by Michele Herman:

Michele Herman is a writer, editor and teacher living in the Village. She writes frequently about education and community issues for The Villager. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Downtown Express.

<!--[if gte mso 9]> /w:LatentStyles<![endif]-->For the past 16 years, I have been an active New York City public school parent. Most of those years I’ve served on the executive board of one P.T.A. or another, and for the past three, I’ve been a parent rep on the School Leadership Team at Stuyvesant High School.

My learning curve was considerable: when my older son entered kindergarten at P.S. 3, my first job was folding the auditorium chairs. During my younger son’s last years at Stuyvesant, when the administration was edging toward a one-size-fits-all educational approach, I was fighting hard for things I believe all kids deserve from their school: humaneness, flexibility and breadth of offerings.

Along the way I learned library software, helped hire two principals, organized writing festivals, took a ream of minutes, sent out weekly email blasts, recruited officers, made speeches, and wrote a multi-page monthly newsletter, handbooks and a manifesto. I wasn’t even close to being one of the most involved parents. I bow down before all the good-humored, overtired presidents under whom I’ve served. I bow even deeper before the parents who are working to reform the whole system.

My youngest just graduated, and I’m already starting to miss my supporting role in the public schools, which are among the most inherently hopeful and social and democratic places I know. Here’s my best advice for the parents who will be picking up where I left off:

It doesn’t matter what skills or how much education you have. If you are reasonable and calm, with a good inner gauge for when to open your mouth and when to keep it closed, you have something valuable to offer your child’s school.

A big public school system is always going to be full of contradictions, like the crazy autumn when my sons’ middle school won a national Blue Ribbon award for excellence and a D on its city report card. You will see humanity and committees at their worst but also at their best.

Don’t use up all your volunteering energy in elementary school — you have no idea how much they’ll need you in middle school.

Refrain from raising an issue you’re having with your own child, no matter how burning, unless it’s of broad concern to the others in the room.

Do one thing for your child’s school. Get one ad for the yearbook. Tidy up one shelf of the library. Fold some chairs. It may change your life.

Plan the big fund-raiser in the fall, when energy and idealism are running high. Keep the overhead low and invite the public.

Reach out to a recent immigrant parent. What better way to show your kids that adulthood isn’t governed by cliques?

Volunteer for any event that involves feeding the teachers. They are Pavlovian and will always associate you with pleasant things.

The most confident person in the room isn’t necessarily the smartest, and even people you don’t respect will sometimes make a valid point. Listen before making up your mind.

Raise your hand and speak from the heart and advocate for the kids. When you hit resistance or obfuscation, as you inevitably will, you can always say politely, “I don’t understand the rationale behind that policy. Would you mind explaining it in simple language?”

Ask in September if your school offers an open classroom day. Find a way to be there, even if you get docked a day’s pay and your kid claims to be mortified.

Go to at least one meeting of the S.L.T. or equivalent policy-making body. This is where you’ll learn how functional the school really is. Get elected and you’ll have a real voice.

Go in knowing that the work of a school is infinitely harder and more heroic than any challenge the for-profit world faces, and schools need all the help they can get.

Motion to adjourn, tearfully.


Michele Herman is a writer, editor and teacher living in the Village. She writes frequently about education and community issues for The Villager.