Dear Parents: Why I Write Letters to the Parents of My Students

by Jim Burke

I am a parent of a 21-year-old young man (studying Arabic in Jordan for the year), a 19-year-old son (majoring in Business), and a newly-turned-15-year-old daughter who is a freshman at a big public high school in San Francisco (the same school her grandmother, who lives with us, attended 75 years ago!). My point is that I live the life of the parents whose kids I teach. I know all the things to fear, all the mistakes I would rather forget. Parenting is, for most of us, a bit like the poet Theodore Roethke says: “we learn by going where we have to go” or the poet Antonio Machado says in a poem: “Traveller, there is no path,/The path is made by walking….”

Parenting is not so much like a labyrinth, which has a prescribed path one need only walk to reach the center, as it is a maze, which requires that we constantly make choices, all of which can be–or at least at the time feel–wrong. So every once in a while I write a letter to the parents of the kids I teach. Lately, that has meant all seniors. The letters are sometimes linked to a moment in time (end of a semester, beginning of the college application process) and tend to be reflective, such as the one I wrote tonight and which appears below. They inspire trust and gratitude, and reinforce the sense of partnership that should exist between teachers and parents.

Here is the letter. Enjoy. The parents who responded did; the ones that did not will perhaps mention it at graduation in a few months as we come together to celebrate the students we all worked hard to help across the finish line of this stage of the game.

Dear Senior Parents…I mean…Parents of Seniors!

First, many thanks to those of you who made it by last week at Open House. Always a pleasure to see you at this time of the year, with graduation being the only last marker of the year. 

I wanted to account for a couple things and assure you that all is well with English. You surely have noticed that there are not a flood of grades streaming into the grade book so far this semester. We have been engaged in what seems to be, for most of the kids, the biggest challenge they have faced as students so far, at least in English: writing a ten-page typed paper. And today they turned them in. And all seemed suitably pleased and proud as they came up one at a time to submit their papers. 

It is an assignment, this large paper, I have always saved for last to give us a big drum roll finish to the year. The truth is that I wish I had done it then as I always have, but this year I decided to move it up to the beginning of the semester to try to avoid the disruptions of all the spring breaks and testing and etc. But I fear it is like eating a giant sundae for an appetizer: it takes too long and demands too much for that time of the semester and leaves room for doing little else. And you cannot just assign such papers: you must teach them. Kids have to learn to find their way into their own topic, how to read and gather/generate ideas, evidence, examples. They must learn how to say much about one subject, something they can do well enough for five pages, but after that they run dry in most cases. It could seem that we are doing little or at least less; the truth is that we have been doing much more but it is the slow, deep work, the most difficult of the year for most. I wrote a blog recently about a class as an essay; it might give you some insight into my way of thinking about our class.

Now it’s over (well, for THEM; I have 950 pages of students essays, fortunately about all sorts of different topics). We will settle into closer work of novels, shorter novels, still demanding great analysis and thought, but with more of an ongoing feedback loop. Of course you should always know you can write to me to ask how things are going. 

It is a good stretch to keep an eye on your sons and daughters. College news–their own and others’–causes both joy and jealousy, highs and lows. But they also start realizing that they are about to start leaving–friends, BHS, teams, home (for those going away), Burlingame–and all process this in different ways. Some get silent; others grow moody; some can get a little reckless; still others can slide on the work in class or other areas of their lives. They can express their love of you and siblings in curious ways (like yelling, giving the Silent Treatment, acting like they are 34 and no longer need to ask permission for anything, but also randomly doing the dishes, washing your car unasked, taking the little sibling to a movie–just because). 

If any questions arise in the coming months you think I can help you with, do not hesitate to write. In the mean time, I will do my best to…uh…do my best to teach your son or daughter all that I can find time for in the remaining months.

If not before, I will see you at the end of May on those lovely evenings when we celebrate their passage to the next stage of it all. 

All the best,

 

Jim Burke

p.s. Forgive me if I sent this out previously, but I am attaching a model I call the ODONO Cycle I thought you might find of some interest as you go through the coming months and the fall semester as well, for the only thing that is certain about this period of their life and yours, is change. Enjoy the ride.

 

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