The Parent Trapped

CJ Westerberg, March 14, 2014 7:18 PM


September 4, 2014 Update:  Author of this post, Cathy Buyrn, sends us an update today - see comments. This classic post originally ran in 2011 with a fair amount of brouhaha. - CJ

"While educators beat the drum about the importance

of parental involvement in their child's education,
many really mean parental compliance."
-The Parent Trapped

Editor's Note:  This guest post for The Daily Riff resonates with so many stories we've heard from  parents who are frustrated by the pushback of true parent involvement by the system - which include administrators and teachers who feel threatened by parents who can intelligently advocate for their child's best interest, and who may suggest options outside the status quo system.  In this case, it is "blended learning."
    We asked Cathy Buyrn to share her experience based upon one Tweet (caught my eye)  - how by switching one course in her son's high school curriculum to an on-line course - changed his wavering learning experience to the positive.  An example of a parent taking charge - not a parent trapped.  That is "Parent Involvement Redefined".
    This post also serves, indirectly, as an interesting insight into the frustration of the teachers and administrators - some you may find on The Daily Riff -  who often experience adverse reactions from fellow teachers and administrators regarding innovative practices that may best serve their students'  interests and achievement.
                                                                    - C.J. Westerberg


The Parent Trapped. Not.

by Cathy Buyrn

"I feel like I just get rushed from room to room all day where they try to cram SOL (Standards of Learning) test stuff into my head.  The sad part is that I am actually interested in what they are teaching, but they are ruining it.  Nobody cares what I think or what I have to say."

These were the words that my ninth grader shot back at me after school one day as I questioned him about zeros for Spanish in the online grade book.  I have learned that teenage boys rarely offer much detail about their school day or their feelings.  This raw and honest response stopped me in my tracks.

"I felt trapped by the system." 

As an educator, I knew that the pressures felt by the adults at his high school were spilling over onto him.  I also knew that his teachers had the best of intentions, but were under tremendous pressures.

After speaking with several of his teachers, it became clear that he was struggling with managing the demands of a seven period day.  I realized that he arrived at school around 8:00am and had a new boss every 55 minutes each with his or her own set of demands and priorities.  I wondered if adults could bounce around between seven supervisors on a daily basis.  Five days a week, he was faced with a transition every 55 minutes where the 24-hour clock started ticking on any daily assignments due by the next class period.  The thought of it was mind- boggling and I began to sympathize with his plight.

I had already shared my feelings about unrecoverable zeros and mysterious participation grades with the Spanish teacher by email with no response.  I decided to share my objections and the following resources with the principal in an attempt to engage in a policy discussion.

A's for Good Behavior by Peg Tyre The New York Times (article)
0 Alternatives by Thomas Guskey Principal Leadership (article)
Effective Grading Practices by Douglas Reeves Educational Leadership (book)

The principal's lack of enthusiasm did not really surprise me.  While educators beat the drum about the importance of parental involvement in their child's education, many really mean parental compliance.  I knew going in that sending links to articles and questioning age-old practices was not likely to be met with excitement.  While the Spanish teacher and principal humored me with two meetings, eventually I was told that they would no longer respond to
my "rhetoric" or schedule any meetings.
I was left feeling like a stalker mom with no way to access information about my child's specific struggles in Spanish.  I felt trapped by the system.  While Spanish was not an SOL course, he had to have three foreign language credits to receive an advanced studies diploma and apply to college.  I could not fathom another year and a half of a class where the teacher refused communication with me regarding his struggles.

"I was left feeling like a stalker mom
with no way to access information
about my child's specific struggles in Spanish

As a teacher, angry and abusive parents had confronted me over the years.  I never refused
to communicate with them.  I truly believe that "good teachers" communicate with parents
and can navigate sensitive discussions.  I knew that I was pushing some buttons, but I never expected to be met with an absolute refusal to have further discussions.  I was worried that
my advocacy was going to do more damage than good.  I was intimidated by the amount of power that they had over my son's future.  I realized very quickly that foreign language
teachers could act as the gatekeepers to college.

"I was worried that
my advocacy was going to do more damage than good.
 I was intimidated by the amount of power
that they had over my son's future.

