Parents and protocol

Saturday, November 1, 2003

Editor's note: The names of students have been changed in this story.

By Callie Clark ~ Southeast Missourian

Why do I have to do this junk? I probably won't pass the test anyway."

The boy's adolescent voice cracks as he slams a No. 2 pencil onto his desk. He sits with his back to the rest of the class, certain he will never need to know how to round 57.196.

It's an attitude his teacher has grown as familiar with as the inside of his own grade book.

Still, the teacher tries to help by working the problem on the white board. The bell rings and, even though his explanation isn't finished, the boy is the first to bolt from the classroom.

The room empties within seconds, leaving the teacher holding an uncapped marker and wondering how he will ever reach his students.

Fast forward 41 days.

It's the last Wednesday of October, and Jason Bandermann is still wondering how to reach his eighth-grade math students at Central Junior High School.

The 23-year-old is one day away from his first parent-teacher conferences; one day away from a reality veteran teachers have lived with year in and year out: The parents he needs to speak with most rarely show up for this type of meeting.

Mr. Bandermann's third-hour intermediate math students are hyped, ready for Halloween and a day off from school.

Three students in the back of the room toss around another boy's hat while Mr. Bandermann talks about greatest common factors. He walks back to confiscate it and finds himself nose to nose with the hat's owner, who refuses to hand it over.

After a verbal tug of war, Mr. Bandermann has the hat. As he walks back up the aisle, a girl in the front row props her foot up on the desk next to her, blocking his path.

"You knocked my paper off my desk when you walked by," she informs him.

He issues a terse "sorry." She allows him to proceed.

Mr. Bandermann began the school year full of enthusiasm and creative ideas. He still has both, but just getting his students to bring their books to class and keeping them in their seats takes up most of his energy these days.

At the bottom of the hand-written list of class expectations hanging on his wall, a student has added "party!" as the No. 6 consequence for misbehavior.

Mr. Bandermann didn't spend four years at Southeast Missouri State University to confiscate paper airplanes and endure "your momma" jokes.

Junior high immaturity

Most of his classes' behavior problems are related to the simple immaturity of 13- and 14-year-olds. The issue runs deeper in his two beginning math classes than the other four he teaches -- three intermediate and a pre-algebra class.

His mentor teacher, Kathy Langenfeld, tells him even veteran teachers deal with what she calls "challenge classes" -- those with especially difficult students.

It's all about trial and error during this initial year.

Before the start of Mr. Bandermann's fifth-hour beginning math class, he kicks one student out into the hall for hanging out an open window.

A few minutes later, he sends a girl out into the hall for slapping a boy.

The class of 15 students has shown little interest in turning in homework assignments, even though those assignments account for 30 percent of their grade. Mr. Bandermann now gives the students the last half of class to work on homework, but few take advantage of the time.

Tim, a bespectacled boy in the front row, is the only student who appears to be working while his classmates bounce from seat to seat and chat among themselves.

He tries to concentrate on converting milliliters to liters while being popped in the back with a snap bracelet by the boy seated behind him.

Tim says only one thing keeps him from abandoning his work: If he doesn't do it, he knows his parents will ground him.

But not all of Mr. Bandermann's students have parents who ground their children for not doing homework. His three months as a junior high teacher have opened his eyes to the importance of parental involvement in student achievement and behavior.

It's an issue that has been the object of thousands of research studies over the past two decades. The vast majority of those studies have concluded the same thing: Schools that engage parents in education have high student achievement.

Absentee parents

On parent-teacher conference day, Mr. Bandermann sits behind a desk in the junior high gymnasium, surrounded by other eighth-grade teachers. He's printed out progress reports for each of his 130 students, even though he knows he won't see half their parents.

By night's end, 42 parents attend, just over 30 percent. An average of nine parents from each his first four classes showed up. His fifth- and sixth-hour beginning math classes had four and two parents respectively.

David and Annie Willis are among the last parents there. Their daughter is in Mr. Bandermann's pre-algebra class.

The two never miss this type of event. David comes because he realizes it's important for children to see their parents involved in school so they'll be interested.

Annie wants her children to know that she cares about what they're doing, so they can feel comfortable talking about what's happening in their lives.

Both say they can tell a difference between children with involved parents and those without.

Organizations such as the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools contend that parental involvement goes deeper than how many parents volunteer for holiday parties or show up at parent-teacher conferences.

The center, which operates through the private, nonprofit education research corporation Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, released a report earlier this year that compounded around 300 independent research studies on parental involvement.

The results concluded that students with involved parents, no matter what their income or background, are more likely to have higher grades and test scores and have better social skills and behavior.

But involved parents aren't limited to those who show up for school activities. The research concluded that the biggest impact on students comes from what parents do at home, such as asking about schoolwork or helping pick out classes.

Mr. Bandermann knows that in some cases, parental involvement is the missing link in his students' behavior.

He can reel off a long list of tactics he's tried and advice he's taken from more experienced educators. He has ignored students when they misbehave, embarrassed them, shouted at them, sent them into the hall and threatened to call parents.

He's sent few students to the principal's office, however. Like many first-year teachers, he wants to handle problems himself. But he's running out of solutions.

No single method has worked for all students. Sometimes, a method that worked on a particular student one day doesn't work the next. There are some students who simply don't care no matter what he tries.

Each day is a new battle. Mr. Bandermann knows that if he goes home thinking about the bad things that happened, he won't want to come back the next day.

So he thinks about the recent fall dance, and watching his students awkwardly sashay around the school gymnasium. He thinks about the boy who rushed into class a few weeks ago to tell him about his new four-wheeler.

Those thoughts keep him going back for more.

335-6611, extension 128

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