I started out as a newspaper reporter for a medium-sized newspaper in Pennsylvania. I hoped to be assigned a beat that provided the opportunity to investigate and write about local hot button issues. What I wanted to avoid was covering boring school board meetings, sitting in a stuffy conference room for hours on end while school administrators debated budgets, curriculum, and plant issues.
Fast forward and for many local reporters covering school board meetings is now considered a plum assignment. Those stuffy conference rooms are now filled with angry parents upset that their children are being taught “critical race theory,” assigned books with questionable material, and forced to share bathrooms with transgender students. Oftentimes parents show up at these meetings having read something online that is misleading or just plain false. No one can criticize these parents. Protecting your child should be a parent’s first and most important duty. But school board members, along with administrators and teachers, have found themselves unable to carry on a calm discussion without parents shouting at them and, in some cases, issuing threats. Those school board members who haven’t resigned, have hired security to protect themselves and their families.
We’re emerging from a pandemic where schools were closed and students forced to learn at home. During that year-long shutdown, parents discovered that teaching is a tough job. There was appreciation for teachers voiced by many who pressured administrators to reopen schools. Parents were eager to get back to work and entrust their children’s education to the professionals.
That honeymoon didn’t last. Parents are now lashing out at teachers and school administrators, demanding to have more control over what is taught in the classroom. This battle played out during the Virginia governor’s race where the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, ran ads showing his opponent, former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” On Meet The Press, McAuliffe explained that he was specifically talking about a 2017 bill that would have required Virginia public schools to notify parents of any “sexually explicit content” in books assigned to students and provide an alternative assignment if requested. (What might constitute “sexually explicit material,” we assume, could vary widely.) McAuliffe vetoed the bill.
Let me add here that I have some experience facing angry parents. When Margaret Sagarese and I were writing books for parents of young adolescents, we often did talks in schools. Twenty years ago, critical race theory and transgender bathrooms had not yet surfaced as divisive issues. But two issues are still with us – bullying and drug abuse. While we tried to give parents the facts and not be judgmental, on more than one occasion a parent would lash out at other parents, teachers, and school officials. The “not my child” was a familiar refrain, and we tried our best to prevent confrontations, encouraging meaningful dialogue. It helped that we had middle schoolers ourselves and could understand how the loss of control during adolescence triggered parental anxieties and fears. There were times when we did more listening than talking. It wasn’t unusual for one of us to be pulled to the side after a talk where a parent would want to share something personal, perhaps a child being bullied or hanging with the wrong crowd and tempting fate. We gave our email addresses and many times those discussions continued.
Like so much else these days, education is becoming politicized. Just as so many don’t trust scientists and physicians about vaccines, parents don’t trust educators about what should be taught in schools. Professionals are being drowned out by talk show hosts and conspiracy theorists. In my experience, doing many interviews with superintendents, principals, and teachers while writing our books, educators want parental involvement. They want parents to understand what goes on in the classroom. They want parents to stay on top of homework assignments. They want parents to show up on parent’s night and to get involved in parent associations. And, yes, they want parents to show up at school board meetings.
What they don’t want is an environment where shouting and threats drown out meaningful exchanges. We need a reset and a serious discussion about what role parents should play in what is taught in the classroom.
While these issues became front and center during a state wide governor’s race, school boards are local and education a local issue. There is no one size fits all. Solving this crisis will take all sides working together with politicians sitting on the sidelines.
We underestimate young people. They are smart, inquisitive, and tech savvy. Yes, education should be tailored to the age group, but to ban certain books or squelch discussion about issues that are on the front page every day, does a disservice to a generation that will soon be responsible for handling the serious problems that threaten not only our country but the planet.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of eight books for parents of young adolescents including The Roller-Coaster Years, Cliques, and Boy Crazy.
Top photo: Long Beach, CA / USA – August 5, 2020: Sign on a car participating in the Parent & Teachers Car Caravan in Solidarity for Our LBUSD Teachers outside the LBUSD Board Meeting. Credit: Kristin Riegler / Shutterstock.com