The Goal of the Parent-Teacher Partnership

Two weeks ago, I walked through the double glass door of a large, rectangular, brick building that houses the Baker Demonstration School in Evanston, Illinois. To my right was the Principal’s Office, but on my left were two three-year-olds who greeted me with: “Good morning. Would you like to come to our art gallery?”

“Why yes, of course,” I replied.

“Admission is five cents,” the boy said.

“Rats,” I answered. “I don’t have any coins.”

“That’s okay,” said the girl. “Here is a bowl of pennies. It’s okay if you use them.”

“Wonderful. Thank you.” I took seven, followed them to a little red cash register on a little wooden desk just inside the door of the classroom, and handed them to the young man, who carefully counted out five pennies, put them in the register, and handed me a little, red “Ticket” and two pennies. “Here’s your change,” he said.

The girl then took me into the room full of little people (and two big ones) and introduced me to two others with, “This is Amber and Rachel. They will show you around,” which they did quite professionally.

What I saw in this pre-school class I saw everywhere as I walked around the school. Everywhere from kindergarten to eighth grade, I saw children of all ages making a difference to others, doing valuable things that had meaning for them, obviously comfortable in their own skins, making decisions, apparently loving learning and taking it for granted. Creativity abounded—evidence was even hanging from the ceiling. It seems nothing is done without creativity, and the academic product is  obvious everywhere from the writing and graphs on the walls, to the conversation in the fifth grade. The teachers are teaching, all right, but it looks like the kids are doing all the work.

Baker Demonstration School is not a school for the gifted. Clara Belle Baker founded it in 1918 to demonstrate “how the mind learns,” and to graduate children who “love to learn, cherish the journey and serve the world.” Its success at doing this is obvious.

What is its secret sauce? The professionals in the school have a lot to say about that, but an outsider can guess that “Treat children as if they know what they are doing” is an assumption built into everything the adults do.

Children are vastly more capable than most schools give them credit for. When schools don’t get the kind of results that schools like Baker get, maybe it is because the whole program underestimates children. Educators from Tony Wagner at Harvard to Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford have identified the kinds of skills the world will require of our graduates: focusing, making connections, changing perspective, creating, making judgments, finding meaning, working with others, managing conflict, planning, taking on challenges, persevering, etc.

What parents and teachers tend to ignore is that the human organism is naturally designed to do all this. By the time a child walks in the door of a kindergarten room, he or she has been practicing these skills for about 43,000 hours. Children naturally want to continue this complex engagement with the world, and many cannot tolerate not having these abilities used, developed, sophisticated, and practiced. Humans need this kind of engagement as much as they need sleep and exercise. Social, emotional and cognitive deprivation is the root cause of low academic achievement, the increased dropout rate and the poor quality of our work force.

We hear a lot about the importance of parents and teachers working together, and especially what parents can do to prepare children for school. Well, children rise (or fall) to the high (or low) expectations we have of them. At home do they get real responsibility for the real work of the family? Are they given responsibility for the climate of the classroom at school? If we want them to be responsible, we have to give them opportunities to be responsible. This is the ball the parent/teacher team needs to keep its eye on: treat children as if they are already capable of real work in the world.

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6 thoughts on “The Goal of the Parent-Teacher Partnership

  1. This is a fantastic article. I recently wrote a post regarding watching kids rise to higher expectations. From what I observe, they do this naturally when given the opportunity. (

    For years, I ran an outreach campaign in a local school. During lunch, students grades 5-8 would help with all the details. When I realized they could basically run it, I held back and watched them work. Students who didn’t perform that well in class seemed to be engaged and invested in the charity work. They designed all the signage, acted as ambassadors when we held assemblies and were spokespeople with the press.

    When I could, I called individual parents to tell them about the great leadership qualities their children were showing. I think parents have to be encouraged, too. Kids need the opportunity to show leadership at home and in school. That’s our job and we should feel just as proud of that as we do when they hit a homerun — because it’s a homerun every kids can hit if they’re given the chance to stand at the plate.

  2. Susan,
    Thanks for the great example. It has been replicated thousands of times a year across the country–millions, probably. What do we have to do to make this behavior epidemic?
    Calling the parents is a good move.
    what else?

  3. Thank you for putting into such lovely words what we Baker parents witness every day when we drop our kids off at school. We are so lucky to have a place that embraces our children for what they already have to offer, and gives them the confidence to take risks and move into the unknown. Under Baker’s care, I have watched my painfully shy 5 year old blossom into a confident, capable 12 year old, and my very extroverted 10 year old learn to make better choices about how and to what end her energies are spent. I wish every child could have this experience!

  4. Several good point here. I have found that the best connections are when parents, teachers and students are all taking responsibility for andc honoring the roles of each player in the mix. I would especially love to see the parent-teacher partnership figure more prominently and include mutual respect, encouragement and a willingness to learn from each other. Thanks for the post.

  5. I attended Baker from the mid 1970s through ’83 and think fondly upon my educational foundation. After Baker I attend the U of C Lab school in Hyde Park – yes getting to Baker was a hike! I concur with Liz, as an educator who taught in one of the worse schools in South Central LA, I brought with me the knowledge of Rita Butler, Betty Weeks, Lynn Brengel, Theresa LaBella, Lynn McCarthy and others who taught me not as a kid from the south side of Chicago, but as a curious, intelligent, respected individual young learner.

    We were NEVER treated as kids, but as small adults. I fondly remember Kampsville and field trips around Evanston exploring science, music (trips downtown to CSO), art and history (not to mention the life long friends). All of these explorations made learning fun and relevant.

    Unfortunately in too many lower performing public schools throughout the country that is not the case. Perhaps we should change the paradigm away from test prep and more towards thought prep. As someone who is embarking on his PhD in urban education I now know the names and theories of Clara Ella Baker and John Dewey, but I knew them long before I fully understood their deep and profound impact on who I have become.

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