I am not one to back down from a conflict.  I believe that some of the most creative and effective solutions come from well-managed conflicts.  Unfortunately, we had reached an unacceptable impasse.  Nothing good was going to come from continued conflict with the teacher or the school over this issue.  I needed to find a solution for my 14 year old who was furious with me for "making it worse."  I hit Google and started researching my options.

I did not want to pull him out of his school.  Six out of his seven teachers had been supportive and seemed to know my son.  The private schools in my community did not seem like better alternatives.  I stumbled across a variety of online foreign language course options.  I had a vague recollection of a state funded virtual learning option and found Virtual Virginia.  Unfortunately, Virtual Virginia did not offer mid-year enrollment or Spanish III.  After further investigation, I discovered that Virtual Virginia contracted with the private online school, K12,
for some of their virtual courses.

 I verified that the Spanish courses offered through K12 were accredited by the same accrediting agency that provided accreditation to the local high school and started to develop my proposal.  I sent a request to the Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction to allow my son to receive his foreign language credits through private enrollment in K12's Powerspeak Spanish courses.  I would pay the private tuition and he would work on the course during the school day in a classroom used for various computer-based learning programs.  She approved my proposal and our virtual high school learning experience began on January 22, 2011.

I am thrilled with the outcome of my struggle.  While the negative exchange that lead to this option still bothers me, I ended up with a much better solution for my son.  When I realized that I had other options, I felt empowered.  The best outcome has to be that my son feels empowered and is engaged in a self-directed virtual learning opportunity that is developing his learning and language skills.  He can preview interactive lessons and activities.  He decides how much review he needs before tests and quizzes.  He decides when to access the online teacher support.  He works at his own pace and has more direct practice than he did in a traditional classroom.

"I believe that some of the most creative and
effective solutions come from well-managed conflicts

 "I feel like there are no surprises.  I know what is coming and I can make choices about the best way to prepare myself.  It is like it is easier to learn everything without the teacher making all of the decisions."

These are the words that my 9th grader shared with me when I questioned him about his online Spanish class.  These are words that this mother and educator is excited to hear.  I am inspired and encouraged by the potential of a blend between private virtual learning and public high school enrollment.  In education circles we've all been chanting "One size doesn't fit all." 
I'm starting to think that the chant should be "One structure doesn't fit all."


Bio:  Cathleen Buyrn, Ma. Ed., is Instructional Consultant Team Specialist at William & Mary Training and
Technical Assistance Center.  Prior to becoming the ICT teacher, Cathy worked for 11 years as a special
education teacher in various settings and grade levels.

Buyrn is the mother of four boys - between the ages 5 and 14 - and is actively involved in their
educational journeys.

Originally posted by The Daily Riff March 2011

The Parenting Trap,  by A.A. Gill, via Vanity Fair

Related posts The Daily Riff:

What Adults Can Learn from Kids: Don't Underestimate our Ability

Technology: White Hat or Black Hat

The Battle for the Mind of the High School Student


  • Interesting article

  • cjwesterberg

    Cathy, thanks for the update - always interested in hearing how things turn out . . . in this case with positive news. Congratulations on your son's acceptance to UVA!
    I'll repost this -

  • Cathy Buyrn

    I am happy to report that my son is now almost 18 and is enjoying his second week as a "First Year" at The University of Virginia. He completed Spanish II and Spanish III with A's during his 10th and 11th grade years through the online courses. He went on to take online dual enrollment courses in Geography and PreCalculus through the local community college his senior year in high school. I believe that the high school experience with online learning prepared him for the self-management and online components of face-to-face college courses. Interestingly, he feels that he missed out on the conversational aspects of Spanish instruction and is looking forward to furthering his Spanish knowledge through face-to-face Spanish courses at UVA.

  • I'm very impressed with the experience you had with your son! Sometimes it's kind of hard to deal with school systems where the teachers feel pretty apathetic about their jobs. (or at least seem like they feel that way.) Sometimes all the red tape around education radiates out to us parents and we keep our distance. It really is empowering to see an example of someone stepping in and rocking the boat a bit to come to some unique solutions that work for their children. I struggled a great deal through my high-school years and hated school for a long time. I look back now and wish my parents had the insight to do something similar for me. Good job!

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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
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