About Alexandria: Communicating about schools

About Alexandria: Communicating about schools
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Eaton 

The first day of school is a kind of New Year’s Day for families and for Alexandria City Public Schools teachers and staff. The excitement of a new school year creates “getting to know you” challenges for everyone connected with the schools.

Parents new to Alexandria or ACPS may be uncertain about the best ways to reach teachers to seek or offer important information about their children’s school experience. There are several options, some more effective than others.

Shortly after being inaugurated, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) announced an email tip
line for “folks to send us reports and observations” on objectionable lessons, and he promised that the commonwealth would catalogue it all. According to the Aug. 16 edition of The Washington Post, tip line communications, and state government responses,
were deemed confidential because they are claimed to be the governor’s working papers
and correspondence and thus not subject to public disclosure.

While the tip line’s practical communications utility seems limited, anyone currently or formerly connected with the school system will likely be drawn into conversations, positive or negative, about the school experiences of the children of friends and neighbors.

When the concern is a teacher’s style or approach, or the teacher’s interactions with students, and the question, “Did you talk to the teacher about your issue?” is asked, the answer, with surprising regularity, is “No” or “Not yet.”

There are any number of reasons, including language barriers, why parents or guardians concerned about their child’s classroom experience decline, at least initially, to talk to the teacher involved. Even so, in the long run those reasons rarely justify letting a problem fester.

And, expecting action by the indirect approach – expressing a concern about a child’s teacher to a federal or state official, city councilor, school board member or school administrator – is traveling the long way around. The issue usually cannot be resolved successfully without involving the teacher. 

Here are a few thoughts that support the direct approach of contacting a teacher to provide important information – like a recent illness or traumatic family event – or to ask why something was done or expressed, in class as it was.

First, teaching is sometimes described as neither art nor science, but rather as the management of multiple relationships. At the start of the school year, teachers are consumed with learning names and personalities to establish positive relationships. For students, new classes and a new school year can be an opportunity to try out new identities which further complicates things. Most teachers are glad to get information that will help them connect to students.

Second, during the school day many teachers, particularly those in secondary schools, are so focused on their classes that they operate in near blackout mode for communications outside of school, so it will probably be necessary to leave a message of some type.

Third, most teachers have telephones, but they are generally programmed not to ring in classrooms and are designed primarily for in-school calls. Moreover, teachers move around. The days of teachers spending their entire day in the same classroom seem to be ending, at least in the secondary schools. Thus, the standard advice from teachers to parents on Back-to-School Night is, “Email is the best way to reach me.”

Fourth, the sheer volume of communications at the beginning of the year from school and division administrators and others sometimes drives teachers to conclude that they can prepare for their classes or manage their email inboxes, but not both until things settle down.

So, to everyone returning for a new school year: Let’s have a great school year. If you have a concern, talk directly to your teacher.

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.