Articles detailing the challenges of public education are surfacing with greater regularity in both national and local news.

It’s shocking, truly. Not that students are graduating with little to no knowledge, or that Hawaii is among the worst places to teach in the nation. No, what’s shocking to me is that this is news to anyone.

Perhaps I’ve been stuck in the insulated world of education for so much of my professional life that I take for granted the fact that these issues are common knowledge. The fact that these are not well-known problems speaks powerfully about the problems themselves. That is to say, there is a widespread mentality of cynicism and finger-pointing when it comes to education reform, culminating in a collective shoulder shrug. Here’s what I mean.

Apple and stack of books
A support system that includes parents and educators working together is essential for student success. Meliha Gojak/iStock

As a Special Education teacher, I worked on a team that included (at minimum) myself, a general education teacher, an administrator, a parent or guardian, and of course the student. (It bears mentioning that other SPED and gen-ed teachers, as well as all sorts of specialists, often played invaluable roles on these teams as well.) Boiled down to its most basic parts, the team consists of four components: teachers, administrators, parents and students. These are the pillars of reform; if any one part falters, the whole will collapse.

At least twice a year, the team would meet to discuss the student’s strengths, needs and specific goals with accompanying plans to achieve them. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve had a parent say something to the effect of: “You’re the teacher, this is your job.” The end result would often be capitulation on all sides. To the parent, the school was failing his or her child. To the school staff, the parent was failing his or her child. All the while, the student continued along the school year with the wobbly legs of cynical, half-hearted support at school and at home.

It goes without saying that these kinds of meetings for every single student are not feasible, or even necessary, but responses like that are synecdochic of the larger problem: the destructive cycle of ignorance and cynicism on all sides.

A specific example was when I had a kindergarten student who was having extreme difficulties in school (unable to speak or write, hyper-aggressive, ate his own poop, etc). After an emergency meeting regarding the poop-eating incident, the parent asked me if it was OK to watch her child for a few hours after school so she could pick up some extra shifts at work. To put it lightly, her priorities did not seem to be aligned with reality. I wanted to grab her by the collar and yell “This is the education of your child, what don’t you get?” It was the first time I felt that compulsion, but certainly not the last (try teaching history to a student who says “my mom told me you don’t need to learn about history” and you’ll understand).

While I have an obvious bias, and I tend to side with fellow teachers more often than not, we are far from infallible, and much of the resistance I got from parents was a direct result of past experiences they had with bad teachers. They may have encountered such teachers as students themselves or vicariously through the education of their child, but there is a distinct sour taste that lingers from those negative interactions. It is such a tragically human trait to carry our scars with us and let them interfere with moving forward, and short of hoping that all teachers one day become universally palatable for all students and parents, I don’t know if there’s a solution beyond pleading with parents to work with their child’s teachers — even when they have good reasons to be hesitant. 

Ultimately, there is a great need for reform across the board: teacher preparation programs are typically a joke, teacher pay is not sufficient to attract top-tier talent, pedagogy is getting lapped by technology, and there is no shortage of administrative bureaucracy that is outdated and inefficient. Those things need to change, and they will; there is too much inertia for them not to. 

But in my time with the Hawaii Department of Education, it became abundantly clear that what failed students most was the collapse of collaboration between schools, families and communities. In the numerous instances where I was an idiot/knucklehead as a student, almost every time my parents empowered and supported my teachers, because they knew I was in the wrong. I was held accountable at school and at home, and as much as I resisted it, I grew and I learned. 

It may be trite inasmuch as policymaking is concerned, but what our students and our schools need most is trust and support from all sides. The rest is already falling into place. 

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