I wrote this post for the Mom Congress Back-to-School Blog-a-thon (I was the North Carolina delegate to the 2011 Mom Congress, sponsored by Parenting Magazine). You can read more Mom Congress blogs here.
As the letter notes, Peter and Parker and I will be spending the fall in Shanghai. Peter will be a visiting professor of architecture at Tongji University, and Parker and I will be learning and exploring. It should be quite an adventure.
Only three more days before we head for Shanghai. Four months to explore one of the world's great cities! I've already got a long list of places to visit together: museums, markets, neighborhoods, gardens. I'm so excited.
But I'm nervous as well. Not of a temporary move to a city with 23 million residents, terrible drivers, some of the world's worst air pollution and a language I don't read or speak. I'm nervous about this homeschooling thing.
Every summer, I joke that I can't wait for school to start again, so I can return you to the capable hands of trained professionals. I laugh, but I mean every word.
I've got a list of fancy degrees that show I'm pretty good at learning. But they don't mean I can teach. Although I pick up concepts fast, I don't have the patience or dedication to devise four or five ways to teach them to someone else, much less to design lessons engaging enough to draw in restless ten-year-olds.
As you well know, if we were here this fall I wouldn't spend much time in your classroom. Other parents would do the hands-on work of tutoring, helping with class projects and organizing parties. I'd be crunching numbers, writing articles, speaking at school board meetings and sending countless e-mails.
I'd be working to get our teachers the resources they need to succeed, such as small classes and decent libraries. I'd be doing my best to shield them from policies that get in their way – most recently the flood of enervating standardized tests that our school board has unleashed on our classrooms. I'd be spending quality cybertime with my friends at Parents Across America, as we work to engage parents around the country in national education issues.
You might ask why parents need to be doing this work. Don't teachers have the right to free speech? Aren't they the ones who're always telling you to speak out, to confront bullies, to stand up for yourself? And aren't they the ones who really know what's happening in schools and classrooms? If policies like testing or inflated class size aren't helping students learn, why don't teachers lead the fight against them?
Welcome, son, to the worlds of work and politics.
When you get older, you'll understand how much it means to have a job that pays the bills and perhaps supports a family. And when you do, you'll understand how hard it is to publicly criticize your employer. Some teachers have the courage to speak out. Many are too afraid – afraid of losing jobs or of having dissatisfied administrators make their lives miserable.
As you learn more about politics, you'll also learn about the attacks launched when people stand up against powerful interests. Many of the policies I and my friends have challenged are marketed as corporate-style "efficiencies." Essentially, they promise to get more bang for educational bucks by using tests and other measures to make the educational workforce more "productive." They're backed not only by the federal government, but by a lot of major private-sector players, including wealthy private foundations.
When teachers challenge these policies, they're quickly accused of being lazy, of not wanting to be held "accountable" for their performance, of caring more about themselves than about the children they teach every day. It can get very ugly very fast.
We parents are in a stronger position. No one can fire us. If we work together, in fact, we have the power to deprive elected officials of their jobs. And no one has a greater stake that we do in good schools and good teaching. No one can accuse us of placing the interests of adults over those of children. We're in it for our kids.
Given these political dynamics, as well as our hard economic times, if we parents want our children to get the kind of education they deserve, we have to look beyond what's happening in our individual schools and classrooms. We have to be the ones who stand up and speak out.
I'm starting to run long here, and I can almost feel you tugging on my arm, the way you do when I get into one of what you call my "endless chats." Your pleas echo faintly in my head. "Mom, Mom! No more chats! We have to go!" And it's true that we're not nearly finished packing.
So one last thing. Please bear with me on this homeschooling business. I won't be able to "deliver" the material with anything like the competence, creativity or patience you've grown used to at Shamrock. But I promise that if you'll do your best to focus, we'll get through what we need to do as quickly as we can. Then we'll go out exploring. I can't wait.