Open Letter to Parents Everywhere Who Have Ever Questioned the Status Quo at School

An open letter to all of the parents who once tried to impact positive change at your child’s school ... especially those who had to do it in the days before email and easy access to communication (though if you're on social media, you might think it's worse today). You likely started with your child's classroom teacher, then to the principal, and perhaps the school counselor. If you persevered, you made the final two stops - to the superintendent and the school board, And all of that generally applies only if you have a specific, well-articulated need for your child. For the more mundane concerns, like the frequent times you pose a question such as: “Am I the only parent who is underwhelmed by the latest program being rolled out at school?” or “Am I the only one overwhelmed by the amount of rote homework practice?” the question was the start and stop. You might have had a nice feel-good moment realizing you weren’t the only one, but it’s unlikely your questions went anywhere.

On the one hand, we’re fortunate that schools are generally responsive to specific, especially immediate need, issues. On the other hand, it’s the more general, overarching concerns that have us really worried. It’s hard enough to stick with things when there is a well-defined path forward. But, the real chances of sticking with a school-related inquiry, especially one that is big, messy and might challenge the status quo, are slim to none. This is especially true when faced with school "partners" who respond by either throwing the state-mandate-rulebook at you or the litany of awards, accolades and reasons to be proud of the school, all intended to quell your concern. Of course, these are important factors in helping parents understand the challenges of being a school leader or teacher, but sometimes a thin shred of empathy is a better start than the defensive, “we’re doing everything we can” stance that we often get.

Your frustration reaches a boiling point, when you realize that while you’re one of many parents having these conversations - on the playground, at a sporting event, or when you awkwardly meet at the local dollar store buying yet another tri-fold board, for the project that's all consuming, yet barely engaging your child – and after the fifth or six email, you sit back and wonder, why am I the only parent contacting the school? You know you’ve seen it – it starts out benignly, with the simple (not trying to raise controversy) question on Facebook (yes, the one that almost always raises controversy). In the comments you find fantastic, immediately implementable solutions, then when you ask who's talked to the teacher, principal or other school personnel, suddenly the thread goes dark. The Facebook chatter is not productive. It's sometimes downright mean, especially when a simple question prompts responses that weave their way down the path to becoming a full-on attack, leaving us to regret raising the question in the first place.

So parents, what are we left to do as each of our children only gets one shot at school? What are we willing to tolerate and at what cost to our children’s future? At the end of the day it can be easier (and safer) to complain within your four walls, than to take action. It can also be difficult to know where to start. But, what if we parents (all 56 million of us) band together and poke at the core assumptions of the system, the very system intended to support our children’s growth, and yet may just be the one limiting growth? It’s time to take action and here are three concrete steps you can take today to ready yourself for the endurance event about to start.

  1. Don’t wait to get invited to the conversation, start it. Who are the parents (or community members) who are brilliant at making waves and asking questions? Pair those parents up with those gifted at pulling people together and finding common ground. It’s about finding the hubs and spokes of the community; and recognizing that they might come from outside your inner circle. When you engage with a curious mind, you have the opportunity find unlikely partners in this mission. This is the kind of support that is necessary to make system-level change in an environment where emotions run high and solutions seem scarce.

  2. Honor and Celebrate, but don’t Settle: There are brilliant, amazing things happening across our nation’s schools (and more than likely right inside your district), just take a look at this recent report, where people rate the nation’s schools poorly, but their own positively. We often get caught up in what people tell us our schools should look like, and we’ve forgotten what helped us thrive as a children or to even consider, what helps our children thrive. It’s important to take the time to celebrate what’s going well, but not if it means you have to sacrifice the very things that make your child thrive (not just survive a school day). Make a list of the places you have settled or are currently settling - then change the conversation by asking questions about them.

  3. Partner On Frustrations:  In all likelihood, parents aren’t the only ones who feel frustrated by our school system.  Having worked in schools, we know that teachers and principals have their own frustrations and complaints about the school system.  Teachers go into teaching wanting to make a difference for every child and yet sometimes feel their hands are tied, or they are expected to do things in a certain way that limits both their creativity and impact. What if you asked your child’s teacher to share their frustrations? You might just find some ways to help.  In fact, one parent we know inquired with her child’s teacher about the amount of homework in the third grade. Through a productive conversation, the parent learned that this teacher hated giving homework, but felt like parents were demanding it. It’s cases like this, where a little added understanding goes along way and gives us parents an opportunity to take action.

It can be unsettling to bring up curiosities, especially those that might seem to question hard-working, well-intended school leaders, so what if you start with us. Share the top three things that make you curious about education in your community. We’ll look forward to joining you in inquiry as we work to harness the collective voices of the parents of 56 million students enrolled in public & private education in the US.  Email your curiosities or experiences to Imagine what becomes possible when we create a culture of inquiry that includes parents, teachers, and administrators as equal partners.


Co-Authored by:  Elise Foster (elisefoster) and Alyssa Gallagher (am_gallagher) are both parents of school aged children.  Elise is an engineer turned executive coach, writer and speaker, who spends her days helping leaders uncover their hidden barriers to change. As a co-author of The Multiplier Effect and contributor to Multipliers, she is privileged to work with leaders across the globe to challenge the status quo of leadership, striving to bring out the best in every single person; and she realizes, just because she wrote the book, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a lot to learn herself!  Alyssa is an experienced public school educator, school & district administrator, facilitator and educational consultant who is constantly exploring “What if…?” with school leaders and works to support radical change in education.  She recently co-authored, “Design Thinking for School Leader: Five Mindsets That Ignite Positive Change in Schools” to be published May 2018.