitnesses who claim they saw Goody So-and-so dancing with the devil, and so forth. Miller's point is that people can get caught up in group hysteria when their only hope of exoneration is condemning someone else, as was happening in 1950s Hollywood when Senator McCarthy was accusing everyone of being a secret Communist. There are important lessons we can learn from the play that are applicable to modern-day hunts for what our society considers evil, and actual devil-worship is not really a problem these days.

But the 17-year-old students whose parents freak out because OMG! Witches! are not going to learn to learn from history in order to keep it from repeating itself. Sad.

Believe me, you don't want to get me started on people who rail against Harry Potter. My feeling is, "If you have READ the books and still feel it is inappropriate for your child, fine. If you have just HEARD that it is pure evil, you have no grounds to complain. You're the parent; presumably as an adult you can handle reading/watching the potentially harmful material and DOING YOUR JOB as a parent to decide if you are going to let your child read/watch it."

Whew. You didn't even get me started on that topic; I just went off on it, all on my own.

Even though I try to support teachers and their right to decide what to teach, I felt compelled to write the following email to Miss Pink's music teacher. He is an enthusiastic teacher and Miss P loves him and his class. However, I thought about it and realized I couldn't let these lessons go by without saying something. If I did, I would be remiss in my responsibility to make sure my child is not exposed to age-inappropriate concepts. Seriously, what was he thinking to let kindergartners and first-graders (including kids up through 5th grade; they have several weeks of music class together per year) watch the "Thriller" video and the movie Walk the Line?

Here is my email.

Dear Mr. ______,

I realize I should have contacted you right away, but with the holiday I let it slip my mind. However, I did want to let you know that after Miss Pink watched the "Thriller" video in music class, she had trouble sleeping for several nights because she couldn't stop thinking about the scary images. She is pretty imaginative and I guess it was just too scary for her. As a parent, I'm sure you understand how hard it is to get a freaked-out child to calm down and go to sleep. I realize you only wanted to introduce the kids to the music of Michael Jackson, but in the future, you might not want to show that type of video to classes that include younger kids.

Also, I could not figure out from what Miss Pink told me if the students watched the whole movie of Walk the Line, so if they only watched clips of the music, please ignore the following. I love Johnny Cash and the movie based on his life, but my husband and I feel the themes of drug addiction and infidelity were too adult for our first-grader. We would have liked to have had a note home so we could have opted out for that lesson(s). Trust me, as a teacher I understand it's hard to find interesting films that relate to your subject, and I hesitated to complain because I don't want to be That Parent who makes life hard for teachers who are doing their best, but I felt you would want some constructive feedback for the future. Please believe that I only want to help and that I am not angry because no serious harm was done; I am just asking you to rethink using these materials, or at least check with parents and/or the administration before using them in the future.

If you feel you need to meet with me in person or over the phone, you could call me at ______. Simply letting me know via email that you've heard my concerns would be enough to fix the issue from my point of view, however.

Alison ____

I tried to be conciliatory because I know teachers may get defensive when they perceive a parent is attacking them. I also went to the teacher directly rather than going above his head to the principal right away. In my opinion, parents should give the teacher a chance to apologize, explain, and offer a solution to the problem before they bring in the big guns. If the teacher responds appropriately, I will let it drop because I honestly don't think any real harm was done. Miss P finally forgot about Michael turning into a werewolf (although it took 3 or 4 nights) and she probably didn't even know drugs were being used in those scenes. Notice that I didn't jump to conclusions based on what my child had said since I really don't know if they watched the whole movie. Parents should remember that what their child says is from a kid's point of view and may not be 100% accurate, so we should give the teacher a chance to explain before we freak out. (There are exceptions to what I'm saying, such as when something really bad happens and you have to demand that something be done right away.)

What do y'all think? Is this a letter that will probably get the results I want--or was I even too wishy-washy? What should I do if the teacher blows off my concerns? And do you have any stories to share of how to approach--or how NOT to approach--a child's teacher?



  1. I only recently saw the Thriller video, and it freaked me out a little bit. I guess I'm not used to the zombie/werewolf thing myself.

    I thought you were very balanced and conciliatory, and in no way were wishy-washy. I thought you wrote a perfect letter, and I would be VERY surprised if it puts the teacher offside or if it fails to fix the problem.

    You are most definitely NOT "That Parent" but you stood up for Miss Pink very well. Nobody else is her Mom, so I'm guessing nobody else would stand up for her in this issue if you didn't.

    Well done Alison, I think you did the right thing.

  2. That is a very articulate and thoughtful letter. My goodness, my teenage son doesn't watch movies like this in school! It's a public high school. There are so many great options, gee, really poor judgement on the teacher's part.

  3. I think your letter was great. I'm really surprised the school let children watch those without gaining parental consent first. When I was in AP History in 11th grade my parents had to sign a sheet to allow me to watch 'Schindler's List' because it was rated R and we weren't 18 yet.

    Given that 'Walk The Line' isn't rated G - and even though there are some acceptable scenes for kids in that one - I still would have wanted to be contact before.

    On another note, I've noticed that some parents are allowing their kids to watch movies far above their age-level at much younger ages. Our next-door neighbors took their 6 year old to see 'New Moon' and she's watched 'Twilight' on DVD many times. My daughter can't even handle watching 'Annie' because the fact that the kids are orphans is too disturbing to her. She never would have been able to handle Thriller.

  4. Perfection on your part.

    And may I just say - seriously?? Wow. I would think through the themes of "Walk the Line" for my high schoolers...

    Well done; you are not That Parent in my eyes.

  5. first of, I'm so sorry to hear that Miss Pink had trouble sleeping after 'Thriller' MTV, Something which my boys watch so so often on YouTube, cos MJ is their idol.

    Being a parent, it is always ok to voice your thoughts and give suggestions. I was a teacher handling more than 100 students before. But the sad part is, there are many teachers who reads and listens to parents but NEVER do as the parents wished.

    For me, I prefer to go face to face. Its just me. I like to see the expression of the teacher. 'cos from there I can tell if he/she is gonna do WHAT I SAID!

    Holy crap. I'd blow my top. But politely, since I don't want my kid to get the Crazy Mother Warning in her permanent file.

  7. I thought your email was great, but I would have been really clear that you need to be alerted or asked before they show anything else to her. At our elementary school everything has to be approved by the parents... You're doing a good job Momma! :-)

  8. I think the letter should upset no weren't threatening to chop him into little pieces or anything...and maybe he just didn't understand that little ones don't have the mental wherewithal to filter thru the tripe and hype, the scary and vulgar...I think as a teacher he should be thankful someone hasn't been exceedingly rude to him...good job!

  9. I think your letter is spot-on. I haven't been a teacher that dealt with parents myself (was a TA in grad school, and did have to deal with some parents as the internship adviser at my old job) but I am the child of a teacher. I try to not be That Parent either. I have gotten myself worked up by a couple of comments from my son's teacher... both on his papers that come home and through emails. But once we met face to face for conferences I felt a lot better about things.

    I think you strike just the right balance of concern and openness. You'll have to let us know how it turns out!

  10. I think the letter is great. This would be the situation where I would have said something as well, and it takes a great deal for me to step in at school.

    You are definitely NOT "That Parent", and that shows with how you handled this situation. Nicely done!