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Virginia Journal of Education


On Point

All in the Family


by Vicki Petrosky

Since I began teaching in 1981, societal changes have had a huge impact on our students and on our schools. As a music educator who has worked at all levels, from elementary school to high school, in Connecticut and Virginia, I’ve seen marked changes in what I will refer to as the “family unit.”

When I started my career, most families were “typical,” that is, they had both parents in the home and both were actively involved in raising the children. However, the decline of this typical family unit seems to have made such families the exception today, rather than the rule. Getting in touch with parents was much simpler then—today, even something as seemingly obvious as a parent’s last name is often confusing. Parental attendance at events such as open house, concerts and conferences has declined over the years. Frequently, students are simply dropped off to perform in a concert or musical. PTO and PTA organizations have a difficult time involving parents as members and in leadership roles. The reality of many parents’ lives is that both the father and mother must work to keep the family financially afloat. In addition, with many parents functioning as single parents or in a blended family (especially if there’s a wide range in the age of the children), many are stretched to the limit and find attendance at events difficult.

I have worked in areas with very different socioeconomic conditions: From a beginning teacher in Clinton, CT, schools (where the starting salary was $9,450 in 1981), to the staggering “old money” of Old Lyme, CT (average family income in the mid 1980s was $85,000), to rural, low-tax (equaling inadequate funding for public schools) Rappahannock and Shenandoah counties here in Virginia, and finally to Loudoun County, one of the fastest growing and wealthiest counties in the U.S. I have seen this decline in the family unit increase steadily in these 27 years, despite varying financial and ethnic backgrounds. This disappearance of the nuclear family and the lack of active parent involvement in their children’s education alarms me. And money isn’t going to fix it, either. The school divisions that are better funded and equipped still cannot compensate for the breakdown in the family unit. Additionally, wealthier families can often seem less involved and supportive than those in less favorable economic circumstances. Supplying children with varied electronic gadgets, like PlayStations, Game Boys, cell phones, iPhones, computers and their own personal televisions, does not make up for a lack of parent interest and involvement in education.

What this all boils down to is that in our present school and family environment, the role of the school system is now expanded to include much more than teaching the core subjects and art, music, physical education and computer technology. We are expected to teach character education, drug and alcohol resistance, and the family life curriculum, as well as provide proper nutrition. Teachers, teaching assistants, secretaries, clinic assistants, support staff and administrators are working harder than ever to “fill in the gaps.” Virginia sorely lags behind in the national average for teacher salaries, while at the same time our students’ scores on standardized tests continue to climb higher in the national rankings. This student achievement is occurring despite the fact that the schools continue to take on more and more varied curricula and programs that were once a part of a family upbringing as I grew up in the 1960s.

There are still plenty of student success stories, from all kinds of families, and there are still families that are the vision of the true “American Dream.” But the fact remains that the responsibility for meeting many of the personal needs of children, not to mention the SOLs, NCLB, AYP and IEPs is now, more than ever, firmly in the court of educators rather than the family. So, with the disappearing family unit and a lack of proper funding for programs and equitable pay, where does that leave us?

As I near retirement, I am not giving up on my own personal pursuit to be a better teacher, trying to improve my efforts to go outside the proverbial box to help reach students. The answer to helping all of these students and their incredibly varied needs is not an easy one. Societal norms and values have changed. However, I have a feeling of hope that we may just be able to have better leadership in our country soon, and be better able to work together in what we all seek in education: making a positive difference in the life of a child, and a better journey and ultimate outcome for us all.

Petrosky( vspetrosky@gmail.com) is a member of the Loudoun Education Association and a music teacher at Banneker and Reid elementary schools.

 


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