TEACHER VOICE: It’s up to us to replace a culture of fear with a culture of trust

As I begin the new school year, I make a list of all my priorities: Lesson planning, grading, classroom setup, data analysis and new teacher mentorship.

Building relationships with parents is at the top of the list. This has not always been the case, but as parents become more engaged in the curriculum taught in schools, I have seen the repercussions firsthand of failing to prioritize those relationships.

Several years ago, I assigned Jesmyn Ward’s excellent first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds,” to my junior-year students. I had read the novel in my early 20s and it had affected me deeply: I wanted to share it with my students and approach some of the book’s more difficult themes of racism, poverty, violence and drug addiction.

The novel follows the twins Joshua and Christophe, who recently graduated high school. One enters the workforce and begins to mature, while the other starts selling drugs.

As the boys age, they drift further and further apart until tragedy strikes.

It was a mistake to assume that all parents would be as enthusiastic about the book as I was.

A concerned parent took issue with the language used in the book and its depictions of drug use. She immediately called the district to ask that the book be removed from my curriculum.

The district obliged, and I deleted it from all further lessons. The district’s decision may have been hasty, but I understood why it happened. I had failed to develop the necessary trust between myself and the parent.

Related: Who picks school curriculum? Idaho law hands more power to parents

Prior to assigning the book, I should have sent home a letter explaining its relevance to the curriculum and outlining its difficult themes. I should have invited parents to discuss my choice to include the novel in our curriculum.

As a teacher, I know that the desire for building a culture of trust is strong — and mutual. Parents crave a relationship with me. And since that incident, I have made them a priority.

During a recent open house, parents filled my classroom. They sat at tiny desks and asked question after question about how they could help improve their child’s reading.

One parent, a police officer, talked to me for 20 minutes about how he could help prepare his child for the state test. At one point, he apologized to the others in the room for taking up so much time.

In response, a mother said, “No, no. You’re asking the right questions.”

These kinds of conversations were not possible when I began teaching in the district.

Parents are accustomed to new teachers showing up in their child’s lives and disappearing with equal speed. The teacher is gone by May, but the parent has to live with the teacher’s choices for much longer.

I have had to earn parents’ trust by exhibiting a long-term commitment to my school, a fierce work ethic and an understanding that, as an outsider, I often lack the cultural knowledge necessary to fully understand my students, their parents and the values they live by.

I understood why it happened: I had failed to develop the necessary trust between myself and the parent.

My commitment to the school and the community has now made it possible for me to talk openly with parents about my curricula.

Not all teachers have this luxury. In recent years, with an onslaught of negative stories about teachers and educators, legislators have responded with new policy initiatives. Since January 2021, 44 states have proposed legislation or sought other means to restrict the ideas teachers can present in the classroom.

Most of the legislation in these states is deliberately vague, barring “divisive concepts” from curricula. The language is meant to obfuscate ideas, confuse administrators and threaten teachers. This is a culture of fear, not of trust.

Legislators claim they are elevating parents’ voices, but, in many cases, parents aren’t even involved in this process. One Washington Post investigation found that, of book challengers who provided identification, only 21 percent said that they were parents. A greater percentage, 29, said that they were filing on behalf of concerned parents or a local residents group.

Many of the advocacy groups that filed challenges did so multiple times in different school districts.

Teachers cannot sit idly by and watch states pass laws that restrict our ability to promote critical thinking and literacy in the classroom. Instead, we need to advocate for lawsuits, like the one the ACLU brought forth in Oklahoma and New Hampshire. We must challenge these unconstitutional laws in court.

Yet, at the same time, we need to recognize the sometimes deep cultural differences between ourselves and our students’ parents and listen to parents’ real concerns.

I want, and most teachers want, the same thing that the parent who complained about “Where the Line Bleeds” wanted: to foster a love of reading. In order to do this, we need to advocate for policies that help reestablish trust between parents and teachers.

Related: OPINION: Schools should be shaped with help from the people they serve

I have seen firsthand how eager parents are to engage with me about my classroom and its curriculum.

Just this week, I spent 30 minutes on the phone with a mother whose son had broken his leg.

She’s worried that he’s falling behind and asked what I could do to help. I told her I’d begin making videos that explain the work and upload them to YouTube for her son to follow along.

Yesterday, a father knocked on my door to ask how his daughter was faring early in the year. After our conversation, he peered into the window and noticed a few of his nieces and nephews.

We spent five minutes reviewing their progress as well. I told him to come back any time and invited him to spend a day in our classroom.

These conversations are necessary in order to build a culture of trust. This way, the next time I teach Ward’s novel in my class, I can clarify any misconceptions my students’ parents may have about the novel and we can read it together.

My hope is that a novel as powerful as Ward’s will affect students and parents alike and stoke a passion for reading among all who elect to enter my classroom.

John Fredericks is the ninth and 10th grade ELA and AP English Literature teacher at West Tallahatchie High School in Webb, Mississippi and is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus Senior Writing Fellow.

This story about building a culture of trust between teachers and parents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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