Many argue that teachers cannot serve in loco parentis; but that ship has already sailed.
Parental Responsibility in Education
I recently came across this article pointing out that the problems in education are generally the fault of the parents. First of all, I worry that fault-finding often displace solution-finding. For instance, I have noted that the problem can’t originate with the parents, because it began with their parents. No, actually it began with their grandparents. Except that it really starts with their great-great-great-great-… You get the picture. Assigning blame gets us nowhere; we certainly can’t make parents better by fining or jailing them.
The ‘blame’ is on humanity. 10,000 years ago we were hunter-gatherers exploring no more than a few square miles around our homes; today we are an international community of entrepreneurs and scientists exploring the universe, from super-strings to supernovas. The parents we want to blame in education are not damaged goods. They simply have not kept up with accelerating change.
And so we need to lay the responsibility – or the blame if you prefer – for the problem on the doorsteps of the schools. Our schools did not break the cycle of ignorance; they did not educate the parents.
Of course, from there we can see that we really need to blame the schools that trained the teachers and administrators the parents’ schools. So really, we need to blame the grandparents‘ schools. Except that it really started with the great-grandparents’ schools.
You get the picture. And so the spiral of ignorance continues.
In Loco Parentis
The critical concept here emerged in the mid-19th century, that the teacher effectively serves as the parent while students are in school. The Latin phrase is in loco parentis: “in place of the parent.” The courts have struck down in loco parentis for the university, but the concept is still valid in many situations.
Critics will immediately object, “It’s not the school’s job to do the parents’ job.” Oh yes it is.
It always was.
From the very earliest stirrings of education, why did parents send their children from the home, to go to a school? Clearly, it was so their children could get education – i.e., parenting – that the parents could not, or would not, supply. It’s right there in the word ‘pupil’, from the Latin pūpillus: an orphan, a child without a parent.1)The pupil of the eye is so named because when you look at the eye closely, you see your own distorted reflection in the black dot. It looks like a lost child. In the case of the typical school, of course, the ‘orphan’ status is only temporary.
Teacher as Parent
Temporary, but chronically recurring. When the very first school taught the three R’s, or even the 7 disciplines of the trivium and quadrivium, it was because the parents did not know these things. The parents weren’t capable of that aspect of the child’s development, and so professionals took over that part of parenting. Clearly, for certain things the school replaced the parents.
With time, even though the parents might have attended school, they kept sending their children for supplemental parenting. Perhaps the natural parents did not master their studies well enough to teach them; or they simply didn’t have time to do it; or they just weren’t motivated to do it. Or perhaps, much to many of the posts here, they understood the topics, but did not have the skill to be a teacher. It does not matter. The point is that for some topics, the school serves as a parent.
Government as Parent
And then the state stepped in and required that all children must be educated. At this point, government starts also becoming the parent, for a significant portion of the child’s day, her week, her year, and her life. This, by the way, is the source of many arguments we have today in education: creationism vs Darwinism, American exceptionalism vs globalism, sex education vs abstinence, common core vs local culture and control, even the struggle of sports vs academics. These fights occur because government and the school have become an extra parent.
Some will doubtless object to my thesis, arguing that the school should not serve in loco parentis. Their complaints are moot. When someone else is responsible for a child’s learning, behavior, and even nutrition and exercise for about 1/4 of a child’s waking hours every year from ages 4 to 18; when, in many instances, a teacher interacts with the child more than the parents do; then any objections simply become quibbles over terminology. Call it what you will, the teacher is indisputably a extra parent, and in public education, so is the government.
Not ‘If’, but ‘When’ & ‘How’
Like so many topics here, I am not arguing for or against in loco parentis, I am arguing that we approach problems incorrectly. It is not a question of whether schools serve as parents, but only when and why.
And most importantly, how. The major problem that occurs from this isn’t that government requires schools to take over more and more of the duties of the parent, it’s that government doesn’t provide increased support and funding for the schools, and more importantly the teachers, to handle the increased work. I am quite confident that great teachers could correct many of our social problems if, a) we gave them the necessary resources, and, b) we got the hell out of their way. I believe this because I have seen it. And I have heard too many stories from teachers, parents, and graduates, of how a student escaped destructive situations and toxic behaviors, to flourish and succeed in life, all because of one or more teachers cared about them, and filled the shoes of the parent.
The problem isn’t that teachers have to be parents some of the time. The problem is that we require them to be parents, but then deny them the resources and professional respect to do it right. We don’t give them the support they need, and then we hamstring them with bureaucratic noise that interferes with teachers doing the best that they possibly can.
And with the right tools, and enough professional autonomy, they can do a lot.
Picture, ‘Teacher Reading to Student’ courtesy of the US Department of Education on Flickr.
|↑ 1.||The pupil of the eye is so named because when you look at the eye closely, you see your own distorted reflection in the black dot. It looks like a lost child.|